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The political strategy Pakistan’s battlefield nukes

India and the world should demolish Pakistan’s political strategy around short-range low-yield nuclear weapons

by Pranay Kotasthane (@pranaykotas)

Quartz India carried a piece today titled “Pakistan’s army is building an arsenal of tiny nuclear weapons—and it’s going to backfire”. As the title suggests, the piece is aimed at convincing the people of Pakistan that:

they should be more sanguine, or even alarmed by Pakistan’s development of tactical nuclear weapons.

The piece gives five reasons explaining the problems with Pakistan’s nuclear strategy. However, there is one essential issue that the article sidesteps, which is that Pakistani “tactical” nuke has already been deployed as a political weapon.

Given below is an assessment of the political aims and the strategy behind Pakistan’s development of short-range nuclear weapons.

The narrative of battlefield nukes serves two political aims. First, Pakistan assumes that given its possession of such weapons, India is more likely to tolerate terrorist attacks or territorial intrusions, rather than risk a nuclear retaliation. Second, it seeks international intervention on its side after escalating a border conflict by reminding the world how every single skirmish is a hair’s breadth away from a nuclear war.

If the recent academic debates are any indication, Pakistan is steadily gaining success in its political aims by creating an artificial distinction between tactical and strategic nuclear weapons, and that is a cause of concern for India and the world. The legend of tactical nukes is having the political effects desired by Pakistan in three ways.

First, Pakistan has been partly successful in creating a narrative that tactical nuclear weapons are merely an extension of a conventional war, and that their usage does not necessarily imply a full scale nuclear exchange. This artificial distinction has found support in some Indian quarters as well. Arguments such as “India’s nuclear doctrine is not credible enough to deter Pakistan’s tactical nuclear weapons” and “India is unlikely to press the nuclear button in response to a tactical nuclear weapons killing 30 odd Indian soldiers on Pakistan’s territory” are already being made in India.

Such arguments fundamentally misread the situation. The Indian nuclear doctrine is clear — it commits to massive retaliation in the event that a nuclear weapon is used against it, regardless of Pakistan’s marketing strategy around the weapon in question. This is sufficient to deter any move by Pakistan to use a nuke.

Second, a view that has taken shape recently is that somehow, the onus of preventing Pakistan from using tactical nuclear weapons lies with India. The argument goes that India should unilaterally declare that its conventional forces will never enter into Pakistan. Since Pakistan’s battlefield nuclear arsenal is primarily meant to counter India’s conventional advantage, Pakistan can then be convinced about scaling down the development of such nukes.

This argument is fallacious because it runs against the basic strategy of conventional war on which all modern armies have been based — to conquer territory and achieve stated objectives as determined before or during the war. Hence, it is not prudent to expect that the Indian armed forces, or for that matter any modern armed force, will acquiesce to any such declaration.  

Third, Pakistan has introduced an element of plausible deniability into the deterrence equation. Analysts often cite that command and control operations of tactical nukes mean that a single soldier may push the world into a nuclear exchange. Worse still, Pakistan has conveyed that nukes may unintentionally fall into the hands of the terrorists. Again, the fear of command and control problems been hugely exaggerated by Pakistan. The unintended usage of a nuclear weapon on Pakistani soil is of a much greater concern to the Pakistani army rather than to India.

The deterrence in India—Pakistan scenario rests on the principle of Mutually Unacceptable Damage (MUD) — that both countries will find the nuclear destruction of even one of their cities unacceptable. At the low levels of availability and operability of nuclear warheads in both countries, not even a total nuclear exchange will completely destroy India or Pakistan. The Indian side particularly wants the nuclear threshold to be as high as possible so that it does not have to use nuclear weapons ever, knowing that it will halt its primary quest for securing prosperity to its citizens. The question is whether the Pakistani military—jihadi complex considers a nuclear exchange unacceptable to the same extent, or not. As long as it does, we need not worry about Pakistan’s fiction of tactical nuclear weapons. India is in a position to manage the nuclear threat from Pakistan by systematically discrediting the political strategy behind Pakistan’s “tactical” nuclear weaponry.

Pranay Kotasthane is a Research Fellow at The Takshashila Institution. He is on twitter @pranaykotas

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