Nuclear Weapons Threaten South Asia Stability

Pakistan’s quest to acquire tactical/battlefield nuclear weapons (TNWs) has added a dangerous dimension to the already precarious strategic equation in South Asia.

The security discourse in the subcontinent revolves around the perennial apprehension of a conventional or sub-conventional conflict triggering a chain reaction, eventually paving the way for a potential nuclear crisis that will haunt peace and stability in the region.

Pakistan announced the successful testing of the 60-km nuclear-capable short-range missile named Hatf IX or Nasr—a tactical nuclear missile. Nasr is reportedly a battlefield deterrent, aimed to provide crucial battlefield support for the Pakistan Army.

While Pakistan believes that the Nasr “adds deterrence value to Pakistan’s strategic weapons development program at shorter ranges,” it has, in fact, further lowered its nuclear threshold through the likely use of TNWs. Whether or not the warheads to fit on top of the Nasr missile have actually been miniaturized, still needs to be established.

Pakistan has not formally declared a nuclear doctrine, but it is well-known that nuclear weapons are its first line of defense

The use of TNWs in the India-Pakistan case will alter the South Asian strategic scenario completely. Indian troop formations could well face an onslaught of Pakistani TNWs in a future conflict scenario.

Tactical nuclear weapons, often referred to as “battlefield,” “sub-strategic,” or “non-strategic” nuclear weapons, usually have a plutonium core and are typically distinct from strategic nuclear weapons. Therefore, they warrant a separate consideration in the realm of nuclear security.

On the other hand, India has always viewed nuclear weapons solely as a political instrument whose only purpose is to deter the use and threat of use of nuclear weapons against itself. India’s nuclear doctrine clearly outlines the strategy of credible minimum deterrence and also establishes that India will not be the first to initiate a nuclear strike. However, India shall respond with punitive retaliation should deterrence fail.

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If Pakistan intends to develop these lower-yield nuclear warheads that can be fired from short-range tactical missiles, a future limited war scenario with India with grave repercussions remains a possibility. Pakistan should cooperate with India by taking requisite steps to stabilize nuclear deterrence and minimize existential nuclear dangers that threaten stability in South Asia.

The history of nuclear deterrence tells us that TNWs lower the nuclear threshold and that makes them inherently destabilizing. Their command and control is complex as it involves delegation of the authority to launch to commanders in the field if they are to avoid being confronted with the “use them, or lose them” challenge. Pakistan has opted to go down a dangerous path. It must stop its quest for TNWs as weapons of war.

Dr. Monika Chansoria is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi and holds a Post-Doctorate in International Relations from the French Foundation of Humanities and Sciences, Paris, in 2007-08. She has been a recipient of various prestigious international academic fellowships including the 2012 Senior Visiting Fellowship by the Cooperative Monitoring Center, Sandia National Laboratories, Albuquerque, USA and the Japanese Global Chair of Excellence Fellowship at the Hokkaido University, Japan. Read other articles by Monika.