New Delhi: Conceptually and doctrinally, Pakistan likely has blended its deterrent to the highest degree with its military strategic and tactical planning after the United States and Russia. India comes lower in the order and indeed may be the least serious of the declared nuclear powers about deterrence. In itself, this is not a crime, and there may be some good in reflexively believing that nuclear weapons will never be used. In all probability, they won’t.

But it is hard to reconcile a general indifference to nuclear weapons with loose talk about attacking and razing to the ground an adversary’s atomic facilities. The Indian Air Force chief, B. S. Dhanoa, made this rather startling and dubious boast at a seminar in the national capital which shot to page one of the dailies today. Since the adversary whose nuclear facilities and deployments touted to be such easy targets by Dhanoa was Pakistan, Pakistan retorted with equal force of grim and determined anger, saying its response would not be restrained. Pakistan made it abundantly clear that any Indian strike from land or air would be countered in full, which means a strategic nuclear response.

Till such time as the United States held the nuclear monopoly, its armed forces were scornful of the deterrent. Despite the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki being the most recent and unforgettable catastrophes, American forces considered nuclear weapons unusable and to be needlessly cutting into their appropriations. It is only when the Soviet Union broke the American nuclear monopoly and commenced massively integrating deterrence strategies into war planning that the United States woke up to the whole panoply of threats presented by atomic and, soon after, thermonuclear weapons.

For over forty years till the end of the Cold War, strategists on both sides of the ideological divide perfected ways to prevent the nuclear balance from tipping in favour of one or the other rivalrous parties. A whole new language was invented to manage the mutual balance of terror. ICBM throw-weight, limits on cumulative early warning radar power, and scores of other measures were designed to provide ceilings and sub-ceilings to the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. Since China also entered the nuclear calculus after 1964, first as the United States’ ideological adversary, and then as the Soviet Union’s fratricidal foe, its power to destroy either of them entered the deterrent math too.

But largely, the nuclear Cold War was fought between the Soviet Union and the United States, with Warsaw Pact states on one side and the European NATO allies on the other frozen in their positions as terrified bystanders. This dance of death between the two superpowers lead to the most sophisticated integration of deterrent elements into military planning and structures on both sides. The ideas, the arguments and the fierce contradictions and animosities these generated were fascinating but always coloured and burdened by their deadly earnestness and seriousness. It was a matter of life and death for the United States and the Soviet Union; the civilization and national substance of both superpowers hung in the balance.

This phenomenon is only partly replicated in the India-Pakistan nuclear tangle, and it is all the more perilous for it. Pakistan considers India a threat to its sovereign existence. This fear is scarcely exaggerated since India broke Pakistan into two in the course of the 1971 Bangladesh War. India went nuclear in 1974 in apprehension of regime change but it was the feared implications of a worldwide application of CTBT that prompted the 1998 Pokhran test from which emerged India’s nuclear doctrine such as it is. Even after 1998, India has not been a serious nuclear power although it has build up more than adequate deterrent capacities.

This is not the case with Pakistan at all. Not only does it have the fastest growing inventory of nuclear weapons in the world, it has gamed for tactical nuclear war-fighting should India invade. Also, Pakistan is the only state whose nuclear weapons are directly and entirely under military control, with the elected government having little or no say in their deployment and operations. Because deterrence is directly related to its survival as a state, the same as in the case of the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, Pakistan is deadly serious about its nuclear force. India’s survival, on the other hand, does not depend on nuclear weapons. Not merely does China, India’s number one adversary, not count India as a threatening nuclear power, neither, indeed, does India see China primarily as a weaponized menace.

These nuances have not been understood by the Indian Air Force chief, B. S. Dhanoa, when he made the wild and gratuitous threats against Pakistan’s nuclear forces. Dhanoa probably didn’t mean what he said (in which case, he should have observed silence), but Pakistan is in no position to give him the benefit of doubt. Seeing the imbalanced perception of nuclear weapons on both sides of the border, it behoves on the Indian side not to make idle and irresponsible threats. At any given moment, the Pakistanis are more engaged with nuclear weapons than the Indian side, which is a function of their grave existential fears. Indian forces, on the other hand, take a detached view of nuclear weapons like the US forces did till the Soviet Union broke the nuclear monopoly. Therefore, rather than talking out of turn, Indian services chiefs should get serious about nuclear weapons because they are an inescapable fact of life and pose a cataclysmic threat to the civilization of the sub-continent.