The South Asia Channel

Pakistan’s Tactical Nukes Threaten Stability in South Asia

Pakistan has upped the nuclear ante in South Asia by choosing to adopt tactical nuclear weapons. Tactical nuclear weapons -- smaller bombs and short-range missiles that are designed to achieve more limited, or tactical, objectives, rather than be used against enemy cities, factories, and other large targets -- warrant a separate consideration in the realm of nuclear security. These weapons are inherently destabilizing because they lower the nuclear threshold, the point in a war in which nuclear weapons are brought into use. As such, they are straining South Asia's existing deterrence stability -- the idea that roughly equivalent nuclear capabilities will deter adversaries from using these weapons.

Security experts are perennially apprehensive that a conflict between India and Pakistan could trigger a chain reaction and pave the way for a nuclear crisis in the region. As the political, socio-economic, and security situation progressively deteriorates in Pakistan, concerns about the government's ability to manage its sophisticated nuclear arsenal are being raised. Pakistan is beset by growing fissures between the military and the civilian leadership, a rising tide of radical fundamentalism and violence, sectarian social divides, and a sluggish economy. If the state becomes increasingly dysfunctional, can Pakistan's military continue to responsibly manage these weapons?

In addition, mounting nuclear warheads on extremely short-range, forward-deployed ballistic missiles -- as is the case for tactical nuclear weapons -- greatly increases the risk of an unauthorized or accidental launch. Tactical nuclear weapons require early delegation of the authority to launch and an early release of the custody of nuclear warheads to the launcher batteries. No matter how carefully Pakistan has thought through its command and control structure, the delegation of authority to the field creates risks. This is the prime reason tactical nuclear weapons are considered to be inherently destabilizing.

Pakistan has said that successful testing of the 60-km nuclear-capable short-range surface-to-surface missile Hatf IX (NASR), which has been specially designed to defeat all known anti-tactical missile defense systems," adds deterrence value to Pakistan's strategic weapons development programme at shorter ranges." While Pakistan has not formally declared a nuclear doctrine, this is an implicit signal to the region that the country is committed to developing full spectrum deterrence, including the use of tactical nuclear weapons.

By further lowering the nuclear threshold, Pakistan aims to alter the strategic scenario and even the playing field in terms of conventional military prowess. In the event of a Mumbai-style terrorist attack like the one that occurred in 2008 for example, if New Delhi responded against Islamabad with a conventional strike, Pakistan could threaten India with the use of tactical nuclear weapons. What Pakistan is signaling to India and to the world at large, says Shyam Saran, chairman of India's National Security Advisory Board, is that India should not contemplate retaliation in the event of another Mumbai-like terrorist incident. Saran describes this brinkmanship as nothing short of nuclear blackmail, a policy that deserves condemnation by the international community for threatening international peace and security.

India has declared a "no-first-use" policy for nuclear weapons: its nuclear doctrine clearly says that India will not be the first to initiate a nuclear strike, but that it will respond with punitive retaliation should deterrence fail. India has always viewed nuclear weapons as a political instrument to be used for the sole purpose of deterring other countries from using nuclear weapons against India. But Pakistan's offensive strategic posture and alleged involvement in terror strikes targeting India complicates this posture.

Many of these tensions originated from the terrorist attack on India's parliament on December 13, 2001, which led to the deaths of 12 people. Following the attack, Delhi's police commissioner linked the operation -- led by five Pakistani nationals -- to the terrorist organization Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba (though LET subsequently denied involvement in the attack). Some in India alleged that Pakistan's military spy agency, the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence, had played a role in sponsoring the attacks.

This horrifying event became the genesis for the Indian Army to initiate a proactive doctrine that many erroneously refer to as the "Cold Start Doctrine." The policy is primarily a "quick and swift response" strategy that enables India to mobilize troops quickly in order to stop future attacks in Pakistan's proxy war against India.

According to the Pakistan army, its tactical nukes are designed to counter this proactive doctrine. Yet even tactical nuclear weapons can't negate the superiority of India's conventional military. If Pakistan intends to develop low-yield nuclear warheads that can be fired from short-range tactical missiles, even a limited war scenario with India could have grave repercussions.

Because of their disproportionate destructiveness, indiscriminate nature, and lasting genetic effects, nuclear weapons must never be used. India has acted as a responsible player by not pursuing the development of nuclear weapons for battlefield use. Pakistan should likewise take the requisite steps to minimize the risk of nuclear war, and not indulge in further destabilizing nuclear deterrence in the name of balancing its asymmetry with India.


Dr. Monika Chansoria is a senior fellow at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies in New Delhi and the co-editor of Pakistan's Tactical Nuclear Weapons: Conflict Redux. Follow her on Twitter: @MonikaChansoria.

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