Tactical Nuclear Weapons: A Step Closer to the Abyss


Vice Admiral (retd.) Vijay Shankar

This article was first published by the Institute for Peace and Conflict StudiesNew Delhi, On November 30th, 2013.

Keywords: Tactical Nuclear Weapons, South Asian Nuclear Doctrine, NATO Paradigm, Nasr, India-Pakistan LoC

The Futility of Tactical Nuclear Weapons

        In March 2013 a workshop was conducted under the aegis of the Naval Post Graduate School in Monterey, CA. It sought to examine the escalation dynamics in a South Asian crisis under a nuclear overhang. A scrutiny of the scenario suggested that a vertical escalatory spiral was central to the paradigm and therefore, intrinsic to its anatomy was an inexorable traction to extremes. First blood had been drawn by a  Pakistan State sponsored terror attack, it targeted leadership at a very large public gathering leading to extensive casualties; in most strategic lexicons this is an act of war. The demands of the Indian side, unfortunately, were given short shrift. Had some movement been made towards apprehending and handing over the terrorists, the situation could have been defused.

        Accordingly, a swift punitive military thrust was launched by Indian forces across the LoC and a Maritime Exclusion Zone was decreed. Forces primarily used were the less intrusive Air and Sea arms. This in turn escalated to action that was not restricted to the LoC. The introduction of tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) into the battle area attained inevitability. To Indian Leadership the question posed was how would offensive Indian forces respond? In the event a deliberate decision was made to search out and strike the nuclear tipped Nasr batteries as with other tactical artillery pieces without discrimination; and should a nuclear Nasr launch occur on Indian Forces it would be regarded as a First Strike and India would reserve the right to launch massive retaliatory strikes to the dictates of her Nuclear Doctrine. The adversary balked from deploying TNWs.

What is it all about? The Essence of Stability

      Marshall Ferdinand Foch, one of the lesser of the meat grinding generals of the First World War when faced with the bewildering nature of the larger strategic situation is said to have countered with a fundamental question, De quoi s’agit-il?  – What is it all about? Indeed this poser if understood and answered in the context of nuclear stability would bring us to the complexities that face nations with the coming of a weapon that can obliterate the very purpose of warfare; in the circumstance the separation of the conventional from the nuclear is a logical severance. A major divergence from the Two-Bloc-Nuclear-Face-Off of the past is nuclear multilateralism. In this altered plurality the true enemy is the dynamic that rocks the equilibrium.

       The essence of stability is to find agreement on three foundational truths. Firstly, technology, while it provides for modernization it invites covertness whereas its impact demands transparency. Secondly, that the army in Pakistan is the real power centre, and therefore for India to engage an enfeebled civilian leadership is self defeating. Thirdly, TNWs make for a dangerously unconvincing deterrent correlation.

         Why would a nation turn its back on the prudence of the past six decades and deliberately reduce the nuclear threshold through the introduction of TNWs and in a situation of mortal internal collapse, invite the increasing probability of the breakdown of nuclear deterrence? After all it was the Pak foreign Minister Mr. Aga Shahi in dialogue with the American Secretary of State in 1979 who suggested that the “value of nuclear weapons lies in its possession and not in its use”. TNWs are marked by several features that prop up the illusion of control and the misguided belief that the adversary would, for some reason, abjure the opportunity to escalate response. Its deployment will attract pre emptive suppressive action and doctrine for employment follows conventional field axioms with the risk of accidental, unauthorized or mistaken use.  It therefore promotes only one cause and that is the Pakistani military establishment’s hold on that hapless state. Recognizing the politics of the South Asian region and the emasculated nature of civilian leadership in Pakistan; the dangers of adding nuclear violence to military perfidy, as recent proliferatory history and Jihadist terror acts have shown, is more than just a reality.

The NATO Paradigm

      Pakistan in defense of TNWs often cites the NATO analogy. However, by the 1980s NATO was doctrinally imbued with the idea of the irrelevance of nuclear weapons against less than existential threats. With this conviction, both Britain and France perceived the use of nuclear weapons (of any yield) as a failure of deterrence and therefore not a realistic alternative to conventional forces. Employment of TNWs through the doctrine of ‘flexible response’ did not provide the lever to control the escalatory ladder. The strategy, even in concept lacked conviction for limited nuclear war is a contradiction in terms.

The Burden of God’s Gift

      The South Asian nuclear imbroglio is evolving under circumstances that are unique. A shared antagonistic history; geographic contiguity; a political and structural contradiction between a centralized de facto military leadership and a democratic dispensation; a yawning economic gap; and, awkwardly a self ordained military that (mis)perceives in antagonism an existential peril and a reason for self perpetuation. India also views the complicity of China in the Pakistan nuclear weapons programme as suggestive of doctrinal links that permit a ‘Janus’ faced approach to the latter’s  no first use posture.

      Pakistan contends that the articulation of a nuclear doctrine is unnecessary for the purpose of establishing deterrence.  Unfortunately, a nation that announced its nuclear weapon status and views it as “God’s gift”  must also realize that a deterrent relationship is essentially about mutual knowledge of purpose. Ambiguities, deception and carousing with non state actors can only serve to obfuscate.

The Challenge: Contending with Pakistan’s Perspective

     The impending introduction of a sea-based deterrent into the Indian arsenal, rather than being seen as an element of stability that will enhance credibility of the second strike, is perceived through a curious logic as an asymmetric trend that somehow adversely impacts crisis stability.  Given the opacity of Pakistan’s strategic nuclear underpinnings, descent to TNWs and duplicity of policies, it has become increasingly prickly for India to either understand nuclear thinking in Islamabad or to find coherence between a mania for parity, the rush for stockpiling fissile material and the loosening of controls over nuclear weapons.

       More puzzling is the strategic notion that the perceived conventional imbalance between the two countries may be countered by Pakistan exercising one of two options: firstly, secure an assured second-strike capability; secondly, place the arsenal on ‘hair trigger alert’ and then the argument goes, introduce TNWs as “another layer of deterrence” designed to apply brakes on India’s military doctrine of Cold Start (ala NATO’s discredited formulation). As Feroz Khan posits, “Pakistan’s flight-testing of the short-range, nuclear-capable rocket system Hatf-9 (Nasr), was introduced to add ‘deterrence value’ to Pakistan’s force posture.” The author in a bizarre contradictory temper adds “due to the proximity of targets, short flight times and the technical challenges of assuring information accuracy, the likelihood of inadvertence is high.” He further holds that “…central command and control will become untenable and the ‘Nasr’ with its marked footprint will attract punishing pre-emptive conventional attack. Thus, battlefield nuclear weapons such as Hatf-9 will pose a ‘use it or lose it’ choice, precipitating a nuclear exchange that may not be intended.”  The unbiased political examiner is left bewildered that if such be the imbalances in the power matrix, then why does Pakistan not seek rapprochement as a priority of their military, economic and political policies? The answer perhaps lies in asking, “Who stands to gain in this power play?”

Conclusion: The Quest for a Response 

       Pakistan espouses an opaque deterrent under military control steered by a doctrine obscure in form, seeped in ambiguity and guided by a military strategy that finds unity with non-state actors. The introduction of TNWs exacerbates credibility of control. It does not take a great deal of intellectual exertions to declare whose case lowering of the nuclear threshold promotes. Two options present themselves to the Indian planner; firstly to generate specialised forces that continuously track and mark TNWs and incorporates an airborne conventional capability to neutralise them. The second option is a soft one that aims at dispelling the veil of opacity that surrounds the nuclear deterrent. What may have impact is a combination of the two.

       Nietzsche astutely warned that “And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee”. Thus far nuclear relations in the region have been bedeviled by a persistent effort to combat the monsters that the shroud of covertness has cast; it has left us the unenviable task of out staring an abyss. Nietzsche in the circumstance would have advised an assault on the first causes – dispel opacity and engage the military through dialogue and from a position of total preparedness.

2 thoughts on “Tactical Nuclear Weapons: A Step Closer to the Abyss

  1. Oh my goodness! Awesome article dude! Thanks,
    However I am experiencing issues with your RSS.
    I don’t understand the reason why I am unable to join it. Is there
    anyone else getting identical RSS problems? Anyone that knows the solution
    can you kindly respond? Thanks!!

  2. A motivating discussion is worth comment. I do think that you should publish
    more on this issue, it might not be a taboo subject but usually people don’t speak about these topics.
    To the next! Many thanks!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s