Home Opinion The Argument against the Nasr Missile

The Argument against the Nasr Missile

by Ejaz Haider
Aamir Qureshi—AFP

Aamir Qureshi—AFP

Strategic planning requires that official thought be tested.

When it was first unveiled, in April 2011, the military’s Inter-Services Public Relations wing hailed Nasr for adding “deterrence value to Pakistan’s strategic weapons development program at shorter ranges.” Nasr, with its 60-kilometer range, is a low yield, solid fueled, multi-tube, battlefield missile to target mechanized forces. Among the array of military hardware displayed at the Pakistan Day parade last month in Islamabad, Nasr should never have been inducted.

There are two schools of thought on Nasr: the official (led by an in-house process of assessment at the Strategic Plans Division) favors it as a tactical nuclear weapon; the other (to which I belong) is opposed to the idea. The latter school has had no inputs in the formulation of official strategy, but it is essential to create structures where inputs can be harnessed from channels that are not just official. In fact, official thought must be tested.

For some history, here’s what I wrote in The Friday Times in 2005: “The [U.S.] concept of tactical nuclear weapons was based on a policy that sought to reduce the conventional imbalance between NATO and Warsaw Pact forces. Proponents suggested that small-yield short-range battlefield weapons would increase the strategic nuclear threshold by lessening the salience of strategic nuclear weapons, although tactical nuclear weapons were not strictly perceived as an alternative to strategic bombing but as a supplement to it. The logic to develop and deploy tactical nuclear weapons was pegged on three main propositions: it would be difficult for the other side (Warsaw Pact) to develop them any time soon and therefore the option would afford NATO an advantage for some time; they could be used without too much collateral damage; finally, their use would favor defense (note that for a long time the tendency was to look at nuclear weapons in the classic defense-offence equation).”

Pakistan is using the same logic and intends for Nasr to deter India’s possible capabilities to operationalize its Cold Start doctrine.

The piece also said: “The first of these propositions became invalid in short order because the USSR developed tactical nuclear weapons by the mid-50s, blunting any advantage NATO might have enjoyed. Also, it became clear that tactical nuclear weapons could not only be used by the defending forces against invading columns but equally effectively employed by an attacking force—just like it would conventional artillery to soften up the defenses. And once the USSR deployed these weapons it became certain that there was no inherent advantage to be had by the defenders of possessing tactical nuclear weapons. Finally, since the most likely battleground for a direct hot conflict between NATO and Warsaw Pact forces would have been Central Europe, the proposition that low-yield weapons would have less collateral damage was proved erroneous by military exercises.”

It is somewhat ironic and deadly for Pakistan to use, or to have to use, Nasr on its own soil.

Deterrence is a psychological concept and works best through denial. Its stability springs from a combination of the catastrophic deadliness of nuclear weapons and the mutual vulnerability of the adversaries—each is deterred by the certainty of the other’s response and the inevitable destruction it would cause. If either of these two conditions changes, deterrence runs the risk of dilution. This is why, all things being equal, a counter-value strategy (i.e., targeting cities) offers the best deterrence because it threatens maximum collateral damage. The logic of this is that greater sophistication of nuclear devices and delivery systems, while allowing for precision targeting, risks diluting deterrence by decreasing collateral damage. In a counter-force strike, which aims at taking out the adversary’s military assets, the damage will definitely not be as extensive as a counter-value strike against a hugely populated city.

Does the security establishment, the Strategic Plans Division in particular, not know this? It does. Its problem relates to Organization Theory. There are two consistent findings about large-scale bureaucratic organizations: bounded rationality and systematic stupidity. Additionally, there is the problem of path dependence which broadly means that decisions taken at any point are limited by past decisions. But more than anything else, the course of action someone might take would depend on the premise he is using.

If I were to convince myself there is a possibility that, given the nuclear overhang, my adversary may be trying to plan a short, sharp strike against me without crossing the red lines (these are rightly kept ambiguous) I could argue thus: I have a deterrent in my strategic arsenal, but the adversary could strike me in ways that would deny me my strategic option. I could argue that the adversary would assume the cost for me to climb up the escalatory ladder will be high and that he could test me at the substrategic level through such strikes spread over time and space. By resorting to such a plan he could force me to fight below the nuclear level and thus (a) dilute my strategic deterrent, and (b) deprive me of my advantage. In theory, if an adversary could do this, he would have gained a huge asymmetric advantage.

Based on this logic, I could say, as the official school argues, that even in the presence of a strategic deterrent it would make sense to add another “layer” against an “evolving threat.” In fact, this is precisely the language used in the 2011 ISPR press release on Nasr. If I were arguing along the lines of the official school, I could say that by adding this “layer,” I will be deterring any thought by the Indian security establishment to conduct any unilateral “conventional” offensive(s) against Pakistan without crossing Pakistan’s red lines. India’s Cold Start doctrine—Independent Battle Groups to be employed against Pakistan in short, sharp blitzkriegs—needs to be challenged by introducing into the theater the possibility of a response through a tube-launched short-range ballistic missile. Cold Start would get cold feet not only because the Indian Army will have to cater to this factor in any operational planning but the Indian political leadership will be highly reluctant to permit any substrategic operations against Pakistan within the framework of the classic stability-instability paradox.

I could go one step further and even add a strategic layer to this theater-level operational argument. Since this kind of weapon system will necessarily be dispersed and held by units and sub-units in the field, given other factors, it could add a terrible element of instability which India will have to factor into both operational plans as well as any decision to meaningfully engage Pakistan. In other words, the move involves brinkmanship, and given that India will have to share the risk, the move will force it to avoid disaster. In the overall scenario that could lead to meaningful political engagement.

If I stick to my original premise, this trajectory sounds perfectly rational and smart. But there is a counterargument. First, consider the question of when and how India might attack Pakistan. Given India’s growth, economic stakes, and global integration, a war, especially one that can get out of hand, is not in India’s interest. In theory, the only development that could possibly get India to throw caution to the winds and think in terms of a hot conflict would be a string of Mumbai-style attacks or any other mode of subconventional needling that could raise the political cost for India. In other words, India’s potential offensive posture will have to be in response to its perception that Pakistan must be brought in line.

If this is accepted, and if it is also accepted that it is equally in Pakistan’s interest to prevent such attacks, it should be clear that there are multiple other options that can be tried to avoid the remote possibility of a conflict for which we require a weapon system that would add another “layer” to our defenses. I am neither arguing that Pakistan’s conventional capability may be sufficient to deter any operational plans under Cold Start (that is the only ostensible reason for conducting the Azm-e-Nau exercises, starting in June 2010) nor am I arguing that Cold Start has failed to get off the ground both for conceptual and multiple operational reasons. But even if India were to stick to Cold Start and at some point in the future acquire the synergies required for the Independent Battle Groups to be meaningful, Pakistan’s strategic deterrent would be enough to prevent operationalization of Indian forces under that doctrine.

The strategic deterrent is enough to keep India at bay—unless India was forced by Pakistan into finding military options to blunt Pakistan’s asymmetric deterrence. The instability we want to introduce into the theater, supposedly for the purposes of deterrence at the substrategic level with possible dividends for higher political objectives, is to offset a threat that can be more effectively addressed through other strategies, both military and nonmilitary. How and when that threat may materialize would depend largely, though not exclusively, on what kind of threat we can become for India rather than the other way round.

Cold Start and statements like those from Deepak Kapoor, a former Indian Army chief, to justify threat-addressing responses like this without reference to India-Pakistan dynamics only tells half the story. It is a point of fact that India began to think of engaging Pakistan at substrategic levels after Kargil. Then, in 2001, came the Indian mobilization. The longer interior lines made it into a time-consuming, costly, and, in some ways, blundering exercise. Quick, sharp mobilization is what Cold Start is all about—though, despite conducting exercises, the fact is that India lacks the capability at this point to operationalize the concept.

This is not to say that India is a babe in the woods—far from it. But the issue relates to why we must only develop a particular response to the exclusion of other strategies.

Haider is editor for National Security at Capital TV. He was a Ford Scholar at the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C.

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zeeshan May 1, 2015 - 11:33 pm

and what are the other strategies

bo rm May 2, 2015 - 9:27 pm

since when did pakistanis use logic?

Nehath May 4, 2015 - 10:08 am

This is quite questioning that how a state can intentionally approved a limited conventional attack against another sovereign nation state which is nuclear too in a doctrine. That really happened in Indian case against its very next door nuclear neighbor Pakistan. It is a sheer reflection of Indian hostility and aggressive attitude towards its neighboring state. Pakistan responded in a more calculated manner in shape of Nasr, a tactical battlefield missile against such kind of an open display of hostilities. Critics of Nasr should view the Indian hostile posture towards Pakistan embedded in Cold Start Doctrine. However, realizing the folly made by giving a legal authority of an attack, doctrine has been renamed as Proactive Military Strategy. Nasr is to maintain credible deterrence of Pakistan against all the odds.

Rabia May 4, 2015 - 10:37 am

Pakistan reluctantly entered the nuclear fray due to repeated Indian provocations. Likewise, its decision to develop short-range-low yield (SRLY) nuclear weapons is not an initiative, rather a measured reaction to the Indian adoption of a dangerous nuclear doctrine to fight a limited war under Pakistan’s nuclear threshold. Islamabad looks at these SRLY weapons as deterrence stabilisers. It is up to the Indians take this capability into account and resist initiating a war with the ‘hope’ that Pakistan would not respond.

Idris Boky May 4, 2015 - 6:28 pm

Pakistan’s policy has always been of credible minimum and proportionate response to Indian provocations. It was India that dragged Pakistan into nuclearisation and now feels frustrated by the latter’s effective responses. Unfortunately, India enjoys political support due to the geo-economic incentives it offers to the West. As George Perkovich of the Carnegie Endowment of International Peace states, while Pakistan’s nuclear programme is security-driven; the same cannot be said for India which has a prestige-driven problem.


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