Pakistan’s quest to acquire tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) has added a dangerous dimension to the already precarious strategic equation in South Asia. The security discourse in the subcontinent revolves around the perennial apprehension of a conventional or sub-conventional conflict triggering a chain reaction, eventually paving the way for a potential nuclear crisis haunting peace and stability in the region.
The Pakistan army’s directorate of Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), announced the successful testing of the 60-km nuclear-capable short-range missile Hatf IX (Nasr) on 11 February 2013 and declared, “…Nasr, can carry nuclear warheads of appropriate yield, with high accuracy… and has been specially designed to defeat all known anti-tactical missile defence systems.” The test, an implicit signal to the region about Pakistan’s commitment to developing “full spectrum deterrence including the use of TNWs”, was witnessed by the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, General Khalid Shameem Wynne, Director General Strategic Plans Division, Lieutenant General Khalid Ahmed Kidwai (Retd), and Commander Army Strategic Forces Command, Lieutenant General Tariq Nadeem Gilani.
While Pakistan believes that the Nasr “adds deterrence value to Pakistan’s strategic weapons development programme at shorter ranges,” it has, in fact, further lowered its nuclear threshold through the likely use of TNWs. Pakistan has not formally declared a nuclear doctrine, but it is well known that nuclear weapons are its first line of defence. Its presumed “first-use” policy is aimed at negating India’s conventional military superiority by projecting a low nuclear threshold. The use of TNWs in the India-Pakistan case will alter the strategic scenario completely as Pakistan would threaten India with the use of TNWs in the event of New Delhi responding against Islamabad with a conventional strike in reaction to a 26/11-style terrorist attack. According to the Pakistan army, TNWs are designed to counter India’s Cold Start doctrine. Under this new policy, Indian troop formations could well face an onslaught of Pakistani TNWs.
Tactical nuclear weapons, often referred to as “battlefield”, “sub-strategic”, or “non-strategic” nuclear weapons, usually have a plutonium core and are typically distinct from strategic nuclear weapons. Therefore, they warrant a separate consideration in the realm of nuclear security. The yield of such weapons is generally lower than that of strategic nuclear weapons and may range from the relatively low 0.1 kiloton to a few kilotons. As Pakistan is already building its fourth nuclear reactor at Khushab—a plutonium producing unit, the clamour in the Pakistan armed forces for manufacturing tactical nuclear weapons has gone up.
Pakistan has been advocating the concept of a Strategic Restraint Regime based upon the principle of nuclear restraint and conventional force reductions and has termed it as a strategic confidence-building measure. Often citing what it terms as “India’s conventional military threat”, Pakistan forgets that given its offensive strategic posture and continuing involvement in terror strikes in India, it is New Delhi which is confronted with the problem of developing a strategy to counter Pakistan’s “first-strike” and proxy war in light of its declared “no-first-use” policy.
India has always viewed nuclear weapons as a political instrument whose sole purpose is to deter the use and threat of use of nuclear weapons against itself. India’s nuclear doctrine clearly outlines the strategy of credible minimum deterrence and also establishes that India will not be the first to initiate a nuclear strike. However, India shall respond with punitive retaliation should deterrence fail. To achieve this end, India’s nuclear doctrine calls for a sufficient, survivable and operationally prepared nuclear force; a robust command and control system; effective intelligence and early warning capabilities; comprehensive planning and training for operations in line with strategy; and requisite primary and alternate chains of command to employ nuclear weapons.
If Pakistan intends to develop these lower-yield nuclear warheads that can be fired from short-range tactical missiles, a future limited war scenario with India with grave repercussions remains a possibility. Pakistan should cooperate with India by taking requisite steps to stabilise nuclear deterrence and minimise existential nuclear dangers. It should not indulge in further destabilising nuclear deterrence in the name of “balancing the asymmetry with India in conventional capabilities.” India, yet again, has acted as a responsible player by not going down the TNW route fully acknowledging the perils involved. Pakistan needs to introspect. Even one nuclear strike-- tactical or otherwise --whether in India or against Indian forces, shall unquestionably invite massive punitive retaliation that will finish Pakistan as a nation state.
The history of nuclear deterrence tells us that TNWs lower the nuclear threshold and that makes them inherently destabilising. Their command and control is complex as it involves delegation of the authority to launch to commanders in the field if they are to avoid being confronted with the “use them, or lose them” challenge. Pakistan has opted to go down a dangerous path. It must stop its quest for TNWs as weapons of war.