Pakistan, NATO, and tactical nuclear weapons: two of a kind?

The Davy Crockett tactical nuclear weapon, at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland in March 1961.

There has been growing interest in Pakistan’s tactical nuclear weapons. Here’s Gurmeet Kanwal:

The Pakistan army’s continuing efforts to arm the 60-km Hatf-9 (Nasr) short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) with nuclear warheads will adversely impact deterrence stability on the Indian subcontinent as tactical nuclear weapons are inherently destabilising and invariably escalatory. The Nasr missile was first tested in April 2011 and then again in May 2012 and is reported to be a replica of the Chinese M-20.

On this subject, see also A.H. Nayyar and Zia Mian from 2010, Jeffrey Lewis and Rajesh Basrur last year, and Michael Krepon. The rationale for Pakistan’s use of such weapons is familiar to most, and often invokes NATO’s nuclear doctrine. It is worth understanding how exactly NATO’s nuclear thinking applies to Pakistan, and what this implies for how its arsenal might develop and how India might respond to this.

The most lucid explanation of NATO’s doctrinal precepts are to be found in the late Michael Quinlan’s 1997 RUSI Whitehall Paper, Thinking About Nuclear Weapons. Its available free online, and formed part of a longer book in 2009 (the book includes a chapter on India and Pakistan). The bolded sentences highlight the parts most strikingly relevant to Pakistan today:

Especially, though not only in the particular setting of the Cold War confrontation, plans and capabilities have had to provide options for use that could be credible; and this has meant, for example, developing weapons of greater accuracy and lower yield, and plans for more limited use and more constrained targeting, than might feature in an uncontrolled apocalyptic holocaust


The [NATO nuclear] doctrine was built around the Alliance’s strategic concept of flexible response, formulated during the 1960s. That concept has been much misunderstood and even caricatured. It did not, for example, envisage a pre-determined sequence of moves – an ‘escalation ladder’ – to be followed in the face of aggression; and though it did not rule out first use or early use of nuclear weapons, it was far from prescribing or assuming either. The core of the concept was always the timely use of the minimum force, whether conventional or nuclear, adequate to deny an aggressor success in his objective. Aggression against so broad and diverse an entity as the North Atlantic Alliance could have a wide variety of forms and scales; and providing a capability for apt and credible application of minimum effective force to fit any scenario therefore meant that there had to be plainly available a substantial range of military options from which the Alliance could choose both for initial resistance and for how best to proceed if the first option did not succeed. A narrow set of prescriptions for response, or a rigid doctrine for the order or number of follow-on options to be entertained, would have been the antithesis of flexibility, at odds both with the realities of the Alliance’s political, geographical and strategic diversity and with the deterrent merit of uncertainty.

NATO thinking was always clear that a major conflict was not to be conducted in sealed compartments, whether of territory or of force category, and still less in sealed compartments imposed by an aggressor to suit his strengths and preferences. The idea of possible escalation, in the sense of being ready to change the terms of the encounter in scope or intensity beyond what the aggressor had chosen, was essential, But NATO recognised also that the prospect of having abruptly to cross a wide gulf in these respects could scarcely be either acceptable to its own peoples or credible to a determined adversary. Deterrence required making it as hard as possible for any adversary to form the view that NATO would shrink from decisions on raising the conflict’s intensity, or to dare act on such a view.

The range of options available must therefore be an unmistakable continuum without huge gaps. That in turn meant that there had to be nuclear forces, backed by will and doctrine for their possible use, intermediate between conventional forces (NATO had no large offensive chemical armoury) and the ultimate strategic nuclear capability – the more so since, especially in the earlier days, that capability often entailed high weapon yield, low accuracy and uncertain penetrativity, so that precisely-limited use might not have been easy. From NATO’s inception the judgement was widely accepted that NATO’s non-nuclear forces might find themselves unable to repel or even arrest a large-scale and determined attack upon NATO territory. NATO, as a grouping of free sovereign states, could not espouse plans envisaging the ready surrender of any member’s territory and must therefore adopt a posture – ‘forward defence’ – that was was by no means optimal for military effectiveness.

Besides the overwhelming general fact of virtually inexhaustible destructive power in the hands of the postulated adversary, substantial studies of possible scenarios brought out – in retrospect, unsurprisingly – a more particular conclusion: that if, finding itself losing in a conventional conflict in Europe, NATO were to use nuclear weapons for military effect and the adversary then responded more or less symmetrically, it must be expected (with all due allowance for the uncertainty in such evaluations) that NATO would still, save perhaps in one or two narrowly specialised settings, find itself losing. In other words, NATO could not count on its nuclear weapons to substitute military victory for military defeat.

Recognition of this conclusion infused the work of the NPG [Nuclear Policy Group] for most of the later years of the Cold War. NATO nuclear doctrine had to concentrate upon the use of weapons to convey effectively to the adversary the message that he had mistaken NATO’s political tolerance and underrated NATO’s will to resist, and that for his own survival he must therefore back off. Much NPG work centred upon questions of targeting principle (it did not attempt detailed target selection) to fulfil this basic war-termination concept. The purpose would inherently be to convey a political message and induce a political response; but it was generally accepted that achieving this would require action with some substantial material effect going beyond just the shock, severe though that might be in first use, inherent in any nuclear action. ‘No-target’ demonstration – the detonation of a weapon over the Baltic, say – was occasionally canvassed, and the option continued to be recognised; but it found little real support. It was judged, surely rightly, that this might well suggest precisely a lack of the tough resolve that it would be the whole aim of the action to demonstrate. The heart of the judgement required would be to find the right balance between doing too little to drive home the message and doing so much as to provoke a ferocious reaction in rage or spasm.

It was usually thought that for most situations targets should preferably, though not with absolute necessity, be military ones with some bearing upon the non-nuclear operations in progress, so that the aggressor could not immediately sustain those operations unchecked but would be compelled at least to pause and address fresh and dangerous decisions.


One such consideration held that non-strategic war-termination strike (or ‘pre-strategic’ or ‘tactical’ or ‘theatre’ strike-the terminology never quite settled upon a uniformly-accepted usage differentiating among these) ought to be carried out by delivery systems evidently separate from the ‘strategic’ ones The argument ran that unless this distinction was maintained the Soviet leaders might mistakenly interpret the action as just the initial salvo The weight of this argument always however seemed questionable. NATO would undoubtedly accompany any ‘war-termination’ nuclear action by a major effort in explicit communication to convey what its purpose was and was not – this was indeed a major theme of study in the NPG’s work.

These problems – conventional inferiority, a lack of strategic depth (stemming from politics in NATO’s case, but territory and infrastructure in Pakistan’s), a fear that limited war would create “sealed compartments, whether of territory or of force category” and neutralize nuclear weapons – are directly and highly applicable to Pakistan.

But many of these subtleties are not brought out in the Pakistani context. This is especially as regards the very limited battlefield effectiveness of such weapons, and hence their role as political signals to compel de-escalation rather than military instruments to physically and durably block an offensive. The use of the descriptor”tactical”, rather than “non-strategic” or “sub-strategic”, has contributed to this confusion, although some (Nayyar and Mian, Tellis)  have tried to explain the surprisingly limited effects of nuking tanks.

Quinlan even addresses the issue of the safety of tactical nuclear weapons, a problem that often comes up in discussions of Pakistan (like that of Kanwal, excerpted above):

It used sometimes to be suggested that the forward deployment of nuclear delivery units on West German territory posed, in face of a postulated Warsaw Pact offensive, a ‘use-or-lose’ dilemma which, whether as inescapable fact or even as deliberate stratagem, could drive the timing of NATO nuclear action and so set the ‘threshold’. This was, however, in no way part of NATO’s doctrine or planning (and forward commanders had neither the authority nor, at least in later years, the physical power to launch nuclear weapons without political clearance).

Even if Quinlan is right (and Paul Schulte suggests otherwise, claiming that in the 1950s NATO “seems to have supported a temporary policy of U.S pre-delegation of very short-range battlefield nuclear weapons, including Atomic Demolition Munitions, especially on the Central Front in Germany”), then there are still some significant differences with Pakistan – the primary one being that Pakistan’s lopsided civil-military relations look very different to NATO’s.

In 2005, for instance, Feroz Hassan Khan, a senior official in Pakistan’s nuclear secretariat, the Strategic Plans Division, explained that “partial pre-delegation” of weapons would be an “operational necessity because dispersed nuclear forces as well as central command authority … are vulnerable” (see here, p.15).

A second difference is that NATO gradually placed less and less emphasis on tactical nuclear weapons (withdrawing more and more after 1979 as part of the “dual-track” policy), because of the “eventual improvement of its conventional capabilities that, spurred by Warsaw Pact equipment improvements and doctrinal innovations, resulted from Western technical and, especially American, electronic advantages”. (Schulte, p.53). Pakistan, by contrast, is conventionally falling behind in terms of military spending and technological edge (see this KSG report, p.10). This suggests its reliance on nuclear weapons will grow, not diminish.

A third difference lies in the response to tactical nuclear weapons: “the Soviet General Staff, led by Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov, seems to have concluded in the late 1970s that their most effective option against NATO would be conventional but extremely rapid deep operations conducted, after massive aerial surprise attacks, by operational maneuver groups” – so far, apart from the qualifier “deep”, this blitzkrieg-like approach should remind you of India’s own evolving limited war doctrine, dubbed Cold Start (Cold Start is, of course, supposed to entail shallow incursions).

But the similarity ends there: “Ogarkov knew that many in NATO doubted that their political leaders would agree quickly to use nuclear weapons”. The Soviets would fight “the war in such a way as to delay NATO taking the decision to use nuclear weapons until it was too late for them to be able to influence the outcome of the war” (Kelleher, cited in Schulte, p.53). Whereas NATO was a multinational alliance with a variety of perspectives on where the nuclear threshold ought to lie, Pakistani decision-making – whatever its pathologies – is certainly simpler and more responsive. India cannot rely on Pakistani hesitation, even though it, India, would surely calibrate the level of force so as to make any Pakistani decision a difficult one.

If Pakistan does place increasing stress on limited nuclear options, and tactical nuclear weapons in particular, then understanding the differences from the NATO precedent – the ones discussed here, and plenty of others – will be as important as seeing the similarities.


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