ISSN 2330-717X

Exploring Pakistan’s Nuclear Thresholds – Analysis

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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.

Pakistan India Relations
Pakistan India Relations

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.


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Khan A. Sufyan

Khan A. Sufyan is a security analyst on South Asia and has advised government, semi-government and private organizations and institutions on national and international security issues, as well as participating in number of national and international seminars and presented papers on various regional and global security issues.

14 thoughts on “Exploring Pakistan’s Nuclear Thresholds – Analysis

  • May 5, 2011 at 1:41 pm
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    An excellent anakysis which highlights the futility of any kind of war between two or three nuclear neighbors. Very good article indeed.

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  • May 6, 2011 at 9:20 am
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    The Indian theory of a limited war under nuclear environments has been thoroughly trashed by the author, and rightly so. It would be foolish for Indian generals to think that they would launch offensive to capture shallow objectives and if the Pakistanis can not push them back, they will sit idle. Their furious reaction against American raid to kill Bin Laden is a grim testimony to this fact.

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  • May 6, 2011 at 11:47 am
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    Pakistan’s history of governance has been quite volatile, they have a history of rulers from military and the civilian segments, their democratic process is fragile and hinges on military expediencies. The agenda of the civilian government, is found to be some what at variance with their military’s strategic objectives, so also their doctrines are not governed by the superiority of Parliament. With the militancy being active, some geographical areas not fully under control of the civilian government, emotional quotient playing a major role in public opinion how would Pakistan ensure safety of nuclear assets?

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  • May 6, 2011 at 2:27 pm
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    Excellent. Havent read anything like this before. An analytical attempt to outline Pakistan’s nuclear thresholds crossing of which by attacking Indian forces may evoke a nuclear response. This clearly and without any doubt states the obvious fact that a conventional war between India and Pakistan would certainly be suicidal indeed.

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  • May 6, 2011 at 3:58 pm
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    An excellent article with detail analysis, covering the ERT(Early Response Threshold), DRT (Delayed Response Threshold) and ART (Accumulative Response Threshold). The three Nuclear neighbors certainly have to think before use of any conventional or non conventional war. The trigger to any of the situation in the article will have a very devastating effect.

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  • May 7, 2011 at 2:22 pm
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    Excellent purview. This is the first comprehensive purview I have seen written by a Pakistani on this subject. The earlier Pakistani explanation of the nuclear thresholds was outlined by Gen. Kidwai in an interview to some foreign journalists many many years ago. Majority of what one found on the subject was the anti-Pakistan trash written by Indians and similar diatribe by western analysts – they are again at it after the Osama incident.

    In my opinion this article has been published at exactly the right time as well. Indian and western media is after Pakistan and Indian Air and Army Chiefs have announced their intent by describing their capability to conduct a US type raid on Pakistan. The article also helps to display Pakistan’s resolve in response to such offensive Indian official thought process.

    Mr. Sufyan has been very articulate in categorizing the threshold levels, explaining each clearly and logically, crossing of which may evoke nuclear response from Pakistan. And I agree with his analysis that a conventional war under nuclear environment, as the Indians prescribe, is fraught with innumerable dangers. Though the Indians may not agree to include the Chinese in Indo-Pak bilateral dialogue on nuclear related aspects, without their inclusion a stable future environment probably cannot be conceived at regional level.

    A very thought provoking analysis indeed.

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  • May 7, 2011 at 5:28 pm
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    Many Indian analysts and Generals say that while Pakistan will only destroy part of India and only limited number of Indians would be casualty, when India retaliates it will destroy the whole of Pakistan. The author has obliquely touched the subject. Pakistan is making more nuclear weapons apparently just for this reason. So that Pakistan’s first strike should take out most of India. Yes, India would respond from whatever it could muster after absorbing the first strike. So — both countries may be destroyed after whatever India can come back at Pakistan. A la MAD.
    After reading the nuclear thresholds Pakistan may follow, the Indians should not even think of launching a conventional war against Pakistan – even a small raid against Pakistan. The response may not be what the Indians may be expecting. Conventional war threats or actual wars in India Pakistan environment are over in the emerging nuclear environment. And it is time india understands this fact instead of threatening Pakistan again and again.

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  • May 10, 2011 at 3:41 pm
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    When one reads these thresholds carefully one understands the strength Pakistan has due to her nuclear capability. I personally feel that we should break diplomatic relationship with the US and stop the logistical supply to US troops and NATO in Afghanistan and tell the US to go ahead and use european – russian – central asian route over caspian sea to supply her troops. They can use the same route to withdraw her troops whenever that happens. The Afghan government can use the iranian route to get their supplies and continue bad mouthing against Pakistan. Pakistan Zindabad.

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  • May 11, 2011 at 6:20 am
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    India is getting geo-politically isolated and has nowhere to go. The Pakistani nuclear thresholds explained in the article by Sufyan Sahib gives a good idea as to where indians stand at this stage – practically nowhere. Indians politicians are living in the cold war era and still think in terms of leaders of non-aligned movement. indians are going to become a very powerful nation but in a well (khoo in punjabi) and will remain there. All dressed up but nowhere to go.

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  • May 13, 2011 at 6:08 am
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    In my opinion the American attack inside Pakistan is probably the harbinger to geo-political change in this part of the world. This probably is the biggest US misadventure which is likely to cost dearly to the American efforts in gaining Pakistani support for their future presence here. The jingoism on both sides notwithstanding, US recklessness will be costly for them. If the Indians would want to take advantage of this it would certainly be very costly for them as well. You dont mess with a nuclear power, no matter how weak it is. The Soviets could squeeze themselves back to Russia – here there is no squeeze – there will be only response.

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  • May 14, 2011 at 2:30 pm
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    I agree with Nadir. The American action will have ramifications for both the US as well as Pakistan. In any case even if Mr Manmohan Singh walks on his head to gain influence in Afghanistan, this will not happen despite concerted American efforts to replace Pakistan’s influence with India. Pakistan’s nuclear thresholds and response would be enough for the trans-atlantic alliance to tread very very carefully.

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  • May 21, 2011 at 8:27 am
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    There is a very thin red line that the Americans may cross inadvertently or because of their hardline approach towards Pakistan and this part of the world. They have to tread very carefully here as their long time interests would be definitely harmed and threaten their long term presence and interests for a very long time. The Arab Spring may spring something damaging in Pakistan and Afghanistan if the people think they have had enough of US shenanigans. This may spiral out of control and may become a harbinger for China, Iran and the Russians to link and control this area against American interests. The US does not have to make Pakistani public their enemy as all others are acrimonious to American presence in any case. The US is a powerful country and influence in Middle East and Pakistan, however any public uprising against America here in Pakistan would definitely have far reaching negative impact on Arab Spring movement and may turn the US advantage on its head.

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  • July 2, 2011 at 7:39 pm
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    Excellent article. A must read for the silly Indian government and military leadership. Pakistan has only one rung on it’s nuclear threshold. A conventional war can surely lead to a nuclear war. The Indian leadership needs to spare ordinary pakistanis and Indians such a horrific disaster. There are other ways of getting its own back with pakistan like indulging oin covert actions through non-state actors and breaking up pakistan.

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