In Review

How we learnt to stop worrying and love the Bomb

Updated 03 May, 2017 04:48pm
Photo courtesy:  ISPR
Photo courtesy: ISPR

Naeem Salik’s Learning to Live with the Bomb: 1998-2016 is a more judicious treatment of hot-button issues than his earlier book, The Genesis of South Asian Nuclear Deterrence: Pakistan’s Perspective, published in 2009. Back then, the author offered stout rebuttals to outsider accounts that, in his view, unfairly maligned Pakistan for events such as the AQ Khan affair and the “myth of technological collaboration” between Pakistan and China.

The passage of time has produced a more nuanced, less defensive narrative by the author — one that, on occasion, strays from the orthodoxy of the Strategic Plans Division. But make no mistake: this book constitutes a thorough vote of confidence for Pakistan’s nuclear stewardship. His focus is on the lessons, adaptations, and evolutions that have occurred since the 1998 tests.

What have these lessons been? The topmost lesson – which seems equally directed toward internal and external audiences – is that with the right leadership, “single minded determination, national resolve, and across the board national consensus, even the apparently insurmountable challenges can be overcome.” Second, western opposition to Pakistan’s nuclear program has reaffirmed a national sense of victimisation. And third, major powers will bend the rules governing non-proliferation for commercial and geopolitical gain. Pakistan’s nuclear program, as well as India’s, has benefitted from such convenient flexibility. Afghanistan is truly a thorn in Pakistan’s side, but twice – in 1979 and 2001 – events there relieved Pakistan of outside pressure, first against covert, and later overt nuclear developments.

Pakistan has not published its nuclear doctrine, making it hard to discern lessons. Nonetheless, its trajectory is clear: the modest, minimum deterrence doctrines that Pakistan strategists presumed to be eminently possible after testing nuclear devices in 1998 has given way to a three-digit sized arsenal, with no signs of future restraint.

When Agha Shahi, Abdul Sattar and Zulfikar Ali Khan issued their significant rejoinder to the issuance of a “draft” Indian nuclear doctrine in October 1999, they wrote of “minimal” requirements for deterrence. The current emphasis on “credibility” came later, and “full spectrum” deterrence came later still. Back then, the three authors expressed confidence that Pakistan should and would avoid a futile arms competition with India.

They also ruled out the need for a war-fighting posture. When Abdul Sattar joined the Musharraf government as foreign minister, he reinforced this message at a November 1999 seminar in Islamabad, declaring, “We shall not engage in any nuclear competition or arms race.” At a subsequent address at the National Defence University in May 2000, he promised Pakistani participation in the Fissile Material Cut-off Negotiations. In January 2002, the SPD’s director general Khalid Kidwai discounted the likelihood of nuclear artillery being part of Pakistan’s nuclear plans.

Highly esteemed Indian strategic analysts made similarly optimistic statements. In India and the Nuclear Challenge (1986), K Subrahmanyam estimated that a minimum deterrence posture could consist of “an arsenal of a few dozen bombs and an aircraft delivery system.” In Nuclear India (1998), Jasjit Singh believed “it is difficult to visualise an arsenal with anything more than a double-digit quantum of warheads. It may be prudent to even plan on the basis of a lower end figure of say two to three dozen nuclear warheads by the end of 10-15 years.” General K Sundarji was equally relaxed about nuclear requirements. They all expected offsetting nuclear capabilities to be a stabilising factor on the Subcontinent. Not so: nuclear weapons have never defused serious issues in contention; instead they magnify them.

The early, high hopes of Pakistani and Indian strategists were, of course, qualified; there could be no “fixity” in nuclear requirements (to use Jaswant Singh’s term) when political relations deteriorate and technology advances. Nonetheless, optimism reigned at the dawn of an overtly nuclearised Subcontinent. Pessimism has subsequently taken hold with the “gradual maturing of ideas,” to use Salik’s choice of words.

The contestants on the Subcontinent are now hip deep in the Big Muddy of open-ended nuclear requirements. They offer familiar justifications: deterrence is relative, not absolute; more credibility is needed to deter adventurism or, if deterrence fails, to avoid being placed at a disadvantage in the event of nuclear exchanges.


From here on, the currents become more dangerous, with the advent of multiple warheads atop certain missiles, advanced cruise missiles, and sea-based deterrents without the safeguards available on land. To which have already been added battlefield nuclear weapons by Pakistan and the possibility of limited ballistic missile defenses by India.

The destruction of cities, or “counter value” targeting, requires relatively few warheads. These requirements were met long ago. Larger stockpiles invite placing military targets at risk, known as “counterforce” targeting in the trade. The plethora of military targets means that arsenals can easily double in size, prompting fears of surprise attack, requiring high readiness levels to counter pre-emption. With higher readiness levels, the likelihood of accidents and the demands on command and control increase markedly.

Sadder but wiser western strategic analysts saw this coming, but their warnings were discounted as patronising. Outsiders were told that Pakistan and India would not be so unwise as to repeat the excesses of the Cold War nuclear competition. Of course they would not compete at the absurd scale of superpower excess. But sure enough, familiar dynamics are now playing out on a regional scale. They are harder to defuse because a third party is directly involved. China, too, is placing multiple warheads atop missiles, adding cruise missiles, and modernising its sea-based deterrent.

As Salik notes, Pakistan has learned crucial lessons since the 1998 tests, but significant challenges remain. The hardest among them is figuring out integrated command and control arrangements for conventional and nuclear forces that operate separately – even though they may be commingled — in the field. This invites breakdowns in command and control in the heat of battle. Mushroom clouds do not lend themselves to an orderly battlefield. Not one high priest of nuclear deterrence theory, including Henry Kissinger and Paul Nitze, has addressed how to maintain a chain of command once the nuclear threshold has been crossed.

As the author notes, Pakistan has taken important steps to improve personnel reliability, nuclear security, and peacetime command and control. Pakistan has tightened up its export controls and has improved regulatory practices over civilian nuclear facilities. Institutional memory has been gained and process has been routinised within the SPD – the rationale offered for not having proper staff turnover there, as in other military assignments.

While important, these aspects of nuclear learning are intramural and, as Salik notes, institutional learning has a way of blocking out external learning that is at odds with routinised practices. The author acknowledges that the downside of institutional memory “is the danger of succumbing to group thinking that can curb fresh ideas and diversity of opinion.”

In his thoughtful concluding chapter, Salik notes that Pakistan’s nuclear learning has been “factual, inferential, experiential, perceptual, crisis, and imitative.” In the author’s view, this learning hasn’t always been linear, and has been “simple” rather than “complex” or multi-dimensional. As yet, he notes that there has been no stepping back from daily routines and challenges to think through whether a “comprehensive policy overhaul” is warranted, or to re-evaluate the “means-ends relationship” between nuclear requirements and national security objectives.

Nor is there evidence that Pakistan’s civilian leaders have any interest in doing so. Indeed, the present government hasn’t even filled its allotted seats at National Command Authority meetings. Salik notes that Pakistan has company in this regard, as India’s civil-military relations are also beset by pathologies, albeit of a different kind. The author concludes on a somber note: that “it is unrealistic to expect any significant advance along the complex learning curve in the near future.”

Learning to Live with the Bomb is based largely on secondary sources and Salik’s personal experiences at the SPD. His account can serve quite well as a textbook for college students alongside Manpreet Sethi’s India’s March Towards Credible Deterrence. For graduate students willing to drill down deeper into the roots of Pakistani and Indian nuclear programs, two denser accounts that rely heavily on interviews — Feroz Hassan Khan’s Eating Grass and George Perkovich’s India’s Nuclear Bomb – are must reads.

Salik’s book deserves to be read. By inference, he clarifies how easy it is to learn to live with the Bomb, and how easy it is to get sucked into an open-ended nuclear arms competition. The hard part is having the resolve to get off this treadmill, either by means of diplomacy or unilateral action. As long as Pakistan’s decision makers deem it essential to engage in a nuclear competition with India, this build up will continue to drain resources away from usable weapons of national defense and from domestic needs.

The writer is co-founder of the Stimson Center, a Washington, DC-based policy research centre.