To 60,000 nuclear warheads were produced since the arguably senseless bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, some basic human survival instinct "Repeatedly stayed the finger that might have pushed the button." The world's abhorrence for nuclear weapons is now so widespread and deep-rooted that even if 'tactical' nuclear weapons were to be used against a purely military target in a conflict in future, the effect would be strategic-in fact, the impact would be geo-strategic as the explosion of even a single nuclear weapon anywhere on earth would be one too many. In the Indo-Pak context, Indian advocates of tactical nuclear weapons pre-suppose that when pushed to the wall, Pakistan would not hesitate to use nuclear weapons against India's mechanised forces inside Pakistani territory as the 'opprobrium quotient', as General Sundarji called it, would be low since the use of nuclear weapons could be justified as a defensive measure of the last resort.
Even though 50,000 to 60,000 nuclear warheads were produced since the arguably senseless bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, some basic human survival instinct “repeatedly stayed the finger that might have pushed the button.” The world’s abhorrence for nuclear weapons is now so widespread and deep-rooted that even if ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons were to be used against a purely military target in a conflict in future, the effect would be strategic—in fact, the impact would be geo-strategic as the explosion of even a single nuclear weapon anywhere on earth would be one too many. The Nuclear Rubicon cannot be lightly crossed and whichever nation decides to cross it would have to bear the consequences. The employment of nuclear weapons as useful weapons of war was always doubtful; it is even more questionable today. This article examines the utility of tactical nuclear weapons, with particular reference to the Indian Subcontinent.
The terms ‘tactical nuclear weapons’, ‘theatre nuclear weapons’ and ‘strategic nuclear weapons’ are known more because of their customary usage than by precise definitions. Tactical and theatre nuclear weapons are to be differentiated from strategic nuclear weapons largely by exclusion. Determining the precise distinction between these categories can take on the character of a theological debate. The official US Department of Defence Dictionary of Military Terms explains tactical nuclear weapons employment as under:
“The use of nuclear weapons by land, sea or air forces against opposing forces, supporting installations or facilities, in support of operations which contribute to the accomplishment of a military mission of limited scope, or in support of the military commander’s scheme of manoeuvre, usually limited to the area of military operations.”
The key consideration is clearly the employment of nuclear weapons, that 1s, purpose and effect related to the mission. The definition undoubtedly contains certain ambiguities and weaknesses. For example, the word ‘usually’ makes the definition less rigorous than it ought to be and the use of the term ‘supporting installations and facilities’ would be more appropriate for theatre nuclear weapons as tactical use is best considered to be in the realm of the immediate zone of military operations.
Also, the ranges and yields of the weapons, which would generally be relatively short and low, respectively, and deployment areas should be given some consideration. Wiliam K. Van Cleave and S. T. Cohen offer a simpler explanation: “ The term tactical nuclear weapons in the closest approximation refers to battlefield nuclear weapons, for battlefield use, and with deployment ranges and yields consistent with such use and confined essentially in each respect to the area of localised military operations. It should be recognised that theatre nuclear forces is the more encompassing term and tactical nuclear forces the more restrictive.
An examination of the weapon range, its yield, the location of the delivery system, the location of the target and the alert or readiness status of the weapon reveals much overlap between tactical, theatre and strategic nuclear weapons. Some air-dropped bombs, carried by fighterbombers, have been known to have yields of over one megaton. Parts of NATO’s tactical nuclear weapons forces, including Pershing missiles, were on constant readiness as part of the Quick Reaction Alert force, much as strategic nuclear weapons usually are. The line dividing tactical (including theatre) and strategic nuclear weapons is rather blurred. While a strategic strike can be conducted with weapons of low yield, a tactical strike can be effected with virtually any class of nuclear weapons — though the results achieved may not be commensurate with the effort put in. For example, hitting a forward military airfield with an ICBM would be a gross overkill with extremely high collateral damage. In fact, the phrase ‘tactical use of nuclear weapons’ would convey a more accurate sense of the intended use rather than “use of tactical nuclear weapons’. In this paper the former is intended whenever tactical nuclear weapons are mentioned for the sake of convenience.
Non-strategic categories of nuclear weapons include the following:
– Air-dropped free fall bombs and glide bombs.
– Short-range surface-to-surface missiles (SSMs).
– Atomic artillery.
– Cruise missiles.
– Air-to-surface missiles (ASMs).
– Surface-to-air missiles (SAMs).
– Air-to-air missiles (AAMs).
– Atomic demolition munitions (ADMs) or nuclear land-mines. (Popularly known as ‘briefcase’ bombs.)
– Depth charges.
– Torpedoes and rocket torpedoes.
– Ocean mines.
In the public perception, the most popular tactical nuclear weapons have been the 8 inch (203 mm) M-110 and the 155 mm M-109 atomic artillery weapons and the Lance and Honest John SSMss, all of the US. At the upper end of the range scale were the Pershing missiles with a range of 160-835 km. These were intermediate range theatre SSMs rather than true tactical weapons. The erstwhile Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces had their own corresponding tactical nuclear weapons. Among the better Known ones were the FROG and Scud series of rockets and missiles. (See Tables “Nuclear Artillery” and “Nuclear Rockets and Missiles”.) In addition, there was a category of weapons known as ‘mini-nukes’. These had yields from 0.05 to 0.5 kilotons.’ Tactical nuclear weapons, particularly those of the US and its NATO allies, were nuclear warfighting weapons and formed an important part of NATO’s strategy of flexible response oz ‘first use’ policy. These weapons were among the first that would have been used in the early stages of a NATO-Warsaw Pact war.
Nuclear Weapons are not for Warfighting
In the 1950s, the US made extensive efforts to develop, produce and deploy, tactical nuclear weapons in the European and the Pacific theatres. By the mid-1960s, approximately 7,000 warheads had been deployed in and an undisclosed number in the Pacific. The Soviet and Warsaw forces soon followed suit and are known to have deployed about 3.500 of these weapons. However, unlike the surfeit of intellectual debate amid discussion on the strategic nuclear issue, tactical nuclear weapons generated only limited interest. Explicit doctrinal criteria for tactical nuclear forces were not formulated. Employment policies were initially hazy and for long training to fight in a nuclear environment was almost completely neglected.
Even the US Department of Defence, on whose insistence NATO’s flexible response strategy centred around the first use of nuclear weapons despite the misgivings of some allies, by and large had a decided aversion lo using tactical nuclear weapons and an ambivalent and muddled policy their role. William R. Van Cleave and S. T. Cohen write that the 1977-78 doctrinal manual The Army in the Field stated:
“Unless the enemy uses them first, nuclear weapons will not be authorised before conventional defences have been severely tested and found inadequate.
The situation facing corps at the time nuclear weapons are requested must therefore be grave — under sustained attack by superior forces, own forces becoming fully committed and not likely to hold, reinforcements not available, insufficient combat support and combat service support available to sustain the defence, and the survivability of the force in question.”
Proponents of tactical nuclear weapons justified their requirement on the following grounds:
– They deter the use of tactical nuclear weapons by the enemy.
– They provide flexible response over the whole range of possible military threats.
– They offer nuclear military options below the strategic level.
– They help to defeat large-scale conventional attacks.
– And, they serve the political purpose of demonstrating to the European allies the US’ commitment.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the NATO allies of the US were never happy with the manner in which tactical nuclear weapons were stored in a limited number of storage sites where these were highly vulnerable to a pre-emptive attack and destruction. Exacerbating the problem were the vintage, lack of technological sophistication and, consequently, the questionable effectiveness of most of the warheads and some of the delivery systems. The only new warhead to be introduced into service was the so-called ‘clean’ enhanced radiation ‘neutron’ bomb, but its production was slow and not enough numbers reached the NATO theatre. Opponents of tactical nuclear weapons asserted that such “more usable’ weapons would lower the nuclear thresnold and make nuclear war more likely. Before the INF treaty came into force in 1988, the Honest John rocket was over 30 years old, the Sergeant missile had mostly been retired and the F-4 aircraft which carried the bulk of NATO’s tactical atomic bombs during the 1960s and 1970s was designed in the late 1950s. Fears of collateral damage in the extensively populated and developed NATO heartland also spurred European opposition to tactical nuclear weapons. Many European political and military leaders convincingly argued that NATO would be better off without tactical nuclear weapons. Alain Enthoven wrote “Tactical nuclear weapons cannot defend Western Europe; they can only destroy it there is no such thing as tactical nuclear war in the sense of sustained purposive military operations.”
In the US too there was a lack of unanimity about the usefulness of tactical nuclear weapons and lack of coherence in policy. The 1975 US Department of Defence annual report left considerable doubt about the possibility of the use of tactical nuclear weapons:
“…as a practical matter, the initiation of a nuclear engagement would involve many uncertainties. Acceptable boundaries on such a conflict would be very difficult to establish. A nuclear engagement in the theatre could produce much higher military and civilian casualties and more widespread collateral damage than its non-nuclear counterpart
“What is more, it is not clear under what conditions the United States and its allies would possess a comparative military advantage in a tactical nuclear exchange.
“…We must recognise in our planning that the decision to initiate the use of nuclear weapons—however small, clean, and precisely used they might be— would be the most agonising that could face any national leader.”
While the West was debating the merits and demerits of tactical nuclear weapons, Soviet military doctrine was predicated on the selective use of nuclear weapons in consonance with well-defined political and military objectives. [he Soviets emphasised the increased effectiveness of nuclear weapons for warfighting purposes and it was their expectation that large-scale military conflicts, such as a NATO-Warsaw pact confrontation, would involve the use of nuclear weapons. Marshal Grechko wrote:
“The art of conducting military operations with the use of nuclear weapons and that of employing conventional forces have many fundamental differences. But they are not in opposition, are not mutually exclusive, and are not isolated one from the other; on the contrary, they are closely correlated and are developing as a single body
“Nuclear missiles will be the decisive means of armed combat. Along with this, conventional weapons will also find use, and under certain conditions, the units and subunits can conduct actions solely with conventional means.”
The use of tactical nuclear weapons can be a rational option only if it does not finally lead to irrational, more destructive levels of warfare. Gradually, but inexorably, it dawned on the military planners on both the sides of the Iron Curtain that the first use of tactical nuclear weapons was bound to lead to uncontrollable larger nuclear exchanges. After protracted negotiations, the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty between the US and the Soviet Union, was signed in Washington on December 8, 1987 by President Reagan and General Secretary Gorbachev. The treaty proposed the elimination of all INF missiles and practically outlawed the use of tactical and theatre nuclear weapons in Europe.” Since then, all tactical nuclear weapons have been removed from Europe. It is now universally accepted that nuclear weapons are political weapons and are no longer weapons of ‘warfighting’. By extension, ‘tactical’ or battlefield nuclear weapons should now have no role to play in combat.
Tactical Targets and Yields
Strategic nuclear targets are either counter-value or counter-force targets. Counter-value targets include major enemy cities and industrial centres and these are the ones that generate the ‘terror’ of the ‘balance of terror’ through the threat of causing millions of civilian casualties.
Counter-force targets primarily comprise tne nuclear assets of the adversary including delivery means, bases, nuclear warheads and missile storage sites, command and control elements and early warning and targeting infrastructure. While the aim of selecting counter-value targets has generally been to maximise deterrence, counter-force targets aim to degrade the enemy’s capability to make optimum use of his nuclear forces. Military planning for the use of nuclear weapons, in the eventuality that deterrence fails, includes a judicious mix of both counter-value and counter-force targets in first use as well as retaliatory strikes.
Tactical or battlefield nuclear targets are normally those that are either located within the tactical battle area (IBA) or nave a direct bearing on it. Besides the enemy’s forces, tactical targets include his military infrastructure such as important bridges and choke points on the transportation systems, airbases and communications centres. Tactical military nuclear targets would include the following:
– Locations of headquarters and adjacent communications centres.
– Bridgeheads established by a ‘break-in’ force on a defensive obstacle system to facilitate a “break out’.
– Leading ‘combat groups’ forming the spearheads of an ‘operational manoeuvre group’ (OMG) or an Indian or Pakistani Strike Corps.
– Defence fortifications and nodal/strong points, to facilitate a breakthrough.
– Mechanised forces—deployed for defence, assaulting, laying off in harbour or being transported to the IBA.
– Surface-to-surface missiles (SSMs) and rocket artillery positions.
– Self-propelled and towed medium artillery regimental gun areas.
– Logistics support areas (LSAs).
Some or all of the above mentioned targets may be close to areas having civilian population. As such, the aim would always be to minimise ‘collateral’ damage. This can be achieved by firing a low air burst nuclear weapon which, by definition, is designed to ensure that the fireball does not touch the ground surface and, hence, produces extremely little fallout. Troops on foot can normally transit through the ‘ground zero’ of a low air burst within 30 minutes to one hour of the explosion and troops in armoured fighting vehicles can do so almost immediately. On the other hand, ground burst nuclear explosions with fractional kiloton yields that are necessary to accurately hit point targets such as an individual missile launcher, would produce a fairly large amount of fallout and are best avoided altogether. Such targets should be attacked by ‘smart’ munitions fired from artillery weapons or by air force aircraft or attack helicopters.
Yields of 10 to 20 kilotons would be adequate to destroy all types of tactical nuclear targets. These yields can be delivered by SSMs like Prithvi-150 and Prithvi-250 or by nuclear bombs dropped by fighter-bomber aircraft. Multi-barrel rocket launchers (MBRLs) such as Smerch and perhaps Pinaka and 155 mm medium artillery gun/howitzers (atomic artillery) are capable of firing fractional kiloton yield nuclear warheads. Atomic Demolition Munitions (ADMs) that have the potential to deny ground to an aggressor, are also part of the family of tactical nuclear weapons. Such weapon systems are normally part of the army’s battlefield inventory, as is the case in the United States (US) and the Russian armies. Indian proponents of the use of tactical nuclear weapons argue that these should form part of India’s armoury, to be used when necessary. What needs to be critically analysed is whether it is the effect that is relevant or the means of delivery. Today, the distinction between strategic and tactical nuclear weapons has been blurred. General Sundarji had the following view:
“ in the case of a super power one could say—yes, the five megaton warhead sitting on top of the intercontinental ballistic missile is a strategic weapon, distinct and separate; even if the strategic yields have shrunk to kilotons because of dramatically greater accuracies, and no longer require megaton monsters, these are still distinctly strategic; it is the fractional kiloton artillery shell which is a tactical weapon. But in the case of the third world countries, this distinction has little relevance as of today.”
During the Pokhran I nuclear tests in May 1998, Indian scientists conclusively demonstrated the capability to design fractional kiloton weapons. The three smaller, ‘experimental’ devices had yields of 0.2, 0.3 and 0.5 kilotons, as reported in the May 1998 issue of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) Newsletter. Although a number of Western scientists expressed scepticism about the results claimed by India’s nuclear establishment, they were not able to provide reliable data to prove their counter claims of lower yields. Hence, the capabilities declared by Indian scientists must be accepted. It follows that India is in a position to develop tactical nuclear weapons of fractional-kiloton yields although their manufacture and subsequent maintenance is extremely complex. This research and development capability must be nurtured and built upon so that the option to develop and produce tactical nuclear weapons if necessary can be kept open through laboratory testing, should India decide to become a party to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). While it may not be in the national interest to develop, produce and stockpile tactical nuclear weapons at this juncture, the capability to do so is a strategic capability and must be sustained.
Pakistani Nuclear Strikes on Tactical Targets
However, there is an undeniably close link between nuclear weapons and a nation’s conventional military capabilities. If a nation’s conventional capability is relatively low vis a vis a nuclear armed adversary, that nation is likely to adopt a ‘first use’ strategy to thwart a conventional military offensive that may threaten to undermine its territorial integrity and lead to its break up. This is the situation that Pakistan finds itself in at present. In such a case, the nuclear weapons to be used or threatened to be used would be ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons against India’s mechanised forces inside Pakistani territory. While India may have no intentions of launching a major conventional offensive into Pakistan, given India’s conventional superiority (no matter how slender the edge may be), Pakistan has based its national security strategy on the first use of nuclear weapons to prevent its comprehensive military defeat like in 1971 and, consequently, its disintegration as a nation. It is for this’ reason that Pakistan finds it difficult to accept India’s offer of a bilateral no-first-use treaty as a confidence building measure.
In the Indo-Pak context, Indian advocates of tactical nuclear weapons pre-suppose that when pushed to the wall, Pakistan would not hesitate to use nuclear weapons against India’s mechanised forces inside Pakistani territory as the ‘opprobrium quotient’, as General Sundarji called it, would be low since the use of nuclear weapons could be justified as a defensive measure of the last resort. They aver that in response India too should employ only tactical nuclear weapons on Pakistani forces, rather than raise the nuclear ante to full-scale retaliation. Though there is considerable merit in it, in India’s overall strategic equation with Pakistan it is a dangerous argument and would completely degrade the potential not only of India’s nuclear deterrence but also of India’s conventional superiority.
According to the army doctrine published recently by the Army Training Command (ARTRAC), “the Indian Army believes in fighting the war in enemy territory. If forced into a war, the aim of our offensive(s) would be to apply a sledgehammer blow to the enemy. The Indian Army’s concept of waging war is to ensure a decisive victory and to ensure that conflict termination places us at an advantageous position.” In a future Indo-Pak war in the plains, should India pursue a pro-active strategy and launch an offensive with one or more Strike Corps across the international boundary, supported massively by the IAF, India’s mechanised spearheads are likely to achieve major operational level gains in three to five days and strategic gains soon thereafter. Pakistan may then be forced to commit its strategic reserves, that is, either or both the Army Reserves North (ARN) and South (ARS) and risk their destruction in detail or exercise its nuclear option.
Indian analysts are inclined to believe that Pakistan is likely to resort to the early use of nuclear weapons, especially when it can justify their use as a defensive measure of the last resort on its own soil against Indian mechanised forces. If this logic is accepted, India’s conventional superiority against Pakistan will stand negated and the Indian military leadership will either have to run the risk of accepting the consequences of a nuclear strike from Pakistan or plan to launch only tactical level limited offensives with shallow objectives so as to avoid crossing Pakistan’s perceived nuclear threshold. Such a course of action would naturally play straight into Pakistan’s hands and give that country the freedom to continue to interfere in India’s internal affairs through its ‘proxy war’ in J&K, including the launching of Kargil-type misadventures, without the fear of massive Indian retaliation with conventional forces. Pakistan may even resort to launching trans-international boundary operations in areas such as the Rann of Kutch on one pretext or the other, as it did in the summer months of 1965. The safety provided by India’s doctrine of ‘no-first-use’ of nuclear weapons would further embolden Pakistan to seek tactical advantage.
The Indian army would be left with the option to plan to seize a long though narrow strip of Pakistani territory virtually all along the front without ringing Pakistan’s nuclear alarm bells by launching a number of limited, shallow objective offensives. However, this capability is unlikely to dissuade Pakistan from practicing its peculiar brand of jihad through a cocktail of terrorism and aggressive actions across the LoC a la Kargil. The only sensible option may perhaps be to call Pakistan’s nuclear bluff and plan to launch Strike Corps operations to achieve strategic gains in as early a time frame as is militarily possible. This approach will need to be combined with a declaratory policy that a nuclear strike against Indian soldiers, even if they are deep inside Pakistani territory, will constitute the use of nuclear weapons against India and will invite massive counter value and counter force punitive retaliation against Pakistan. General Sundarji wrote in 1992 that, “If the damage suffered by Indian forces (due to a Pakistani nuclear strike) is substantial, national and troop morale would demand at least a guid pro quo response. There might even be a demand in some quarters for a quid pro quo plus response.” However, after over a decade of Pakistan’s proxy war and particularly after that country’s perfidious intrusions into the Kargil district of J&K in the summer months of 1999, the national mood is much different. Indian public opinion will accept nothing short of the final dismemberment of Pakistan in case that country chooses to cross the nuclear Rubicon and launches a nuclear strike, even if it is on Indian forces.
Even if Pakistan still persists with its stated policy of launching nuclear strikes on Indian forces inside Pakistan and India decides to reciprocate in kind with nuclear strikes on Pakistani forces rather than an all out decapitating strike, escalation control will be extremely difficult to manage. There would be a near certainty of the nuclear exchanges eventually graduating to massive strikes. Hence, flexible response would not be a practicable option. There is only one viable response to a Pakistani nuclear strike, whether on Indian cities or military forces, whether inside Pakistan or not, and that is massive punitive retaliation with the full force of India’s nuclear capability. Only such a policy would lead to adequate deterrence. The Pakistani ruling elite will have to understand that while India may choose to fight a limited war in certain cases, as it did in Kargil, it is prepared to upgrade its military response to “all out’ war if the situation so demands. Once this realisation dawns on the Pakistanis, they are unlikely to act irrationally and use tactical nuclear weapons to checkmate an Indian offensive, knowing fully well that a massive Indian nuclear counter-value and counter-force response will mean the end of Pakistan as a viable nation-state. They will, quite naturally, sue for peace. Hence, it clearly emerges that the employment of Indian nuclear weapons on tactical targets is unlikely to be necessary in the context of an Indo-Pak conflict.
Of course, it would not be easy for the Indian National Command Authority to decide to resort to massive nuclear retaliation on counter-value and counter-forces targets in response to a tactical Pakistani strike on Indian forces. This dilemma has been faced by other world leaders too. President Richard Nixon stated the following in his Foreign Policy Message to the US Congress in 1970:
“Should a President, in the event of a nuclear attack, be left with the single option of ordering the mass destruction of enemy civilians, in the face of the certainty that it would be followed by the mass slaughter of Americans? should the concept of assured destruction be narrowly defined and should it be the only measure of our ability to deter the variety of threats we may face?”
The following year President Nixon expanded on his “Doctrine of Sufficiency’:
“I must not be—and my successors must not be—limited to the indiscriminate mass destruction of enemy civilians as the sole possible response to (nuclear) challenges. This is especially so when the response involves the likelihood of triggering nuclear attack on our own population. It would be inconsistent with the political meaning of sufficiency to base our force planning solely on some finite—and theoretical—capabilities to inflict casualties presumed to be unacceptable to the other side.”
Indian analysts are divided on whether India needs tactical nuclear weapons. Brahma Chellaney justifies the use of tactical nuclear weapons and his arguments are worth repeating:
“Some Indian analysts have arbitrarily judged tactical weapons as immoral and dangerous, and sought only mass killer strategic weapons for their country. India’s deterrent posture logically implies that wars can ‘still be fought along traditional, just lines, with nuclear weapons primarily aimed at an opponent’s armed forces than his civilian population. In this kind of counter-force strategy, tactical weapons would have to play an important role. If the deterrent ever failed, such small weapons for local defence could ensure that non-combatants do not become the first targets in counter-city offensives and also permit leeway for nipping further hostilities. Through an economy of force, ‘tactical nukes could potentially diminish an enemy’s military might, including his strike forces.
“Without tactical weapons, a failed deterrent situation could uncontrollably spark counter-city attacks, wreaking limitless destruction After failing to deter an adversary from committing aggression, efforts have to shift to force him to halt aggression. Such intra-war deterrence or compellence can succeed if responses are judiciously modulated to allow for only a stage-by-stage escalation, with opponent’s civilian population held hostage but not under attack to nations that have disputed frontiers—such as India, Israel, China and Pakistan—and to Russia, tactical nukes cannot but be an integral component of defence (India’s deterrent force) has to be structurally and doctrinally established in a manner to allow for possible bargains to be struck at any step of the escalation ladder.”
The main weakness of this argument is that if the Pakistani ruling elite, dominated as it is by the military establishment, believes that India would not respond with counter-value and counter-force strikes to a tactical nuclear strike on its armed forces in the field, it would be tempted to launch such a strike during the early stages of a conventional conflict. However, other Indian analysts are not convinced by this logic as they believe that the Pakistanis are as rational as any other nuclear power and will not lightly risk the destruction of their country by starting a nuclear war. Pravin Sawhney writes:” “Pakistan knows a nuclear counter-strike would be devastating to its existence. Considering Pakistan’s nuclear policy, weaponisation options and (that) command and control of nuclear assets are likely to be the sole responsibility of the General Headquarters; the chances of a war escalating to nuclear level would be a professional, conservative and well thought through decision. A pre-emptive nuclear strike or an early employment of nuclear weapons in a conventional war is ruled out.” Bharat Karnad is of the view that, “In the South Asian context, any use of nuclear weapons is tactical use, which the Indian Government has wisely foresworn.” He quotes and agrees with a policy statement made by Defence Minister George Fernandes that, “Indian nuclear weapons are for strategic deterrence, not for tactical use,” and writes that not nuclearising the Prithvi makes ample military sense.
In Kapil Kak’s view, “India’s self-imposed compulsions of strategic restraint rule out employment of tactical nuclear weapons.” He cites the difficulties of retaining centralisation of decision-making in tactical nuclear warfare and gives the example of a Corps Commander “in a distressing Operational situation, with possibly no contact with higher authorities, (Who) may be tempted to employ whatever weapons he possesses, and quotes Henry Kissinger to state that the danger comes “not so much through the action of the ‘mad major of the horror stories of accidental war’ as through the best judgement of a hard pressed officer In the confusion of combat.” If nuclear weapons are to be employed as battlefield weapons, in a tit-for-tat manner aS recommended by some analysts, not only will the authority to order their firing have to be delegated to commanders at the theatre and the operational level at some stage of the war but, depending on the means of delivery, control over completely ready nuclear warheads will also have to be handed over to the subordinate commanders in charge of the firing platforms in the IBA. This will naturally increase the risk of accidental and inadvertent employment of nuclear weapons. It is a risk that is best avoided.
China Presents a Different Scenario
China is a status quo nuclear power with a long-standing territorial and boundary dispute with India. Despite the Border Peace and tranquillity Agreement (BPTA) of 1993 and the confidence building measures (CBMs) agreed upon in 1996, the Line of Actual Control (LAC) continues to remain ill-defined and ambiguous and its early ‘clarification’ still appears to be a distant goal as China is apparently in no hurry for further progress on these substantive issues. China’s continuing nuclear and missile collusion and defence cooperation with Pakistan, its support to the military regime in Myanmar and increasing activities in the Bay of Bengal, its attempts to isolate India in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and its relentless efforts to increase its influence in Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh, are all pointers to a carefully orchestrated plan aimed at the strategic encirclement of India. Apparently, China poses a longterm strategic challenge to India as a competing regional power in Asia. A border war between these two Asian giants, though improbable, cannot be ruled out.
Jasjit Singh has stated that, “The non-strategic category of weapons, which constitute 96 percent (if warheads on SLBMs are taken into account, the proportion drops to a little over 93 percent) of China’s nuclear arsenal, even after 34 years, have relevance only for China’s immediate Besides some ICBMs and IRBMs, China has deployed a large number of medium-and short-range nuclear-tipped missiles and nuclear capable aircraft in Tibet.” As China has already signed a de-targeting agreement with Russia and the US, it is not clear where these nuclear weapons are aimed or intended to be aimed. These deployed nuclear weapons constitute a ‘threat-in-being’ to India. Also, China has lately modified its original no-first-use doctrine. “China’s military strategists do not consider the use of nuclear weapons in their own territory as violating their NFU (no-first-use) doctrine.” Though China has never bothered to clarify the ambiguities inherent in this stand as it suits its purpose to play a guessing game, it can be deduced that since China clearly considers Taiwan as its own territory, the use of China’s nuclear weapons during a war over Taiwan would not violate its no first-use doctrine. As a corollary, Indian analysts are justified in concluding that as China has not renounced its claim over Arunachal Pradesh, or for that matter is still to recognise Sikkim, it may seriously consider the first use of tactical nuclear weapons during a border conflict with India in the future.
China is continuing to modernise its nuclear and missile forces and tactical nuclear weapons,” including by acquiring Western technology through clandestine means. The US has claimed that China has acquire the technology for its W-88 nuclear warhead through illegal means. Notwithstanding the US claim and China’s vigorous denial, it is clear that China is continuing to place immense emphasis on tactical nuclear weapons. It naturally follows that China’s concept of fighting a ‘limited war under high-tech conditions’ includes a nuclear warfighting strategy. Hence, India may expect to witness Chinese mushroom clouds over the high Himalayas during a future Sino-Indian border war, particularly if the Chinese Military Region commander is convinced that Indian forces are gaining advantage at the operational level.
Due to India’s affinity and long-standing cultural links with the Tibetan people, India would naturally like to ensure that collateral damage ‘n Tibet is scrupulously avoided. In fact, even more worrisome would be the long-term contamination of the Himalayan water sources. Since most of the Tibetan rivers drain into the Indian plains, it 1s in India’s interest to ensure that nuclear exchanges over the Himalayan watershed are not allowed to occur. It is also for this reason that India must ensure that ADMs are not employed by either side during a Himalayan conflict, contrary to the proposals made by Bharat Karnad, et al.
How, then, is such a threat to be countered? Some Indian analysts argue that India must retaliate in kind on China’s forward troops, firepower assets, headquarters, logistics support areas and communications choke points and that raising the ante and targeting Chinese cities would prove to be counter-productive as China has a much superior nuclear arsenal. In the unlikely event that China employs battlefield nuclear weapons against the Indian army on the grounds that it is justified in using them on the territory that it claims in ‘self-defence’, India will really have no option but to retaliate massively against Chinese cities and economic centres on China’s well developed eastern seaboard.
Only such a declaratory policy and matching operational plans will make the first use cost for China prohibitive. It is a moot point whether the loss of a single Chinese city would be acceptable to the proponents of the first use of battlefield nuclear weapons within the Chinese Central Military Commission.
However, a flexible response option need not be completely ruled out, as it is difficult to predict with any degree of certainty what course a future war may take. If limited retaliation emerges as a better alternative under the prevailing circumstances, the options would be to launch retaliatory nuclear strikes of the required yield (10 to 20 kilotons) from suitable platforms (SU-30/Jaguar fighter-bomber aircraft, SSM Prithvi 250) against Chinese targets in the TBA or at several points of India’s choosing against major Chinese military targets in the Lanzhou, Chengdu and Yunnan Military Regions as a telling response while simultaneously negotiating for an end to the nuclear madness. In either case, it is essential that a retaliatory strike capability with a survivable nuclear force is available.
Disadvantages Inherent in Tactical Nuclear Weapons
It was for many good reasons that the US and its NATO allies and the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact forces developed, produced, stockpiled in large numbers and planned to use tactical nuclear weapons as weapons of war. It was also for many good reasons that both the protagonists decided to eliminate these unusable weapons from their arsenals. Even the mini-nukes and the so-called ‘clean’ enhanced radiation neutron bombs would have, if used in substantial numbers in a European war, afflicted a few hundred million civilians, including future generations, with long-term radiation sickness of incalculable magnitudes. Even the professed military utility of blunting a major armoured offensive 1s debatable as the attacker would ensure that he does not present a concentrated target before the bulk of tactical nuclear weapons, or at least their delivery systems, have been destroyed in an initial phase that itself would turn out to be apocalyptic. Even then, the attacker would concentrate rapidly for short durations only at the point of decision and then disperse quickly. In the well developed, semi-urban terrain of Punjab on both the sides of the Indo-Pak boundary, collateral damage would be unavoidable. Hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties would be unmanageable for an army fighting a war.
Political and diplomatic reasons also militate against the use of tactical nuclear weapons. A nuclear posture with a first use option—NATO’s in Europe before the INF Treaty and Pakistan’s current nuclear policy—is both repugnant and dangerous. It is also inherently destabilising and naturally escalatory. With the mega-media revolution now underway, public awareness of the horrendous nature of weapons of mass destruction is gradually growing. In future, public opinion is bound to undermine the credibility of the use of tactical nature weapons and, as deterrence Is more than anything else a mind game, the lack of credibility may lead to the failure of deterrence at a critical time. “Stable defences cannot be based on such dubious weapons.”
There are other major reasons too that suggest that tactical nuclear weapons are best left out of the armoury. Firstly, these are extremely complex weapons (particularly sub-kiloton mini-nukes because of the precision required in engineering) and are difficult and expensive to manufacture, store and maintain under field conditions as they require heavy logistics support. Inducting them into service even in small numbers would considerably raise the defence budget. Secondly, the command and control of tactical nuclear weapons has naturally to be decentralised during war to enable their timely employment. Extremely tight control would make their possession redundant and degrade their deterrence value by several orders of magnitude. Decentralised control would run the risk of their premature and even unauthorised use based on the discretion of field commanders, however discerning and conscientious they may be. Thirdly, dispersed storage and frequent transportation under field conditions, since the launchers must move from hide to hide to avoid being easily targeted by the enemy, increases the risk of accidents. Lastly the employment of conventional artillery and air-to-ground precision weapons by the enemy may damage or destroy stored nuclear warheads.
Finally, because of their inherent destructiveness, their indiscriminate nature and their gruesome genetic effects extending to future generations, nuclear weapons must never be used again. Hence, those who attempt to make them ‘usable’ by claiming to limit their effects to soldiers on the battlefield, presumed to be justifiable targets even for otherwise forbidden weapons, are on the wrong path. “Any nuclear weapon, of any quality, made of delivery or yield, used against any type of target, will result in a strategic impact to which the logical response would be the use of nuclear weapons, more often than not, on an overwhelming scale.” ~ The tactical nuclear weapons carpet cannot now be rolled back; it must not at least be unrolled any further. India and Pakistan, the new nuclear weapons states, must learn from the mistakes of the West and not take the lead in repeating them without justifiable gains.
A number of critical imponderables regarding tactical nuclear weapons make the issue poorly understood and largely unresolvable. Here an attempt has been made to analyse alternative views and interpretations about the efficacy of deploying and using tactical nuclear weapons. So many uncertainties exist that basic issues are really matters of judgement. Yet, many analysts have grappled with the imponderables and have reached firm conclusions to their own satisfaction. However, much of this conclusiveness rests on highly subjective assumptions and preferences—political, military and technological—that may have no basis in fact. The only coherent course of action for India appears to be that since no major advantages seem to accrue from tactical nuclear weapons in future conflicts on the Indian Subcontinent, their development and introduction into service are best avoided. The Indian nuclear arsenal does not need tactical nuclear weapons—and never will.