“Nuclear Dynamics in South Asia the India Pakistan Equipoise”

Issues Details: 
Vol 12 Issue 1, Mar - Apr 2018
Page No.: 
Sub Title: 
The present state of the ‘equipoise’ between India and Pakistan insofar as nuclear capabilities are concerned
Air Marshal Anil Chopra, PVSM, AVSM, VM, VSM (Retd)
Thursday, April 5, 2018

As early as 26 June 1946, Jawaharlal Nehru, later India’s first Prime Minister had said “As long as the world is constituted as it is, every country will have to devise and use the latest devices for its protection. I have no doubt India will develop her scientific researches and I hope Indian scientists will use the atomic force for constructive purposes. But if India is threatened, she will inevitably try to defend herself by all means at her disposal”.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister ShahidKhaqan Abbasi recently said that his country has developed short- range nuclear weapons to “counter the ‘Cold Start’ doctrine of the Indian Army”, while its NSA Lt Gen (retired) Nasser Khan Janjua warned that “Nuclear War in South Asia is a real possibility” adding that “India has been stockpiling a range of dangerous weapons and threatens Pakistan continuously of conventional warfare” .

India’s Air Force Chief, Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa recently said “the IAF has the capability of locating and striking nuclear and other targets in Pakistan. We have a draft nuclear doctrine. It is answered in that - what happens when the enemy decides to use nuclear weapons on us. As far as IAF is concerned, it has the ability to locate, fix and strike and that is not only for tactical nuclear weapons but for other targets across the border (as well).”

Global Realities

Today there are eight overt nuclear powers, USA, Russia, UK, France, China, India Pakistan and North Korea; one covert (Israel) and one nuclear aspirant (Iran). Saudi Arabia has stated that they will go nuclear if Iran acquires. There is a risk that middleweight militaries and non-state actors may muster Nukes. As per a recent US report, Global nuclear war threat is down, but risk of a nuclear attack is higher. The risk of nuclear weapon use over the next 20 years, will still be low but greater than it is today. Multi-polar world is watching efforts to deter N Korea and Iran, and that will decide the future of Nuclear Non-Proliferation. World is ill prepared for rise of nuclear aspirants and opaque or non-existent nuclear doctrines of those countries. 

Indian Nuclear Scenarios

India has declared policy of ‘No First Use’ (NFU) of nuclear weapons but India will react with a massive retaliation in case attacked. China also has an NFU policy. Though the exact contours of Pakistan’s nuclear threshold is unclear, Khalid Kidwai, the former head of Strategic Planning Division (SPD), in 2001 delineated four generic ‘redlines’: spatial threshold (loss of large parts of territory), military threshold (destruction of large parts of land or air forces), economic threshold (economic strangulation), and political threshold (political destabilization or large scale internal subversion). In 2002 then-President Pervez Musharraf stated that “nuclear weapons are aimed solely at India,” and would only be used if “the very existence of Pakistan as a state is threatened”.

India does not envisage a nuclear war with China. In any case China does have conventional military superiority and there is unlikely to be a situation when it threatens India with nuclear weapons.

The threat of a nuclear attack therefore is only from Pakistan. The first Scenario is that Pakistan launches a full-fledged nuclear attack, and India is forced to respond with massive retaliatory nuclear strike. The second scenario is that Pakistan attacks India with Tactical Nuclear Weapons (TNW). As per India’s declared policy, it is expected to respond with a massive retaliatory nuclear strike. Both these scenarios will mean assured mutual destruction. The third scenario is that Pakistan attacks with TNWs but Indian political leadership dithers in decision making or inordinately delays response under international pressures. In such a case Indian Armed Forces will have to continue conventional offensive under NBC environment.

Indo-Pak Nuclear Reality

Both India and Pakistan are overt nuclear weapon powers since 1998, with each having around 100-150 nuclear warheads. There are serious territorial disputes between the two countries. Pakistan is running a proxy war in India’s Jammu and Kashmir region by infiltrating and supporting terrorists. A large number of terrorists, civilians, and members of security forces are getting killed every year. Pakistani establishment routinely makes loose statements telling the world of high risk of nuclear war in the South Asian region, and indirectly implying to India that it will respond with a nuclear attack if it was threatened beyond a point. India is engaged in protracted counterinsurgency operations, constantly diverting its attention. India has to therefore remain prepared for a possible nuclear strike. Since Pakistan’s implied threat of nuclear response and its threshold is somewhat vague, there is a significant space for conventional offensive operations.  A scenario of “repeated alerts and false alarms” is likely to prevail in the Indo-Pak context, particularly till confidence building and risk reduction measures are firmly in place. India would have to manage escalation and de-escalation control by following a Blow-Hot-Blow-Cold strategy.

Pakistani Nuclear Capability

Pakistan started its nuclear program in 1972 just after its dismemberment in 1971 Indo-Pak war when Bangladesh was liberated. The first nuclear weapon test was in May 1998. Pakistan is estimated to have a stockpile of 130 warheads. The maximum missile range currently (Shaheen-III) is 2750 km. That will cover most of India. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has allegedly transferred missile and related materials to Pakistan. North Korea had been secretly supplying Pakistan with ballistic missile technology in exchange for nuclear weapons technology. Pakistani low-yield weapons can be carried on fighter-bombers and on short-range ballistic missiles Shaheen and Ghauri. They have built Soviet-style road-mobile missiles, and air defences around strategic sites, and taken other concealment measures.

Pakistan also possesses nuclear tipped Babur cruise missiles with ranges up to 700 km, extendable to 1,000 km. The Hatf-IX (Nasr) is battlefield TNW with ranges up to 60 km. PAF has two dedicated squadrons of the JF-17 Thunder, now believed to be the preferred vehicle for delivery of nuclear weapons. One squadron of F-16s is capable of carrying nuclear weapons. The French Mirage-III are also upgraded to carry a new air launch cruise missile. Pakistan is developing a sea-based variant of the Hatf-VIII Babur nuclear cruise missile. Pakistan is pushing forward a proposal to build its own nuclear submarines.

There are geographic gaps and corridors that Pakistan feels vulnerable to exploitation by Indian mechanized forces. Pakistan refuses to adopt NFU indicating that it would strike India with nuclear weapons even if India did not use such weapons first. Pakistan’s asymmetric nuclear posture has significant influence on India’s decision and ability to retaliate, as seen in 2001 and 2008 deadly attacks on Indian soil. Pakistan’s motive for pursuing a nuclear weapons development program is to prevent another invasion of Pakistan. Pakistan is not a signatory to Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). While the world has been worried of Pakistani nuclear weapons passing on to rouge states or even terrorists, Pakistan has repeatedly claimed that their weapons are most secure. Unlike rest of the world where the nukes are controlled by civilian heads of government, in Pakistan the nuclear button is reportedly with the Army.

Indian Nuclear Capability and Response

India launched its nuclear program in 1967 just after China exploded a nuclear device in 1964. India carried out its first nuclear explosion in 1974, and first nuclear weapons test in May 1998. India is reportedly having a stockpile of around 110 nuclear warheads. The maximum operational ballistic missile range (of Agni -V) is 5,800 km, which covers all of China. India was estimated to have 800 kg of separated reactor-grade plutonium with a total amount of 8,300 kg of civilian plutonium, enough for approximately 1,000 nuclear weapons. Supersonic BrahMos cruise missile with nuclear warhead 300kg and range 450 Km, and Nirbhay long range cruise missile with 1500 Kg war-head and 1000 km range are also part of the arsenal.

India is a member of the Missile Technology Control Regime, Wassenaar Arrangement and Australia Group. India has signed neither the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test Ban Treaty nor the NPT. India maintains NFU nuclear policy and has a nuclear triad capability as a part of its ‘Minimum Credible Deterrence’. India’s Strategic Nuclear Command was established in 2003 and is the joint services custodian of all of India’s nuclear weapons, missiles and assets. India’s civil leadership, in the form of the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) is the only body authorized to order a nuclear strike.

Nuclear-armed fighter-bombers were India’s first and only nuclear-capable strike force until 2003 with free-fall nuclear bombs. The estimated 68 nuclear warheads of land-based nuclear weapons of India are operated through the Indian Army. They currently consist of Agni Series of ballistic missiles and the Prithvi missiles. Agni-VI and Surya under development will have ranges going up to 16,000 km.

The Indian Navy has developed two sea-based delivery systems for nuclear weapons, completing Indian nuclear triad in 2015. Dhanush (350 km) Sagarika (700 km) and K-4 (3500 km) are the three Naval missiles. Coupled with nuclear powered submarines, including indigenous, it is a formidable capability.

Indo-Pak Bilateral Agreements

India and Pakistan reached bilateral agreements on nuclear issues. In 1989, they agreed not to attack each other’s nuclear facilities. Since then they have been regularly exchanging lists of nuclear facilities on 1 January of each year. In June 2004, the two countries signed an agreement to set up and maintain a hotline to warn each other of any accident that could be mistaken for a nuclear attack. These were deemed essential risk reduction measures in view of the seemingly unending state of misgiving and tension between the two countries, and the extremely short response time available to them to any perceived attack.

Military Op Considerations in NBC Environment

If Indian Armed Forces are forced into continued conventional operations because the political executive dithers or delays decision for a nuclear response then it must ensure that critical elements are kept intact to carry on an offensive under NBC environment. Mass for mass, nuclear detonation is a million times more powerful and results in blast, fire, and radiation. Free electrons emitted affect radio waves, especially at lower frequencies of Radar, VHF and UHF. Electromagnetic pulse (EMP) generates high voltages that can destroy unshielded electronics. Military needs to War-game actions under EMP effects. For Military, operational nuclear affects is in context of force protection and ability to respond. Forces need to repeatedly revisit nuclear operational doctrine and need to educate nuclear operators and decision makers.

Pak Tactical Nuke Approach

Pakistan hopes that a limited nuclear strike offers a quick tactical victory through speed and penetration against critical targets. It may use Hatf IX (Nasr) which is a solid fuel, low-yield, sub-sonic surface-to-surface, tactical missile with 60 km range, 500 Kg warhead. It is normally used like an artillery system, with 5-6 missiles fired simultaneously at the target area. Pakistan hopes/intends that quick strike could induce delays in Indian decision-making cycle.

Indian Nuclear Response Preparation

Peacetime capability building and demonstration contributes to deterrence. Early warning and attack assessment needs network of radars, other sensors and processing stations. A fail-safe communication system must link the surveillance, early warning, command and control systems with the nuclear forces (C4SR). Ability of Indian military elements to absorb enemy first strike through dispersion and redundancy and remain operationally efficient is critical. Survival of decision makers and other support services through active and passive means is important.

There is a need to provide air defence to all these elements, critically the national Capital. All resources for nuclear mission must be earmarked, disbursed & secured. Integrated satellite, aerial and ground-based surveillance system to gather data for ‘targeting’ must be in place. Adequate processing facilities for rapid retargeting based on event templates, current intelligence & higher inputs. All nuclear warheads must be pre-positioned and ready to be armed. There should be a clear plan to kill enemy second strike ability by targeting higher direction centers, and simultaneous deep operations to disrupt enemy’s preparation and movement. Must inhibit or deny vital enemy operating systems (C2, logistics, air defence) and target transportation networks & LOCs to slow the forward movement of enemy armored forces. The attack would have to be simultaneous on many targets for massive response. Target would also include enemy airfields & silos from where nuclear and other major offensive can be launched.

Ground Offensive under Nuclear Overhang

A tactical nuclear weapon can threaten employment of mass formations and forward fixed operating bases. Field Commanders may be forced to ensure dispersal, survivability, and force protection. Isolation of units, mass casualties, and loss of C2 capabilities will necessitate semi-independent operations and decentralized control. This may add functional stress. A tactical nuclear weapon can alter terrain and create obstacles such as fallen trees, fires, craters, rubble, and radiation. Creation of obstacles will deny terrain and slow the counterattacks. The striking force may have to cross areas contaminated by fallout and initial radiation. Army may have to replace units in case of tactical nuclear attack in TBA. Only disciplined, well-trained, and physically fit units can function well in NBC environment.

Commanders who understand this must provide soldiers with strong, positive leadership; instill aggressiveness, and ensure good mental and physical preparation. In a nuclear environment decisive battles must be greatly compressed and campaigns accelerated. IAF would support Indian Army’s offensive and defensive operations by creating Air superiority in TBA and providing an Air umbrella to Surface Strike Forces. It would undertake Interdiction Missions. Fixed Wing and Rotary Wing will provide logistic/replenishment support and also mass Casualty/Medical evacuation in case of nuclear attack. IAF will also support nuclear disaster relief operations at national and tactical levels by moving disaster management teams, NBC equipment and medical supplies. It will also set up Rapid Air Mobile Hospitals.

Calling the Pakistani Nuclear Bluff

Deterrence is product of a nation’s military capabilities and willingness to use them. Indian policy is to terminate conflict at the lowest possible level of violence. Nuclear deterrence also requires Air superiority; Space superiority; Cyberspace superiority; Global precision attack; Rapid global mobility; Global integrated Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance; Command and Control. Escalation control is essential. It involves conveying to the enemy that, although we are capable of escalating to a higher level, we have deliberately held back. Escalation can be controlled by tight limits on the area of employment and timing and duration of employment be kept short. A channel of communication with the adversary must remain available to permit negotiations for escalation control and conflict termination. Critical thing is the turnaround time for the decision to launch a nuclear counter-strike. The final decision on use of nuclear weapons has to be made by the leader (Prime Minister), based on political and military advice, especially when you are going to act only in retaliation.

Pakistan has been routinely reminding the world about the escalated risk of a military show-down in South Asia. It is often geo-political brinkmanship to extract American sympathy and military aid. The Pakistani politicians and Generals have looted their country for long and amassed huge wealth and parked it within and outside the country. They would never dare to risk their own and their future generations through a nuclear attack.  Pakistani reaction to shooting down of Atlantique aircraft (in August 1999), its response to heavy casualties in Kargil, and its response to surgical strike were all very mute.

Pakistan is always painting itself bigger/bolder than it is. If India had gone 20 kilometers deep during Kargil war, the response would not have been a nuclear strike. India must therefore remain aggressive in its conventional Ops and intelligently manage escalation.


Military Affairs