Pakistan’s tactical nukes, India’s strategic dilemma

The Indian official response has been unstintingly obdurate and has refused to draw a line between tactical and strategic nuclear weapons of Pakistan


Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

For someone who does not follow nuclear warfare tidbits, it would not make much sense that low-yield and short-range nuclear weapons of Pakistan could cause more headache for strategic thinkers in India than high-yield and long-range nuclear weapons. A recent paper by two scholars—Toby Dalton and George Perkovich—of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace dilates on, among other issues, this very dilemma of Indian thinkers and policymakers. The Indian official response has been unstintingly obdurate and has refused to draw a line between tactical and strategic nuclear weapons of Pakistan.

Shyam Saran, India’s former foreign secretary and then convener of the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), said in 2013, “A limited nuclear war is a contradiction in terms. Any nuclear exchange, once initiated, would swiftly and inexorably escalate to the strategic level.” And hence, India’s response to a nuclear attack—strategic or battlefield—“will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage on its adversary”. This rigid articulation notwithstanding, Indian policymakers have wrestled with this question especially since Pakistan tested Nasr, which reportedly has an operational range as low as 60km. Shivshankar Menon, who was serving as India’s national security adviser in 2011 when Pakistan tested Nasr, told me—and I can say it here because this discussion took place in an open-to-public forum—that Indian decision-makers did indeed took cognisance of these developments but decided not to flirt with the language of India’s nuclear doctrine.

Dalton and Perkovich have rightly pointed out that a report drafted by NSAB and released by the Indian government in 1999—long before Saran served on the body—called for a “punitive retaliation” markedly different from “massive” retaliation articulated in the official release of the Indian nuclear doctrine by the Cabinet Committee on Security in 2003. The simple scenario is a terror attack on India leading to building up of domestic pressure on the government in New Delhi to teach Pakistan a lesson. The terror attacks are often, if not always, conducted with the involvement of the Pakistan army and the Inter-Services Intelligence, the rogue intelligence agency of Pakistan. India’s best option will be a conventional strike to achieve quick gains while staying well below what would make Pakistan uncork its strategic nuclear options.

It was to plug this possibility also enunciated in the Cold-Start doctrine—while as good as non-existent, this doctrine of the Indian army carries a lot of weight among policymakers in Pakistan—that Pakistan developed battlefield nuclear options and shifted to a strategy of “full spectrum deterrence”. While this line of argument was eloquently taken by General Khalid Kidwai, who served as Director General of Pakistan’s Strategic Plans Division for 15 years, at the 2015 Carnegie Nuclear Policy Conference, my personal assessment is that Cold-Start merely provided a cover for the military establishment to pursue their never-ending security goals vis-à-vis the Indian state.

Dalton and Perkovich are right when they argue that New Delhi acquiring tactical nuclear weapons is “unlikely to motivate Pakistan to demobilize groups that attack India”. They add, “If India does not intend to put military boots on Pakistani soil in response to a terrorist attack... then India has no need for tactical nuclear weapons.” But their argument that Indian tactical nuclear weapons will enhance the “use-or-lose pressures” on Pakistani military commanders isn’t very insightful. This use-or-lose pressure is already applicable in ample measure on Pakistan regardless of whether India develops tactical nuclear weapons or not. If India faces a handicap in achieving limited gains even after a massive terrorist attack like 26/11, it is because of what S. Paul Kapur argued in his theory of “strategic pessimism”.

Kapur had argued that a territorially dissatisfied power, if conventionally weaker, will employ nuclear parity to engage in destabilising activities. And this is where Dalton and Perkovich contradict themselves, even if slightly. They argue that India appears to be falling behind Pakistan in both quantity and quality of nuclear weapons and delivery vehicles. They even go on to reduce the Indian conventional superiority to merely being something of an assumption “in the minds of many analysts”. This should lead Pakistan to feel more secure and behave more responsibly. But Dalton and Perkovich agree that it doesn’t. Simply because it is a territorially dissatisfied power and it has successfully employed the “Madman Theory” of former US President Richard Nixon. Another contradiction: Dalton has previously, along with co-author Michael Krepon of the Stimson Center, argued that the Pakistani establishment should recognise “that additional nuclear firepower does not provide military or diplomatic utility against a stronger adversary”. Doesn’t quite fit with what Dalton and Perkovich now say.

While Dalton and Perkovich have covered a range of issues from ballistic missile defence to the role of China, I will end by making one observation on the points they make on India’s “No First Use” (NFU) policy. They mention some voices which recommend India to introduce “additional ambiguity” in its NFU policy for that would “enhance the perceived credibility of India’s deterrence against a first strike”. Though Dalton and Perkovich do not endorse such proposals, the two could have outlined the problems that could come up with changes in India’s NFU policy. It is here that the danger of use-or-lose pressures beginning to alter Pakistan’s behaviour is most credible. Any alteration in NFU policy will send the wrong signals of India’s nuclear intentions.

On the contrary, changes in “massive” retaliation posture to one which calls for more flexibility in response to tactical nuclear weapons—and I have argued for this before—might indeed open a window of stability for a limited duration. This change might signal to Pakistan that India is willing to deliver a proportionate or proportionate-plus response to Pakistan’s tactical nuclear weapons and hence it is also willing to drop the traditional caution in responding to 26/11-type terror attacks emanating from Pakistan’s soil. If India chooses to change from its current posture of massive retaliation, it will have to judiciously plan for this window of stability by building capability in advance and using the window to signal credibility. Otherwise, the window will cease sooner than later as India’s bluff—of credibly responding to terror attacks—will be called out.

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