Largely spurred by the loss of East Pakistan1, and a perception of a hostile, bigger and better-armed India, Pakistan had achieved a capability “to rapidly assemble a nuclear device if necessary” around the late-1980s2. During this period, the Cold War was at its peak and Pakistan imbibed an important lesson: that from 1945 onwards, the two nuclear-weapons armed adversaries, USSR/Warsaw Pact and NATO, have confronted each other through proxies in distant parts of the world – but never fought each other directly.
Simultaneously, Pakistan experienced first-hand the methods used by the US-Saudi combine (i.e. the use of mujahideen) to defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan and concluded that such irregular forces served two vital purposes; one – they provided a low-cost, asymmetric and disruptive option against superior conventional forces of the USSR; and two – they made the Soviet Union spend disproportionate amounts of resources on countering the asymmetric threat with little or no damage to the sponsoring states3.
It is thus no coincidence that Pakistan’s ‘proxy war’ against India coincided with it having attained nuclear capability and the Soviet preparations for a final withdrawal from Afghanistan. Pakistan then began using two primary tools to have its way in the sub-continent, (i) using terrorism and ‘proxy war’ to bleed India; and (ii) brandishing its nuclear arsenal to thwart punitive actions by India. Evidently, for Pakistan, nuclear weapons are:
- An instrument that allows it to wage offensive proxy war, but provide it a defence against retaliatory punitive action.
- A strategic equalizer of power asymmetry, i.e. they balance India’s conventional military superiority.
- A strategic lever for extracting maximum aid from the USA, Europe, China and some countries in the Middle-East.
The initial period saw Pakistan drop subtle hints about possessing nuclear weapons (e.g. Operation Brass Tacks, 1987). Its blatant ‘sabre-rattling’ of nuclear weapons however, began astride the 1999 Kargil Conflict and Operation Parakaram (December 2001-2002). This was followed by a periodic ‘lowering of the nuclear threshold ’. No nuclear-weapons State evolves a nuclear deterrence strategy in isolation. Hence, Pakistan too seems to have analyzed other doctrines and evidently, Russia’s April 2000 strategic military doctrine, which espoused the concept of ‘De-escalation’, seems to have influenced Pakistan. However, the threat scenario, the Indian nuclear response strategy and the international environment possibly led to a perception in Pakistan that its nuclear deterrence doctrine was perhaps not being taken too seriously by India. It then tweaked that doctrine by co-opting Tactical Nuclear Weapons (TNWs). However, even such a ‘full-spectrum’ response has loopholes. This range of issues is analyzed below.
Russia’s Strategic Military Doctrine
As the USSR was breaking up, the Russian leaders saw how the US-led coalition defeated (1991) the Soviet-equipped and Soviet-trained Iraqi forces of Saddam Hussein in just a few days. In November 1993, the nascent Russian government under Boris Yeltsin outlined the “Main Provisions of the Military Doctrine”. This advocated use of nuclear weapons only in a global war. Between 1997 and 1999, Moscow saw the NATO wage an intelligence-led precision military campaign in Yugoslavia. By now, the Russian armed forces were a pale shadow of its predecessor, the Soviet war machine.
It was thus evident to Moscow that the conventional forces capabilities of the US were far beyond Russia’s own capacities at that juncture. Since the fundamental causes of the Kosovo conflict seemed quite akin to the reasons for the Chechen conflict, the Russian leadership apprehended that the US may also interfere in Chechnya, where the second Chechen war was building up.
The Russian government hence commenced work on a new military doctrine under Vladimir Putin, then-Secretary of Russia’s National Security Council (March 1999-August 1999). This doctrine, signed in April 2000 by Acting President Vladimir Putin, replaced the November 1993 document. The new doctrine propounded that if Russia was faced with a large-scale conventional attack that exceeded its capacity for defence, it may respond with a limited nuclear strike, which would then act as a motivation for the adversary to ‘De-escalate’ the conflict. In October 2004, President Putin unveiled the “Immediate Tasks of Development of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation”. This report formally developed the 2000 Military Doctrine and postulated two missions for Russia’s nuclear weapons, i.e. (i) deterrence of a large-scale attack against Russia; and (ii) ‘De-escalation’ of a limited conflict in case deterrence fails.
There were clear differences between this new doctrine and the Soviet nuclear deterrence strategy during the Cold War. The latter had threatened inflicting of unacceptable damage on an enemy and ‘MAD’ (Mutual Assured Destruction). Under such conditions, the use of nuclear weapons was unthinkable as it entailed “rapid escalation to the exchange of massive nuclear strikes”. Russia’s new doctrine however, held out the threat of “tailored damage” and was aimed at making an aggressor weigh the cost he will suffer versus the strategic benefit he may derive from that conflict. The unstated rationale was that while the US may like to interfere in Chechnya and assist the rebels, the strategic gains that may accrue to the US from such a venture were not worth risking a nuclear exchange with Russia, because for Moscow, retaining territorial control over Chechnya was of core national interest. Besides, Russia’s new doctrine favoured striking adversarial military targets stretching outwards from the battlefield itself, rather than the population or economic centres that were typical targets in the Cold War. The new doctrine also underscored a close linkage between the concept of ‘De-escalation’ and ‘Non-Strategic Nuclear Weapons’ / TNWs.
The Russian doctrine is however, not entirely new. At a conceptual level, it borrows from Thomas Schelling’s seminal books entitled ‘The Strategy of Conflict’ (1960) and ‘Arms and Influence’ (1966). At the operational level, it mirrors the 1960s era US policy, which had contemplated limited use of nuclear weapons (including TNWs and ‘neutron bombs’) to oppose Soviet aggression in Europe (as expressed, e.g. in the 1963 document produced by the US National Security Council entitled “The Management and Termination of War with the Soviet Union”).
Evolution of Pakistan’s Nuclear Strategy
A dispassionate analysis of the outcomes of the 1965 and 1971 Indo-Pak Wars suggests that insofar as the India’s Western front was concerned, there was a kind of strategic stalemate albeit in favour of India, with both India and Pakistan capturing some amounts of territory. Pakistan however lost the erstwhile East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), which was located across the Indian sub-continent. In sum: the Indo-Pak conventional forces asymmetry was not overwhelmingly against Pakistan.
However, in 1979, the USA, one of Pakistan’s main military backers, suspended most aid to Pakistan under the Symington Amendment in response to Pakistan’s covert construction of a uranium enrichment facility. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan few months later (December 1979) heralded a fresh era in US-Pakistan relations. The US waived the months-old Symington sanctions for six years (till 1985), gave a US$3.2 billion economic and military aid package to Pakistan, and along with Saudi Arabia, financed the ‘jihad’ in Afghanistan. To continue aid to Pakistan beyond 1985, the US Congress then approved the ‘Pressler Amendment’. This required the US President to annually certify that Pakistan did not possess a nuclear device. Presidents Reagan and Bush certified the same till the Soviets withdrew (1989) from Afghanistan. In October 1990, after President Bush declined to furnish the Pressler certification, the US administration cut off all aid to Pakistan. The Pressler sanctions were followed by Commonwealth sanctions after General Musharraf’s coup in October 1999. Together, they ensured there was very little supply of Western military equipment to Pakistan from 1990 onwards. Although Pakistan had aligned itself with the US in September 2001 and was given MNNA status in 2004, major arms transfers from the US commenced only after 2008. Pakistan however had effectively utilized the window to rapidly progress its nuclear weapons program.
By end-1990s, the Pakistani armed forces had major equipment deficiencies, an aspect which was very apparent during Operation Parakaram (2001-2002). Nevertheless, possession of nuclear weapons had left Pakistan quite smug. The 1999 Kargil Conflict shook Pakistan’s confidence on account of two reasons:
- One: The Indian military action proved that there is “space” between ‘breakdown of diplomacy and commencement of a nuclear war’, and by corollary, for a short duration conflict with limited objectives in a ‘nuclear threat environment’. This issue needs to be seen in light of the fact that while a nuclear weapons state can “draw a line” and dare an adversary to cross it, the same is not a cast-iron defence. The US’ nuclear arsenal did not dissuade China from moving its forces into North Korea in 1950; Israel nuclear weapons could not deter Syria and Egypt from invading Israel in 1973; Indian nuclear weapons did not discourage Pakistan from conducting an audacious military operation in 1999 (Kargil); and importantly, Pakistani nuclear weapons did not deter India from re-taking illegally occupied areas during the Kargil Conflict.
- Two: The international community was deeply averse to posturing of nuclear weapons by Pakistan to deter conflict, or their use for conflict resolution.
The 1999 Kargil Conflict hence led Pakistan to search for a better strategic doctrine to thwart punitive action by India while it pursued its “foreign policy” with the help of terrorist and militant entities.
Meanwhile in India, the persistence of terrorist attacks, lessons of the Kargil Conflict and Operation Parakaram, an examination of the India-Pakistan conventional forces balance and the international environment led the Indian military to following conclusions:
- Due to less strategic depth and shorter lines of communication, Pakistan could mobilize its forces in a shorter time frame vis-à-vis India. Consequently, the Pakistani Army was ready to handle an Indian offensive by the time India completed its protracted mobilization.
- India’s long mobilization period provided ‘space’ for intervention by major international players, especially after Pakistan started ‘sabre-rattling’ its nuclear weapons.
- The conventional forces asymmetry between India and Pakistan is not so much that it guarantees India an outright victory in a short war. Hence India needed to achieve surprise, and then beat in time and space the arrival of Pakistani troops, especially its reserves, in most sectors.
- Any future war with Pakistan would likely be limited in scope and in time. Therefore, both sides would strive to make gains in the limited period available prior to conflict termination. In turn, this required application of maximum military force in the shortest time frame. This made management of escalation dynamics difficult.
- A war with limited objectives however, could allow India to operate below Pakistan’s actual nuclear threshold(s).
The above lessons and analysis by Indian planners led to the evolution of the so-called Cold Start Doctrine (CSD), (a.k.a. the “Pro-Active Doctrine”), which was enunciated around 2005. The CSD envisions the Indian Army mobilising and commencing strikes almost simultaneously, and operating without crossing thresholds which could trigger a nuclear response from Pakistan. The CSD was critically examined by Pakistan’s military, who concluded that (i) the threat posed by the Indian CSD is credible and Pakistan-specific; and (ii) the main concern was an apparent lack of readiness of Pakistani armed forces to operate in the environment a CSD could generate, particularly because Pakistan’s conventional war-fighting capability had been debilitated by various US and Western sanctions, and its own economic capability. Wargames by the Pakistani military also concluded that it faced difficulties in evolving a military strategy that deters conventional conflict. Soon thereafter, Pakistan initiated two parallel plans:
- A mid- to long-term plan to develop conventional capabilities to counter India’s CSD.
- A nuclear weapons-dependent strategy to thwart conflict with India in the interim period as it built its conventional capabilities / armed forces.
Developing Conventional Capabilities to Counter India’s CSD: This had two components:
- One: Reduce the response timings of the Pakistani Army by:
- Re-locating certain formations closer to the IB.
- Building critical infrastructure (bridges, rail links, defence canals, etc) to reduce response time and improve intra- and inter-theatre mobility, as also obstacles to impose delay on Indian offensive forces.
- Updating its Mobilization Regulations.
(This is reflected in the Pakistan Army Doctrine 2011 (a.k.a. “Comprehensive Response” doctrine), which states, inter alia, that considering “the possibility of Pakistan being drawn into a war on a very short notice, all formations [should] organize —- in a manner that effective combat potential can be generated within 24 to 48 hours from the corps to unit level and two to three days at the Army level.”)
- Two: Force Development Strategy: Pakistan replaced the 15-Year Long Term Force Modernisation Plan with a more ambitious Armed Forces Development Plan-2025. This was focused on acquisition of select “hi-tech” weapon platforms; equipment which improves the Pakistani military’s strike and night-fighting capabilities; force multipliers to improve its situational awareness and ISR capabilities; Special Forces; air mobility; rapid reaction forces etc.
Nuclear Weapons-Dependent Strategy to Thwart Conflict: The problem with conventional force development is that it has a long timeline. Hence, deeply conscious of the growing conventional forces asymmetry with India and aware that there would be limits to India’s patience on terrorism and ‘proxy war’, Pakistan came under a strategic compulsion to posture nuclear weapons. It therefore co-opted another stratagem, viz, “Lowering of its Nuclear Threshold” and began to project that ‘any war with India would become a nuclear war’ in order to thwart any conflict. For this, Pakistan appears to have also picked a sub-set of nuclear deterrence theory, viz, that “if there is stability at nuclear levels, then there can be instability at conventional levels (i.e. two adversaries can engage in conventional war); but if there is instability at nuclear levels (as Pakistan is posturing), then there will be stability at conventional levels” (i.e. an adversary will refrain from waging conventional war). Pakistan also enunciated five broad nuclear ‘thresholds’ beyond which Pakistan may be compelled to use nuclear weapons (viz, any attempt to target its nuclear assets; a territorial / space threshold; military threshold / force degradation; economic threshold; and a political threshold).
Similarities: Pakistan and Russian Doctrines: The similarities between the Russian and Pakistani doctrines are evident. Both nations faced a conventional forces asymmetry. Both doctrines are aimed at averting war by holding out the threat of “tailored damage” to an adversary through the use of nuclear weapons, but if war was imposed on it, then to try and “de-escalate” the conflict. The overall aim was to hold out the threat of a limited nuclear strike in order to compel an adversary to either accept the status quo ante (as had happened after “26/11” and other terrorist strikes including the recent killings in Uri) – or force an adversary to retract from the conflict started by him.
That Pakistan has been posturing nuclear weapons primarily to deter India is also evident from statements by various Pakistani leaders. In 2004, Mahmud Ali Durrani4 described four policy objectives for Islamabad’s nuclear weapons, i.e. deter all forms of external aggression; deter through a combination of conventional and strategic forces; deter counter-force strategies by securing strategic assets and threatening nuclear retaliation; and stabilize strategic deterrence in South Asia. In 2006, Pakistani officials indicated that their nuclear posture was aimed at preserving territorial integrity against Indian attack, prevent military escalation, and counter India’s conventional superiority5. Air Commodore Khalid Banuri, Director of Arms Control and Disarmament Affairs in Pakistan’s Strategic Plans Division, stated (December 2011) that Islamabad’s nuclear arsenal is part of an effort “to deny India the space for launching any kind of aggression against Pakistan.”6 In October 2015, Pakistani Foreign Secretary Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry asserted that its “nuclear programme is one dimensional: stopping Indian aggression before it happens. It is not for starting a war. It is for deterrence. 7”
Difference in Applicability: Although Pakistan seems to have been influenced by the Russian policy of ‘De-escalation’, there are differences in applicability which perhaps were not apparent at that time. These were:
- Unlike India and Pakistan, Russia and the USA are not geographically contiguous countries. In turn, the distance limited the damage to the aggressor (in this case, the USA) to just its military assets in the battlefield and its periphery; the distance (and the time of flight) also gave both nations time to talk on a nuclear hotline to preclude an all-out nuclear war.
- US intervention in Russia / Russian periphery would largely stem from geo-political interests, and not on account of mutual, acrimonious, long-standing territorial claims or dastardly, persistent terrorist actions.
- Both the US and Russia possessed a complete nuclear triad and by extension, second-strike capabilities; this tended to give some stability to the nuclear regime. Additionally, both nations had long-standing nuclear treaties.
Problems With the Pakistani Doctrine: Over a period of time therefore, Pakistan perhaps started to perceive that India was not taking its nuclear threats too seriously. Few reasons for this premise appear to be as follows:
- One: Survivability of Nuclear Assets for Second-Strike: India vs Pakistan. Although India yet does not have a submarine-based deterrence, it does enjoy a de-facto ‘second-strike’ capability because Pakistani missiles cannot cover the entire Indian peninsula (with Pakistan developing new land-based missiles like the Shaheen-III, this is set to change). The survivability of Pakistan’s nuclear assets is therefore in question considering (i) its lack of strategic depth; and (ii) the absence of a sea-based deterrence to complete the nuclear ‘triad’. In other words, India would be able to dominate the nuclear escalation ladder despite Pakistan’s ‘First Use’.
- Two: Indian Response: The Indian nuclear doctrine espouses ‘No First Use’ (NFU) but ‘massive retaliation’ if India or its forces are targeted with a nuclear weapon. This posed a dilemma for Pakistani planners : if Pakistan uses a nuclear weapon against Indian offensive forces even inside Pakistan in order to avoid the limited punishment that the Indian Armed Forces may inflict, the Indian nuclear response could potentially annihilate Pakistan. Hence, for Pakistan, the nuclear game may not be worth the candle it is played for. This dilemma would have been partly addressed if Pakistan had the ability to deplete the Indian nuclear arsenal with a ‘first’ / disarming strike, or had nuclear assets that could survive an Indian retaliatory strike (i.e. a credible ‘second strike’ capability).
- Three: If Pakistan used a large nuclear weapon as per its prescribed “thresholds” against an ingressed Indian strike force, Pakistan itself would sustain a lot of collateral damage, with much of the target zone being affected by fallout also.
- Four: Pakistan and India are contiguous countries. Considering the pattern of seasonal winds, there are good chances that in some months, the fallout from a nuclear strike may be blown back over Pakistan.
- Five: Pakistan’s nuclear sabre-rattling has been drawing unwarranted attention to its nuclear program, especially of the USA. This had the potential to affect Pakistan-China cooperation in the nuclear field, as well as Pakistan’s quest for nuclear energy.
Pakistan’s Dual-Theme: Use of Nuclear Weapons: Pakistan has been indirectly ‘conveying” to India that it has “lowered its nuclear threshold” and “any war will be a nuclear war”. To the international community however, Pakistan has been posturing as a responsible nuclear power and stating that Pakistan ‘will maintain an adequate conventional military force in order to raise its nuclear threshold’’. In May 2007, Pakistan’s Strategic Plans Division, in a presentation on ‘Elements of Pakistan’s Nuclear Policy’ in France, spelt out, among other issues, that Pakistan’s (i) nuclear capability is solely for the purpose of deterrence of aggression; (ii) will maintain an adequate conventional military force in order to raise its nuclear threshold; and (iii) will pursue a Strategic Restraint Regime (SRR) and other nuclear risk reduction measures in the region. A March 2012 US State Department report8 stated that “Pakistan ……. nuclear use would be a ‘last resort’ under circumstances that are unthinkable”. Earlier, in 1999, former Pakistan Army Corps Commander Lt Gen Sardar FS Lodhi had outlined that Pakistan’s nuclear response would be ‘graduated’9, i.e. (i) first, it would render a warning; (ii) it would then conduct a demonstrative nuclear explosion; (iii) this would be followed by a nuclear strike over enemy troops in Pakistani territory; and (iv) the final step would be a nuclear strike against a small border cantonment in India; followed by a strike(s) against Indian counter-value / counter-force targets. This dual-theme – one for India and another for the international community – also created doubts about Pakistan may actually do.
Tweaking the Existing Doctrine
It thus seems that despite nuclear ‘sabre-rattling’, Pakistan felt that it has not been able to posture a credible strategic nuclear deterrence that will completely deter India from punitive actions. Besides, the regional security environment had evolved. Pakistan’s quest for a battlefield nuclear attack capability against Indian forces and a shift towards “full-spectrum” response appears to be a tacit admission of this doubt. Pakistan hence seems to have looked at NATO’s flexible response strategy with TNWs and co-opted some elements of that. Given Pakistan’s limited strategic depth, it’s pre-occupation with counter-insurgency operations in its western tribal regions, and its economic and internal security situation, a ‘limited objectives’ war by India will be a total war for Pakistan : it cannot sustain even a 20-25 kms deep ingress in the built-up areas of Punjab. Hence, Pakistan began modifying its nuclear posture by developing new short-range nuclear-capable weapon systems to counter military threats below the strategic level, with the overall aim being to create a full-spectrum deterrent that is designed not only to respond to nuclear attacks but to also counter an Indian conventional incursion into Pakistani territory. In March 2015, Lt Gen (Retd) Khalid Ahmed Kidwai, former DG Strategic Plans Division (SPD) acknowledged that Pakistan “possesses a variety of nuclear weapons, in different categories; at the strategic level, at the operational level, and the tactical level ”.10
The 60-km range Nasr / HATF-IX Battlefield Range Ballistic Missile (BRBM) with a TNW seem to be the resulting brainwave. With the Nasr-TNW combination, Pakistan is exploring the space for a flexible response which falls between a massive albeit suicidal nuclear response, engaging in a catastrophic conventional battle – and doing nothing. The compact size, mobility and ‘shoot-and-scoot’ capability of the Nasr rocket are supposed to address survivability concerns; its short range, and comparatively flatter ballistic trajectory would make it difficult for any Indian Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) to intercept it; its tactical capability would allow it to target the Indian Army’s offensive ‘Integrated Battle Groups’ that have broken through into Pakistan; a single-digit kiloton weapon would reduce collateral damage within Pakistan; and importantly, a limited nuclear response astride the border / within Pakistan would pose a response dilemma11 to Indian leaders, particularly with Pakistan also posturing strategic weapons.
Pakistani leaders like Lt Gen (Retd) Khalid Ahmed Kidwai, former DG SPD and Dr. Aman Rashid, Pakistan Foreign Ministry official, have stated that the development of the Nasr-TNW combination by Pakistan is a result of (i) the widening military gap between Pakistan and India on account of latter’s massive weapons acquisition and huge defence budget; and (ii) offensive doctrines postulated by India under the nuclear overhang, viz, the CSD. Separately, Pakistani strategic thinkers12 opine that “the Pakistani rationale for TNW is that these weapons are an insurance policy against surprise and a guarantee at the operational level. . . . which will buy time against a strategic defeat,” and that TNWs can deter “Indian military aggression” because the Nasr-TNW combination generates “tactical uncertainty, strategic hesitation and international resolve to prevent nuclear war.” The 201513 report by the US Naval Postgraduate School states that “TNWs would theoretically plug the gap and create a force multiplier effect for a thinly stretched Pakistani Army”. The report adds that considering the Nasr’s range (60 kms), there are three possible-use scenarios, i.e. (i) “at 3 kms [break-in stage], Pakistan would have the option of a trans-border employment”; (ii) “at 20 kms [penetration depth], Pakistan would have the option of employment across the border or on its own territory”; and (iii) “at 35 kms, Pakistan would be faced with employment on its own territory”.
However, questions remain about the operational status of the TNW component of the Nasr/HATF-IX system. Although the delivery rocket per se is ready and functional, it is not clear whether Pakistan has been able to sufficiently miniaturize a nuclear weapon to fit inside the Nasr rocket. While the US intelligence community (National Air & Space Intelligence Center report of 2013) has listed the Nasr-TNW as a deployed system since 2013, as per the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (‘Pakistani Nuclear Forces’, 01 November 2016), “operational deployment of the nuclear version may still be in its early stages.” A former Pakistani official knowledgeable about his country’s nuclear weapons program has stated that Pakistan has not deployed these weapons14. Even if Pakistan has been able to do so, considering that it will likely use Plutonium for such miniaturization, there is a limit to the numbers of TNWs that Pakistan can currently field. This constrains its ability to stem a full-scale Indian offensive consisting of a number of offensive battle groups.
Bomb Designing Skills and Reliability of the Miniaturised Weapon15: As per the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists16, Pakistani bomb designers, who have been at it since the 1970s and have had help from China, appear to have low- to medium-level technical skills. However, let us assume that Pakistan has achieved miniaturisation. In the US, extensive experimentation was needed to create such a small, workable device. In absence of full testing, Pakistan could, at best, have worked on the explosive and detonator, which is not the same as testing with actual materials and device. In sum: assuming there is a TNW for the Nasr, what Pakistan may possess is an untested, unreliable device.
Numbers of Warheads for the Nasr Rocket: The International Panel on Fissile Materials has estimated that as of late 2015, Pakistan had an inventory of approximately 3100 kg of weapon-grade Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) and at least 190 kg of weapon-grade plutonium. This material is theoretically enough to produce 204–306 warheads, assuming that each warhead’s solid core uses either 12–18 kg of weapon-grade HEU or 4–6 kg of plutonium. However, calculating the number of warheads based solely on the fissile material inventory tends to produce inflated warhead estimates as a number of factors are not cognized, e.g. warhead design, its proficiency, warhead production rates, reserve fissile material, etc17. The space and shape constraints in the Nasr rocket mean that it will likely require a linear nuclear warhead. A plutonium-based, linear implosion design can be miniaturised to fit inside the Nasr rocket, but such a device requires almost double the quantity of plutonium as used in a spherical device18. Assuming current availability of about 220 kgs of Plutonium and a requirement of about 10 kg of Plutonium (at almost double the rate) per linear-design weapon, this plutonium stockpile translates into roughly 22 TNWs. It is not clear whether Pakistan will appropriate the existing Plutonium stockpile for just the Nasr-TNW combo, or will also distribute some Plutonium for its Babur / HATF-7 Ground Launched Cruise Missile and the Ra’ad / HATF-8 Air Launched Cruise Missile. As per the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, both are much slimmer than Pakistan’s ballistic missiles, suggesting success with warhead miniaturization based on plutonium instead of uranium. If it distributes the available Plutonium for warheads for three different sets of weapons (i.e. the Nasr rocket, Babur and the Ra’ad cruise missiles, then given the 60 km range of the Nasr rocket and the fact that India may deploy a number of IBGs astride a long border, Pakistan will need a larger number of warheads for the Nasr to pose a credible threat to a full-scale Indian offensive. The danger however lies in rapid escalation even if one TNW is used. The US Defense Intelligence Agency Director Vincent Stewart stated in his testimony (Senate Armed Services Committee; February 9, 2016) that the Islamabad’s “evolving doctrine associated with tactical nuclear weapons, increases the risk of an incident or accident.”19
Effect of Nuclear Weapons on Armoured Vehicles: The Indian IBGs would comprise heavily armoured tanks and lightly armoured Infantry Combat Vehicles (ICVs). As per a 1994 study20 and associated simulations and analysis, incapacitating a tank requires an overpressure of about 3 ATM. The distances from ground zero to which various weapon yields can generate this overpressure are shown in Table opposite. Although the number of tanks one warhead can destroy will depend on the tactical disposition (e.g. in a Bridge Head; or dispersed during an advance), the fact remains that multiple warheads will be required to destroy an IBG. As per a 2001 study by Ashley J Tellis, Pakistan would need about “37 weapons of 15 KT (or 57 weapons of 8 KT) to operationally disable an Indian armored division”21. In other words, the likely damage potential from the NASR’s TNW appears limited and its battlefield utility seems minimal. To pose a credible threat on the battlefield, Pakistan will have to co-opt SRBMs with tactical capability like the Abdali (HATF-II) and Ghaznavi (HATF-III) (these could be deployed with simple fission warheads). Thus, instead of providing any advantage in battle, a limited nuclear attack could in fact seriously complicate the task of Pakistani leaders.
Problems : Deployment of TNWs
TNWs tend to lower the threshold for nuclear weapon use and their employment against a nuclear-armed opponent carries a significant danger of rapid escalation to strategic levels. They are hence inherently de-stabilizing. TNWs also encourage the concept of forward-basing. In turn, they become vulnerable to an attack by an adversary especially through air power; such vulnerability to attack encourages their pre-emptive use in the first place (“use it or lose it”). The Indian ‘Prahaar’ battlefield tactical ballistic missile, the ‘Nirbhay’ LACM, the ‘Brahmos’ supersonic cruise missile-Su-30 fighter aircraft combination are some weapons that India could possibly use for pre-emptive strikes against the mobile Nasr platform. The use of multiple nuclear warheads astride the border / on Pakistani territory could also render the affected area unliveable for many years; this needs to be seen in light of the fact that the fighting was aimed at retaining control/use of that territory in the first place. It is for all these reasons that many experts feel that considering the current availability of massive conventional bombs of sizes up to 13.6 tons (including fuel-air explosive variants), low single-digit kiloton or sub-kiloton nuclear weapons are more of a problem than a solution.
Additionally, Pakistan’s Nasr-TNW programme has aroused international concerns on the possibility of TNWs being delegated to Pakistani military field commanders, their consequent vulnerability during field transportation to jihadi elements, etc. In turn, the Pakistani top leadership has been emphasizing that:
- As the use of nuclear weapon including TNWs would have strategic implications, these would only be used as a weapon of last resort, primarily to defend the country’s sovereignty.
- Pakistan has developed adequate conventional responses to India’s CSD. TNWs would only come into play once conventional responses are deemed inadequate.
- The command and control of all nuclear weapons including the TNWs would remain centralized, the decision to use nuclear weapons would only be taken at the National Command Authority (NCA) and there would be no pre-delegation of authority.
- The geography of Pakistan is favourable to deploying TNWs at forward locations within few hours and therefore, there would be no pre-deployment of such weapons and SRBMs.
As evident, some of the above statements too are dual-themed. It is noteworthy that after the 1998 Indo-Pak nuclear tests, Pakistani military officers had stressed that any use of nuclear weapons would have strategic consequences22; however, the Pakistani establishment soon began “lowering its nuclear threshold”. Now, after a fair amount of drum-beating on the Nasr-TNW capability as a battlefield weapon, Pakistan seems to be reiterating that use of even TNWs will have strategic implications and will be used as a last resort. Whether they follow this up in practice is not known. That said, there is need to take note of the Pak Army’s considerable commitment in FATA-KPP (Federally Administered Tribal Area; Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province), which makes defence of Pakistan against an Indian offensive very difficult. While it has sufficient reserves to respond to LoC violations, it cannot fight an Indian attack across both the LoC and the IB. This raises the stakes for Pakistan to fall back on nuclear weapons, particularly TNWs.
Except in World War-II, historically, it is conventionally inferior powers that have threatened use of nuclear weapons in order to deter stronger adversaries. The NATO’s Cold War doctrine of using TNWs to deter the Warsaw Pact from invading Europe, and Russia’s 2000/2004 doctrine threatening the use of non-strategic nuclear weapons (NSNWs) to deter the USA/NATO from intervening in areas of core interest to Russia, are quite similar to Pakistan’s doctrine. However, while nuclear weapons command attention and generate tremendous fear, their utility for warfighting seems limited in view of the long-term, dispersed damage they can inflict.
Considering the changing international dynamics, the foreign aid profile, and Pakistan’s economic and security situation, it is unlikely that Pakistan will be able to strengthen its conventional capability adequately in the near term. An additional problem for the Pakistani Army is its continuing involvement in counter-insurgency / stability operations in its western tribal regions. It is hence assessed that Pakistan will continue to fine-tune its nuclear doctrine and strategy, and ‘sabre-rattle’ nuclear weapons.
For India, the military and political challenge is to (i) find out where Pakistan’s real threshold lies, and then calibrate use of force surgically in a manner akin to “salami slicing tactics”; and (ii) operate above the level of Sub-Conventional Operations/covert operations – but below a full-scale war so that Pakistan’s actual ‘thresholds’, as opposed to propagandized ones, are not crossed.
Lastly: the USA has oft propounded a view that if Pakistan can build credible conventional forces, it’s reliance on nuclear weapons would lessen. History does not support such a view and such a strengthening could not only allow Pakistan to pursue a more pro-active, militant-terrorist entities based “foreign policy” especially vis-à-vis India, but may also increase India’s reliance on nuclear weapons (currently, India’s conventional military power allows it to have a lower reliance on nuclear weapons, as is evident from our nuclear policy). The dilemma therefore is quite stark and there are indicators that India could also be looking at including flexible response options in its nuclear strategy.
About the author:
* Brigadier Kuldip Singh (retd), commissioned in the Indian Army (Armoured Corps) in 1976, has, apart from regimental, staff, technical, instructional and command appointments in the military, also served (i) in India’s Defence Research & Development Organisation on two national level projects; (ii) as the Director Coordination of the Defence Intelligence Agency during it’s formative years; and (iii) for about ten years as the Principal Defence Specialist / Head of the Defence Wing in the National Security Council Secretariat, Government of India. In the latter appointment, he was the senior military and geo-political expert, with experience in military issues, intelligence and information handling; advanced technologies, nuclear, CBRN, space and cyber issues; and in identifying and communicating risks and opportunities of possible political, security, diplomatic, technical and economic developments. He also has extensive international experience.
1. Shahid-Ur Rehman, Long Road to Chagai: Untold Story of Pakistan’s Nuclear Quest, (Islamabad: Print Wise Publication), 1999
2. 1982 US National Intelligence Estimate; 1993 Report to US Congress on Status of China, India and Pakistan Nuclear and Ballistic Missile Programs.
3. A CIA document No. CIA/Sov/87/10007 of Feb 1987 (declassified in 2000) outlines that between Dec 1979 and 1986, the Soviets spent Rubles 15 billion (or about US$48 billion in 1984 prices), leading former General Secretary Gorbachev to refer to the Afghan involvement as a “bleeding wound” and a “substantial drain on the Soviet economy”. The Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989; in 1991, the USSR broke up, partly due to economic travails.
4. “Pakistan’s Strategic Thinking and the Role of Nuclear Weapons,” Cooperative Monitoring Center Occasional Paper 37, July 2004.
5. Naeem Salik, “Minimum Deterrence and India Pakistan Nuclear Dialogue: Case Study on Pakistan,” Landau Network Centro Volta South Asia Security Project Case Study, January 2006
6. Memorandum from Air Commodore Khalid Banuri, Director of Arms Control and Disarmament Affairs in the SPD, received by the US’ Congressional research Service on December 4, 2011.
7. “Tactical Nuclear arms to Ward off War Threat” Pak Foreign Office, October 20, 2015.
8. Report To Congress: Update on Progress toward Regional Nuclear Non-proliferation in South Asia, submitted March 20, 2012.
9. Pakistan’s Nuclear Doctrine, Pakistan Defence Journal, 1999; Heidelberg papers in South Asian & Comparative Politics (Oct 2002)
10. A Conversation With Gen. Khalid Kidwai-2015. “Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference 2015.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. March 23, 2015. http://carnegieendowment.org/files/03-230315carnegieKIDWAI.pdf
11. Pakistan may posture that it has used tactical nuclear weapons against an “aggressor” and that too within Pakistan
12. Shireen Mazari, “Why the Hatf IX (Nasr) is Essential for Pakistan’s Deterrence Posture & Doctrine”; Institute for Strategic Studies, Islamabad. http://ssii.com.pk/str/articles.php?subaction=showfull&id=1353855324&ucat=13&template=Headlines&value1news=value1news&var1news=value1news.
13. “Battlefield Nuclear Weapons and Deterrence Strategies: Phase III”, by the Center on Contemporary Conflict, US Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey; March 2015.
14. Interview to analysts from the US’ Congressional Research Service, on July 14, 2016; CRS Report “Pakistan’s Nuclear Weapons”, August 1, 2016.
15. National Institute of Advanced Studies/International Strategic and Security Studies Programme, Bangalore, “Hatf-IX / NASR – Pakistan’s Tactical Nuclear Weapon : Implications for Indo-Pak deterrence”, dated July 2013
16. “Pakistani Nuclear Forces, 2015”; 21 Oct 2015
17. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, “Pakistani Nuclear Forces”, November 2016.
18. National Institute of Advanced Studies/International Strategic and Security Studies Programme, Bangalore, “Hatf-IX / NASR – Pakistan’s Tactical Nuclear Weapon : Implications for Indo-Pak deterrence”, dated July 2013
19. Vincent R. Stewart, Lieutenant General, U.S. Marine Corps Director, Defense Intelligence Agency, Worldwide Threat Assessment, Armed Services Committee, February 9, 2016
20. “Nuclear Weapons: Principles, Effects and Survivability”.
21. Ashley J. Tellis, “India’s Emerging Nuclear Posture: Between Recessed Deterrent and Ready Arsenal”, RAND Corporation, 2001.
22. Michael Krepon, The Stimson Centre, “Pakistan’s Tactical Nuclear Weapons”, April 24, 2012.