In April 2011, Pakistan tested a 60 km very short-range ballistic missile called Nasr and claimed it to be nuclear capable. This has since been publicised as the tactical nuclear weapon (TNW) meant to deter India from mounting a conventional military response to any act of terrorism found to be sponsored from Pakistan. By doing so, Rawalpindi has signalled that its nuclear threshold is so low that any military action by India would compel it to escalate straight to the nuclear level since it does not have the capacity to fight a conventional war. The message, therefore, to India is to exercise caution even in the face of provocation since the escalation could quickly spin out of control. This is indeed a well thought out move by Pakistan to reclaim the space that India claims exists for it to undertake punitive action against a Pakistan-abetted proxy war.
However, if Pakistan is to make its TNW a credible component of its first use nuclear strategy, then it must build and deploy them in large enough numbers to have a substantial impact on the battlefield. Whether Pakistan has the fissile material and the technological capacity to do that is immaterial. Even if it does not have this today, it could well acquire it over time since there is no non-proliferation instrument that prohibits it from doing so. But the essential point of concern, not just to India, but to the larger international community as well, should be the existential risks that Pakistan is spreading through its TNW. For these weapons to be militarily meaningful, pre-delegation of their command and control is inevitable. This will bring in issues related to their safety and security. The chances of these weapons being seized by the proliferating and increasingly anti-establishment terrorist organisations are being ignored by Pakistan at its own peril.
Even more alarming are reports that have recently appeared that Pakistan is now moving out into the sea with its short-range nuclear-tipped ballistic and cruise missiles. Late last month a report in The Washington Post claimed that Pakistan was getting ready to operationalise its sea-based deterrent. Considering that China embarked on this path more than three decades ago and is yet to carry out the first patrol of a nuclear-powered submarine armed with nuclear capable missiles, and that India too is yet to send its first SSBN for sea trials, leave alone operational patrols, Pakistan through its trademark jugaad strategy seems to have beaten both with its own version of sea-based deterrence.
It may be recalled that Pakistan had inaugurated its naval SFC (it has one for each one of the wings of the armed forces) in 2012. At the time, it could claim no naval assets in the strategic role. Many in the West dismissed this development as inconsequential since Pakistan's indigenous military capability was perceived as being unable of building and operationalising an SSBN over the next two decades. But, the country has shown that it could achieve ‘sea-based deterrence’ without having to take the beaten path. Instead of waiting for its SSBNs to be acquired/developed, Pakistan has chosen to equip its surface vessels and diesel electric-powered submarines with nuclear-armed ballistic and cruise missiles.
The intention of doing so is to carry the aspect of TNW deterrence out to sea in order to further reduce India's manoeuvrability on the conventional plane. Yet again, Pakistan has displayed nuclear brinkmanship. The message once again to India, and to the Western South Asia watchers, is that the stakes are going to be too high in case of any break-out of hostilities. It assumes that India would be deterred from all action in view of the higher cost that it would suffer from any escalation. This, however, may prove to be a very costly assumption for Pakistan since the current mood in India does not appear to be one to silently absorb a terrorist provocation.
Meanwhile, the move to deploy nuclear-capable missiles on vessels that are not particularly survivable is an extremely destabilising act that leaves itself dangerously open to inadvertent escalation. An encounter of the surface or sub-surface assets of the two countries, which is not unusual, could result in a situation that quickly spins out of control.
Even scarier are scenarios regarding the security of the nuclear assets at sea. Only last month there was a "near successful hijacking" of a Pakistani missile frigate, PNS Aslat, by al Qaeda with the intention of attacking Indian warships. The possibility of a Pakistani warship that is armed with nuclear-tipped missiles falling into jihadi hands is a threat of a new kind with very alarming dimensions. By spreading its strategic assets on relatively vulnerable ships at sea, Pakistan is repeating the mistake it makes with TNWs on land. The dangers of their safety and security are being multiplied manifold. Unfortunately, Pakistan appears blind to the dangers it is creating for itself in the process.
The latest buzzword in Pakistani nuclear strategy is "full spectrum deterrence against all forms of aggression." The deployment of nuclear weapons on surface ships and submarines is being touted as acquisition of second strike capability. But, a second strike capability comes from delivery systems that are survivable because they are exceptionally mobile, hidden or stealthy to escape a first strike and mount a retaliatory strike. Pakistan is claiming second strike capability by distributing its nuclear assets on visible, traceable, dual-use platforms that brings in an ambiguity that could trigger mistaken, unauthorised and inadvertent escalation. This version of sea-based deterrence is certainly not conducive to regional or international stability.