What’s in a Name?

That which we call a nuke by any other name would devastate as deeply

Tactical Nuclear Weapons (TNWs henceforth) have remained a subject of intense debate since their creation. Their notoriety can perhaps be attributed to a lack of definition- one that is not only precise but also broad enough to apply to various conditions that require a control of these weapons. Battlefield weapons, short-range nuclear weapons, sub strategic or non-strategic weapons are the various names used to describe a tactical nuclear weapon. They are developed for use in purely military situations and seek to confine their ill effects to the battlefield. TNWs have a considerably less destructive capability but trouble arises when TNWs blur the fine line between a conventional and tactical nuclear weapon and also between a strategic and tactical nuclear weapon. Ironically, both South Asian strategic stability and deterrence is often characterized in the context of tactical nuclear weapons. There is, however, no agreement within South Asia itself on what constitutes a tactical nuclear weapon.

During the Cold War TNWs were categorized as weapons having less than a 500 km range and a yield of about 15kT. The South Asian debate about TNW is still evolving and does not necessarily conform to Cold War ideals. Theoretically, all nuclear weapons in South Asian territory could be called strategic in in terms of casualties and effects of radiation as well as problems that will arise in the aftermath of their usage. Consequently the development of Nasr and Prahaar missiles could complicate the battlefield environment during ground military operations for both Indian and Pakistani forces.

Pakistan’s Nasr for example has a “range of 60 km, carries nuclear warheads of appropriate yield with high accuracy, shoot and scoot attributes.” Similarly India’s 150 km Prahaar Missile can be tipped with a 200kg payload may also be assigned a nuclear role and there have been reports about Prahaar ultimately replacing the Prithvi Missiles. Given its payload capabilities the 750-/km Shourya hypersonic missiles could also be assigned an eventual nuclear role.

There is a lot of ambiguity surrounding both Indian and Pakistani capabilities and therefore makes it very difficult to assess the impact of these developments on South Asian deterrence. It is imperative that consensus be developed regarding the definitions and capabilities of tactical nuclear weapons between India and Pakistan in order to gauge the relative impact of TNWs on strategic stability in the region. Classification could be based on several variants including but not limited to range and yield. Tactical nuclear weapons are often referred to “as low yield; a term that extends as far as one megaton and would include the bulk of strategically deployed nuclear weapons. “

In the South Asian context, complicating matters further is the Indian nuclear doctrine that “does not distinguish between tactical and strategic nuclear weapons or such use. India continues to adopt a no-first use (NFU) policy and its nuclear doctrine clearly assures ‘massive retaliation inflicting unacceptable damage’ against ‘nuclear attack on Indian territory or on Indian forces anywhere.’  And also that “should a nuclear Nasr launch occur on Indian Forces it would be regarded as a First Strike.”

From a Pakistani perspective TNWs provide “another layer of deterrence” vis-à-vis India. For deterrence to be successful a state would require a dual strategy involving both resolve and restraint. It is also important that this strategy is recognized and understood by its adversaries. To realize the intended deterrent effect of TNWs necessarily involves a process of communication establishing definitions in the first phase and a framework outlining mutually recognized rules and regulations consequently. TNWs in South Asia still need to be classified in terms of their range, yield, and impact. This classification requires communication between India and Pakistan through a process of dialogue whereby the existing gaps in understanding may be addressed. According to estimates, it may take almost seven years to induct Prahaar and Nasr into the land forces due to production and technical imperatives. Conversely South Asian TNWs would start affecting deterrence and regional stability around 2018. This provides both India and Pakistan with an opportunity to reach consensus on issues relating to definition and capability of TNWs.

In this context a precedent exists in the compilation of a NATO-Russia glossary of terms and definitions in the nuclear field whereby NATO and Russian experts developed a glossary in order to support future dialogue. Joint exercises and discussions were consequently held between 2004 and 2007 to increase transparency, develop a common understanding of nuclear weapons safety procedures, and confidence building in order to respond effectively to contingencies involving nuclear weapons. Another example is the Chinese-English, English-Chinese Glossary of Nuclear Security Terms by the Committee on International Security and Arms Control (CISAC) of the US National Academies in collaboration with the Chinese Scientists Group on Arms Control (CSGAC) of the Chinese People’s Association for Peace and Disarmament. The 1000 word glossary was created as a result of almost two decades of CISAC-CSGAC Track II discussions on an array of non-proliferation issues. The purpose for the creation of such a glossary was to facilitate progress in diplomatic, academic, scientific, or other activities where a clear understanding of different terms is crucial.

A South Asian glossary of terms could go a long way in dispelling the ambiguities surrounding the TNW debate within and between India and Pakistan. The very definition of a TNW needs to be viewed in a bilateral or multilateral context in South Asia because definitions have the ability to complicate any future discussion in the nuclear realm.

Posted in , CBMs, Deterrence, Doctrine, India, India-Pakistan Relations, Missiles, Nuclear, Nuclear Weapons, Pakistan, Security, TNWs

Amina Afzal

Amina Afzal

Amina Afzal is an Islamabad-based researcher with an MSc in Defence and Strategic Studies from Quaid-i-Azam University. She recently graduated from the Monterey Institute of International Studies with a certificate in Non-Proliferation Studies. She worked as a GRA for the CNS James Martin Center for Non Proliferation Studies.

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3 thoughts on “What’s in a Name?

  1. Nicely written post, especially the idea that India and Pakistan should evolve a consensus over what constitutes a TNW — a proper definition. Well, this is an opportunity for CBM that TNWs could provide to the South Asian nuclear competitors. However, what challenges TNWs pose to delicate strategic stability between India and Pakistan? What are your assessments of arguments that suggest this will/not pose a significant threat to stability; dimensions/scenarios for non-state acquisition/use; prospective conditions that can tilt the balance?

    Thank you!

  2. Amina:
    Well written, and an excellent idea.

    The 1999 Lahore Memorandum of Understanding could provide a context for this discussion:

    “The two sides shall engage in bilateral consultations on security concepts, and nuclear doctrines, with a view to developing measures for confidence building in the nuclear and conventional fields, aimed at avoidance of conflict.”


  3. @ Sadiq: Thank you very much for your comments. You have raised some important questions that I will try and address in my next article!

    @MK: Thank you! Indeed any proposal for nuclear CBMs need to be considered in the context of the Lahore MOU. Unfortunately both India and Pakistan have failed to implement most of the measures identified by the MOU. The “Spirit of lahore” did little to dampen the arms race in South Asia after all!

    For the governments in both India and Pakistan to consider taking up the issue officially, it is very important that detailed studies and analyses are first conducted at the track II level. This would help provide an impetus to the entire process of defining a TNW and also determining its impact on deterrence and strategic stability in South Asia.

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