The Dilemma Of A Threshold And Nuclear Weapons – Analysis


By Vice Adm (Retd) Vijay Shankar

The nuclear planner is acutely involved in analysis of when and under what political conditions opposing leadership (military or otherwise) may resort to the employment of nuclear weapons. For nations with a policy of no first use (NFU), the answer is ‘in response to the first-use (FU) of a nuclear weapon under conditions as stipulated in the doctrine.’ However, between nuclear-armed states, the one with a first use (FU) policy is faced with a more complex set of issues which will invariably rack up the question: ‘are political ends served with first-use of nuclear weapons knowing that an escalatory response may well be massive and place value targets in its cross hairs?’

Does first-strike come paired with the ability to offset a nuclear response? Indeed there is the theoretical possibility that the first strike may altogether neutralise the opposition’s capability of a nuclear response; but this, as the evolution of nuclear thought and development of nuclear arsenals have shown, is a fantasy. Even the smallest retaliation in a nuclear exchange targeting a city will imply horrific destruction that the first striker must contend with. To put matters in perspective, consider the following: the destructive potential of a nuclear weapon, say a 20 kiloton nuclear weapon airburst, targeting a city such as Karachi (in 2017, metropolitan area population was estimated at 23 million with a population density of 24,000 per sq km) will result in at least 8,00,000 primary casualties and another 12,00,000 secondary (statistics approximate based on casualty curves, Abraham Henry, Nuclear Weapons and War, 1984).One only has to recall the geographic extent and casualties of the 1986 Chernobyl power plant disaster to appreciate that the hazards of a nuclear encounter are not abstract notions. In the radiation fallout spread from Scandinavia to the Black sea, over 1,16,000 people were affected while Belarus has since shown a 2400 per cent annual increase in incidents of thyroid cancer.

The capability to respond unfailingly and credibly to a nuclear first strike lies at the heart of a deterrent strategy driven by an NFU policy. Faced with the certainty of appalling destruction in response to a nuclear adventure, why a state armed with nuclear weapons should contemplate FU remains bizarre since it is at odds with the very idea of survival. Whatever be the conditions of conflict; the approach of such a threshold when one or the other protagonist may reach for the nuclear trigger must not only be transparent but be declared if deterrence is to work, so that return to normalcy becomes viable.

The strategic irony of dealing with Pakistan is that not only is it armed with nuclear weapons, but also forewarns FU shorn of a declared doctrine. The weapon, as recent statements from their establishment suggest, is ‘India-specific’ and the development of their nuclear arsenal is to deter India’s conventional forces from offensive operations through the use of tactical nuclear weapons (TNW). Should that elicit a massive response, it would be countered by an assured ‘limited’ second strike capability. The latter, in their view, serves to ‘stabilise’ the former (a conversation with Khalid Kidwai, 2015); never-you-mind what or who caused the primary provocation. The doctrine remains under a cloak of ambiguity emboldened by the belief in a yet to be developed sea-based second strike launched from conventional submarines.

The first deduction that may be made from such a doctrine is that Pakistan has adopted a nuclear war-fighting doctrine notwithstanding a dangerous absence of technology necessary to provide intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR) and command and control on land, at sea and in air. The second deduction is that between their first and second strikes, Pakistan is convinced of surviving massive retaliation with its second strike intact. Is this a reasonable assumption or is it more bravado than sense? The third understanding is, when such a nuclear doctrine remains cloaked in ambiguity, the separation between the nuclear and principles that govern conventional warfare are blurred. This attains a catastrophic bent, significantly when conventional principles such as surprise and deception are integrated into a first or a second strike plan, for the unsaid implication is that Pakistan, in some woolly manner, holds sway over the escalatory dynamic.

In all this, what alarms is the lowering of the nuclear threshold while exposing the weapon to unintended use in its movement into the tactical battle area and the truancy of centralised command and control. Also, the deterrent value of the weapon from the standpoint of both time and space is narrowed if not foreclosed. Two more issues need to be recognised relating to the vexed geography of the India-Pakistan situation: the Line of Control (LoC) demarcates the extent of geographic control over disputed territory in Jammu and Kashmir, and to advocate creating a nuclear wasteland in territorial hankerings does not quite make strategic sense. It is equally clear that among states that share common borders, a nuclear exchange will spread devastation irrespective of man-made boundaries.

In the early stages of Pakistan weaponising its nuclear capability, it had made feeble sounds of where its nuclear threshold lay. As could be deciphered, FU of nuclear weapons was predicated on four thresholds: large territorial setbacks, comprehensive military attrition, economic collapse, and political precariousness. The deterrent logic these thresholds described was really quite unmistakeable for they provided to Pakistan a context for maintaining conventional power. However, this rationality flew in the face of the acquisition of TNWs. The perception widely held among commentators in India is that the four-threshold doctrine has since been trashed.“Full-spectrum deterrence” is what Pakistan today makes its arsenal out to be. Central to this doctrine is the integration of TNWs with conventional forces and a callow belief that the nuclear escalatory ladder is in control of the first striker. This abstruse doctrinal tangle suggests that Pakistan not only fails to take account of India’s nuclear response but is also convinced of their ability to initiate a nuclear war and survive unscathed from the encounter.

To establish where Pakistan’s nuclear threshold lies conceptually is a baffling task. However, Pakistan escalating to the nuclear dimension in response to an Indian conventional riposte to a major terror assault traced to GHQ Rawalpindi cannot be consistent with their “full spectrum” doctrine since the riposte does not come as a result of the latter’s failed conventional action, which is the ‘first tier’ of the spectrum. Rather, in this frame of reference, the nuclear FU threshold must be assessed in the context of political realities; state policy that finds unity with jihadists and military capability. An ambiguous nuclear doctrine in these circumstances cannot alone determine the nuclear threshold; what it can do is calibrate the uncertainty that it imposes and in the process limit both extent and intensity of the riposte.

Nuclear thresholds are neither fixed by geography nor by time but determined more by severity and purpose of military action which by some national gauge or a combination of triggers will lead to the decision that a threshold has been breached. As may be surmised from Pakistan’s peace-time nuclear posture, due to a lack of high-technology-persistent-ISR, absence of cyber and outerspace capabilities, and the fragility of the second strike; their nuclear threshold may not lie at the low end of the scale. The reason being the first tier of the spectrum may not have quite ruptured in the early stage of a crisis while the second strike remains unfledged. And yet it is equally clear that threat of nuclear use has been brought out of the backdrop to a position from where nuclear deterrence becomes a looming immediacy.


IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *