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Wednesday 6 March 2019

Seven minute warning

  • Last month’s aerial dogfights over Kashmir were the first of their kind since India and Pakistan acquired nuclear weapons
  • They were part of a confrontation blamed by Delhi on a suicide bombing that killed 44 Indian soldiers on 14 February
  • Jihadists were responsible, but by itself that explanation leaves big questions about the world’s most dangerous nuclear duel unanswered

By Giles Whittell

The flight time for a ballistic missile from anywhere in Pakistan to anywhere in India is no more than seven minutes. That is barely enough for schoolchildren to duck and cover. It might be enough for a few VIPs to shut themselves in concrete bunkers under Delhi, but in a nuclear exchange both countries would lose tens of millions of people and their major cities.

This is not like the Cold War. There is no Europe between them; no test bed to torch with intermediate-range weapons on the way to total destruction.

 

These are some of the reasons Pakistan’s face-off with India last week eclipsed Donald Trump’s meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. One could have escalated into nuclear war. The other was merely an effort to avoid it.

Anyone who doubted the seriousness of the situation in Kashmir only had to turn on the television. Imran Khan, Pakistan’s prime minister, appealed in a live broadcast for restraint from India, given “the weapons we have”.

Four in ten Pakistanis live in poverty, but their country has a fast-growing arsenal of about 140 nuclear warheads mounted on ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and in free-fall bombs. Most have mobile launchers. Many are stationed close to the Indian border. This is, one expert says, a nuclear arsenal “in full bloom”. Consequently when a Pakistani leader talks about his weapons, people tend to listen. This may actually have helped Khan appear statesmanlike, a man of peace, even though the emergency began with the bombing of an Indian military convoy by a Pakistani militant, killing 44; and even though his air force had just shot down an Indian jet and captured its pilot.

Captured pilot, Abhinandan Varthaman

The pilot, Abhinandan Varthanan, was released last Friday to instant hero status. His muttonchop whiskers are already all the rage in India. But despite the shootdown, the bombing and the approach of national elections, India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, has so far heeded Khan’s appeal. World War 3 hasn’t broken out.

To get a sense of how close South Asia came to an escalating conflict, imagine for a moment an American F-16 had shot down a Soviet MiG 29 over East Germany in the depths of the Cold War. It never happened, precisely because it would have been a clear casus belli and deterrence was working.

‘If you were alive and worried at the time of the Cuban crisis you should have been sleepless last week’

The context for what happened last week was similar: two nuclear powers in a long-running strategic headlock. But both showed they were ready to cross the threshold of direct air-to-air combat. Meanwhile three key differences between the US-Soviet conflict and contemporary South Asia were all pointing in the wrong direction:

  • Pakistan’s nuclear stockpile is guarded by 25,000 specially-trained military personnel but is still considered vulnerable to terrorist groups based on Pakistani territory.
  • Pakistan is not in a simple arms race with India but a triangular one with China in which China sets the pace (and helps Pakistan keep up).
  • The result is a nuclear arsenal out of all proportion to Pakistan’s size and wealth, deepening worries about its weapons’ security.

In short, if you were alive and worried at the time of the Cuban crisis you should have been sleepless last week.

Pakistani soldiers with the wreckage of a downed Indian jet

Pakistan admits it’s at a disadvantage in this arms race. In fact that is its rationale for what it calls “full spectrum deterrence”. The argument goes like this: we’re a poor country with militants at large in every province and a powder keg in disputed Kashmir, and we are bristling with nuclear weapons because of these vulnerabilities, not despite them.

“We cannot afford a conventional war with India, so what we need to do is prevent any kind of war,” says Adil Sultan Mohammad, who has spent 14 years as an arms control expert in Pakistan’s Strategic Plans Division (SPD), which runs its nuclear weapons programme. “Pakistan has always said if there was a limited [Indian] attack there would be a conventional response from our side… but we have to rely on nuclear deterrence to supplement our conventional capability.”

A map of known nuclear facilities near Islamabad makes it look like a giant nuclear weapons programme with a modest capital city attached:

A larger-scale map would show more than a dozen other facilities further from the capital, including uranium mines, enrichment and reprocessing plants and nuclear test sites. It doesn’t show where Pakistan has started testing nuclear-tipped Babur-3 cruise missiles launched from a “submerged platform” – presumably a prelude to matching India’s submarine-launched weapons. Nor does it show where along the Indian border the army has deployed tactical nuclear weapons with a range of just 70km.

‘Pakistan may be gearing up to fight a nuclear war, not just deter one’

These weapons are designed to kill large numbers of soldiers rather than terrify whole countries, raising fears that Pakistan may be gearing up to fight a nuclear war, not just deter one.

Mohammed insists such fears are based on myth. He says other myths about Pakistan’s nuclear stockpile include the idea that it is vulnerable to terrorists; that it is growing faster than India’s; and that the military controls its use. “The chain of command is absolutely on the civilian side,” he says. “Imran Khan has total control.”

This would be reassuring if true. Experts say it probably isn’t.

“I don’t know any analysts of nuclear weapons in South Asia who believe that Imran Khan (or any Pakistani civilian leader) has ‘total control’, or even shared control for that matter,” says Toby Dalton, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The Pakistani nuclear weapons enterprise, since the 1970s, has been run by the military and for the military, with probably only cursory involvement of civilian leaders.”

An improvised explosive device (IED) blast at Lethpora

The old question of who’s really in charge in Pakistan brings us back to the 14th of last month. The St Valentine’s Day massacre was carried out by a single suicide bomber in Pulwama, south of Srinagar. The jihadi group Jaish-e-Mohammed, founded in 2000 to cause trouble in Indian-administered Kashmir, claimed responsibility.

India accused Pakistan of letting JeM operate with impunity. It certainly seems to function with the acquiescence of Pakistan’s security force; some experts argue that JeM and similar groups exist entirely at the pleasure of the ISI – the Inter-Services Intelligence agency – to wage a low-intensity war on India on Pakistan’s behalf.

Indian officials with exploded AMRAAM missile fired by Pakistan

So what if the Pulwama attack was a new lunge in that war, executed with the ISI’s consent and perhaps with its foreknowledge. Why take this lunge, and why now?

The answer to the “why” question could be that Pakistan feels a need to test its nuclear deterrence strategy to be sure it’s working. The answer to “why now” could be that on 19 January this year the SPD conducted its latest test of the Babur-3 system from that submerged platform in the Arabian Sea.

The point of such a platform is to be hidden, to survive a first nuclear strike and retaliate. In theory it should vastly enhance the deterrent effect of a nuclear weapon. And in practice? You could argue that there’s only one way to find out.

Pakistan hates to be accused of actively using jihadist groups as proxies, but whatever happened on 14 February the knock-on effects were interesting. The Indian Air Force launched jets into Pakistani air space, ostensibly to bomb a JeM training camp it had known about for years. It claimed to have killed more than 300 militants. In fact the jets dropped their bombs on a wooded slope several miles from their target. Nothing was damaged apart from trees. No one was killed.

Facing an election, Modi may have been tempted to use the Pulwama bombing to fire up his base by launching a fearsome counter-strike. If so, he resisted. I asked Dalton if it was absurd to think of this affair as field work by militants on the ISI’s behalf. “No doubt that thread is there,” he replied. “Yet it also isn’t a simple issue to dismantle or crack down on those groups. It’s a complex place, Pakistan. I’m often surprised by some twist or angle I hadn’t seen before.”

Adil Sultan Mohammad offered an insider’s view. “Deterrence is very stable for now,” he said. “I can’t say for tomorrow because you never know what’s going to come from the Indian side.”

 

Further reading:

  • The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists publishes an authoritative annual update on the size and structure of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme. This is the 2018 edition
  • The Finger on the Button (Center for Nonproliferation Studies, February 2019) is an up-to-date look at who really controls the world’s nuclear weapons
  • Directorate S, by Steve Coll, is among many things a useful primer on the ISI’s relationship with Pakistan-based jihadist groups

 

All photographs by Getty Images