Written By: Dr. Rizwana Karim Abbasi
What purpose did Short Range Nuclear Weapons (SRNWs) or Tactical Nuclear Weapons (TNWs) play in the history of nations’ security policy? Why did the U.S. make the TNWs during the Cold War? Did this weapon introduce stabilizing or destabilizing effects? During the Cold War, nuclear weapons indeed remained central to the U.S. strategy of dissuading Soviet aggression against the U.S. and its allied nations. The U.S. invented diversified platforms that could carry nuclear warheads, thus crafting a complex countermeasure strategy and detailed operational plans to guide the use of these weapons in the event of a conflict with the former Soviet Union and its allies. Due to cost-effectiveness of this weapon, both the nations developed thousands of these to deploy outside their own territories. For example, the U.S. had over 7000 weapons deployed in Europe and about 2000 in the Pacific. Soviets also deployed these weapons at nearly 600 bases, with some located in Warsaw Pact nations in Eastern Europe, some in the non-Russian republics.
It is significant to mention here that the fundamental purpose of deployment of this weapon by the U.S. in the battlefield was against the advances of advarsaries’ conventional forces and proxies in the Western Europe. This was the U.S. signalling to the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact that any aggression or conventional move could invite nuclear retaliation. Nuclear learning curve remained consistantly changing during the Cold War in regard to the size and strucure of both strategic and non-strategic nuclear forces in response to transforming nuclear technologies and evolving threat spectrum.
It appears that NATO will continue to maintain this full range of capabilities as long as nuclear weapons exist and to deter and defend against any threat. This is why the New START Treaty was silent on limiting or banning these weapons. Although neither the U.S. nor the Soviet Union had used these weapons during the peak time of Cold War, however, despite the end of the Cold War, the TNWs still continue to play a role in the United States’ extended deterrence in Europe to have stabilizing effects in their strategic competition.
Later, the former Soviet Union broke America’s nuclear supremacy and monopoly, which had certainly helped regulate the intensity of war. Thus, based on their technological capabilities, both the nations realised there could be no victory in the nuclear domain. The introduction of new conventional technologies, such as ballistic missile defences and missile interceptors, reduced the role and utility of these weapons globally and indeed modified the U.S.’ behaviour. The U.S. later began to reduce these forces in the late 1970s with the number of operational non-strategic nuclear warheards declining from more than 7000 in the mid 1970s to below 6000 in the 1980s to fewer than 1000 by the middle of 1990s. In 1991, the then U.S. President, George H. W. Bush ordered to withdraw all land-based TNWs from overseas bases and all sea-based TNWs from U.S. surface ships, submarines and naval aircraft. Resultantly, the U.S. dismantled approximately 2,150 warheads from land-based delivery systems. Later, in 1991, NATO decided to reduce by about half the number of weapons for nuclear capable aircraft based in Europe which led to the withdrawal of an additional 700 U.S. air delivery nuclear weapons. TNWs were removed from bases in Korea and Europe by 1991 and 1992 respectively as a result of reduced threat in the backdrop of Soviet disintegartion.
Despite its superior conventional force, the TNWs still loom large in NATO’s deterrent policy against potential existential threats. Each nation still possesses thousands of these weapons deployed with their troops in the field, aboard naval vessels and aircraft. For example, the U.S. has approximately 760 non-strategic weapons with some deployed in Europe and the remaining in the U.S. Russia also possesses nearly 1000-6000 warheads for non-strategic weapons in its arsenals at present. It appears that NATO will continue to maintain this full range of capabilities as long as nuclear weapons exist and to deter and defend against any threat. This is why the New START Treaty was silent on limiting or banning these weapons. Although neither the U.S. nor the Soviet Union had used these weapons during the peak time of Cold War, however, despite the end of the Cold War, the TNWs still continue to play a role in the United States’ extended deterrence in Europe to have stabilizing effects in their strategic competition.
A question now arises that why did Pakistan include Short Range Nuclear Weapons (SRNWs) in its inventory? What is the purpose of these low yield weapons and how long would Pakistan rely on them? As a result of the Indian crafting the Cold Start Doctrine (based on offensive orientation thereby maximizing the probability of a limited war to achieve limited objectives in short time, thus denying Pakistan the opportunity to climb the escalation ladder), Pakistan crafted a re-balancing strategy to address Indian aggression, brinkmanship or punitive actions. Pakistan thus chose to include SRNWs in its inventory. Pakistan opted for countermeasure strategy to prevent such eventuality by denying India a space for war. Pakistan’s development of short-range missile, Nasr (60-70 km) is not meant to wage a limited war against India, but to prepare for such an eventuality thereby signalling to the adversary strong and punitive retaliation and reducing the probability of any kind of aggression or limited war. The short range Nasr is a quick response system to deter evolving threat at the limited level. Therefore, the Cold Start Doctrine appears to be offensive whilst Nasr is a defensive system designed to uphold deterrence and strategic stability in South Asia and prevent a major or limited war. Second, the development of Nasr as a low-yield battlefield weapon can therefore, also be seen as an instrument for nuclear peace in South Asian deterrence stability disrupted by India’s Pragati/Prahaar short-range nuclear capability. Third, the political considerations with regard to Nasr's development remain consistent with Pakistan’s credible minimum deterrence posture. Thus, aim of inclusion of this strategic platform in existing inventory was to increase value of Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent force. Pakistan’s highly modest and comprehensive nuclear weapons program, Nasr is a part of Pakistan’s all-range counter measure capabilities, directed to outweigh Indian pressure from strategic to sub-strategic level. By preventing war, it makes peace secure and region stable and Pakistan’s deterrence credible. The TNWs have taken away Pakistan’s stress in terms of Indian brinkmanship, bullying, punitive action and any kind of major aggression in the conventional realm. Four, Nasr has proven to be a cost-effective tool for Pakistan against conventionally stronger India.
Five, it is a centralised weapon and weapon of last resort. Hypothetically speaking, in response to present Indian belligerent policies, Pakistan should have placed this weapon on high alert and under the field commanders. However, being a responsible nuclear state, Pakistan has shown restraint and patience. This gives credence to peace credentials of Pakistan. It seems that SRNWs have created more space for flexible response and counter-force targeting options. There are reservations at the global level that if Pakistan delegates these weapons to field commanders to use these low range missiles during a crisis situation, this will create risk of prompt employment. Pakistan’s centralized command and control, non-deployment of its SRNWs due to.
geographical contiguity and proximity between India and Pakistan immediately rule out these risks. In a fair assessment, Pakistan’s low yield weapons neither will be deployed in forward location, nor power will be delegated to field commanders unless India compels Pakistan in that direction. Pakistan has highlighted that these weapons will be used as a last resort unlike the U.S.’ strategy of first resort during the Cold War to outweigh Soviet proxies in Western Europe.
Opinion is divided that Pakistan may behave irrationally or employ these weapons (in definitive patterns of behavioural rationality). Contention here is that rationality relates to the states’ preferences. Sometimes, one state’s rational act is irrational for the adversarial state. Thus, it is very hard to judge Pakistan’s preferences under enormous pressure and during a war-like situation. Apparently, it seems that Pakistan’s strategy could be to make a highly calculated move during war-like situations. However, in response to any irrational and irresponsible Indian move, risks attached to SRNWs may not be discounted. India reportedly seems to employ massive retaliation in response to a nuclear attack (even low-yield), anywhere, within or outside its territory at any level. Nevertheless, India’s possession of the capability to institute a graduated response with its short-range nuclear capable missiles such as short range Prithvi, Dhanush and Pragati/Prahaar cannot be discounted.
India's No First Use (NFU) that is publicly undeclared posture received no consideration in Pakistan from the outset. New debate on Indian NFU suggests that India may transfer from NFU to First Use (FU) force posture and it may embrace pre-emptive, damage limiting counterforce strikes. Such nuclear romanticism would increase nuclear risks by forcing both the states to increase nuclear readiness by pulling the warheads and missiles off the recessed posture. Therefore, the development of Nasr, specific to India’s development of battlefield nuclear weapons and Cold Start Doctrine, becomes part of Pakistan’s deterrence capability without which its deterrence credibility could be completely undermined.
Finally, Nasr’s development falls within the broader contours of Pakistan’s declarations on credible minimum deterrence. It does not imply numerical expansion in deterrence forces. The increase within Pakistan’s deterrence capability would be in proportion to India’s planned expansion. This may, however, not exactly be within the parameters of weapon-to-weapon competitive strategy practiced during the Cold War. Whether Pakistan would practice recessed deterrence or follow the ready-arsenal strategy for some of its deterrence forces would depend on the prevailing strategic dynamics. Nevertheless, use of the SRNWs in the battlefield from any side carries the potential to escalate the dynamics of conflict perilously, thus leaving high prospects for nuclear exchange. It can be suggested that SRNWs would only induce caution and result in a stalemate thereby injecting rationality in both states’ strategic behaviour even during peace times. Pakistan has to be extra cautious in taking a decision to employ SRNWs. India, a so-called larger democracy, may provoke Pakistan towards a prompt employment and resultantly it could back off to declare Pakistan as a pariah state in the comity of nations. India will stand responsible for any such conventional move that intends to invite regional nuclear holocaust. Consideration on this paradox must be established at the highest strategic level.
The writer is a PhD in International Security and Nuclear Non-Proliferation from University of Leicester, UK and is on the faculty of NDU, Islamabad.