Michael KreponNuclear Learning

Quote of the week:

“The [U.S. Strategic Bombing] survey’s task was to measure as precisely as possible the exact effects of the two [Hiroshima and Nagasaki] bombs – in other words, to put calipers on the problem so that people back home would have a factual frame of reference within which to draw conclusions about the bomb’s true capabilities as well as its limitations.”
—Paul Nitze, From Hiroshima to Glasnost

How do decision makers in nuclear-armed states learn about the Bomb? Coming after the first entrants into this exclusive club can have its advantages. There is a wealth of information to draw from on the public record, and nuclear weapon-related practices can be studied over time. Existing models can be followed, rejected, or adapted depending on national circumstances. And in all cases, there is learning by doing.

The United States and the Soviet Union went all out in their nuclear competition; no one else has had the inclination to go down this path. This competition has been down-sized, but keeps on going. The United States is trying to figure out how to pay for a trillion dollar-plus bill to replace the old with the new, while Russia still follows the Soviet Union’s playbook on nuclear issues, knowing or trusting no other way.

North Korea’s young leader – the one who seems so uneasy on the reviewing stand watching missile after missile parade by amidst maximum pomp and circumstance – has no other cards to play. Unless and until there is one more major diplomatic push to stop this compulsion, he will do what he can afford, on the assumption that more capability equals more deterrence. Great Britain and France eventually settled for the most part on survivable sea-based deterrents, satisfied with assured destruction capabilities. Israel remains a purposeful riddle. Projections of the “Samson option” suit its purposes, but how much is enough when a state that is growing stronger relative to its neighbors feels increasingly besieged?

China has presented the most interesting case of nuclear learning. Beijing decided early on to reject the U.S. and Soviet model, seeking instead a minimal deterrent and the pursuit of economic growth as its primary access card to greater international standing. Beijing placed no stock in nuclear war-fighting strategies to strengthen deterrence. India, too, shared China’s instinct to gain standing through economic growth, as well as its ambivalence about the Bomb. No other nuclear-armed state has waited 24 years in between testing nuclear devices.

These views by Asia’s two rising powers have served as a much needed support structure for the global nuclear order. Now this stanchion is eroding. Beijing cannot stand idly by amid Washington’s discourse and plans to add new national and regional missile defenses, and can respond with MIRVs and advanced cruise missiles. New Delhi is also challenged to pick up the pace as Rawalpindi embraces “full spectrum deterrence.” India, too, has the resources and technological capabilities to compete much harder.

Why is Pakistan competing so hard? The answers are straightforward: India has split the country in two on the battlefield. Grievances over Partition remain raw, especially when Kashmir is again on the boil. Pakistan’s military runs the nuclear program and takes military requirements seriously – especially when Indian officials hint at beefing up their nuclear posture. While New Delhi ruminates and hesitates to empower military leaders who take operational requirements seriously, Rawalpindi acts. The Bomb is Pakistan’s ace in the hole when India enjoys growing conventional military advantages. And while Pakistan’s military is reorienting toward China, its approach to nuclear weapons remains rooted in western precepts.

For more on Pakistan’s nuclear learning, check out Naeem Salik’s Learning to Live with the Bomb: 1998-2016. Naeem is a retired officer from Pakistan’s Strategic Plans Division who has received his Ph.D. from the University of Western Australia and who is now based at the Center for International Strategic Studies in Islamabad.

Naeem’s book is a more judicious treatment of hot-button issues than his earlier one, 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 A.Q. 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 SPD. 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 victimization. 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 feasible after testing nuclear devices in 1998 has given way to a three-digit sized arsenal, with no signs of future restraint.

The early, high hopes of Pakistani and Indian strategists in minimal deterrence 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 nuclearized subcontinent. Pessimism has subsequently taken hold with the “gradual maturing of ideas,” to use Naeem’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 “countervalue” 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 patronizing. Outsiders were told that Pakistan and India would not be so unwise as to repeat the excesses of the Cold War nuclear competition. 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 modernizing its sea-based deterrent.

As Naeem writes, 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, as mushroom clouds do not lend themselves to an orderly battlefield. Not one high priest of nuclear deterrence theory, including Henry Kissinger, James Schlesinger, and Paul Nitze, ever addressed how to maintain a chain of command once the nuclear threshold has been crossed.

As Naeem 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 routinized within the SPD – the rationale offered for not having proper staff turnover there, as in other military assignments. Perhaps at some point in a fifteen-year-plus program, institutionalized learning been inculcated sufficiently to allow for the regular practice of baton passing.

While important, Pakistan’s nuclear learning has been intramural and, as Naeem notes, institutional learning has a way of blocking out external learning that is at odds with routinized 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, Naeem writes 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, 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. 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 Naeem’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 reading.

Much is left unsaid in this book. Pakistan, like other nuclear-armed states, has found it easy to learn to live with the Bomb. The subtext here is that Pakistan had no choice but to engage in a nuclear competition with India, so it was not possible to avoid getting sucked into an open-ended, regional arms race. The truly hard part of learning to live with the Bomb is having the resolve to slow down or 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.

Note to readers: A shorter version of this essay appeared in Herald and Dawn in Pakistan.


  1. Torrent (@TorrentH2) (History)

    “India, too, shared China’s instinct to gain standing through economic growth, as well as its ambivalence about the Bomb.” India’s policy of NFU is hypocrisy. The whole Indian nuclear programme is standing on the foundation of hypocrisy. First, they were against nuclear weapons and suddenly they assumed in 1974 that Chinese nukes are a threat and tested the Smiling Budha. For almost 17 years Indians were cashing all the benefits by portraying their goody image of NFU, but now they are saying the position taken in 2001 was not official.

  2. Bradley Laing (History)


    “A Russian spy ship has sunk off the Turkish coast after being breached in a collision with a freighter, with all its crew rescued, the Turkish coastal authority says.”