The State Of Pakistan's Defence

Pakistan's security landscape has become more complex in the present than it ever was in the past. With a more assertive India in the East, and the resurgence of internal security threats, does Pakistan's security policies guarantee the nation's defence?

The State Of Pakistan's Defence

Pakistan’s present security environment is inherently more complex and profoundly more difficult to handle than the initial thirty years after independence, when there was just the singular threat emanating from our Eastern borders. One can go as far as claiming that the present security environment of Pakistan is even more complex than the two front military threat emanating from our eastern as well as western border when the Soviet Union was occupying Afghanistan and when the Soviet backed communist government was in power in Kabul. 

It seems that the era of clear and present military threats is over. India was a threat, and it still poses a military threat. The events of the past 20 years have proven that the Indian military threat has been mitigated by international diplomacy and the advent of the nuclear era in South Asia. Anti-Pakistan forces – or the force perceived by Pakistan’s military planners to be anti-Pakistan - are no longer in control in Kabul. Instead, we have the pro-Pakistan Taliban 2.0, a force perceived by Pakistan’s military planners to be pro-Pakistan, in power in Afghanistan. And yet, our military planners, in rather clear words, have talked about the growing sense of insecurity that emanates from the activities of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in the Pak-Afghan border areas. Suicide bombings and gun attacks on military installations have become a norm in the border areas since the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul.

Does the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) control any part of Pakistani territory? This question is under heated debate in security circles in Pakistan, since TTP leaders started claiming that they were not operating from Afghan territory, but from within Pakistan. Pakistani officials deny that TTP controls any part of the territory on the Pakistani side of the border. There has been a big surge in TTP attacks in Pakistan since the Afghan Taliban took over Kabul in August 2021.

According to a report released by Pakistani Institute of Peace Studies, the outfit accepted responsibility for 76 attacks in Pakistan in May this year. This figure included suicide attacks, gun attacks and ambushes. The highest number of attacks were reported across KP: 23 in North Waziristan, 21 in South Waziristan, eight in Khyber and five in Peshawar. According to research conducted by PIPS, the Afghan crisis has had a noticeable impact on terrorist violence in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and Balochistan, where the number of attacks over these 21 months increased by 92% and 81% respectively. However, compared to the preceding 21 months before August 2021, the number of terrorist attacks in Punjab, Sindh, and the Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT) has shown a relative drop. The report claims that Pakistan has seen a surge of 73% in terrorist attacks and a 138% rise in deaths due to terrorist attacks in Pakistan from August 2021 to April 2023.

The TTP has carried out at least one attack on a daily basis in the preceding months. Military experts claim that there is no way TTP can claim such a high rate of terror attacks without some portion of Pakistani territory under its control. However, Pakistani officials claim that TTP is mostly engaging in hit and run terror attacks, “TTP doesn’t exist on the surface in any part of Pak-Afghan border areas.... its members are in hiding and they operate secretly on Pakistani territory”, said an official.

In purely military terms, the growing conventional military imbalance between India and Pakistan poses a heightened level military threat from India. The Indian government has been on a military hardware shopping spree in the past fifteen years. In these years, India has purchased weapons worth $20 billion from Washington. India plans to sign an agreement for the purchase of drones worth $3 billion dollars during the current year. This generosity could not be explained as part of the US military-industrial complex’s hunger for profit, “especially after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has generated tens of billions of dollars in European purchases in 2022 alone.” India is certainly emerging as a recipient of American military assistance on a large scale to make it a partner, if not a military ally, in deterring Chinese military assertiveness in the region, as well as the international stage.

Sameer P. Lalwani and Vikram J. Singh of the United States Institute of Peace, in a recent analysis have pointed that Washington is expecting, “a more effective collaborative deterrence (that) requires more complex military exercises, more frequent use of logistics arrangements, more presence in different theaters, and greater access and overflight, all of which keeps China guessing.” More frequent employment of already signed logistics arrangements, such as ship-to-ship underway replenishment or US maritime patrol aircraft refueling in Port Blair, can add to this uncertainty.

We should be mindful of the fact that any heightened military tensions between China and India, and a corresponding arms race, both in the conventional and nuclear fields, will drag Pakistan into a trilateral arms race and military tensions, which our cash strapped economy can hardly afford.

What the United States seeks from India is greater operational cooperation to share the burden of deterring aggression by any major power, including China. All this will come with a comprehensive package of transfer of military technology, surveillance equipment, joint production and state of the art weapons systems. We have reached a point in history where we will have to ask whether these new weapons will make us more secure, or add new vulnerabilities to our already complex security situation? Will it be wise now to ignore the lessons of history, which are available to everyone with a curious mind, that greater investment in weapons has never made Pakistan any more secure? Will it be wise to propagate folklore in our society that the Indians are too afraid of our nuclear weapons, and their fear stands to make our defenses impregnable? Or will it be wise to ignore the Indian response to our development of tactical nukes?

Pakistan’s defense and foreign policy will have to take into account not only the growing military capabilities of its arch rival India, but we will have to keep an eye on the regional military and security situations which directly impinge on our security environment. We should be mindful of the fact that any heightened military tensions between China and India, and a corresponding arms race, both in the conventional and nuclear fields, will drag Pakistan into a trilateral arms race and military tensions, which our cash strapped economy can hardly afford.

Our defense policy should not only use hard power to defend our geopolitical and geostrategic interests, it should also actively use the soft power of diplomacy to prevent trilateral regional military crises or arms races from emerging in our region. Unluckily, it is not only regional military tensions which will affect our security, it is also global super power rivalries like the one heating up between USA and China that could put Pakistan in a tight corner. Any direct military confrontation between Washington and Beijing would pose a direct military threat to Pakistan, especially if this conflict expands from the South China Sea, the expect theatre of super power war, the Persian Gulf or more broadly, the Indian Ocean. Our policymakers would do a great service to the nation if they take into account the impact of the Russia-Ukraine war on Pakistan’s economy, and social and political stability. Fuel prices skyrocketed, and so did the prices of essential commodities. This has direct implications for our defense and security.

Pakistan’s political, social, sectarian and religious landscapes were never so fractured as they are now. Unfortunately, our defense forces are mired in an ongoing political controversy. Popular political forces have grievances against the military, which, in turn is perhaps justified in perceiving a physical threat from political forces in the wake of the May 9, 2023 attacks on military installations in different parts of Punjab. Pakistan has an age-old tradition of political forces harboring grievances against the military. But those political forces in the past used to come from the periphery, or centrifugal forces from smaller provinces as political opposition to the military had usually been referred to in common parlance. This time, the two popular political forces, which have run a public campaign against military leaders, all come from the Punjabi heartland of Pakistan. Social, religious and political harmony in society is absolutely essential for strong defense. Pakistan society is clearly lacking in this regard. Our defense capabilities will suffer because of this bitter political reality.

Pakistan’s India threat and military acquisitions in the 1980s and 1990s

There was never a time in Pakistan’s 75 years when the country was financially comfortable in acquiring military equipment from the open international market. Most conventional weapon systems in the Pakistani inventory came to it as a result of military assistance from its two powerful allies – the United States and China. The military acquisitions of the 1990s, from international markets like Ukrainian tanks and Agosta submarines from France were acquired with much financial difficulties. And it was not unusual to hear military leaders in those days talking of the sacrifice the nation will have to make to make the country's defense impregnable. However, the first decade of this century came with its own difficulties. India’s military mobilizations in the wake of terrorist attacks inside India and Pakistan’s counter-mobilizations proved highly costly at the financial level.

Forget about new acquisitions, even to mobilize the military every time there was the need for the military to take up positions on the Indian border looked beyond the financial capacity of the Pakistani state. In such a situation, writes a former senior official of Pakistan’s Strategic Plans Division Brig. (R) Feroz H. Khan, “Pakistan would lack the resources to begin major mobilizations whenever terrorists attacked India and instead would be forced to rely even more on the nuclear deterrent.” In practical terms, this would mean testing and inducting tactical nuclear weapons into Pakistan’s war fighting capability.

Social, religious and political harmony in society is absolutely essential for strong defense. Pakistan society is clearly lacking in this regard. Our defense capabilities will suffer because of this bitter political reality.

In April 2011, Pakistan flight-tested short range, surface-to-surface multi-tube ballistic missile Nasr, which has a range of 60 kilometers. Soon afterwards, another missile called Abdali, best suited for carrying small nuclear warheads swiftly to a short-range target and hitting that target accurately, was test launched. Officials at the time of the launch said Abdali was part of a quick response system to strengthen the deterrence value of Pakistan’s strategic nuclear warheads. Experts, however, see the developments of these missiles as indicating a complete departure from the country’s nuclear policy, which originally saw nuclear weapons as weapons of last resort.

“So (now) nuclear weapons are being seen by Pakistan as a means for fighting a war with India,” was how Pervez Hoodbhoy, an Islamabad-based physicist and an internationally renowned activist against nuclear arms, interpreted the introduction of “Full Spectrum Deterrence,” that was announced as Pakistan’s official policy few months back.

Financial constraints certainly played a major part in changing the thinking of Pakistani military planners. However, what Pakistani planners have so far failed to realize, despite the fact that the country's history is littered with many meaningful lessons, is that new weapons systems have never made Pakistan more secure. Instead, the induction of new weapons systems into the Pakistani inventory has introduced new vulnerabilities. In fact, the lessons from the history of Pakistan’s defense procurement are simple and clear enough: more military equipment doesn’t make you more secure. It only invites your adversary to match or perhaps over-match your capability with even more arm purchases, and thus adding to your military vulnerabilities. The classic security dilemma.

Until 1965, the military capabilities of Pakistan and Indian armed forces were almost similar. Perhaps in some respects, the Pakistani Air Force enjoyed a technological superiority over the Indian Air Force.  By the time the two countries went to war in September of 1965, Pakistani war fighting capabilities had been greatly augmented by the supply of modern military equipment from Washington, such as the M-47/48 Patton tanks, and F-104 Starfighters, F-86 Sabre and B-57 Canberra combat aircraft. All these weapons systems were inducted into Pakistani inventory as part of the anti-communist security arrangement between Islamabad and Washington.

But let’s have a look at how all this was perceived in India. Raju GC Thomas, an Indian-American teaching in an American university, in his seminal work on India’s Defense Planning (Indian Security Policy, published in 1986) has written that the induction of these weapon systems into Pakistani inventory greatly aggravated India’s sense of insecurity, with the result that Indian military planners started to think about maintaining a clear numerical and technological superiority over Pakistan. India, being the larger country with a much bigger economy, had the financial strength to support the military acquisition programs that ensued.

After a more than decade long US embargo on arms supplies to Pakistan during the 1965 and 1971 wars, Washington again resumed full scale supply of military equipment to Pakistan in the 1980s in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The 1980s saw another military development taking place in the region. This development was related to the large-scale acquisition of military equipment by the Gulf states, politically close allies with Pakistan, from Washington. Although any major military cooperation between Pakistan and the oil rich states of the Gulf has remained a dream, but still, the fact that Indian military planners perceived the close political alliance between Pakistan and the oil rich Middle Eastern states as a factor to be taken into account in their military planning, is well documented in Indian strategic literature produced in that era.

In Pakistan, the military assistance offered to the Pakistani Armed Forces by the Shah of Iran has entered the folklore. Later in the 1980s, when Pakistan’s Armed Forces started to supply military manpower to the Gulf States, more fables of folkloric nature entered Pakistani memory. But did this cooperation add to Pakistani security? No, it didn’t. It only heightened the Indian threat perception and they started to take into account the military acquisitions made by the Gulf States into their military planning. All these factors contributed in convincing Indian military planners that they would have to maintain a definite military superiority over Pakistan.

Similarly, Pakistan’s military acquisitions of the 1980s also heightened the pressure on Indian military planners to acquire more military equipment from the international market. And remember they had the financial wherewithal to carry out these acquisitions. Pakistan’s official narrative, ironically, has been one-sided: it is overly focused on the impact Pakistani military acquisitions have on the military capabilities of the country. For instance, the folklore that grew in Pakistani society with the induction of Lockheed Martin’s fabled F-16s into the Pakistani inventory seemed to have introduced supernatural powers into the hands of the Pakistan Air Force. Neither the official narrative, nor the writers on strategic affairs have devoted much time on how the induction of these weapons systems into the Pakistani inventory has impacted Indian thinking, and how the Indian thinking that emerged in the wake of the induction of these new weapons systems has added new vulnerabilities for Pakistan, instead of making it more secure.

Take for instance how the foremost analyst of Indian strategic planning, Raju Thomas has described the impact of Pakistani military acquisitions from Washington on Indian military planning. Thomas is of the opinion that these acquisitions and the military developments in the Persian Gulf forced the Indian military planners to go for establishing “clear superiority” over Pakistan, “The traditional Indian response to the Pakistani threat was based on the principle of “matching capabilities” through the 1950s and much of the 1960s. After the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war, the principle of matching capabilities shifted briefly to one of maintaining a “slight edge” and subsequently, India’s military posture moved to one of clear superiority,” he writes in his seminal work Indian Security Policy.

Their rather sizable share of the national budget allows the military to replace one weapon system with another as a source of national pride. For instance, in the 1980s, the F-16 was portrayed as a source of national pride. In the 1990s, the Ghauri ballistic missiles became a source of national pride. And in the process, we simply ignore the fact that the situation we are facing demands us to spend more money on internal security. 

Now the insurmountable financial constraints faced by Pakistan have seemingly forced Pakistani military planners to rely more heavily on the nuclear deterrent as part of their military planning. International experts are pointing out indications in official Indian discourse that they are about to abandon their stance of “no first use” of nuclear weapons. At a more complex level, the Indians have purchased or are in negotiations to purchase the latest in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities and precision strike aircraft that would make Pakistani strategic targets more vulnerable to Indian attacks. “A particularly grave concern is that if India pursues its policy to achieve technical superiority in ISR and precision targeting, this will provide India the capability to effectively locate and effectively destroy strategically important targets in Pakistan,” says Peter R. Lavoy, internationally recognized nuclear expert, in one of his recent writings on the Pak-India nuclear equation.

After looking at Pakistan’s internal security situation, one gets the feeling that Pakistani military planners do the planning while sitting somewhere on Mars. The Pakistani Armed Forces continue to get the lion’s share of the national budget, aimed at augmenting the country's security. Their rather sizable share of the national budget allows the military to replace one weapon system with another as a source of national pride. For instance, in the 1980s, the F-16 was portrayed as a source of national pride. In the 1990s, the Ghauri ballistic missiles became a source of national pride. And in the process, we simply ignore the fact that the situation we are facing demands us to spend more money on internal security. Parts of the country have witnessed militant groups emerging as supreme authorities, sectarian killings have become a norm in major urban centers and terrorist attacks go on unabated.

Despite this deteriorating security situation, no reallocation of resources is being considered. Former Chief of the Army Staff, General Jehangir Keramat was the first Pakistani military leader to openly advocate that the threat to the country's existence emanate from internal sources. The two Army chiefs who followed him were forced by the internal security situation to divert their attention to internal security threats. Even this change in situation didn’t lead to a more serious reallocation of resources.

For strong and effective defense, we need to create a harmonious and conflict free social and political environment. To achieve this objective, the military should be kept away from all political, social and religious conflicts. The political system should develop the capabilities to work for the resolution of societal conflicts, because a society at war with itself cannot put up a strong defense.

The writer is a journalist based in Islamabad.