Pakistan’s tactical nuclear warheads and the efficacy of India’s nuclear doctrine

The War College Journal | Aug 4, 2016

Following the terrorist attack at Uri in September 2016, several Pakistanis, including Khawaja Asif, the Defence Minister, held out nuclear threats to deter Indian military retaliation, particularly the threat to employ tactical nuclear warheads against Indian forces. India's nuclear doctrine states that India will retaliate with nuclear weapons in case chemical or biological weapons are used against India.

Following the terrorist attack at Uri in September 2016, several Pakistanis, including Khawaja Asif, the Defence Minister, held out nuclear threats to deter Indian military retaliation, particularly the threat to employ tactical nuclear warheads (IINWs) against Indian forces.
In an endeavour to preserve strategic stability, India, a reluctant nuclear power, has demonstrated immense restraint despite grave incitement from Pakistan. In stark contrast, ever since it became a nuclear-armed state, Pakistan’s behaviour has been marked by brinkmanship, with provocation bordering tantalisingly on actions that could lead to large-scale conventional conflict with nuclear overtones. Recent developments in Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal have been of the same destabilising pattern.
As part of its quest for ‘full spectrum deterrence’, Pakistan has developed the Hatf-9 (Nasr) short-range ballistic missile (SSRBM). Pakistan claims the Hatf-9 is equipped with a tactical nuclear warhead and is intended for battlefield use as a weapon of warfighting. The Pakistan Army appears to believe that a few TNWs can stop the advance of Indian forces across the International Boundary (IB) into Pakistan. By employing TNWs on the battlefield, the Pakistan Army hopes to checkmate India’s ‘Pro-active Offensive Operations Doctrine’, which is colloquially called the ‘Cold Start Doctrine’.
This article analyses the efficacy of INWs as weapons of warfighting. It examines the likely effect on Indian forces if Pakistan detonates a few INWs on the columns of the Indian Army advancing across the IB and, consequently, the possible impact on India’s nuclear doctrine.

INWs are Inherently Destabilising

Though it is in use, the term INW 1s a misnomer. The employment of nuclear weapons on the battlefield will have a strategic impact and geostrategic repercussions. TNWs are extremely costly and complex to manufacture and difficult to transport, store and maintain under field conditions. Due to their short range — the nuclear-capable Hatf-9 has a maximum range of 60 km — the authority to fire has to be delegated to field commanders at an early stage in the battle.
This leads to the dilution of centralised control and creates a proclivity to ‘use them, or lose them’. TNWs are also susceptible to unauthorised use, or what Henry Kissinger had called the ‘Mad Major Syndrome’. The TNW missile launchers are likely to be targeted by the adversary when deployed. Together, all of these disadvantages lower the threshold of nuclear use and make TNWs a highly destabilising class of weapons.
The NATO-Warsaw Pact experience during the Cold War shows that ‘nuclear exchanges’ cannot be kept limited to the battlefield and are guaranteed to escalate rapidly to fullfledged nuclear war with strategic warheads designed to destroy large cities. India has wisely refrained from adding INWs to its nuclear arsenal. Pakistan would also do well to eliminate these weapons from its nuclear arsenal.
While the Hatt-9 (Nasr) SRBM is technically capable of being capped with a nuclear warhead, whether this has actually been done is not known in the public domain. The warhead 1s likely to be based on a linear implosion Plutonium design and is likely to have been cold tested. Pakistan’s Plutonium stocks are limited. The four Khushab reactors can together produce Plutonium that is sufficient for only 10-12 nuclear warheads per year. Considering the low level of damage that TNWs cause, the decision on how much of the Plutonium stock should be allocated for TNWs vis-a-vis that for strategic warheads would be a difficult one to make. Hence, it may be deduced that Pakistan is unlikely to have a large stockpile of TNW°s in its nuclear arsenal.

Strategic Stability in South Asia

Strategic stability is a product of deterrence stability, crisis stability and arms race stability in the context of a hostile political relationship between two nations. In the South Asian context, the hostile political relationship stems from the unresolved territorial dispute over Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) with an active Line of Control (LoC). The state of strategic stability in South Asia has for long been a cause of concern for the international community. Pakistan’s proxy war against India is now in its third decade despite several peace overtures made by India. Waged primarily by Pakistan’s “deep state’ — the Army and the ISI — through terrorist organisations like the the JeM and the HM, it is showing no signs of tapering off. In fact, the unrest in Kashmir Valley in the summer of 2016, terrorist strikes at Udhampur, Gurdaspur, Pathankot and Pampore and the interception of infiltration attempts across the LoC once again indicate an increase in the intensity of the proxy war.
Despite grave provocation, for almost 30 years, India showed strategic restraint and limited its counter-proxy war fightback to counter-insurgency operations on its own side of the LoC in J&K. However, the terrorist strikes at Pathankot in January 2016 and at Uri in September 2016 crossed India’s red lines and India retaliated with surgical strikes across the LoC plus a range of political, diplomatic and economic measures. Indian public opinion has been deeply enraged and the people will not accept inaction or inadequate retaliation in future. A ‘major’ terrorist strike sponsored by Pakistan’s deep state — on a politically sensitive target, causing large-scale casualties and extensive damage to critical military or civilian infrastructure — in future is likely to result in even stronger Indian military retaliation to inflict punishment on the Pakistan Army and its organs with a view to raising their cost of waging a proxy war.
Pakistan’s ‘first use’ doctrine, quest for full spectrum deterrence, the development of TNWs as weapons of warfighting, the Army’s control over nuclear decision making and the risk that nuclear weapons may fall into Jihadi hands, are all causes of instability. Pakistan views India’s Pro-active Offensive Operations doctrine (popularly called Cold Start) as being de-stabilising. Overall, the state of relations between the two countries may be described as ‘ugly stability’, a term coined by Ashley Tellis (then with the RAND Corporation) in the mid-1990s. It is a tenuous stability that could evaporate very quickly during a crisis.

Possibility of Limited War

The conventional wisdom in India is that there is space for limited war below the nuclear threshold. Though Indian military retaliation for a major terrorist strike would be carefully calibrated to avoid threatening Pakistan’s nuclear red lines, under certain circumstances the exchanges could escalate to a war in the plains. For example, Pakistan may launch pre-emptive offensive operations across the IB, including strikes on Indian air bases or naval assets. Such a response from Pakistan will force India to launch counteroffensive operations with a view to destroying as much as possible of Pakistan’s war waging machinery and, in the process, simultaneously capturing a limited amount of territory as a bargaining counter. The capture of territory is unlikely to be a primary aim as territory captured across the IB will have to be returned.
The Pakistan Army seeks to convince India that it has a low nuclear threshold and that its nuclear red lines are fairly close to the IB. The proximity of nuclear red lines to the IB would vary from sector to sector and would be a matter of careful assessment based on intelligence inputs. In keeping with its behaviour as a responsible nuclear power, it would be India’s intention to keep the scale and the intensity of the conflict low so as not to threaten Pakistan’s nuclear red lines. However, if Pakistan’s defensive operations do not proceed as planned and in its perception the ‘space’ red line is threatened at one of more places, the Pakistan Army may deem it necessary to use TNWs on its own soil to contest Indian offensive operations, in keeping with its clearly stated intention to do so.
Pakistani analysts (senior retired armed forces officers as well as diplomats and academics) appear to have convinced themselves that no Indian Prime Minister will authorise massive retaliation with nuclear weapons if Pakistan uses ‘a few’ TNWs against Indian forces on its own soil — on the grounds that such use does not constitute first use for India. Presumably, a similar belief is held by Pakistan’s senior commanders who are in positions of authority in the nuclear chain of command. Such a belief, though falsely held, lowers the threshold of use of nuclear warheads as weapons of wat fighting. Also, though such a belief questions the credibility of India’s doctrine of massive retaliation, it does not address the issue of the consequences that Pakistan will suffer in a contingency where the Indian PM, heading the Political Council of the Nuclear Command Authority (NCA), actually approves massive retaliation. Deterrence is ultimately a mind game.

Efficacy of TNWs as Weapons of War Fighting

Given the low casualty rates and minimal material damage if TNWs are employed on the battlefield against mechanised forces, the Pakistan Army’s faith in their ability to bring Indian offensive operations to a grinding halt is questionable. Simple calculations on the efficacy of TNWs against a mechanised forces combat group (roughly comprising an armoured regiment and a company of mechanised infantry) advancing in desert or semi-desert terrain are revealing. The combat group (60 armoured fighting vehicles — AFVs) would normally advance with two combat teams forward over a frontage of 10-12 km and depth of 8-10 km. In a Nuclear, Biological and Chemical (NBC) environment, AFVs generally move forward in buttoned-down condition (cupolas closed, full NBC protection). A reasonable assumption would be that the civilian population of the sector in which TNWs are intended to be employed would have been evacuated.
If a nuclear warhead of 8-10 KT is detonated over this combat group (low air burst explosion, with the ground zero close to the centre of the combat group), the initial casualties would be in the range of 20-30 personnel killed or wounded and 10-12 AFVs destroyed or damaged. While the leading combat group would need to regroup — that is, undertake casualty evacuation, repair and recovery and decontamination, the reserve combat group of the combat command/armoured brigade could resume the advance in six to eight hours.
In the absence of an equivalent Indian publication, the template used for working out the casualty figures given above is United States Field Manual FM 3-3-1. Also, the Hatf-9 warhead is likely to be of a much lower yield than 8-10 KT and would, consequently, cause even lesser damage.
In the case of an Indian bridge head across a water obstacle being hit, the casualties would be a hundred times greater, but in a bridge head the adversary’s troops would be in contact with Indian troops and, hence, a bridge head is a much less likely target.
By employing TNWs against Indian forces, even if it employs these on its own soil, the Pakistan Army would have broken the nuclear taboo without achieving anything substantive by way of influencing the course of an ongoing military operation. In the process, it would risk the destruction of major cities and its strategic reserves as well as nuclear forces should India choose to retaliate massively. The leadership of the Pakistan Army must also have done these calculations. Therefore, their advocacy of Indian disinclination to retaliate massively in response to their use of TNWs on their own soil indicates either a flawed analysis, or it is nothing but a bluff – a bluff that the Indian armed forces would be inclined to call.

Doctrinal Challenges

During a crisis, if deterrence breaks down, the essence of nuclear strategy would lie in minimising civilian and military casualties and material damage and preventing escalation, while ensuring the survival of the state. If Pakistan detonates TINWs on Indian forces on its own soul, the major options available to India are the following:
Option ‘A’: Massive retaliation to inflict unacceptable damage and cripple Pakistan as a functional nation state.
Option ‘B’: A guid pro quo or quid pro quo plus response (‘flexible response’), in order to minimise the probability of further nuclear exchanges and keep the level of casualties and destruction as low as possible.
Option ‘C’: Refrain from retaliating with nuclear weapons, but warn Pakistan of dire consequences if any more nuclear strikes are launched. This option is the least likely to be adopted and is not discussed further.
If deterrence ever breaks down, publicly declared doctrine will become irrelevant. The Political Council of the NCA will decide how to retaliate based on the advice given by the Executive Council, of which the three Services Chiefs are members. The method and mode of the retaliation will be based on the prevailing operational-strategic situation and the likely reactions, especially the probability of further nuclear exchanges, and the reactions of the international community — the threats held out, the appeals made and the course of the discussions held in the United Nations Security Council.
From India’s point of view, massive retaliation (Option ‘A)) 1s the most suitable option for deterrence as anything else will run the risk of lowering the nuclear threshold and encourage the Pakistan Army to continue to bank on the early use of TNWs to counter operational reverses. Flexible response (Option ‘B’) would run the risk of continuing, and repeated nuclear strikes. Also, breaking the nuclear taboo would be considered unacceptable by the international community.
India’s nuclear doctrine clearly states that “nuclear weapons will only be used in retaliation against a nuclear attack on Indian territory or on Indian forces anywhere.” ‘This debunks the Pakistan Army’s belief that its use of INWs against Indian forces on its own soil will not constitute first use. The widely held belief among members of India’s strategic community 1s that even if the Pakistan Army employs TNWs against Indian forces on Pakistani soul, the most appropriate option will be massive retaliation to inflict unacceptable damage. However, such a decision will not be made lightly. A decision to approve massive retaliation would be far easter to reach in case Pakistan uses TNWs against Indian forces, but on Indian soil.

Impact on India’s Nuclear Doctrine

As 12 years have passed since India’s nuclear doctrine was approved by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) in January 2003 and many new developments have taken place, a review of the doctrine is necessary. In fact, a review should be carried out every 10 years. Recommendations for continuity in some provisions and changes in other provisions of India’s nuclear doctrine are given below:
India’s nuclear doctrine premised on ‘credible minimum deterrence’ and posture of ‘no first use’ has stood the test of time and no change is necessary.
India’s declaratory strategy is that of ‘massive retaliation’ to a nuclear first strike and is “designed to inflict unacceptable damage’. This was enunciated in the Government of India statement issued on January 4, 2003, after the Cabinet Committee on Security had reviewed the progress in the operationalisation of India’s nuclear deterrence.
Ideally, the retaliatory strategy should have been that of flexible response’ that results in ‘punitive retaliation… to inflict unacceptable damage’, as envisaged in the Draft Nuclear Doctrine of August 17, 1999, prepared by the first NSAB headed by K Subrahmanyam. However, as the strategy of ‘massive retaliation’ is a viable deterrence strategy that has served India well, no change is recommended. It would work well even in a contingency where Pakistani planners may consider using TNWs against Indian forces on Pakistani soil as they cannot possibly risk massive Indian retaliation.
However, the credibility of massive retaliation needs to be enhanced through a carefully formulated signalling plan.
Signalling should be based on an elaborate plan designed to showcase the preparedness of India’s nuclear forces and the firmness of its political will. For example, information about regular meetings of the Political Council and the Executive Council of the NCA should be made public (without disclosing the agenda).
India’s nuclear doctrine states that India will retaliate with nuclear weapons in case chemical or biological weapons are used against India. This is neither credible nor desirable as chemical or biological weapons may be used by non-state actors of by a state through proxy non-state actors with easy deniability. In either case, it would not be appropriate to retaliate with nuclear warheads. Hence, this formulation should be dropped from the nuclear doctrine.
Despite its costs and the risk of endangering arms race stability, ballistic missile defence (BMD) provides major advantages to a nation that follows a no first use strategy. The Government should consider sanctioning a phased BMD project to protect major cities and strategic forces.
As ‘IINWs are extremely destabilising, Indian diplomacy should ensure that international pressure is brought to bear on Pakistan to eliminate TNWs from its nuclear arsenal. A sustained campaign needs to be mounted by strategic analysts, scholars and academics to apprise the policy community and the public of the risks associated with TNWs.
It is in India’s interest to discuss nuclear CBMs and nuclear risk reduction measures (NRRMs) with Pakistan in greater depth than has been the case till now. Back channel interlocutors.
such as the two National Security Advisors (NSAs), can also play a useful role in promoting confidence and reducing the risk of inadvertent escalation to nuclear exchanges.