Quote of the Week: Strategic vs. Tactical Nuclear Weapons

On April 24, 2013, Shyam Saran, Chairman of India’s National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), Shyam Saran, delivered an address in New Delhi entitled: “Is India’s Nuclear Deterrent Credible?

In the talk, he said:

“the label on a nuclear weapon used for attacking India, strategic or tactical, is irrelevant from the Indian perspective. A limited nuclear war is a contradiction in terms. Any nuclear exchange, once initiated, would swiftly and inexorably escalate to the strategic level. Pakistan would be prudent not to assume otherwise as it sometimes appears to do, most recently by developing and perhaps deploying theatre nuclear weapons.”

How to label nuclear weapons and their delivery systems – tactical, strategic, battlefield, etc. – has been a subject of debate since their inception. What’s your take? In South Asia, is there a realistic or clear distinction between “strategic” and “tactical” nuclear weapons? Would either country ever view the use of nuclear weapons as tactical? Do India and Pakistan share an understanding of the nature or deterrence value of different nuclear weapons systems?

Are there other authors to read on this subject? Please weigh in below.


Image: Pallava Bagla-Corbis, Getty

Posted in , India, Nuclear Weapons, Pakistan, Quotes, Theory

Julia Thompson

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One thought on “Quote of the Week: Strategic vs. Tactical Nuclear Weapons

  1. There definitely are no observable measures that can accurately distinguish between Tactical and Strategic Nuclear weapons in the world. Much depends on how they may get used. In South Asia, the difficulty in defining and distinguishing these weapons therefore remains.

    Yet, in the Cold War, if we over-look the marginal overlaps of these two category of nuclear weapons, the ICBMs and intermediate range weapons systems were considered different weapons systems designed to serve different purposes. Similarly, in South Asia, while there are strategic nuclear weapon delivery systems identical to the intermediate range delivery systems of the US and the former Soviet Union, there exist delivery systems in South Asia that have much smaller ranges. Considering the geographical proximity in the region, the scale of ranges of the delivery systems under the two categories are much smaller. But there remains some amount of distinction, even if it is blurred.

    Shyam Saran’s argument, on the other hand, does not focus on the delivery systems and rather point out that any use of TNW would swiftly escalate to strategic level, thereby labelling TNWs as strategic. This is an attempt of making Indian nuclear deterrence credible. Considering that Indian doctrine prescribes massive retaliation for any nuclear use, he argues that a detonation of TNW on Indian soldiers, even if they are in Pakistan would invite use of strategic nuclear weapons by India. This statement is a part of the posturing that aims to make the deterrent credible. It also seeks to thereby take away the utility of TNWs for Pakistan. One may consider it an attempt of India to maintain deterrence stability, without having to consider developing TNWs of its own to counter-balance Pakistan.

    It is, however, unlikely that India will use strategic weapons for massive retaliation as a response to the first use of TNWs by Pakistan and, thereby invite Pakistan to use its 2nd strike “strategic” capabilities. I add strategic here as we already assume it to have made the 1st tactical strike.

    If policymakers in New Delhi get convinced of this argument, however, then the situation will only worsen as India may consider developing TNWs.

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