Home The Future of Full Spectrum Deterrence

The Future of Full Spectrum Deterrence

If strategic commentary in India in wake of the surgical strikes in retaliation for the Uri terror attack is to be believed, it is not going to be business as usual either for Pakistani security handlers in Rawalpindi or for their foot-soldiers of both hues (regulars and irregulars), on the frontline.  While those at the frontlines would likely be up at night here on, like their Indian counterparts over the past quarter century, the brass in Rawalpindi would likely be in a huddle as to what the implications of the surgical strikes are for their concept of ‘full spectrum deterrence’. This article is intended to assist them in their confabulations on the future of full spectrum deterrence.

First, what is full spectrum deterrence? Full spectrum deterrence is Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine adopted to rationalize its acquisition of tactical nuclear weapons. Their first nuclear doctrine mirrored India’s minimum credible deterrence. However, with India’s shift in its conventional capability towards proactive operations – colloquially dubbed Cold Start - being demonstrated over series of exercises over the 2000s, Pakistan felt that it needed to deploy nuclear cover to paper over the growing conventional gap.

Unlike India, Pakistan has always subscribed to the NATO ‘first use’ philosophy of nuclear deterrence in that nuclear weapons are to deter war, including at the conventional level. In the early nuclear period, the nineties, mindful that India had three strike corps, Pakistan was liable to use nuclear weapons in the case of threat of being overrun in a conventional offensive by India. The lessons of 1971 for it were writ large on this doctrine. The possibility of nuclear use in extremis was held out to deter India at the conventional level. Since India’s was a No First Use doctrine and India had the conventional capability to preclude nuclear use, the premium on deterring India’s nuclear weapons was much lower. Quite like India’s doctrine, it was reckoned as one of city busting in light of few numbers of warheads and delivery systems.

Once it had the opportunity to go overtly nuclear, as a consequence of Pokharn II and presumably having more warheads and missiles in its armoury a decade and half since going nuclear covertly, its doctrine graduated to being one of using nuclear weapons in the eventuality of suffering ‘large’ losses in territory, forces, war economy and in case of externally generated internal instability. In one version of a graduated response, the shift was from counter city to also include counter military targeting. These were spelt out to reinforce deterrence at a time when India’s military was in a mobilized state in Operation Parakram. The noteworthy point was that the threshold was pitched somewhat high – to three of the four parameters ‘large’ had been tagged. Realizing that this gave a largish window to India’s forces below the nuclear threshold if pitched relatively high, Pakistan prevaricated soon after the famous interview by its then Strategic Plans Division chief, Khalid Kidwai.

On retiring, Kidwai went on to put out a revised doctrine. The doctrine takes Cold Start more seriously than some Indian strategists. Pointing to the lack of military response to the mass casualty of the 26/11 attacks, these skeptical Indian strategists believe that India has not yet reached the capability levels called for by proactive operations since they posit a quick, telling, preferably jointly-delivered, blow, but not one that would make Pakistan reach for the nuclear trigger. Believing the cottage industry that built round Cold Start – that included this writer – Pakistan believed – perhaps self-interestedly – that India espied a window for conventional operations below the nuclear threshold. Pakistan then sought to draw the nuclear cloak more tightly round itself. The much-vaunted Nasr was trotted out - with a neutron bomb as warhead if its information warfare is to be taken at face value - to seal the so-called window shut. Now it is mostly counter military targeting in its  first blows, with counter city to serve as checkmate to India’s official formulation : ‘massive retaliation’. In October 2015, with a statement from its foreign office spokesperson and follow-on clarifications from its foreign secretary, Pakistan went public with this doctrine.

That India’s retaliation to the Uri attack was as precise as limited, might suggest to Pakistan that its doctrine is working. Lack of a heavier punch in the surgical attacks, might make it believe that it has managed to credibly extend nuclear deterrence to the conventional level. It needs timely reminding that such attacks are taken as below the conventional threshold, as defined in India’s subconventional operations doctrine. Though the doctrine characterizes these as subconventional, it does not discuss them any further owing to confidentiality.

From the internal political fallout of the attacks, these attacks are reportedly not quite a departure from earlier operations along the Line of Control. What appears different this time round is public acknowledgement of these. All that the pre-emptive attacks – retaliatory to some – imply is that while there is little change from earlier, implicit in the information operations attending them that there is messaging intrinsic to them.

The message is that these constitute a step up. In some analyses, these constitute a ‘crossing’ of some sorts; perhaps an internal psychological hurdle for Indian planners and decision makers. So while they may not by themselves herald the end of strategic restraint or beginning of strategic proactivism – as goes the debate – they suggest that more shall follow. Their success, its advertisement and political fracas that they have set off, incentivizes higher force packaging in successive iterations. This should ring alarm bells in Pakistan on the forthcoming blurring of the transition between the subconventional and conventional threshold. So, even if to Pakistan, deterrence works at the middle order and upper ends of the conventional threshold, its lower end stands frayed.

In Pakistan’s mind’s eye, full spectrum deterrence might have covered the subconventional level. Yet, the surgical strikes make clear that the nuclear deterrence cannot be stretched so as to cover that level. That such strikes have occurred earlier indicates that Pakistan is well aware of this already. By this yardstick, its term ‘full spectrum deterrence’ is somewhat of a misnomer. Pakistan’s own remonstrations with India on supposed Indian intelligence operations involving proxy Pukhtun and Baluch forces also surely prove to it that nuclear deterrence does not quite work at that subconventional level.

This is a trivial point to make since it is rather well known that nuclear bombs are unlikely to deter terrorism – as India so well knows. But then, ‘full spectrum’ is Pakistan’s claim, and hopefully, it is not self-delusive. Whereas so far India’s nuclear armoury has been unable to deter Pakistan at this level, the shoe is now apparently on the other foot, with Pakistan’s nuclear weapons unable – taking its allegations at face value - to keep India from putting its money where its mouth is: in Baluchistan for one.

To sum up, the change the surgical strikes have brought about is in removing the buffer between subconventional and conventional levels. In its review, Pakistan would do well, firstly, to revise its terminology – ‘full’ spectrum deterrence - since it is at best over a partial, even if a substantial, part of the spectrum. Secondly, given that heavier quantum attacks by India might succeed future terrorist outrages, Pakistan would be hard put not to retaliate conventionally. While not doing so would make its military lose face, the gainers would be jihadists claiming that they are the ones without bangles on. Consequently, conventional riposte – even if limited - by Pakistan, might force India to escalate conventionally, since Pakistan’s military does not have the luxury of hitting soft targets on this side. In other words, Pakistan would have itself dismantled its deterrent hedge at the conventional level. Lastly, India’s escalation in retaliation suggests that tactical nuclear weapons might not be able to prevent war after all. In case of their use in war, they cannot be expected to prevent nuclear retaliation either, even if the quantum of such nuclear retaliation invites debate in India.

From all this surely, it cannot escape Pakistan that full spectrum deterrence stands largely tattered by the surgical strikes. Should it now not be accorded a semi-decent military burial?

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Ali Ahmed
Research Fellow
Contact at: aliahd66@hotmail.com
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