Cheering Pakistan’s missile test

May they have ever longer ranges!

It is in India’s interests that Pakistan should acquire missiles with very long ranges. The greater the range, the better it is for India. No, this is neither sarcasm nor flippancy, this is logic.

Pakistan does not need more nuclear warheads or missiles to deter India. It achieved that deterrence in the mid-80s even before testing nuclear weapons on its soil. There is no Indian leader who will risk as much as a radioactive wind blowing towards an Indian population centre, leave alone suffer a nuclear attack. The moment Pakistan had one nuclear warhead that it could deliver on one airplane, it had already substantially achieved the deterrence it sought. Pakistan now supposedly has over a hundred warheads, is feverishly cranking up fissile material (for others) and has scores of missiles of varying ranges and payload capacities. It is even claiming to develop “second strike” capability, which is absurd given the India-Pakistan nuclear relationship (It’s MUD, not MAD). Again, this absurd claim is being used to obfuscate the inventory it is building for Saudi Arabia.

Pakistan doesn’t need any more warheads or new missiles to deter India. Why then did the Pakistani establishment feel the need to react with a ‘test’ of its fully-developed and working Hatf4/Shaheen 1A (?) in response to a development test of India’s Agni-V? Well, as my colleague Rohan Joshi remarked on Twitter today “Pakistan’s desire to match India trumps its desire to deter India.”

In doing so the men in khaki have been trading security for a psychological kick. Every new warhead, every new missile, every bit of additional range actually diminishes Pakistan’s security. Why? Because a strategic arsenal is not target-specific. Even if every single bomb, missile and aircraft is aimed at India, every single country within range will feel a non-zero increase in threat perception from Pakistan. The threat perception is subjective, depending on the country’s relations with Pakistan, so Israel might be more worried than Saudi Arabia today. But the point is that even Saudi Arabia will be a little more worried than it already is. Now imagine if Pakistan’s missiles were capable of reaching Japan, Russia, Western Europe and, err, the continental United States.

India’s leaders have been scared of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons for three decades now. They are already beyond the point where they can be further scared. But the more Pakistan’s behaviour scares the leaders of other countries, not in indirect ways like a subcontinental war or through the export of terrorism, but in direct ways, the more they will see a need to tackle the military-jihadi complex that lies at its source. Few countries of the world, whether they admit it or not, are oblivious to military-jihadi complex’s use of nuclear weapons to shield its jihadi terrorists. If a direct nuclear threat is a high threshold risk, a nuclear blackmail has a relatively lower threshold of probability. (See That’s Washington’s problem)

The effect of all the stockpiling and all the launching by Pakistan will be to spread the risk among a wider group of nations. The quantum of risk India faces doesn’t change…but it will have others sharing similar risks albeit at a lower level. If the men in khaki in Rawalpindi think scaring the important powers of the world is in their interests then, to use a phrase I heard from Arun Shourie (but attributed to Napoleon) we must not interrupt the enemy when he is making a mistake.

So let’s join them in cheering the Pakistani military-jihadi complex on the successful launch of Hatf-4/Shaheen1A missile—incidentally a gift from the Clinton Administration—and encourage them to acquire missiles with ever greater ranges. (There’s a small question of whether China will sell them this stuff, but let’s not be curmudgeonly and discredit the scientific talent in Pakistan.)

What’s the Korean for Parakram?

What North Korea is doing to South Korea is quite similar to Pakistan’s strategy with respect to India—carry out provocative acts of aggression under the umbrella of nuclear weapons in a bid to coerce the victim into making political concessions. It’s called a stability/instability paradox, in that while nuclear weapons create stability at one level, they allow the weaker, less risk-averse player to rock the boat with impunity. [See a related post by Joshua Pollack over at Arms Control Wonk]

The Pakistani military-jihadi complex uses terrorism. The North Korean regime sinks South Korean ships and fires artillery shells at civilian targets.

Interestingly, the manner in which South Korea and its ally, the United States, have responded so far is reminiscent of India’s response after Pakistani terrorists attacked the Indian parliament in October 2001. India sent troops to the border. They are conducting naval exercises in the Yellow Sea. Galrahn reports that the United States is deploying another carrier strike group, led by USS Carl Vinson to the Western Pacific, adding to the military ‘mobilisation’. Because this involves ships moving over water it’s considerably faster than the Indian Army mobilising its formations over land to the India-Pakistan border, but it boils down to the same thing. A show of force, parakram or if Google is to be trusted, .

Will it work?

The business of mobilising military forces is as much due to action bias and audience benefit as it is to penalising the aggressor by increasing costs. Unless it is Manmohan Singh, governments must be seen doing something in the face of flagrant provocation. The domestic and international audiences must be persuaded that the government views the provocation as serious enough to warrant more than a verbal response. Mobilising troops to war-like positions is a good way to achieve these ends. The problem, however, is that this does not automatically ensure that the aggressor is made to suffer.

If there are no external sponsors, Pakistan or North Korea can’t sustain a troop mobilisation for too long. They enjoy asymmetry in costs–in absolute terms its cheaper for them to maintain troops on alert than for their adversaries, India and South Korea & the United States respectively. However, their relative ability to sustain such expenditure is much shorter. Even if Kim Jong Il drives unpaid conscripts to stay at the border, they’ll die if they run out of food and their equipment will stop working if they run out of fuel.

But there are external sponsors. The United States bailed a bankrupt Pakistani state out in 2002 and China continues to maintain the bluff that Pyongyang’s irrationality is the reason why it needs to continue to sustain the North Korean regime. Whatever punitive costs Pakistan incurred was more than made up by US largesse. Similarly, whatever costs the US-South Korean deployment in the Yellow Sea imposes on North Korea will be covered by the funds China pumps into Pyongyang.

The value of Parakram-like mobilisations lies in their ability to enable coercive diplomacy. To the extent that the external scaffolds release pressure on North Korea and Pakistan, coercion is undermined. So too the fortunes of diplomacy.

One of the weaknesses in the theoretical studies of the “stability/instability paradox” is that it restricts the analysis to the two direct players. A smaller, weaker state cannot afford to be aggressive and adventurous unless it has the support of a big power. Once we recognise this, it becomes clearer how it is possible to check Pakistan and North Korea—as I wrote in my Pax Indica column, go after the scaffolders.

In the current Korean crisis, Washington, Seoul and the rest of the international community should just call Beijing’s bluff.

Related Link:There’s a disputed boundary in the Korean case too.