Pakistan’s Nuclear Sabre-rattling: Tactical Nuclear Weapons are Unusable during War

 By Brig. Gurmeet Kanwal

Several times since India’s air strikes on the terrorist training facility at Balakot in Pakistan in February 2019, Prime Minister Imran Khan and his ministers have threatened nuclear war with India. Holding out nuclear threats, especially threatening the use of the Hatf-9 (Nasr) short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) on the battlefield against Indian forces is part of the Pakistani civilian and military leadership’s DNA.

As part of the nuclear learning that followed the end of the Cold War, it was generally accepted that nuclear exchanges cannot be limited to the battlefield. The use of tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) even on a small scale is likely to rapidly escalate into full-fledged strategic nuclear exchanges that are both counter value and counter force strikes leading to large-scale death and destruction.

It was also realised that TNWs cannot be effectively employed to bring the adversary’s offensive operations to a grinding halt. For example, one 8-10 Kiloton low air burst on an armoured combat group moving forward with a frontage and depth of 10-12 km each, would cause 30 to 40 personnel casualties and destroy or damage 10 to 12 tanks and infantry combat vehicles (ICVs) out of 50 to 55. The reserve combat group could resume the advance after a few hours, bypassing the area contaminated by radiation. It would be suicidal for Pakistan’s leadership to risk India’s (declared) ‘massive retaliation’ response that would follow and destroy Pakistan as a nation state in return for the dubious gains that the use of TNWs might provide.

Pakistan first tested a short range surface-to-surface multi-tube ballistic missile called Hatf IX (Nasr) on April 19, 2011. As a class of weapons, TNWs or battlefield nukes have several major disadvantages:

  • The command and control of TNWs needs to be decentralised at some point during war to enable their timely employment. The delegation of command and control increases the risk of premature and even unauthorised use.
  • TNWs are prone to what Henry Kissinger had called the “Mad Major Syndrome” – the unauthorised launch of a nuclear-tipped missile by an officer who decides to fight his own war.
  • The missile launchers and warheads must be moved frequently from one ‘hide’ to another to avoid being targeted. Dispersed storage and frequent transportation of the launchers and TNWs under field conditions increase the risk of accidents.
  • When TNWs are mated with the missiles that are mounted on deployed launchers, the warheads are vulnerable to sympathetic detonation on being hit from the air or by artillery fire. This could, in a rare case, lead to a nuclear explosion, causing the adversary to think that the missile battery has been deliberately targeted with a nuclear warhead.
  • The safety and security of TNWs is difficult to ensure as these are stored and moved around under field conditions. Hence, these are more vulnerable to Jihadi interception than strategic warheads that are stored under stringent safety and security conditions.

During the Cold War, the proponents of TNWs had justified their requirement on the grounds that these weapons deter the use of TNWs by the enemy; they provide flexible response over the whole range of possible military threats; they offer nuclear options below the strategic level; they help to defeat large-scale conventional attacks; and, they serve the political purpose of demonstrating commitment to the allies.

The opponents of TNWs asserted that these ‘more usable’ nuclear weapons would lower the nuclear threshold and make nuclear use more likely. Fears of collateral damage in the extensively populated and developed NATO heartland spurred European opposition to TNWs. Pakistan’s Punjab province has similarly developed terrain and is densely populated.

Those who oppose the targeting of nuclear warhead storage sites and missile launchers argue that if the adversary apprehends that his strategic assets can be destroyed before he can even plan to employ them, it creates a “use them, or lose them” fear psychosis and, consequently, lowers the threshold of the use of nuclear weapons.

From India’s point of view, as Pakistan has adopted a first use (in fact, ‘early’ first use) nuclear posture so as to neutralise India’s superiority in conventional military forces and bring India’s Strike Corps offensive operations to a grinding halt, it is in India’s national interest to locate and destroy as many as possible of Pakistan’s nuclear warhead storage sites, missile launchers and their command and control system as early as possible. Also, as India can never be sure exactly when Pakistan may carry out its threat to hit our leading combat echelons with nuclear warheads, it is necessary to locate and destroy all forward-deployed missile launchers.

It is for all of these reasons that India very sensibly decided not to opt for TNWs or nuclear weapons intended for battlefield use. Pakistan would also do well to dismantle its TNWs. In fact, India and Pakistan should mutually agree to retire their oldest, first generation, nuclear-capable SRBMs from their strategic arsenals. Pakistan should agree to dismantle Hatf-1, 2 and 3 and India should remove Prithvi-1 and 2 from its nuclear units if these missiles are nuclear-armed.

All of these SRBMs are obsolescent liquid-fuelled missiles that are due for decommissioning anyway. These are being replaced by more modern solid fuel missiles with a lower CEP or greater accuracy. The retirement process of these missiles should be on a reciprocal and transparent basis that is bilaterally verifiable. A good first step might be for both countries to unilaterally declare these nuclear-capable missiles to be non-nuclear delivery systems.

The costs and risks for India and Pakistan will be small, but the potential benefits are likely to be immeasurable. Such an agreement will be a nuclear confidence building measure (CBM) of a very high order. It will lead to other, even more important, CBMs being negotiated in due course.

Finally, 50,000 to 60,000 nuclear warheads were produced and stockpiled after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but some basic human survival instinct “repeatedly stayed the finger that might have pushed the button.” With TNWs mounted on SRBMs once again gaining currency that may not hold good for very long. Clearly, as a class of weapons, TNWs are well past their use by date.