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Pakistan’s Tactical Nuclear Weapon: Implications for Indo-Pak Deterrence

  • AUTHORArun Vishwanathan, International Strategic and Security Studies Programme (ISSSP)
  • Mar 7, 2014

On April 19, 2011 Pakistan conducted the first test flight of Hatf-IX (NASR) missile. The Pakistani Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) described the missile as a ‘Short Range Surface to Surface Ballistic Missile’. Till date there have been three tests of the missile system on April 19, 2011, May 29, 2012 and February 11, 2013. After each of the flight tests, the ISPR put out a largely identical press statement which stressed on the point that the “missile has been developed to add deterrence value to Pakistan’s Strategic Weapons Development programme at shorter ranges.” Further the press release went on to state that the 60km NASR “carries a nuclear warhead of appropriate yield with high accuracy, shoot and scoot attributes.”

Following the Pakistani tests and claims of NASR being a nuclear capable missile, there has been a lot of analysis pointing to the dangers it poses for Indo-Pak deterrence. However, despite the large amount of literature which has come out following the NASR test in April 2011, not much attention has been directed at carrying out a holistic assessment of the tactical nuclear weapons issue. It is this crucial gap that that this report seeks to address.

The NASR poses important challenges for nuclear stability between India and Pakistan. However, in order to understand the drivers and Pakistan’s thinking behind NASR, it is crucial to get a handle on the countries’ thinking about nuclear deterrence. The nuclear doctrines and policy statements by both countries as well as the 1999 Kargil conflict and the 2001-02 border mobilisation provides insights into Islamabad and New Delhi’s thinking about nuclear weapons and deterrence.

In the absence of a formal nuclear doctrine enunciated by Pakistan, the outlines of one can be inferred by the statements of important decision-makers. The main characteristics of Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine and weapons are the following. Firstly, they are primarily directed towards India; second, it espouses a policy of nuclear first-use; thirdly, it views its nuclear weapons as deterring all forms of external aggression including any conventional military offensive by India.

India on the other hand views nuclear weapons as political weapons whose sole aim is to deter any use of nuclear weapons against India by an adversary. India espouses a no-first use policy; pursues a credible minimum deterrent and has adopted a policy of massive response in case of a nuclear strike against India or its forces anywhere.

The overt nuclearisation of the Indo-Pak relationship with the 1998 nuclear tests led to a belief in Islamabad that its nuclear deterrent provided it with a cover for a conventional conflict. This was in essence the thought process behind Kargil. However, the strong Indian response to Kargil, points to the fact that India would respond - despite nuclear weapons - with military force in case its territory was occupied. At the same time, it is also important to take National Institute of Advanced Studies note of the fact that despite the option being on the table, India decided against expanding the Kargil conflict horizontally. However it is important to note that New Delhi did not rule out such a possibility.

The December 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament by Pak-supported terror groups like Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) and Lashkar-eTaiba (LeT) led to the largest Indian military mobilisation since the 1971 Indo-Pak war. This was followed by a border stand-off by Indian and Pakistani armies which lasted for almost two years. The terror attack was the result of Pakistan’s belief that given its nuclear deterrent it could carry on its support of terrorist groups in their strikes against India. India in response chose a policy of compellence in order to force Pakistan to change its policy of supporting such groups on the belief that its nuclear deterrence would deter India from responding conventionally. Despite criticisms about what India actually achieved out of Operation Parakram, it is crucial to note the international pressure and financial burden the mobilisation imposed on Pakistan. India was thus sending a signal to Pakistan that continuing with its policy would entail costs.

Thus, Indian responses during both the 1999 Kargil conflict and the 2001-02 crisis can be seen as New Delhi’s attempt to test Pakistan’s nuclear threshold. The two crises provide valuable insight into the different understanding of nuclear deterrence prevalent in both countries which holds much value for the currently unfolding situation with the introduction of NASR.

For Pakistan, not much changed with the overt nuclearisation of the sub-continent. For Islamabad, India’s conventional military strength coupled with its lack of strategic depth emanating from its own smaller physical size continue to be a major concern. These twin factors were very important in its decision making calculus and in fashioning its view of nuclear weapons and deterrence. It is important to note that Pakistan went ahead with Kargil despite both countries having gone nuclear in May 1998. This reinforces the argument that Islamabad views its nuclear deterrent as a counter to its conventional military asymmetry vis-avis India; thereby providing Islamabad with the space to carry out Kargil type operations with the threat of escalation of the conflict spectrum to the nuclear realm.

However, India’s reactions in both the situations is important to take note of. Indian response to Pakistani incursions in Kargil points to the fact that - despite the nuclear backdrop - India will act if its territory was occupied. Similarly, Indian response to the 2001 terrorist attacks also points to the likelihood that there is an Indian threshold of suffering when it comes to terror attacks by Pak-supported groups. Clearly, the 2001 attacks on the Parliament crossed that threshold. Thus despite deciding not to cross into Pakistan, India does have options to make life difficult and costly for the Pakistani state if it decides not to do a rethink on its current policy of supporting terrorist groups in carrying out attacks against Pakistan.

Learning from the 1999 Kargil conflict and the 2001-02 crisis, the Indian Army unveiled its new doctrine in April 2004. The doctrine was popularly termed as ‘Cold Start’ given its attempt to reduce the mobilization times. It was seen as indicative of India’s willingness to modify its traditionally defensive orientation to conflicts/wars and undertake a more pro-active and nimbler stance by launching limited wars in an NBC environment. The doctrine also sought to address the issue of the lack of an element of  National Institute of Advanced Studies ix surprise during Operation Parakram.

Pakistan has been concerned about India’s new military doctrine since it took away Pakistan’s rationale of issuing the threat of the conventional war escalating into a nuclear war. As India was no longer fighting a conventional all-out war, it arguably would be fighting below Pakistan’s nuclear ‘red-lines’. This appears to have unnerved Pakistan to a great extent and they felt it necessary to restore the earlier equation by lowering the nuclear threshold. The short range Tactical Nuclear Weapon NASR was the resulting brainwave. Through NASR, Pakistan is seen to be exploring the space for a flexible response which falls between a massive response and doing nothing. 

The NASR warhead section has been estimated to have a cylindrical section which is 361 mm in diameter and 940 mm long with a conical portion which is 660 mm long. Thus, the important question is whether (a) Pakistan has a miniaturized weapon warhead which will fit into this dimension, (b) whether it has been tested and (c) in the absence of tests, how reliable is the weapon system. Most importantly, in the absence of demonstrated reliability, how confident will Pakistan be in fielding it?

In May 1998, Pakistan had tested only Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) based devices. There is wide discrepancy between the Pakistani claims of the weapon yield and the international estimates. Even if we accept the AQ Khan statement on tactical weapons, we are not wiser on its size; the smallest ballistic missile tested, when AQ Khan made the statement was the Hatf-1 which was 560 mm in diameter and had a range of 80 km. If a weapon system had been designed for Hatf-1 as claimed by Khan, it would be too large to fit into the envelope available with NASR. 

Further miniaturization to fit into the NASR class of missiles can probably come with a Plutonium based linear implosion device. However, such a device requires larger quantity - almost double - of plutonium as opposed to the requirement in spherical compression. A Pakistani design of such a device can be expected to weigh at least 100 kg. Pakistan can at best work on the explosive + detonator combination with surrogate material, which is not the same as testing with the actual material. In the end, what Pakistan will have is an untested device.

It is difficult to assess Pakistan’s weapon priorities and hence the fissile material production strategy. While Pakistan’s weapons programme is primarily based on enriched uranium, the setting up of the Khushab series of reactors indicates that Pakistan is seriously considering the Plutonium option. Therefore the issue is one of Uranium availability especially as Pakistan’s own reserves are limited and of poor ore concentration. As a non-member state of the NPT regime, it cannot import uranium for strategic purposes. Pakistan will have to do a major balancing act between the HEU and Plutonium production-maybe even freeze the production of HEU.

Will Pakistan consider its tested HEU weapons in stock as adequate for its security or will it consider it necessary to diversify its stockpile? Another important question to consider is whether Pakistan will divert all or part of its uranium reserves for production of an untested Plutonium based weapon. Even here will Islamabad lay stress on Plutonium weapons for use with its cruise missiles like Babur and Ra’ad or will it deploy them on NASR despite its rather limited damage potential against tanks and armoured personnel vehicles.

 National Institute of Advanced Studies Based on the above observations, the following points emerge:

With NASR, Pakistan in essence has fallen back on its time-tested option of threatening to use its nuclear weapons in an attempt to involve the international community and thereby counter India’s conventional military asymmetry.

Pakistan’s thinking behind employing NASR could be a search by its decisionmakers for a flexible response; something between massive (suicidal) response, engaging in conventional battle, and doing nothing. NASR, as viewed in Pakistan, fits in with the desire for graded punitive retaliatory option.

The added danger NASR poses is the possibility of pre-delegation of the weapon to battlefield commanders in case of a conflict. Pre-delegation of a nuclear weapon poses several challenges as seen from the American and Soviet Cold War experience. Pre-delegation of nuclear weapons increases the chances of both inadvertent and unauthorized use. In addition, due to weaker command and control given the fact that the weapons might be used in a battlefield scenario; it also raises the dangers of the actual weapon system falling into hands of the advancing adversary (Indian forces) as well as jehadi groups with or without insider help.

NASR signifies a shift in Pakistan’s nuclear strategy from a ‘first-use’ to one of ‘first-strike.’ Given that Pakistan would loathe to give up its low-cost, low-risk and high benefit strategy of supporting groups carrying out terror strikes against India, NASR is a Pakistani ploy crafted to deny India the space to respond to such terror strikes by threatening to lower its nuclear threshold.

Pakistan’s ‘graded retaliatory option’ will be in direct conflict with India’s nuclear doctrine which does not differentiate between a tactical and a strategic nuclear weapon strike.

As NASR and its capability is a claim - a claim not substantiated by demonstrated test, India has chosen to ignore it. India can afford to do so as it has its own (proven) ability to deploy a subkiloton if it so desires.

The Indian nuclear doctrine does not distinguish between tactical and strategic nuclear weapons or such use. India continues to adopt a no-first use (NFU) policy and its nuclear doctrine clearly assures ‘massive retaliation inflicting unacceptable damage’ against ‘nuclear attack on Indian territory or on Indian forces anywhere.’ (emphasis added by authors)

Thus, Pakistan’s gambit of using NASR to signal a lowering of its nuclear threshold to counter any conventional military operation by India is likely to pose challenges for robustness of nuclear deterrence between Pakistan and India. An important question to ponder over and one that holds some importance for nuclear stability in the Indian sub-continent is whether NASR is leading Pakistan into a ‘commitment trap.’ It would be wise to guard against a situation where Pakistan would be forced to follow through just because of its past assertions.

The study shows that a weapon system like NASR has more disadvantages than advantages from all considerations ranging from damage potential to impact on deterrence stability. 

This report was originally published in International Strategic and Security Studies Programme (ISSSP). Please download the file for the full report.