Michael KreponPakistan’s Rickover

Pakistan’s national security decisions are usually choreographed between senior active duty military officers in Rawalpindi and government officials in Islamabad. If military leaders feel strongly about a particular policy or initiative, they can usually count on the consent of politicians. Conversely, if political leaders do not have military support, their favored initiatives are likely to fail. There is usually little daylight between Rawalpindi and Islamabad with respect to Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent.

Pakistan’s nuclear program is a rare success story and a great source of national pride. Those who have been instrumental in this record of accomplishment have been given broad leeway to pursue requirements as they see fit. These requirements are set by very few individuals, almost all with military backgrounds.

Every nation’s nuclear weapon-related programs have elevated a few individuals into positions of extraordinary authority. Some have remained in the shadows, a few have become national embarrassments, and others have gained public renown. The “father” of the U.S. nuclear navy, Admiral Hyman Rickover, had such a high profile and was deemed to be so essential by his supporters on Capitol Hill that his retirement from active duty was postponed until the ripe old age of 81.

Pakistan’s closest approximation to Admiral Rickover is Lt. General (ret.) Khalid Kidwai, who presently is in his thirteenth year as the Director-General of the Strategic Plans Division at Joint Staff Headquarters. The SPD oversees strategy, doctrine, research, development, production and protection of Pakistan’s nuclear assets.

Admiral Rickover and General Kidwai could not be more dissimilar in personality or conduct. Rickover’s steel will did not brook dissent over questions of submarine design, personnel, training and related matters. Rickover would imperiously circumvent his military superiors when he suspected or opposed their judgment. General Kidwai is a man of low-key demeanor with a sense of humility who works through military channels. Like Rickover, his competence inspires the view that he is indispensable. Unlike Rickover, my sense is that General Kidwai would contest this conclusion.

General Kidwai faced retirement in 2005 because his time on active duty would extend beyond those who were about to out-rank him. At that juncture, the Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, General Ehsan ul-Haq, and Chief of Army Staff (and President of Pakistan) Pervez Musharraf decided to keep General Kidwai in place at the SPD after his retirement. While many retired military officers have been given plum assignments overseeing civilian institutions in Pakistan, the appointment of a retired military officer to be in charge of the nuclear program was very unusual.

General Kidwai has a long gallery of pictures on his wall of the successful strategic modernization initiatives he has overseen. He has cleaned up the mess at the A.Q. Khan Labs. He has improved security at sensitive sites. He has set up institutional mechanisms that are sound and that can handle a baton pass.

There aren’t many more tests for General Kidwai to pass. There is one test, however, that founding fathers of nuclear programs usually flunk. It’s the test of avoiding excess.

This is not a Pakistan-specific problem. Most of the founding fathers of the US and Soviet nuclear programs also flunked this test. Regardless of nationality, nuclear enclaves share a common assumption that more capability equals more security – especially when an adversary is engaged in a nuclear build-up. In this view, the more foreboding the edifice of deterrence looks, the less inclined your adversary will be to cross red lines.

There is no hard evidence to support this article of faith. A small, survivable nuclear arsenal might also be sufficiently persuasive as a deterrent, and there might well be many other reasons that induce caution in national leaders. But it’s understandably risky to take this for granted; the closer one is to the Bomb, and less risky it appears to choose more firepower. The equation of more nuclear deterrence with greater security can easily become a bedrock belief — even though the more adversaries compete, the less secure they feel.

It’s natural for nuclear enclaves facing stiff competition to reject constructs of minimum or finite deterrence in favor of additional targeting and use options. Unlike nuclear-armed states that have no reason to expect a hot war or rapid escalation, Pakistan and India are moving toward widely diversified deterrents that place greater stress on command, control, safety and security in times of crisis. Under these circumstances, weak points become distributed within the edifice as it grows. Crisis and deterrence stability become shakier.

As discussed in an earlier post, the question, ‘How much is enough?’ becomes perversely more difficult to answer when one success follows the next, and when an adversary responds in kind. The answer to this question cannot come from outsiders. Security dilemmas and nuclear weapon requirements can only be moderated by domestic reassessments, economic imperatives, negotiations, more normal ties with a competitor, or the demise of one of the contestants.

Within Pakistan, politicians usually shy away from questioning nuclear orthodoxy, whiz kids are not welcome, and criticism, no matter how sound or well meaning, is dismissed as being pro-India. The significant expenses associated with nuclear weapons are good for just one important thing: to reinforce caution. Meanwhile, other expenses and aspects of national security are short-changed. Pakistan faces terrible economic and energy crises as its nuclear enclave gears up to go toe-to-toe against India.


  1. khanman (History)

    I do not agree with your last paragraph. Nuclear issues are frequently and openly debated in news media in Pakistan. In schools and colleges nuke is openly debated. Have you heard of Professor Pervez Hoodbhoy? A staunch critic of Nuclear Pakistan.

  2. Fred Miller (History)

    A military or nuclear elite is only as good as it’s ethical standards. Hitler defeated France’s larger, better armed army in weeks in part because France’s generals were mostly royalists and arch conservatives, who were so anti-communist that they preferred nazism and foreign occupation.

    When Hitler faced Britain, the corruption in his own military industrial complex was contrasted to Britain’s pragmatism and integrity. Hitler allowed 170,000 British troops to be evacuated from Dunkirk, not for any military reason, but because he wanted to prove that he really was the absolute dictator. German aircraft development and production was subject to the whims and avarice of Goering and his cronies: The Heinkel HE-137, the world’s first jet aircraft, flew in 1939, but development was halted because Willy Messerschmitt was in with Ernst Udet, Goering’s friend. Messerschmitt’s engineers were years behind, but Heinkel’s engineering prowess wasn’t matched by a talent for schmoozing. While German aircraft production lagged in 1940, Britain’s soared more than fivefold. The RAF defeated the feared Luftwaffe in a few months.

    Our own military and nuclear bureaucracy is hardly as Machiavellian as Hitler’s Nazi party, but it still avoids scrutiny to a much greater extent than other sectors of public spending. The results are inevitable: it’s elite make decisions based on preservation of their fiefdoms, decisions often having nothing to do with national security.