The Debate on Nuclear First Use and No First Use: The case of Pakistan

“Nations plan for war not by listening to their rivals’ commitments but by looking at their capabilities.”-Josef Joffe

The debate on nuclear First Use (FU) and No First Use (NFU) is as old as the Bomb itself. It formally started when the United States adopted the policy of FU from the onset of the Cold War, especially in the early 1950s. First Use policy is adopted by a state to make its deterrence more credible, keeping in mind the prevailing challenges to the national security of a state in the strategic environment as well as one’s relevant superiority or inferiority in this context. The case of Pakistan’s reliance on a FU option is no different. Pakistan’s nuclear program aims at thwarting adversaries’ (mostly India’s) conventional and potential nuclear attacks.  Owing to its conventional inferiority in comparison to India, Pakistan’s decision to retain nuclear FU makes its deterrence credible, a dynamic that helps to avoid any adventurism by the aggressor. In this vein, in order to comprehend Pakistan’s rationale of nuclear FU effectively, it is essential to skim through the historical background of the doctrine, and especially the debate between the ‘Gang of Four’ and ‘Four Horsemen.

In the early days of the Cold War, the United States enjoyed conventional military superiority over the Kremlin. In fact, the United States was able to deter any aggressor with the help of its advanced conventional forces without necessarily using nuclear weapons. Despite this, the United States relied on the policy of nuclear FU.  This is because of two reasons as stated by Dr. Zafar Khan in his book, Pakistan’s Nuclear Policy-A Minimum Credible Deterrence. First, indeed the United States and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) did not require the FU option, but due to the need of making the United States’ security assurances and guarantees to its allies credible, the United States had to retain the FU option.  Second, adoption of the FU policy option by the United States could have increased its vulnerability against possible chemical and biological attacks from adversaries.

Opponents of the FU option, as described by Dr. Zafar Khan in his book, and especially the ‘Gang of Four,’ wrote in favor of NFU on the following grounds:

1) It would lessen the probability of all-out nuclear war in a war-like situation.

2) It would allow the United States and NATO to focus more on the modernization and advancement of conventional forces for the purpose of retaliation.

3) The United States could retain an option of ‘no early first use’ that would not mean U.S. departure from its security assurances to its allies.

However, the proponents of FU were of the view that U.S. policies of massive retaliation, flexible response, and assured destruction remained successful in maintaining the credibility of U.S. deterrence as well as security assurances against Soviet conventional and nuclear forces. Having said this, Pakistani security planners decided to adopt a FU policy option after analyzing the Cold War debate on FU and NFU, wherein the proponents of NFU failed to convince the United States to renounce FU policy. Pakistan adhered to a FU option to make its minimum deterrence credible due to its conventional weakness in comparison to India. Similarly, according to a Pakistani nuclear security establishment, a quest to ensure credible deterrent is also a major factor in Pakistan’s refusal to sign a ‘no-first strike’ pact with India.

Pakistan’s ambiguous position of first use as a last resort, on the one hand, shows caution and a tendency of Pakistan to not use these weapons. On the other hand, the issue of proximity, conventional weakness, and fear of pre-emption from Indians are some key reasons that restrict Pakistan to maintaining a FU option. Besides historical enmity and four wars between South Asia’s nuclear states, India and Pakistan, the Kashmir dispute is one of the more critical reasons that make Indo-Pak relations intense. Moreover, India’s proactive response plans under its Cold Start doctrine (CSD), like that of Operation Parakram, increase the probability of nuclear war in the region.

India’s conventional war-fighting doctrine, CSD, was first presented in April 2004 by the then Indian Chief of the Army Staff, “which aims at launching a retaliatory conventional strike against Pakistan that would inflict significant harm on the Pakistani Army before the international community could intercede, and at the same time, pursue narrow enough aims to deny Islamabad a justification to escalate the clash to the nuclear level,” Watler C. Ladwig III quotes in his article, “A Cold Start for Hot War? The Indian Army, New Limited War Doctrine.” Covering the justification on the failure of Operation Parakram and salient parameters of the Cold Start doctrine, the author prescribed the perceived advantages of this doctrine to India. However, he remained rational to some extent while describing the implications of this doctrine by providing that, “As the Indian military enhances its ability to implement Cold Start, it is simultaneously degrading the chance that diplomacy could diffuse a crisis on the subsequent.”

This is especially true in light of Pakistan maintaining the option of using tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs), because of its conventional inferiority when its national security is threatened. This is also evident from Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry’s recent statement:  “Pakistan is fully capable of answering any aggression from India as it has developed ‘short-range tactical nuclear weapons’.” He further stated, “Pakistan knew how to show India the right path as it has developed small tactical nukes to convert any ‘adventure into misadventure.’” In fact, it could be inferred from Pakistan’s ambiguous policy of FU as a last resort that Pakistan follows a policy of no-early first use like that of the United States to achieve its political and military goals. In sum, FU policy is inherent to Pakistan’s deterrence assumption and therefore essential for Pakistan’s national security in the contemporary strategic environment.


Image: Pakistan Army-Anadolu Agency, Getty

Posted in , Deterrence, Doctrine, India-Pakistan Relations, No First Use, Nuclear Weapons

Adeel Mukhtar Mirza

Adeel Mukhtar Mirza is an Assistant Research Officer (ARO) at the Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI) in Pakistan. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism and Economics from the Government College University (GC), Faisalabad; and has a master's degree in Strategic & Nuclear Studies (S&NS) from the National Defence University (NDU), Islamabad. He also has a Diploma in Strategic Studies and Disarmament from the Strategic Studies Institute, Islamabad (SSII). Currently, he is an M.Phil scholar at NDU. Prior to joining IPRI, he worked at the Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad (ISSI) and was an intern with Pakistan's Senate Standing Committee on Defence. His areas of research include the nexus of climate change and security, environmental security, climate justice, energy security, human security, and South Asian politics. He can be reached at [email protected]

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2 thoughts on “The Debate on Nuclear First Use and No First Use: The case of Pakistan

  1. India itself places no credibility in ‘no first use.’ If it did, it should have accepted China’s assurance of ‘no first use’…that would have obviated the need for India’s nuclear weapons acquisition, much less for operational deployment of nuclear weapons. This would convince Islamabad of the necessity of continuing to expand and diversify its arsenal, as well as engage in risky behavior to keep Indian defense planners guessing.

  2. Adeel,

    Thank you for blogging on this important topic.
    One way to distinguish between a First Use and NFU posture is to look at force structure. The way a state moves forward on its procurement policies can help lend credence to or belie its declared posture.
    A NFU posture would be consistent with relying on mobile, nuclear-armed missiles. But this need not be determinative, because a state can still have mobile missiles and intend to use them first.
    A NFU posture would also be consistent with reliance on SSBNs for deterrence. Again, not an open and shut case, but this is an important indicator.
    A NFU posture would be consistent with foregoing tactical nuclear weapons. Incorporating TNW into a state’s deterrent posture would suggest reliance on a First Use doctrine.
    The most important indicator, perhaps, is whether a state enjoys conventional military advantages. If a state enjoys this advantage, it would have no reason to rely on First Use, even if this is its stated doctrine.
    Conversely, even states that rely on First Use for deterrence purposes might find it very difficult to actually be responsible for the first mushroom cloud on a battlefield since 1945.
    The context in which this decision is made is key. Take, for example, Pakistan. If the context begins with a major LeT-like attack on Indian territory, and if India responds militarily, a Pakistani rejoinder to use tactical nuclear weapons would be very difficult. Why? Because Pakistan would be blamed doubly — first for triggering a crisis, then for using TNW.

    Best wishes,

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