Michael Krepon – a prominent thinker on South Asia’s strategic issues and co-founder of the Stimson Center, a prestigious think tank in Washington DC – spearheaded research on the technological transition from the first to the second nuclear age in an edited volume, The Lure and Pitfalls of MIRVs.
The Stimson Center study examines the history of competition between the superpowers during the Cold War, with a specific focus on the cascading effect of strategic modernisation in Asia, from China to India to Pakistan, centered on the acquisition and induction of multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs). MIRV is a ballistic missile payload containing several warheads capable of being aimed at independent targets from a group of multiple targets.
Krepon surmises that should Asian countries move towards hard-targeting and war-fighting strategies for deterrence, the second nuclear age could become far more dangerous. It would also diminish the prospects of reducing the salience or importance of nuclear weapons in international affairs.
In Krepon’s volume, I have co-authored a chapter titled Pakistan, MIRVs, and Counterforce Targeting with Mansoor Ahmed, Stanton Nuclear Security Junior Faculty Fellow (2015-2016) at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center. In the chapter, we analyse Pakistan's options should India decide to develop and deploy multiple warhead missiles. India’s quest for limited ballistic missile defenses (BMD) would challenge the effectiveness of Pakistani strategic deterrents and force it to make hard choices. Moreover, Pakistan’s competitive response would be steered by resource constraints and limitations on its fissile material production capacity.
In the 18 years since India and Pakistan demonstrated nuclear capabilities, both countries have begun modernisation efforts reflecting significant investments in their fissile material production and delivery system capabilities. South Asia could soon field sea-based deterrents, completing the nuclear triad. At least six technological advancements are under way which could seriously erode strategic stability in the subcontinent. The six dimensions of technological innovation in South Asia’s strategic competition are identified as: 1) modern combat aircraft and air defense capabilities; 2) cruise and ballistic missiles; 3) sea-based deterrents; 4) tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs); 5) ballistic missile defense (BMD); and 6) multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs). To complement these developments, there are advancements in several areas: intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) technologies; communications and navigation; precision-strike weapons; anti- satellite (ASAT) technology; and cyber-warfare capabilities.
Of all these developments, the MIRV-BMD synergy favours New Delhi the most — should it deploy BMD. With assurances that vital areas, including command centres are defended, India’s confidence in launching conventional military strikes would be bolstered. This would further tilt the offense-defense balance in its favour. MIRVed missiles would expand India’s targeting capabilities and increase its ability to engage Pakistani nuclear hard targets in the first strike, thus, degrading Pakistan’s retaliatory capacity. India is already discussing reconsidering its declared second strike doctrine (not to use nuclear weapons as a means of warfare unless first attacked by an adversary). And with these technological advancements, a shift in the nuclear doctrine becomes more likely.
In the 18 years since India and Pakistan demonstrated nuclear capabilities, both countries have begun modernisation efforts reflecting significant investments in their fissile material production and delivery system capabilities.
In our essay, we survey Pakistan’s missile capability and assess missiles suitable for MIRVing along with additional counterforce capabilities. Pakistan’s most likely strategic trajectory will be to complete its triad while maintaining the effectiveness and robustness of its existing capabilities. If pressed by India, Pakistan is likely to move toward multiple-warhead missiles, but not before it is able to achieve improvements in its existing missile capabilities, especially its cruise missile programme.
Ahmed and I consider three Pakistani responses to Indian MIRVs and BMD: no response (the ‘ignore’ option); a measured response (the ‘tortoise’ option); or a quick response (the ‘hare’ option). We conclude that Islamabad will definitely respond with MIRVs, as and when resources permit. Nonetheless, despite the subcontinent’s history of strategic competition, the ‘tortoise’ option is the most likely given the economy’s weak state and the potential negative impact of the allocation of resources for research and development on such high-cost technologies.
Three years ago, I traced the history of Pakistan’s dilemma to contest India’s strategic modernisation programmes in my book, Eating Grass: The Making of the Pakistani Bomb, arguing that despite acquiring nuclear capability, Pakistan will always face technological asymmetries which favour India. Pakistan’s constant challenge is to find smart strategies — to only respond to the extent its resources permit; rather than to eat grass in perpetuity.
After the 1998 nuclear tests, the United States initiated a strategic dialogue with India and Pakistan to create conditions for stability and a ‘minimum deterrent posture’. In response, Pakistan proposed a strategic restraint regime (SRR). The proposal included missile restrains, explicitly seeking missile range restriction and a South Asian ‘anti-ballistic missile treaty’. India, however, rejected the proposal and the United States lost interest. Despite this setback, India and Pakistan committed to avoid an arms race when they adopted the Lahore Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in February 1999. The Lahore Summit Declaration continues to provide a promising framework for India and Pakistan to follow.
Nuclear deterrence may have limited military crises and inhibited major wars in South Asia, but with the tyranny of modernisation, one mistake risks the annihilation of South Asian civilisation. Unless its leaders find the courage to resist, the tyranny of geopolitics may trap the South Asian civilisation in a primitive ideological contest. For India and Pakistan, the best way to prevent an arms race and ensure strategic stability is to negotiate a strategic restraint arrangement for South Asia.
The writer, Brigadier (retd) Feroz Hassan Khan is a professor of security studies at Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California