Recent testing of short range ballistic and cruise missiles by Pakistan has initiated a debate in India regarding possible use of battlefield tactical nuclear weapons by Pakistan and the strategic instability it has caused. Pakistan’s declared nuclear format clearly indicates deterrence against conventional as well as nuclear threat. To provide credibility to such deterrence a full spectrum response capability is essential which also devolves around the principle difference between the use of tactical nuclear weapons and tactical use of nuclear weapons.
Contrarily, the Indians state that their nuclear capability principally acts as deterrence against the use of nuclear weapons by any adversary. This clearly indicates that against Pakistan they intend to fight a conventional war using their superior conventional forces. An attempt to acquire anti-ballistic missile defence capability is also indicative of such intent.
Various Indian Defence Ministers and Chiefs of Army Staffs, on different occasions have stated that all wars fought between India and Pakistan were limited in nature and that limited wars are possible in future also, under a nuclear overhang. It has been further qualified that the limited war would be fought for attainment of shallow objectives, while remaining short of Pakistan’s nuclear thresholds.
Accurate identification of an adversary’s nuclear thresholds is indeed a difficult proposition. Though the nuclear policies and various strategies guiding nuclear responses have relatively been well profiled by various nuclear weapon states, the thresholds however, have never been made public in the manner. More often than not, this ambiguity is deliberately left in order to cause uncertainty in adversary’s decision making calculus. This may force imposition of restrictions as to how deep or shallow the objectives of attacking forces may have to be.
In India – Pakistan nuclear environment as well, such circumspection has apparently added to the deterrence value and may dictate the duration, thrusts and locations in the application of forces. An examination of Pakistan’s possible nuclear thresholds will be in order to see if the Indian doctrine of conventional war under nuclear overhang is at all valid.
A Pre-emptive Response Threshold (PRT) may be evoked against Indian actions that may be premeditated, pre-emptive, incautious and accidental or events spiraling out of control. These strikes may invariably be launched on Indian territory and may take the form of nuclear strike on Indian armed forces, cities and economic and communication centers. The response may even be undertaken due to preparatory engagement of targets inside Pakistani territory, threatening strategic and forward assembly of Indian troops, on escalation of nuclear alert status or even an accidental or rogue firing of Indian nuclear missiles.
An Early Response Threshold (ERT) may result in a nuclear retaliation during the early stages of Indian offensive after the international border has been crossed. Early nuclear response may be resorted to when sensitive locations (important towns/cities etc close to the international border) of psycho-social and communication/economic importance are threatened or captured. It could also be the combined resultant affect of an existential extreme political and economic situation, exacerbation of which is blamed on India and may be undertaken by a government under intense public pressure.
In a Delayed Response Threshold (DRT) the nuclear strikes may be undertaken only after saturation of the conventional response. Evoking of such a response may vary according to the peculiar geographical lay of international border or contiguity of various sensitive locations to the international border and may even take the form of certain imaginary lines drawn on the map.
Finally, the Accumulative Response Threshold (ART) may be evoked if India initiates a graduated application of force. In such a scenario, a naval coercion gradually escalated to blockade coupled with graduated conventional selective air and ground strikes on economic targets, communication infrastructure, politically sensitive locations and military targets are undertaken. The accumulative destructive effect of such conventional strikes may evoke either an early or a delayed nuclear response depending on the summative effect of destruction that has taken place.
These thresholds highlight the fact that even limited wars which Indian defence intelligentsia believes in, are fraught with the threat of nuclear response even before the attacking forces attempt to cross the international border. The decision to initiate war therefore, even limited, must carefully factor in the nuclear response during the early stages of mobilization.
The Indian stated position that their nuclear warfare preparations are against China which would automatically take care of Pakistan’s nuclear threat, has indirectly infused a sense of inconsequentiality of Pakistan’s nuclear capability and has forced Pakistan to improve her nuclear response. This has led to stability – instability paradox for which only the Indians are responsible and not Pakistan.
With China factored in by the Indians, the bilateral India-Pakistan discussions on any nuclear restraint regime may not be helpful towards amenable regional environment. Therefore, inclusion of China in a regional strategic stability can produce the desired results.