Deconstructing Pakistan’s Command and Control – Tactical Nuclear Weapons

Development and production of tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) by Pakistan has increased the level of tensions in South Asia. Experts from around the world have been recognizing and highlighting the risks that come along with the introduction of TNWs. The difficulties that the United States and the former Soviet Union faced in managing these weapons have been well-established. When examined in the South Asian context, studies have accepted that these difficulties only worsen and have recommended that Pakistan should do away with these weapons if stability is to be realized in the region. Pakistan, however, in an attempt to ease global concerns over its development of TNWs, has assured that its top leadership will continue to have complete control over its TNWs if deployed. The validity of such an assurance, however, stands in question.

An analysis published by the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) in early 2014 quoted a high-level Pakistani government official as stating that “Pakistan’s top leaders would not delegate advanced authority over nuclear arms to unit commanders, even in the event of crisis.” The official was further quoted as saying that “the smallest to the largest – all weapons are under the central control of the National Command Authority, which is headed by the Prime Minister.” The statement essentially implies that the authority to launch TNWs will not be delegated to unit commanders and would remain with the central authorities.

The claim made in the statement, if it is to be believed, certainly addresses some concerns, like the one of an accidental/unauthorized detonation. Those believing this statement, including even some retired senior officials from the foreign services and the armed forces of India, have argued in closed-door meetings I attended that the decision not to delegate control of TNWs to the unit commanders would “ease concerns about Pakistani nuclear arms being detonated precipitously in any future combat”. There is, however, a lack of assessment as to how reliable the quoted official statement is.

It is important to note here that there is no official nuclear doctrine in Pakistan. Even if there exists one, as Brig General Naeem Salik argues, it has not been made public since “this ambiguity adds to the value of deterrence.” Thus, any discourse on Pakistani nuclear doctrine has to be based on either the statements made by senior government or military officials or other relevant press releases. If the statement on complete control of central command over Pakistan’s TNWs is to be believed, it only showcases what appears to be a convoluted nuclear doctrine of Pakistan.

Though Pakistan does not use the term “Tactical Nuclear Weapons” explicitly, it has developed and tested nuclear-capable short range surface-to-surface missiles Hatf II (Abdali) and Hatf IX (Nasr) which serve purposes that have conventionally been served by TNWs. The purpose behind the development of, say, Hatf II (Abdali), as has been argued by the Director General, Strategic Plans Division, Lt. Gen (retd) Khalid Ahmed Kidwai, is to counter the Indian Cold Start doctrine, which prescribes India to fight limited conventional wars without crossing Pakistan’s strategic nuclear red lines. While Cold Start has never been acknowledged by the civilian government in India which has the final say over such matters, and while there are tremendous resource constraints which diminish the possibility of implementation of such a doctrine by India, Pakistan has justified the development of these weapon systems, designed to serve the purpose of TNWs, as a response to the Indian Cold Start.

Pakistan has put in place a command structure that consists of the National Command Authority (NCA), the Strategic Plans Division (SPD) and the Strategic Force Command (SFC). The SPD has repeatedly assured that “nuclear use authority will remain under centralized control under all circumstances.” However, there are two major issues pertaining to Pakistan’s assurances of complete central control over its nuclear arsenal that continue to raise concerns in its neighbourhood.

Firstly, if one considers the very purpose with which these weapon systems have been built (to prohibit India from using its conventional superiority in a low-scale battle), it would require Pakistan to pre-delegate launch authority to local unit commanders with whom the TNWs would be deployed. It is well-established that during battles, communication systems and the command and control structures are subject to tremendous pressures and the chances of a break-down in the lines of communication are high. In such a scenario, if the launch authority were to remain with the central command, and if the lines of communication were to break down, the TNW assets deployed with local units would only be a liability, with the risk of a pre-emptive conventional strike by the adversary on them. Thus, the purpose behind the deployment of TNWs in the battlefield would require pre-battle delegation of launch authority to local unit commanders. A strong centralised control would just defeat the very purpose these weapons are designed to serve. This, in fact, has been acknowledged by many military and government officials in Pakistan. For instance, Brig (Retd) Feroz Hassan Khan, former deputy director of Pakistan’s Strategic Plans Division (SPD), notes that, “partial pre-delegation, especially for the weaker side, would be an operational necessity because dispersed nuclear forces as well as the central command authority (National Command Authority) are vulnerable.” Pervaiz Iqbal Cheema, from the National Defence University of Pakistan too argues that “even Corps Commanders would be involved in the decision to use nuclear weapons.”

Secondly, the efficiency of the central command authority itself remains in question. There are various factors and instances that contribute to this argument. The covert operation, Neptune Spear, of the US Navy SEALs, orchestrated by the CIA, exposed Pakistan’s command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, information, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4I2SR) systems to be vulnerable to territorial intrusions. Another and a major factor is that of growing radicalism and the increasing number of terrorist outfits in Pakistan. The home-grown terror outfits have already targeted nuclear facilities in Pakistan at several occasions, including at Sargodha in November 2007, an attack on Pakistan’s Kamra nuclear airbase by a suicide bomber in December the same year, and the August 2008 attack when TTP suicide bombers blew up several entry points to one of the armament complexes at the Wah cantonment – one of the main nuclear weapons assembly sites in Pakistan. These terror groups have also targeted key figures from the command and control chain of Pakistan. Though they have not succeeded so far, any vacuum created along the chain of command can lead to break-down of central command, leaving the deployed TNWs vulnerable. Lastly, the terrorist outfits may attempt to seize the deployed TNWs, despite a strong central command, owing to its flaws and weaknesses.

Considering the fact that there is no official documentation of Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine which prescribes the delegation of launch authority over its arsenal of TNWs, the discourse so far has been based on statements made by certain officials. However, the statements made so far on this issue of command and control of TNWs appear to be contradictory. On one hand, the official cited by NTI assures complete control of Pakistan’s central command over its entire nuclear arsenal, including TNWs. On the other hand, other experts and officials from Pakistan military, government and academia have acknowledged the necessity of involving local unit commanders in the command and control structure for their tactical nuclear weapons. Therefore, a discourse on Pakistan’s doctrine on TNWs, which is solely based on such contradictory statements given by Pakistani government or military officials, will be highly difficult to pursue. Such contradictory statements regarding Pakistan’s nuclear strategies and doctrine, instead of adding to the value of deterrence for Pakistan, aggravate the security environment in South Asia.

And even if the assurances of complete central control over Pakistan’s TNWs were assumed to be true, then such an arsenal of nuclear weapons can be considered nothing else but a liability for Pakistan. This argument is important for Pakistan to consider because in a battlefield scenario, where the probability of a break-down in the lines of communications is high, these TNWs would be of no utility if the launch authority were to remain with the central command, and the risk of them coming under attack by an adversary will be extremely high.

Meanwhile, for India, the rest of the region, and the world, it is important not to take the assurances given by Pakistani officials on complete retention of command and control over its nuclear arsenal by the central authority for granted, and the purpose behind the introduction of TNWs must be carefully examined in order to better assess the validity of such assurances. Introduction of TNWs disturbs nuclear deterrence stability in South Asia. Pakistan must not use the escalatory doctrine of countering the conventional military imbalance by developing TNWs, which are not only difficult to manage and expensive, but also increase the possibilities of a nuclear exchange. These assurances of a complete central control, without credible evidence, will in no form address these concerns.


Image: Farooq Naeem-AFP, Getty

Posted in , India, India-Pakistan Relations, Nuclear, Nuclear Weapons, Pakistan, TNWs, Uncategorized

Arka Biswas

Arka Biswas

Arka Biswas is a Junior Fellow at the Strategic Studies Programme of the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He is a Physics Graduate and has a Masters in International Relations from the University of Bristol. His dissertation was a critique of the Global Zero campaign. His research interests include nuclear security, global nuclear doctrines, nuclear deterrence, nuclear non-proliferation regimes, Iranian nuclear programme, and tactical nuclear weapons in South Asia.

Read more

3 thoughts on “Deconstructing Pakistan’s Command and Control – Tactical Nuclear Weapons

  1. TNWs are playing their role effectively and no one can deny this fact that Indian provocative cold start doctrine coupled with conventional superiority compelled Pakistan to develop battle field nuclear weapons. Besides that India wants to engage in an unending arms race while having economic restraints Pakistan cannot spend massive in weapons imports.

  2. The shortfall that tactical nuclear weapons would appear to fill is to prevent a limited campaign by a superior military force that doesn’t threaten the country as a whole. If both sides have strategic nuclear weapons, an actor, especially one that does not publish its nuclear doctrine, has to worry about a scenerio where its stronger neighbor is tempted to fight a quick limited war, and then end it before it can reach a strategic nuclear threshold.

    Tactical nuclear weapons in this situation extend the Pakistani nuclear deterrant “to the border” instead of simply protecting the nation as a conceptual whole. In this situation a lack of clarity between tactical and strategic useful for Pakistani strategy. If any conflict can spiral into a nuclear exchange, then hopefully India can be deterred from even limited war.

  3. Firstly, both these comments refer to the Indian Cold Start as something which is already established. It has neither been accepted by the civilian government, nor been implemented in any form due to lack of resources.
    Secondly, if TNWs are deployed, who would retain the launch authority? If NCA is going to retain complete authority, in a situation of war, the Pakistani TNW arsenal deployed in the battlefield could prove to be suicidal.
    Thirdly, arms race at strategic level is still manageable despite the economic pressures. If India begins assembling TNWs and inducting them in its arsenal, where would the advantage be for Pakistan? The race of TNWs will not only be dangerous but expensive too for Pakistan. Would India not have an upper hand there as well with its larger economy and financial resources? And if India could match Pakistan in terms of nuclear weapons along the nuclear escalatory ladder, then India could again utilize its conventional superiority, even if it is under a very low nuclear threshold.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *