India’s Reluctance on Tactical Nuclear Weapons

Any ambiguity regarding Pakistan’s plans to develop tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) was removed by Gen. Khalid Kidwai, former head of the SPD and advisor to Pakistan’s National Command Authority, at the 2015 Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference. Kidwai reiterated that the rationale for developing TNWs was to deter India from using its conventional superiority in a low-scale attack as part of a proposed Indian military doctrine, Cold Start.

Pakistan’s decision to develop TNWs has raised concerns for India and the world. Arguably to counter India’s Cold Start, Pakistan has lowered its nuclear threshold in a way that takes away the space for India to lauch a conventional attack against Pakistan as a response to either its proxy war in Jammu and Kashmir or a Mumbai-style state-sponsored terror attack.

Despite doubts as to whether or not Pakistan has developed and deployed TNWs, the signals sent by its scientists and the army have to a degree affirmed TNWs as an important pillar of Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine. The development of short-range missiles such as Nasr and Abdali and the rapid increase in the production of fissile material must be noted in this light. There is a general agreement in India as well that the introduction of TNWs significantly lowers Pakistan’s nuclear red lines to make the use of conventional superiority even in a low-scale incursion or attack by India a highly risky venture. While it is true that the Indian government has declined Cold Start as an official doctrine, it simultaneously cannot be denied that a conventional attack has been an option that India would use as a response to Pakistan’s proxy wars. The introduction of TNWs has, therefore, worked well for Pakistan.

In order to utilise its conventional superiority, New Delhi could consider developing TNWs that credibly deter Pakistan from using its own in the first place. In fact, debates in India regarding the development of TNWs have already begun. On one hand, there remain experts such as Manpreet Sethi who argue that India need not build its own TNWs; India could respond to Pakistan’s threat of using TNWs by focusing on measures that convince Pakistan of “an inevitability of nuclear retaliation to any nuclear use, irrespective of yield, target or damage.” On the other hand, experts such as Manoj Joshi and Brahma Chellaney call on India to acquire multiple nuclear options along the ladder of escalation. They argue that the development of TNWs will benefit India in two ways. Firstly, it will give India options of proportionate response should deterrence fail. Secondly, retaining nuclear options along the escalatory ladder will provide the opportunity for a settlement at a low-scale nuclear exchange before the situation escalates to the strategic levels. But whether developing TNWs allows India to counter Pakistan’s TNWs and to find space below the lowered threshold of Pakistan to use its conventional superiority remains unanswered.

The Indian government has so far avoided developing TNWs to deter Pakistan or to use in case deterrence fails. This has led many experts to question the credibility of India’s nuclear doctrine, in particular the use of “massive retaliation.” Despite the criticism, India has argued that its strategic weapons are capable of deterring the use of TNWs by Pakistan. It is in this context that Shyam Saran’s argument on the absence of any difference between tactical and strategic nuclear weapons can be better understood. New Delhi is reluctant to develop TNWs and is using arguments such as geographical proximity and the inevitable escalation to strategic levels as justification. Besides the complexities involved in the command and control of TNWs and the inherent risks of accidental use, there are two possible factors that may have caused this reluctance.

First is the need for India to act as a responsible nuclear power. India has faced severe international criticism and was been subject to sanctions after 1974, when it conducted the nuclear test. Decades of India’s nuclear apartheid are, however, ending with India’s gradual integration into the global nuclear order. The path to the U.S.-India civil nuclear cooperation and the subsequent NSG waiver, however, has been difficult due to strong opposition from the nuclear nonproliferation lobby. It has been India’s practice of restraint and responsible behaviour that has allowed for India’s gradual accommodation into the global nuclear order. As India transits from the periphery to the centre of this nuclear order, the development of TNWs would run against its responsible behaviour and will be counter-productive.

Second is the state of relations between the civil and military establishments in India. In his “posture optimization theory,” Vipin Narang identifies four sequenced variables that can be used to predict a nation’s nuclear force structure and posture. One of these four sequenced variables is the civil-military arrangement. In a state where the civil-military arrangement is assertive (wherein the civilian government exercises tight control over the military establishment), it is unlikely that the military will enjoy wide freedom of action in questions of defence policy and nuclear doctrine. Narang cites India’s case as that of an assertive civil-military arrangement. It can, therefore, be argued that with strong control of the civilian government in New Delhi over India’s military, it is unlikely that India will develop TNWs, as this would require the delegation of launch authorities to the military.

These two factors must, however, not be seen as constants. As India becomes further integrated into the global nuclear order and as the civil-military equation evolves, this reluctance to develop TNWs may fade. But for now, India will benefit by not engaging in the development of TNWs. Does this mean that India has no answers to Pakistan’s TNWs? Pakistan has developed TNWs to deter a conventional attack by India, allowing it to continue its proxy war against the latter. Pakistan’s TNWs are thus only relevant against an Indian conventional attack. India can, therefore, make Pakistan’s TNWs irrelevant by developing responses other than a conventional attack to a Pakistani-sponsored Mumbai-style terror attack or its proxy war in Jammu and Kashmir.


Image: Imtiyaz Khan-Anadolu Agency, Getty

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

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.

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10 thoughts on “India’s Reluctance on Tactical Nuclear Weapons

  1. ”India can, therefore, make Pakistan’s TNWs irrelevant by developing responses other than a conventional attack to a Pakistani-sponsored Mumbai-style terror attack or its proxy war in Jammu and Kashmir.”
    Yes, this is the best option, at present. India must invest more in preventing infiltration of external terrorists & apply diplomatic pressure through international community to fight a global war on terrorism ( particularly through USA, China, Russia).

  2. The above title doesn’t suit with the Indian ambitious defence policy. India has never been reluctant to export or test defence arsenals of latest lethal technology, no matters how much it cost. The time line of tactical nuclear weapons of Pakistan should be keep in mind because it follows the Cold Start Doctrine footprints. How can a state openly agree to launch a conventional attack against a next door neighbor which is nuclear too. Realizing this folly made Indian policy makers to glamorize the name of CSD as Proactive Defence strategy. Pakistan gives a very calculated response against such kind of hostile policies as its has to address all kinds of threats to its statehood.

  3. Pakistan’s credible minimum deterrent appears to be dynamic and sensitive to evolving threats. The NASR missile demonstrates a qualitative shift in the country’s nuclear posture to which counter-force and flexible response options have now been added by targeting the enemy’s military forces. The tactical nuclear capability will surely restrict unwanted military adventurist actions by India.

  4. Arka,
    Great essay. Thought provoking. So let me add a few more provocations.
    I am convinced that Pakistan’s short-range nuclear capabilities are real and are not a bluff.
    How, then, shall we measure the utility of TNW as a deterrent? Does success depend on whether or not New Delhi is dissuaded from using ground forces against Pakistan after a severe provocation that is traced back to extremist groups in Pakistan?
    Well, we might initially answer ‘yes’ to this question. But let’s think again: New Delhi declined to use ground forces after the Parliament and Mumbai attacks — and Pakistan didn’t have short-range nuclear capabilities back in 2001 and 2008 — or at least it didn’t advertise them. And without advertisements, there is no presumed deterrent value.
    Now let’s forget about past crises. Some might argue that Indian ground capabilities are greater now than in 2001 and 2008. Therefore, TNW are needed now more than before.
    But what if New Delhi decides to increase readiness but not use ground forces after another terror attack that is traced back to Pakistan? What if New Delhi decides to strike back by air power — going over the top of TNW? What would the deterrence value of TNW be then?
    How about another scenario: India uses air power and targets Pakistan’s TNW, resulting in either dispersal of fissile material and/or a mushroom cloud. In this event, instead of deterring India, Pakistan’s TNW could prompt nuclear exchanges — and Pakistan’s TNW designed to bolster deterrence would produce a terrible failure in deterrence.
    TNW have deterrent value only if they prevent all types of Indian military responses — ground or air — against Pakistan. And if New Delhi abstains from hitting back at India, as it did during the Twin Peaks and Mumbai crises, can we attribute this to TNW? Or to New Delhi’s interest in growing the Indian economy?
    Drill down into the assertions made about the utility of deterrence in general, or deterrence theories more narrowly constructed around TNW, and what do you find? Your find questionable suppositions and hope. Questionable suppositions and hope can turn very quickly into confusion, and confusion can turn into uncontrolled escalation.

  5. The trigger of any attack by India would be an attack by Pakistan supported terrorists. The problem is Pakistan’s pampering of terrorists who have sworn to attack India. And it continues to do so. Why would there be an attack against India? It seems to be a certainty, for as long as Pakistan does not abandon its policy of supporting elements who have planned attack or are planning attack on India .

  6. India needs TNWs to deter two front war. To deter Chinese massive attack along the border TNWs may provide enough deterrence. Pakistan is a nuisance for India, but real threat is China.

  7. India is not a threat for pakistan anymore.I suggest India should focus on the security of its nuclear assets because India is facing 15 freedom movements..TNWs is not a response of CSD ..this is the part of defence strategies. Pakistan will have many more surprises for enemies.India should focus on its internal threats and stop the proxy war against Pakistan from Afghanistan .

  8. This is a great mistake by Indian Govt. please recall in1962 war PM Nehru did not allow IAF to take part in war raised by china. what was the consequence , more than 10,000 indian solders were killed and we lost more than 48000 square miles of land. Now for this major fault of silence by the Govt. over tactical weapon threat we have to lose 1000 times more than what we lost in 1962 when China or Pakistan will attack certainly in near future.

  9. I worked in DRDO, I dont like to reveal my real name , I am one of the senior scientist.
    Indian tactical weapons are much superior, now india has Brahmos, so conventional warfare is not needed, test is being made to induct Brahmos in fighter jet and
    it is successfully tested. there is no alternative for Brahmos in market today , CSD is outdated and it wont be used.
    future will be electronic and laser gudied warefare. Hand of God is still in development , which may not come to light as india is perceived as soft pwoer .
    if we succeeded in ultimate hand of God (i dont want to disclose hindi name), there wont be any kind of missile that can penetrate this , no nuke and no fighter jet. currently we not testing it openly NSG membership, finally India does not need TNW as we have Brahmos and shauriya (super sonic and hyper sonic well tested, can be easily mated with Nuclear) and finally K-4 already inducted into Indian defense. TNW is difficult to maintain and any accident will lead to smaller nuclear disaster. Hand of God will be ultimate one , will take some time to come to light. dont worry Indian defence, we are in better position today , better than Pakistan, but for china we need to hand of God and KALI , will take few more years.
    finally china is not a enemy , china just want to show they are number 1 but Pakistan is serious threat.
    Hand of God will protect the land in all manner, no nuclear or any form missile can penetrate.

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