IPCS Discussion

Tactical Nuclear Weapons: Implications of Pakistan's Nuclear Developments

16 Oct, 2014    ·   4697

Rajeshwari Krishnamurthy reports on the proceedings on the discussion on Pakistan's tactical nuclear weapons, organised by the IPCS

Rajeshwari Krishnamurthy
Rajeshwari Krishnamurthy
Deputy Director
On 4 September, 2014, the Instutute of Peace and Conflict Studies organised a panel discussion on Pakistan's Tactical Nuclear Weapons (TNWs). Below is the seminar report of the event, rapporteured by Rajeshwari Krishnamurthy, Research Officer (IReS), IPCS.

Prof PR Chari
Visiting Professor, IPCS

Pakistan’s nuclear capability is low and is dependent on Chinese technology Miniaturisation of warheads is difficult and it is not clear whether Pakistan has succeeded in achieving this goal;. Is Islamabad’s Hatf IX (Nasr) missile ready for deployment? Nasr’s 60 km range radius of action brings it within range of India’s long-range artillery, and is also vulnerable to ground and air attacks. What was considered tactical, however, in the US-former USSR context during the Cold War becomes strategic in the India-Pakistan case.

Countries wishing to deploy SSBNS should ideally possess at least three; but they are very expensive. There is no country in the world that thinks nuclear weapons are sacred. Only Pakistan believes in their omniscience and displays missiles as national symbols in its public art. Pakistan believes that nuclear weapons are the solution to all its problems.

What could India’s options be in case Pakistan does indeed deploy TNWs? India must pay more heed to deterring Pakistan from taking any such action.

Neil Joeck 
Visiting Scholar, Institute for International Studies at the University of California, Berkeley

TNWs fundamentally change the construct of conflict in South Asia. Pakistan is prepared to use nuclear weapons to defend against an Indian offensive than just using it as deterrence. This is important because it is a low probability event but of high consequences. Furthermore, the presumption of limits is mistaken. The cold war model of nuclear war may not apply in the India-Pakistan context. Regardless of where Pakistan is placed on the Nasr, the capability exists and it will use it. 

In the case of India and Pakistan, multiple differences remain over Kashmir, terrorism, militancy, Afghanistan etc. The 1999 Kargil conflict experience proves that nuclear weapons do not necessarily deter conflict. The overkill/overhang may not be present. It is difficult to avoid the battlefield initiative. In 1999, the world witnessed some nuclear readiness. In 2001-02, it may have been seen as some opportunities missed by India. 

However, it is important to remember that there is no territorial buffer zone in South Asia. On the technical front, Pakistan has made progress with Plutonium. Metaphorically speaking, there’s no reverse/neutral gear in Pakistan’s engine. Although the Nasr may not be ready now, it will be in due course. It brings us to the question: What is Pakistan’s red line?  

In a crisis, it may be more difficult to authorise the second strike than a first strike. The No First Use (NFU) is not the problem; the retaliatory strike is. Will there be proportional response? Will it be useful in terms of Indian public opinion? What if Pakistan uses nuclear weapons and India chooses not to respond? Essentially, a conspicuous stopping place has been removed. For example, once you cross the Line of Control (LoC), where is the next border? In that context, in a nuclear attack scenario, what is the second border?

Can India somehow enhance the nuclear taboo? Pakistan views an attack across the international LoC into Pakistan as a threat to the viability of the State. Is use of nuclear weapons useful for India? Also, doesn’t Pakistan’s use of nuclear weapons, while damaging for India, threaten to bring worse consequences to Pakistan itself?
Pakistan is paranoid that India is against the very idea of Pakistan. How can that perception be changed? How can one make it antithetical to Pakistan’s interest to use nuclear weapons?

Furthermore, how does one signal restraint in case of conflict? How best to convey messages to the other side?

Rear Admiral (Retd.) Raja Menon
Chairman, Task Force on Net Assessment and Simulation, National Security Council Secretariat

Pakistan’s journey in the nuclear arena has been an adventurous one. Ever since the inception of its nuclear program and ever since it established capabilities for nuclear technology, it has always managed to punch much beyond its range/reach. Pakistan originally decided to run its programme on a uranium bomb-line and then changed to Plutonium bomb-line. 

Did Pakistan switch to Plutonium because they had a master plan to develop TNWs five years down the line or are they switching sides to make do and to keep the developments alive? 

Pakistan’s nuclear programme has become bigger. What made them get bigger ambitions? What did India do (or not do) to that end?

India-Pakistan transparency on arsenal is negligible. There is no conversation of hard facts between the two countries. The closest they came to do so was during a conference in Monterey organised after Operation Parakram. The problem is that Islamabad thinks they have deterred New Delhi when India shows restraint by choice – giving an impression of Pakistan’s growing power, and thereby building a falsified confidence. 

Pakistan has virtually modelled itself like the NATO. They feel their nuclear doctrine has been validated by the NATO experience and therefore feel it has validity. The Warsaw Pact is seen as successful but the Pact isn’t successful. One can have nuclear doctrines that are hugely dangerous, but as long as they are perceived as something else, deterrence betides. If one allows invading forces to invade one’s territory, one cannot use nuclear arsenal to get rid of them – essentially because the repercussions for those who belong to the said invaded territory will be greater than it will be for the invaders.

China has not been obstructionist but has indicated that its cooperation for the Pakistani nuclear programme ended at a certain date. However, that the Pakistani army is still developing shows that Chinese cooperation hasn’t really ended.

What could India have done to deter nuclear proliferation? India doesn’t believe there is a cold start but Pakistan does. 

One statement that Pakistan repeatedly makes at various forums is something on the lines of ‘we now see India leaving us behind’. It essentially means that the Pakistani army feels they are the sole defenders of Pakistan, and that the only thing that can stop India from invading Pakistan would be the Pakistani army and TNWs. 

In the India-Pakistan context, the cassus belli is always terrorism and nothing but that. The bigger power is forced to rely on conventional punishment.

Prof Varun Sahni
Professor in International Politics, Centre for International Politics, Organization and Disarmament (CIPOD), Jawaharlal Nehru University

One could argue that policy dictates timing or vice versa. Pakistan’s narrative/effort also stems from their perception that India is reluctant to accept Pakistan’s capabilities to develop nuclear weapons.

States will not undertake research and developments for their nuclear weaponisation programmes below a certain kiloton of yield. Is the impact limited in the immediate battlefield? 

Some of the problems with TNWs are: 
1. Lowering the nuclear threshold: the blurring of distances between conventional and nuclear marks a shift from deterrence to war fighting.

2. The problem is that, here, the control is not like that of the high-level control of command, but that low-level officers too will hold control. Therefore, delegation will become risky. 

3. There also is a ‘use them or lose them’ problem. The danger of TNWs falling into wrong hands is real; and if not the entire weapon, the fissile material. 

4. Pakistan’s use of state sponsored terrorism to change geographical status quo.

India must recognise that from Pakistan’s point of view, they have from the start not just demonstrated first use intent, but also early use intent. Conventionally, Pakistan is the weaker power. Nuclear technology provides some amount of leverage. Pakistan isn’t just a weaker power but also a homeland state with deep existential anxieties. What nuclear technology gives them is a sense of civilisational certitude apart from just parity. Pakistan’s ‘hum kisise kam nahi’ (we are no less than anyone) attitude that is hardwired into their system has inertia and a propulsive power of its own. India had the same, earlier.

What does all this boil down to? Whether the Nasr has entered service or whether new ones are coming in the future, does not matter. It is significant because it has forced India to re-evaluate its strategy. There are four options: 

1. Make ongoing counter-terrorism efforts more effective. The Rajasthan Rifles could keep getting better at what they do.  If the number of good weeks in a year are more in number than the bad weeks in the same year, India is on the right track.

2. India must set up an authentic Special Forces capability. But this is easier said than done. India hasn’t truly understood what the setting-up of an authentic Special Forces capability is. Of the three fighting forces, the Indian navy is the one that has come closest to understanding authentic Special Forces capability. 

3. Attempting asymmetric warfare against Pakistan in a conventional manner. But that might not serve India’s purpose in a long term.

4. Trying to create space for limited war under nuclear conditions. Here’s where the entry of tactical nuclear weapons makes things more complicated.

5. An arms control agreement between India and Pakistan does not seem likely. This is essentially because there’s no incentive for Pakistan to remove a red line that begins at the international border itself. 

6. Both the Indian policy and analytics communities need to start taking the TNWs issue seriously. India still does not run scenarios well. There’s no model building/simulation etc. Even in intellectual terms, India lacks core capabilities. 


1. Pakistan’s efforts could be part of a larger master plan where they work on all fronts and whichever is the most effective, will be used. 

2. It is unlikely that Pakistan is pretending to have capabilities it doesn’t have. One cannot expect China to prevent Pakistan from taking actions; and neither can the US decide Pakistani battlefield strategies. How important is the cultural issue? What does it do the doctrines? Culture is something people avoid getting into because of the trickiness involved. How does culture connect to security? What about existential anxieties? 

3. Pakistan does not have a non-India focus narrative for nuclear weapons. 

4. Assuming Pakistan is not bluffing and does have TNWs, how must India react to it? They have 16,000 Lashkar-e-Taiba cadre on a leash and have done nothing spectacular since 2008. Is that something India must bank on? The Pakistani government has lesser and lesser control on their terrorists. The terrorists are autonomous now. A Pakistani deep state exists. For instance, Lieutenant-General (Retd.) Hamid Gul, former director general, Inter-Services Intelligence, still calls the shots in the agency. India should explore the option of developing TNWs, but doesn’t need to. India and Pakistan have often gone to a conventional alert state – one that is very divorced from a nuclear alert state. Furthermore, on every occasion India has quoted that China is helping Pakistan, the information has always come from the US. Ever since the US stopped supplying information, India has not come up with anything. 

5. Although they are used for tactical purposes, Special Forces must always be seen as fundamentally strategic rather than tactical. A lot is about perceptions. It is in Pakistan’s interest to signal that the stopping place is where the Pakistani sarzameen begins. What we cannot ignore is that that’s what the other side is signalling to us. Do we problematise the signals?

6. Pakistan isn’t looking for battlefield advantage. It doesn’t bring many desirable returns anyway. India shouldn’t worry about early use. Any country that has first use has to signal early use. This constant nuclear signalling between India and Pakistan will continue. Pakistan believes that the threshold of nuclear use lies at the international border, whereas India believes that it is much further ahead (such as only when the existence of the state is being threatened). Does Pakistan feel India is going to invade them one fine morning because it wants to undo partition? No; but the Pakistani army is raised with this idea that the Indians will do so. However, there seems to be a change of heart, especially because their army chief recently stated that the biggest threat to the country is an internal one and not external. This is time for diplomacy to begin. 

7. They fear their terrorists as much as India does. They fear that even if India doesn’t desire to do anything to Pakistan, the internal disruptions in Pakistan that are becoming problematic for India will be dealt with by India, and according to New Delhi’s terms. A case in point is the creation of Bangladesh. The Bangladesh crisis was fermented by Pakistan and India had to intervene for its own reasons despite not wanting to. Therefore, Pakistan feels that they themselves will create a situation wherein India will take advantage for whatsoever reasons. 

8. Military modernisation has its own logical inertia. There could be professional interests. The imperfect analogy of linking everything to nuclear issues is the very problem with Pakistan. One mustn’t look at everything via the nuclear issue prism because that could distract reality.

Concluding remarks:

Prof PR Chari
Visiting Professor, IPCS

Several actions of Pakistan, led by the Pakistani military, are not rational. What exactly  did Pakistan hope to achieve in Kargil? Did they have a Plan B?  What was the basis of their believing that  India would do nothing in retaliation? What were their assessments of international repercussions?  India took more casualties because the then ruling Atal Behari Vajpayee government wanted to secure a diplomatic victory. One needs to worry about Pakistan  developing and deploying TNWs. Some irrational military commander could think of doing something drastic. They might feel that if India indulges in massive retaliation, then Pakistan could do the same, and if in the process India is destroyed, they have done their bit, even if Pakistan is destroyed in the process. What is Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s overarching foreign policy agenda? He doesn’t seem to have one with regard to nuclear policy. While we continue to speak of the potential destruction that could be caused by nuclear weapons, those very weapons are steadily being improved. Conventional war across the border is now as destructive as nuclear war. Very little has been said or written in this regard.

The answer to limited nuclear war or TNWs is not no nuclear weapons but no war. 

Rapporteured by Rajeshwari Krishnamurthy, Research Officer (IReS), IPCS.