Tactical Nukes-II

India’s best option is to call Pakistan’s bluff

The Statesman | Jul 23, 2002

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. Many Indian analysts recommend that in response to a Pakistani nuclear strike on Indian forces, India too should employ only tactical nuclear weapons on Pakistani forces, rather than raise the nuclear anti to full-scale retaliation.

There is an undeniably close link between nuclear weapons and a nation’s conventional military capabilities. A nation with a weaker conventional warfare capability vis-a-vis a nuclear_ armed adversary, is likely to rely on a “first use” strategy to defeat a conventional military offensive. Pakistan relies heavily on its first strike-doctrine to deter conventional conflict with India and, under the shadow of its nuclear umbrella, it has waged a low-intensity “proxy war” against India in Jammu and Kashmir and elsewhere for over a decade. It is for this reason that Pakistan refuses to accept India’s offer of a bilateral no-first-use treaty as a nuclear confidence building measure

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. The “opprobrium quotient”, as General Sundarji called it, would be low since the use of nuclear weapons could be justified by Pakistan as a defensive measure of the last resort. Many Indian analysts recommend that in response to a Pakistani nuclear strike on Indian forces, India too should employ only tactical nuclear weapons on Pakistani forces, rather than raise the nuclear anti to full-scale retaliation.

First strike

Though there is considerable merit in this argument, in India’s overall strategic equation with Pakistan it is a dangerous argument. It would completely degrade the potential not only of India’s nuclear deterrence but also of India’s conventional superiority. India’s nuclear deterrence is based on launching massive punitive retaliation to a nuclear first strike and any talk of a graduated response would undermine the efficacy of India’s deterrence.

The Indian military leadership will either have to run the risk of accepting the consequences of a nuclear first strike from Pakistan on its forces, 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-border 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 only sensible option would be to call Pakistan’s nuclear bluff and plan to launch strike corps offensive 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 first use of nuclear weapons against India and will invite massive counter value and counter force punitive retaliation against Pakistan.

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, Indian public opinion is unlikely to accept anything short of the final dismemberment of Pakistan in case that country chooses to cross the nuclear Rubicon and launches a nuclear strike, even if is on Indian forces.

Also, if despite such a declaratory strategy, Pakistan 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, “proportionate response” would not be a practicable strategic 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 fall force of India’s nuclear capability. Only such a policy would lead to adequate deterrence.

Upgrade response

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. However, if for some reason it becomes necessary for India to engage a small military target in Pakistan with nuclear weapons, as part of its overall retaliatory response, India can do so with air-dropped, precision guided nuclear glide bombs.

It wags 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. The professed military utility of blunting a major armoured offensive is debatable, as the attacker would ensure that he does not present a concentrated target. The attacker would concentrate rapidly for short duration 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 if tactical nukes were employed. Hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties would be unmanageable for an army fighting a war.

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 military service even in small numbers would considerably raise the defence budget.

Secondly, the command and control of tactical nuclear weapons has 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 or 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, increase 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.

Wrong path

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. Jasjit Singh has written: “Any’ nuclear weapon, of any quality, mode 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 political and military gains.

A number of critical imponderables regarding tactical nuclear weapons make the issue poorly understood. 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 judgment. Yet, many analysts 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 stems from the reasoning that since no major advantages are likely to accrue from tactical nuclear weapons in future conflicts on the Indian sub-continent, their development and introduction into military service are best avoided. The Indian nuclear arsenal does not need tactical nuclear weapons and never will