In Pakistan’s nuclear strategy, the primary task of its nuclear weapons is not to deter India’s nuclear weapons, but to avoid an engagement with a superior military capability. Rawalpindi is aware of the risk of having to confront India till such time as it supports terrorism. But, it believes that its nuclear weapons constrain India from militarily punishing it. India has responded to this strategy by suggesting and illustrating (with Kargil) that there is space to fight a conventional war even in the presence of nuclear weapons. Over time, India has also tweaked its military doctrine to make this viable. This has obviously disturbed Pakistan. If an Indian conventional response could still be tailored to remain below Pakistani redlines, then its nuclear weapons become useless.
Pakistan cannot afford this. It has to keep its nuclear weapons relevant and in-the-face of India, and the world, if it has to prevent a military offensive provoked by self-sponsored terrorism. It is in this context that the tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) – small yield nuclear weapons delivered by very short range ballistic missiles over military targets -- come in handy. The objective is to reclaim the space that India maintains exists for a conventional war even in the presence of nuclear weapons.
In playing this game, Pakistan is not seeking to exploit the military utility of the TNW. It has no illusions about the military effectiveness of the weapon on the battlefield. And, it is aware that by using them, it would invoke a nuclear response triggering tragic consequences. But, in its plan, it would not really have to use the TNW because the inherent risk of nuclear escalation would deter.
The threat implied by Pakistan’s TNWs is based on two assumptions. One, Pakistan believes that the use of TNW would bring about such a material and psychological shift in hostilities as to stun India into a halt. Confronted with the prospect of further escalation, the nature of Indian polity and the ‘softness of the state’ would make India choose war-termination over escalation. So, Pakistan believes that India would be deterred from using its superior military capability since it would not have the will or the motivation to act. He doubts whether India, with a strategic culture of military restraint, would find it prudent to inflict damage (and risk more on itself) in response to a threat that is not itself mortal. Second, Pakistan assumes that the battlefield use of a small nuclear weapon would not be seen as provocation enough by India, or the rest of the world, to merit massive retaliation. It tends to assume that the international community will stop India from continuing its conventional campaign or undertaking nuclear retaliation. Therefore, in Pakistani perception, the TNW is a deterrent at best, and a war termination weapon at worst.
India’s response to Pakistan’s TNW must address these assumptions. In fact, India does not need to develop TNW of its own, but to focus on measures that convince Pakistan of an inevitability of nuclear retaliation to any nuclear use, irrespective of yield, target or damage. Having based its deterrence on the threat of punishment, it is imperative that the certainty of retaliation to inflict unacceptable damage be credibly conveyed.
This could be achieved by raising the public profile of the nuclear command and control at both the military and the political levels. There is need for greater transparency of knowledge of structures and processes that ensure nuclear retaliation. Measures being taken to guarantee survivability of the chain of command at the primary and secondary levels, as well as of the communication systems, should be more visible. In this context, strengthening the profile of the Strategic Forces Command in public perception is necessary. The knowledge of the existence of the organization and a level of transparency on its role and mandate would send a signal of intent and purpose to the adversary.
Secondly, it should also be widely known that Indian troops have the ability to fight through tactical nuclear use. This would send a message of preparedness to handle battlefield use of nuclear weapons without bringing conventional operations to a halt or even confronting the political leadership with the choice of war termination, as assumed by Rawalpindi.
Thirdly, better evidence and communication of political resolve to undertake retaliation is necessary. Periodic statements from authoritative levels like the National Security Advisor or Commander-in-Chief, SFC, or even occasional news reports about meetings of the National Command Authority would signal the seriousness of government’s attention to the nuclear backdrop that confronts India.
Pakistan may have introduced a new element with TNW, but India must let it be known that it would play the nuclear game according to its own rules.