Inderjit Panjrath Writes:Post the Uri attack on 18 September, the frenzy of debates and discussions regarding India’s response options to terror attacks by Pakistan have brought back into focus, Pakistan’s tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs). There seems to be a strong pitch to project these as the proverbial ‘Brahmastra’ in Pakistan’s possession, foreclosing any sort of military retaliatory strike by India. As per a recent report in the TOI dated 21 September, “a potential low-yield, TNW strike by Pakistan is perhaps the single most important factor preventing the Modi government from taking military action against Pakistan in haste”[i]. Is this a correct analysis or are we giving the devil more than it’s due?
While it may not be prudent to jump at knee jerk military retaliation, it is high time we debunked some myths.
At the face of it, there is no doubt that Pakistan’s apparent induction of NASR or HATF IX, a TNW with a capability to deliver a sub kiloton nuclear warhead at a maximum range of 60Km, has vastly altered the nuclear balance between the two South-Asian neighbours. This is primarily on two accounts.
First, given its short range and limited yield, it is a ‘counter-force’ weapon to specifically target Indian attacking forces, as against other nuclear weapons, which are designed to cause enormous damage to ‘counter-value’ national assets. Such a threat tends to impose great caution on the adversary while planning a military offensive as it demands not only appropriate modification in plans & tactics, but also re-equipping and psychological reconditioning of troops & commanders at all levels. Second, India has a declared policy of No First Use (NFU) backed by massive retaliation, in case it is subjected to a strike by nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. While a massive retaliatory strike causing unacceptable damage to the adversary in response to a first strike using high yield strategic nuclear weapons would definitely be justified, such a response may be considered disproportionate against a TNW strike which has considerably low lethality. This implies that introduction of TNWs has not only added another level in the escalatory matrix in case of a conflict, but also substantially lowered the nuclear threshold, consequently narrowing the space for conventional war fighting.
Having stated the above, possessing a capability is one thing; ability to effectively utilize it is another. Therefore, it is essential to realistically assess the credibility of the Pakistani TNW threat based on availability in sufficient numbers, intent and real options for utilisation. While the delivery means may have been demonstrated, does Pakistan have the technology to develop a miniaturized warhead compatible with the NASR? Given the limited lethality and restricted effect of this type of weapon, would she be able to produce, deploy and sustain the numbers required for effective deterrence? Does she have the means, resources and ability to establish a network for their operational command, control and safety (including from terrorist organisations) since these are to be deployed well forward for effective & timely utilisation? Given her limited strategic depth and the highly populated border areas, are these usable in time and space to deter an Indian offensive? Will Pakistan use these in her own territory (thereby risking internal outrage) after an offensive strike is launched by India or fire them in Indian territory in anticipation, thereby inviting a massive retaliatory strike as also earning the wrath of the international community as the perpetrator of a nuclear conflict? Are these available for utilisation across the entire border and Line of Control, regardless of peculiarities of the varying terrain & demography? These are pertinent questions to be answered for an informed examination. A carefully weighed analysis would definitely throw up enough options for Indian policy makers, given the might, reputation and track record of her armed forces.
Contrary to what many in the West would want us to believe, nuclear dimensions of a conflict are not detached from its other manifestations. While Pakistan has constantly evolved its military doctrine and successfully transformed the conflict spectrum into a nuclear-conventional-sub conventional continuum, our strategic thinkers seem to have faltered in recognizing that change and continue to live in the times when these were two distinct conflict spaces. Deterrence being a two sided affair, a lot depends on how Indian policy makers perceive the threat from TNWs. We too need to realistically consider our threats and options, granting to the adversary only what is legitimate and then make choices commensurate to our military capabilities and financial muscle so as to alter the conflict spectrum to our advantage.