IPCS Debate

India, Pakistan and Tactical Nuclear Weapons: Irrelevance for South Asia

06 Jan, 2014    ·   4239

Amit Gupta says that eliminating TNWs should be the way forward

Amit Gupta
Amit Gupta
Visiting Fellow

Tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) have little utility in the South Asian context since neither India nor Pakistan’s nuclear doctrines are based on those of the Cold War superpowers, the US and the Soviet Union. American nuclear analysts used to sit around and talk about limited nuclear wars where countries fired a few warheads and then sat down to negotiate. In actual fact that is all such discussions ever led to for throughout the Cold War the US relied on Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) which involved wiping out large amounts of the opponent’s industry and population. Despite the increased accuracy of nuclear delivery systems and vastly improved command and control infrastructure, the US never varied from the concept of MAD since it became clear that there was no such a thing as a limited nuclear war. 

In the South Asian context, MAD as operationalised by the US and the Soviet Union makes little sense. Nor do TNW, which are the nuclear war fighter’s fantasy weapons. Neither India nor Pakistan has accuracy levels that are similar to those of the superpowers and neither country has a comparable command and control system, or adequate protection for its leadership, to engage in a Western style nuclear exchange.

Instead, if Pakistan were to initiate a limited nuclear exchange with a few tactical missiles then India, fearing the worst, would have to hit Pakistan with everything it has and here the nuclear logic of Chairman Mao’s China comes into play. Mao’s China recognised that Beijing could not get into an expensive nuclear arms race with the West or for that matter the Soviet Union. What the country required was to have the guaranteed capability to take out a few cities in an opponent’s territory and this would be enough to deter the other side. Thus a minimum deterrent capability that took out 6-10 cities was seen as ensuring deterrence.

In the South Asian case, the numbers are even smaller. An Indian attack that decimated Lahore, Islamabad, and Karachi would essentially leave Pakistan with an economy and society that is in the 19th century. A similar Pakistani attack on Mumbai or New Delhi would put back India’s developmental efforts by a couple of decades as not only would the nation struggle to recover but foreign investors would flee the country. One may argue, therefore, that nuclear deterrence has been achieved by both sides and neither has to worry about feeling vulnerable in this spectrum of conflict. 

So what do TNW give either side? The answer is a higher level of instability and a much lower level of deterrence. For Pakistani TNW to be credible against an Indian attack (the Cold Start scenario), they would have to be armed and ready at the border and have to be handed to fairly low-level military officers who were authorised to use them. This is inherently destabilising since if Pakistani positions were being overrun a major or colonel would be left with the unpleasant choice of either using them and precipitating an all-out nuclear war or surrendering them to the Indian military. Since the latter would be unacceptable to any military command, the former would be the only real option left for these officers. In fact, if faced with a large scale conventional attack one has to expect the Pakistani leadership to fear the worse and launch everything they have rather than let us use a few bombs and face large scale Indian retaliation. 

Further, it should be pointed out that while the IS has spent over US$100 million to help Pakistan safeguard its weapons from Jihadi attacks, it has not given Pakistan the surveillance, reconnaissance, and electronic capabilities to successfully wage a limited nuclear war.  (See, David Sanger and William J Broad, ‘US secretly aids Pakistan in guarding nuclear weapons’, The New York Times, November 18, 2007, Available at, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/18/washington/18nuke.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0. Also see, Paul K Kerr and Mary Beth Nikitin, Pakistan’s Nuclear Weapons: Proliferation and Security Issues, Congressional Research Service Report RL 34248, March 19, 2013, pp. 20-21).

If both India and Pakistan want to maintain a stable nuclear deterrent then getting rid of this class of weapons is the way to go since it would not weaken the nuclear deterrent of either side. In fact, it would go a long way to strengthen nuclear deterrence in South Asia.