Efficacy of nuclear deterrence, its role in Pakistan’s national security policy

It is hard to analyze Pakistan’s nuclear policy because unlike India, Pakistan does not have a declared doctrine. Experts – for example, Michael Krepon in Pakistan’s Nuclear Strategy and Deterrence Stability in South Asia, and Feroz Khan in Prospects for Indian and Pakistani Arms Controlhave suggested that Pakistan’s doctrine is based on ambiguity.

Pakistan has a simple national security policy: to avoid both conventional as well as nuclear war with India. If war cannot be avoided, then Pakistan’s policy is to limit and win any war. As Mark Fitzpatrick pointed out in his book, Overcoming Pakistan’s Nuclear Dangers, Pakistan’s nuclear policy is India-specific, and its arsenal is meant to maintain a full spectrum minimum credible deterrent; Pakistan’s nuclear bomb is not to be used.

To make it even simpler, Pakistan’s national security policy stems from the need for security. The goal of Pakistan’s policy is to maintain the status quo, ensure territorial integrity, and avoid and manage conflicts. Pakistan was compelled to build a nuclear weapon.

Although the policy is simple, the demands are high. From its previous experience in 1948, 1965, 1971, and the 1986 Operation Brasstacks, Pakistan knew it could not rely on the United States to maintain balance with India. This knowledge, along with India’s larger size and – at least perceived – conventional superiority, encouraged Pakistan to develop and test the nuclear bomb. There have been no full-fledged wars between India and Pakistan since Pakistan proved the credibility of its nuclear capability in 1998. This speaks volumes for the effectiveness of Pakistan’s national security policy.

The first conflict we saw following the 1998 nuclear explosion was the Kargil War. During the Kargil conflict, Pakistani troops successfully gained control of vacated posts across the Line of Control in Indian-occupied Kashmir. The fighting was strictly restricted to the area of Kargil, and did not turn into a full-scale war.

This experience repeated itself after members of the terrorist organization Lashkar-e-Taiba, and Jaish-e-Muhammad attacked the Indian parliament on December 13th, 2001. The same terrorist groups attacked the families of Indian soldiers in May 2002 in the Kaluchak district of Jammu. India responded by placing a massive concentration of troops on the Pakistan border, which lasted for eleven months. It was Pakistan’s nuclear capability that deterred India from escalating the crisis.

The most recent example of the efficacy of nuclear deterrence came after the horrific 2008 Mumbai attacks. The Indian government pointed the finger at Pakistan, but did not threaten Pakistan because of their nuclear weapons.

Although technically all three of the post-1998 conflicts were initiated by non-state actors, India held Pakistan responsible for each conflict. As per Pakistan’s national security policy though, the threat of nuclear weapons played a major role, raising the stakes of any war and thereby limiting the conflict between the two nuclear-armed states.

Continuing with their policy, and to address the growing conventional asymmetry, Pakistan has developed a miniaturized, battlefield ready nuclear weapon and a mid-range ballistic missile because they are cost-effective solutions to deter India and ensure stability.

The shortcoming of Pakistan’s current policy is that it is solely focused on maintaining the status quo vis-a-vis India. Part of the policy should be to shift the conversation from security to diplomacy, economy, and politics.

It is essential for the future of both India and Pakistan that they improve their diplomatic and trade relationships. Pakistan and India are both nuclear states. Pakistan’s Nasr has successfully neutralized the threat of India’s conventional forces, and the Shaheen-III has demonstrated that Pakistan has the ability to reach India’s Eastern front. Ultimately, full-scale war is highly unlikely between the two countries, but to ensure that there are no continuing tensions or conflicts, both countries have to resolve their outstanding disputes. This will help India achieve its goal of becoming a regional power, and will alleviate Pakistan’s security concerns with regard to India.


The writer is an assistant professor at the National University of Sciences and Technology (NUST.edu.pk), Islamabad, Pakistan. He tweets @umarwrites.


Image: Banaras Khan-AFP, Getty 

Posted in , History, India-Pakistan Relations, Nuclear, Nuclear Weapons, Pakistan, Policy, Security

Muhammad Umar

Muhammad Umar is an assistant professor at the National University of Sciences and Technology (NUST.edu.pk), Islamabad. He also presents a weekly roundup of defense related news on HRTV, and writes frequently on the same topic for national and international newspapers, and magazines. Prior to joining NUST, Umar worked, and lived in Pakistan’s tribal areas from 2009-2010, documenting the Taliban’s atrocities, and human rights violations against the local population. He has also worked as an anchorperson, and manager in-charge of product and content development at Pakistan Television Networks. Umar has a Bachelors degree in Political Science from Kutztown University of Pennsylvania and a Masters in Journalism from the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University in New York. He is currently an MPhil candidate in the Strategic and Nuclear Studies program at the National Defense University (NDU.edu.pk) in Islamabad. He tweets @umarwrites, and blogs on muhammadumar.com. He can be reached via email at m.umar[at]s3h[dot]nust[dot]edu[dot]pk.

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12 thoughts on “Efficacy of nuclear deterrence, its role in Pakistan’s national security policy

  1. Muhammad:
    You write well.
    Let’s look a bit deeper about the efficacy of nuclear deterrence. Twin Peaks and Mumbai may have “proved” the efficacy of nuclear deterrence for Pakistan, but not for India. Terror attacks are immune to deterrence concepts, no? The same applies to Pakistan, which has been afflicted by more terror attacks than India. Do nuclear weapons deter limited conventional war? Again, the answer is ‘no,” as proven by Kargil.
    So what is the deterrent value of nuclear weapons? So far, it is limited to deterring nuclear exchanges, and deterring limited warfare from becoming major conventional warfare.
    These are very important attributes, but the jury is still out. How many nuclear weapons are needed to achieve these objectives?

  2. Indeed, a well balanced article. It is important for both India and Pakistan to understand the fragility of South Asian security environment. Instead of modernizing nuclear arsenal both countries need to boost confidence building measures. India being greater power needs to play responsible role in settlement of disputes. These territorial disputes need to be settled as soon as possible. India’s greater role in settlement of disputes will be instrumental in long lasting peace in the region. No doubt, peace only prevails among equals and India deal with Pakistan on equal basis. Deterrence and compellence has never served the region. Hegemonic aspirations will remain hurdle unless both countries offer some room for peace initiatives.

  3. Might be in some views these weapons haven’t maintained the efficacy of nuclear deterrence. But in case of Pakistan they have to the most limiting the conflicts to lower ground. India rather than showing its diplomatic muscles in international community by having dozens of military and uranium deals around, It is high time now for these both nations to bow their heads down in normalizing relations to a peaceful levels.

  4. What truly exists between the almost twin nuclear weapon states is history and it’s an open secret. If we put a glance in past, cold War remains cold primarily because of nukes. At present, geopolitics in South Asia really matters. This is an inherent right of every state to protect its territorial integrity and political sovereignty and this is very aptly done by Pakistanis. We can’t link terrorism with nukes or deterrence. In present age, security has many manifestos apart from confrontation in major war. What about cross border violations at the LoC? How can we forget India huge defence expenditure which is blooming on almost daily basis which definitely created security dilemma for others? For Pakistan, it resides on credible minimum deterrence for nukes. But for India it seems to be a never ending obsession. Pakistan actually believe on qualitative equation of nuclear weapons and this is very much reflected in its posture too.

  5. Mr. Umar i do not agree with some of your arguments regarding the Parliaments and Mumbai attacks! First of all you claimed that LeT and JeM were behind these attacks but you have not supported with evidence. Instead you have mentioned two sources from Wikipedia, which is easily editable and not reliable source. Even the U.S. states department declared the Indian evidences are insufficient to prove the involvement of the accused parties. Also you cannot rule out the fact that Indian intelligence agencies were involved in these terrorist attacks to pass the anti-terrorism act in India as revealed by several whistle blowers.

  6. Thank you for your comment Michael. You have raised some interesting questions, but I believe nuclear weapons have also worked well as a deterrent for India. I understand your point that India has faced attacks post-nuclearization, but those were carried out by non-state actors, no nuclear state would engage India in a conventional war because the fear of nuclear retaliation is very real. Which brings us back to what Gen. K said in DC, war is no longer an option… Governments in both capitals should work towards a lasting peace thru better foreign policy, economic and cultural exchanges.

    Yasir, I also completely agree with your comment. It is up to the democratically governments in both countries to make sure that they work towards lasting peace, and India must not shy away from resolving Kashmir.

  7. Pakistani people should be willing to eat grass or to bear any cost to eliminate militancy and religious extremism if the goal is a peaceful and prosperous Pakistan for coming generations. But if we keep on eating grass for our “Weapons of Peace”, our coming generations may not even have grass to live with…

  8. Most of the Pakistani people are in favor of its nuclear weapons simply because they don’t know the direct and indirect cost of nuclear weapons. I have no issue with Pakistan’s nuclear weapons if they actually serve Pakistan’s security needs, cost is bearable and if there is transparency and accountability (political oversight) of strategic institutions.

  9. Masood, I clearly explained how nuclear weapons have served Pakistan’s security needs, and continue to do so… as far as the eating grass comment, I think you are way off. Please see: http://data.worldbank.org/country/pakistan — Pakistan has had steady economic growth. As far as the political oversight is concerned, if you read up on the National Command Authority and its structure you will see that there is complete political oversight (read: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Command_Authority_%28Pakistan%29) … As far as transparency is concerned, go look at the IAEA data on Pakistan’s nuclear program. All our installations are under IAEA safeguards, and we have been praised over and again by IAEA officials as well as American officials (most recently by officials meeting with Pak delegation during 2015 strat dialogue)…

    I hope I was able to clear up your some of the things that seemed to have confused you about the purpose of Pakistan’s nuclear program.

  10. Deterrence is the art of producing, in the mind of the enemy, the fear to attack.

    Dr. Strangelove, 1964

  11. By stating that, it’s non state actors and saying that India army did not expand the Kargil conflict because of the nuclear deterrence.

    Being the aggressor in all the case and putting all responsibility on India for avoiding a nuclear conflict, does it make Pakistan seem a irresponsible state in world polity?

  12. @Mirza Muhammad Masood Akbar
    “Most of the Pakistani people are in favor of its nuclear weapons simply because they don’t know the direct and indirect cost of nuclear weapons. I have no issue with Pakistan’s nuclear weapons if they actually serve Pakistan’s security needs, cost is bearable and if there is transparency and accountability (political oversight) of strategic institutions.”
    There is no mention in your comment of India’s nuclear weapon? Don’t you think Pakistanis didn’t go nuclear out of choice? I truly believe that Pakistan had to meet the security dilemma created by India. By the way nuclear deterrence can be stabilized and the cost of up-gradation and “innovation” can be minimized if and only if Indians are willing to maintain the balance.

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