Since Pakistan announced the first test of the 60-kilometer Nasr ballistic missile in 2011, there is an implicit assumption in Western writings that India will respond to the Pakistani move toward tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) with similar weapons of its own.
However, this is precisely what India’s response should not be, and is unlikely to be, if the country and the rest of the international community correctly read the signals from Rawalpindi.
The primary task of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons is not to deter India’s nuclear weapons but to avoid having to engage a superior military capability. Pakistan believes that its low nuclear threshold constrains India from militarily punishing it.
India, meanwhile, maintains there is space to fight a conventional war despite nuclear weapons. The concept of limited war, a series of quick cross-border strikes whose objective would not be to occupy Pakistani territory but to deliver a punishing blow, has been conceived in this context. This alarms Pakistan because if India can tailor a conventional response to remain below its red lines, then its nuclear weapons fail in their objective.
Pakistan has to keep its nuclear weapons relevant to deter an Indian conventional response. Pakistan, in fact, is not seeking to redress the conventional balance through the use of these weapons but to deter a conventional war through the threat of their use.
It has no illusions about the military effectiveness of the weapon but seeks to create an environment that deters India. In fact, Pakistan appears to view TNW as being a more effective deterrent than relying solely on the threat of large-scale, long-range nuclear strikes. The attraction of this option is likely to increase as the conventional military balance with India grows more adverse.
Pakistani decision-makers well understand that even a single use of a TNW could trigger tragic consequences. But, they believe they would not have to use the TNW because the risk of nuclear escalation would deter. Therefore, Pakistani nuclear strategy, which has always relied on brinkmanship, has found in TNW another tool to keep India, and by extension the international community, on the edge.
The TNWs are meant to send two messages: One, that their use would be so stunning it would force India to halt hostilities or face the prospect of further escalation; and secondly, that the use of a low-yield battlefield weapon would not be seen as provocation enough by India or the international community to merit nuclear retaliation.
Pakistan believes India would not have the will, the motivation, the flexibility or the incentive to act. Therefore, Pakistan is not miscalculating India’s capability but its credibility to act.
Two Pakistani assumptions seem to drive this philosophy. The first is that the international community would stop India — first from conventional retaliation because of the threat of escalation, and subsequently from nuclear retaliation in case Pakistan did use TNW.
The second possible assumption is that the fractious nature of Indian domestic politics and the “softness of the state” would push India to seek to end the war rather than escalate — not only because India would fear more nuclear strikes, but because it would not want to inflict senseless damage across the border.
The Indian response to Pakistan’s TNW must address these assumptions. The key is to credibly convey the certainty of retaliation. This requires buttressing its nuclear command and control at both the military and the political levels.
India must transparently demonstrate certain realities to the Pakistanis. First, that it has redundancies in command-and-control structures and processes that will ensure survivability of the chain of command at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels, as well as communication systems to undertake effective retaliation.
It must also show that its troops are well-trained to fight in an environment where TNWs are used. Above all, the political resolve to retaliate to cause unacceptable damage must be made absolutely clear.
Meanwhile, at the diplomatic level, India must highlight to the US and China the dangers of Pakistan’s ongoing development and eventual deployment of TNWs. If Pakistan develops these weapons, deployment will follow, which means delegated command and control, with its obvious challenges of nuclear security and risks of inadvertent, mistaken or unauthorized launch.
The possible use of the weapon also threatens to breach a long-held nuclear taboo, which could open up the possibility of future nuclear use by other states or nonstate actors. None of this can be a source of any complacency for either the US or China.
India does not require TNW and neither does it want to engage in a protracted nuclear war. This is the point that should go out loud and clear after decoding the message that Pakistan seeks to convey through its TNWs.
Manpreet Sethi, ICSSR senior fellow at the Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi.