In Pakistan’s nuclear strategy, the primary task of its nuclear weapons is not to deter that of India’s, but to avoid an engagement with a superior military capability. Rawalpindi is aware of the risk of having to confront India as long as it pursues terrorism. But, it believes its nuclear weapons provide a shield that constrains India from militarily punishing it.
India has responded to this strategy by suggesting and illustrating (with Kargil) that there is space to fight a conventional war even in the presence of nuclear weapons. Over time, India has also tweaked its military doctrine to make this viable. This has obviously disturbed Pakistan. For, if an Indian conventional response can still be tailored to remain below Pakistani red lines, then its nuclear weapons have obviously failed.
Pakistan cannot afford this. It has to keep its nuclear weapons relevant and in the face of India, and the world, if it has to prevent a military offensive provoked by self-sponsored terrorism. It is in this context that the idea of battlefield use of nuclear weapons, or what are colloquially called tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs), comes in handy. The very nature of such weapons projects a lowering of the nuclear threshold. The objective is to reclaim the space that India maintains exists for a conventional war despite the presence of nuclear weapons.
In playing this game, Pakistan is not seeking to exploit the military aspect of the TNW. It has no illusions about the military effectiveness of the weapon. At the same time, Pakistani decision makers well understand that escalation control, even in the event of a single use of a tactical nuclear weapon, could well have profoundly tragic consequences. But, the policy of brinkmanship is used by the country for deterrence. In TNW, Rawalpindi has found another tool of keeping India, and by extension the international community, on the edge. In its scheme of things, Pakistan would not have to use the TNW, but only the threat of their use, to deter India.
Pakistan is using its TNWs, therefore, to send a political signal, not to win on the battlefield. In fact, it realises that in order to prevail even in a tactical situation, it would need a large TNW arsenal, which may be beyond the capacity of its fissile material accumulation. But, the purpose of the threat to use low-yield nuclear weapons on military targets is not to cause battlefield damage of a substantive nature, but to threaten to create a new situation that deters India from a conventional response.
Pakistan’s strategy of exploiting the political potential of TNWs is based on two assumptions. One, their use would bring about a sufficient material and psychological shift in hostilities to stun India into a halt. Confronted with the prospect of further escalation, the nature of Indian polity would choose war-termination over escalation. This, Pakistan believes, would checkmate India’s ability to exploit its superior conventional capability since it would not have the will to act. A second assumption that Pakistan makes is that TNW use would not be seen as provocation enough by India, or the rest of the world, to merit a nuclear response that would lead to further escalation. So, the international community will stop India from continuing its conventional campaign or undertaking nuclear retaliation. As is evident, Pakistan is not miscalculating India’s capability, but its credibility to act.
India’s response to Pakistan’s TNW must address these assumptions. In fact, India does not need to develop TNWs of its own, but to focus on enhancing the credibility of its nuclear deterrence. Pakistan does not doubt India’s capability, but its political will in mounting retaliation. It tends to believe that India, despite the use of the TNW, would face an asymmetry of interests in mounting a nuclear response. The doubt in the mind of the adversary appears to be whether India with a strategic culture of military restraint would find it prudent, and more importantly, morally acceptable to inflict damage (and risk more on itself) in response to a threat that is not itself mortal.
It is this doubt that India must remove from the adversary’s mind. Having based its deterrence on the threat of punishment, it is imperative that the assuredness or the certainty of retaliation to cause unacceptable damage be sufficiently and credibly conveyed. This could be achieved by reinforcing the public profile of the nuclear command and control at both the military and the political levels. There is need for greater transparency of structures and processes that assure nuclear retaliation. Knowledge of the fact that measures are being taken (without these being disclosed) to ensure survivability of the arsenal, as well as the chain of command at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels, and of the communication systems, should be occasionally mentioned. Secondly, it should also be made widely known that Indian troops have the ability to fight through tactical nuclear use. This would send a message of preparedness to handle such use without bringing conventional operations to a halt or even confronting the political leadership with the choice of war termination, as assumed by Rawalpindi. Thirdly, strengthening the profile of the Strategic Forces Command in public perception is necessary. The knowledge of the existence of the organisation that is mandated and is prepared to handle deterrence breakdown would assure the Indian public, while also sending a signal of intent and purpose to the adversary. Fourthly, better evidence and communication of political resolve to undertake retaliation is necessary. Periodic statements from authoritative levels like the National Security Adviser or Commander-in-Chief, SFC, or occasional news reports about meetings of Political Council of the National Command Authority would signal the seriousness of government’s attention to the nuclear backdrop that confronts India.
The purpose of the Indian nuclear weapon is narrow and limited to safeguarding the country against nuclear coercion, blackmail or its possible use. The path it has chosen to achieve this is through the suggestion of deterrence by punishment. This strategy seeks to deter nuclear use by conveying a certainty of retaliation in response to a first use, irrespective of its yield or choice of target. For India, therefore, any use of the nuclear weapon would have strategic implications. Pakistan may have introduced a new element with TNW, but India must let it be known that it would play the nuclear game according to its own rules.
The author is an Indian Council of Social Science Research senior fellow at the Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi.