An examination of the range of nuclear weapons, their 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. 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 TBA. This will naturally increase the risk of accidental and inadvertent employment of nuclear weapons.
A popular news magazine recently published a cover story on tactical nuclear weapons. The story highlighted the prevailing nuclear tension between India and Pakistan and suggested that Pakistan’s possession of tactical nuclear weapons was “playing on the (Indian) army’s mind” as it firmed up its military options. A deeper examination of the Indo-Pak nuclear equation reveals that if at all the issue of nuclear weapons has to play on anybody’s mind, it would weigh rather heavily on the minds of Pakistan’s military leadership. Perhaps it is for this reason that General Musharraf blinked first and agreed to stop infiltration of so-called mujahideen into Jammu and Kashmir permanently.
The worlds 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 low-yield nuclear weapon anywhere on earth would be one too many for the international community to accept. The Nuclear Rubicon cannot be lightly crossed and whichever nation decides to cross it first would have to bear the consequences. The employment of nuclear weapons as usable weapons in war was always doubtful; it is even more questionable today.
An examination of the range of nuclear weapons, their 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 fighter-bombers, 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. 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 the public perception, the most popular tactical nuclear weapons have been the 8-inch (203 mm) M-110 and the 155 mm M109 atomic artillery weapons and the Lance and Honest John surface-to-surface missiles, all of the United States. At the upper end of the maximum range scale were the Pershing missiles with a range of 160 to 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.
The tactical use of 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 Treaty was signed between the US and the Soviet Union in 1987. This 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”.
Strategic nuclear targets are either counter-value (major enemy cities and industrial centres) or counter-force targets (nuclear assets of the adversary including delivery means). Tactical or battlefield nuclear targets are normally those that are located within the tactical battle area. Besides the enemy’s forces, tactical targets include his military infrastructure, headquarters and communications centres and bridgeheads established on a defensive obstacle system. Yields of 10 to 20 kilotons are normally 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 and artillery guns with a caliber of 155 mm medium or more (atomic artillery) are capable of firing fractional kiloton yield nuclear warheads.
Indian proponents of the use of tactical nuclear weapons argue that these should form part of the Indian army’s armoury also, 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. In General Sundarji’s 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-lI 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 Newsletter. it follows that India is in a position to develop tactical nuclear weapons of fractional-kiloton yields and can exercise such an option if it chooses to. This is a strategic capability that must be sustained. Whether or not such a capability is in the national interest at the present juncture is another matter.
Indian analysts are divided on whether India needs tactical nuclear weapons. Brahma Chellaney justifies the use of tactical nuclear weapons on the grounds that “without tactical weapons, a failed deterrent situation could uncontrollably spark counter-city attacks, wreaking limitless destruction… 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… (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 has always been 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. Only Indian analysts 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. 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 forsworn”. 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 tipping the missile with a nuclear warhead makes ample military sense.
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 TBA. This will naturally increase the risk of accidental and inadvertent employment of nuclear weapons. It is a risk that is best avoided.