Risks in Pakistan’s tactical nuclear weapons policy

Risks in Pakistan’s tactical nuclear weapons policy

Recent clarifications in Pakistani nuclear policy confirmed speculations that Islamabad has an alarmingly low threshold for tactical nuclear weapon deployment. Here are the geopolitical risks that emerge from Pakistan’s now official position.

Since Pakistan first began testing tactical nuclear weapons in 2011, there have been long-standing ambiguities regarding the threshold at which Pakistan is willing to deploy its developing tactical arsenal.

While Islamabad has maintained a veil of mystery over most aspects of its nuclear program, former members of Pakistan’s foreign service have asserted that these smaller nuclear weapons would be utilized in the event of a conventional Indian military operation into Pakistani territory.

This assertion — previously amounting to only informed speculation — has now been confirmed as Pakistan’s formal stance. Foreshadowing what would become an underwhelming U.S. diplomatic venture in the final stretch of October, Pakistani Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudhary stated that Pakistan would launch “low-yield nuclear weapons” if India staged an attack with conventional forces.

With this official tactical nuclear strategy in place, numerous and significant geopolitical risks surrounding Pakistan have now matured into much more concrete threats, bringing instability to South Asia in a multitude of degrees.

Increased Likelihood of Nuclear Escalation

Pakistan’s intent on utilizing tactical nuclear weapons against invading Indian forces is a strategy based on the logic of quickly defeating such incursions without setting off a strategic nuclear war. In reality, however, Islamabad’s declaration ultimately increases the odds that a full-scale nuclear war will develop.

This fact stems from a handful of reasons. On one hand, Pakistan’s assumption that the use of tactical nuclear weapons against Indian invaders is cleverly below the Indian nuclear threshold may well be erroneous.

Source: Stratfor

India has avoided developing a tactical nuclear arsenal of its own, instead relying on the deterrence ability provided by significantly more powerful strategic nuclear weapons. While this resistance to arsenal diversification is welcomed in terms of overall nonproliferation goals, it also suggests a much higher reality of risk from the India-Pakistan perspective.

India may in fact be under the impression that a strategic arsenal can still deter tactical nuclear use from Pakistan in spite of its declaration otherwise. It may also be unwilling to take full-scale nuclear escalation off the table in the event that Pakistan brings its tactical missiles to the battlefield. In both possibilities, the risk of nuclear war is greatly increased.

In addition, Pakistan’s introduction of tactical nuclear weapons significantly increases the sensitivity of the national nuclear trigger.

Given the short range logistics that tactical nuclear weapons entail as well as Pakistan’s intentions to utilize them in a prompt response, these smaller missiles are likely to be kept in much higher operational readiness than Pakistan’s strategic nuclear arsenal. By bringing tactical nuclear weapons into the calculus, Pakistan erodes many of the traditional barriers to nuclear deployment — undermining regional stability in the process.

Heightened Risks of Proliferation

The logistics of Pakistan’s tactical nuclear weapons also present risks involving nuclear proliferation — particularly in consideration of the various terrorist groups that operate in and around the country.

The low-yield nuclear weapons now in Pakistani hands present proliferation risks due to three particular logistical qualities. First, the smaller yield involved with tactical nuclear weapons means that Pakistan’s fissile material production — enough to produce roughly 20 strategic nuclear weapons a year — is channelled into a much greater number of devices.

With some Indian invasion plans reportedly involving the mobilization of 500,000 troops, Pakistan will be likely to dedicate a majority of its fissile material into these more numerous battlefield nuclear weapons. Greater numbers of nuclear weapons will subsequently bring greater risks of proliferation.

Second, the smaller size and more readily assembled nature of low-yield nuclear weapons also means that they will be easier to steal, conceal, and transport in comparison to the often much larger strategic variant. This enables nefarious non-state actors in Pakistan to feasibly plot the theft of a nuclear device in instances that would have previously not been possible due to sheer coordination difficulties.

Third, Pakistan will need to disperse its tactical nuclear weapons into the hands of a much greater number of military personnel if they are to be effective and in line with the vision set out by Secretary Chaudhary.

This increases the risk of proliferation by boosting the number of opportunities for non-state actors to attack Pakistani personnel and steal a functioning nuclear device. It also creates more possibilities for nuclear weapons to fall into the hands of corrupt Pakistani military officials willing to sell them to both terrorist groups and rogue states seeking to make nuclear acquisitions.

Looking ahead

No matter the angle taken, Pakistan’s willingness to bring tactical nuclear weapons to the India-Pakistan border and officially lower its nuclear threshold stands as a new source of instability in a region where economic growth is often restrained by geopolitical tension.

Looking towards the future, these risks appear to be compounded further by U.S.-Pakistan nuclear talks that have reportedly stalled before even truly beginning. In the absence of such a deal, and the highly unlikely resolution of historical India-Pakistan tensions, the risks introduced by Pakistan’s tactical nuclear weapons policy will remain of deep global concern.

About Author

Ian Armstrong

Ian Armstrong is Commissioning Editor and Senior Analyst at GRI. He also serves as the Geostrategy and Diplomacy Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. Previously, Ian assisted in research at Temple University, the University of Pennsylvania, Scottish Parliament, and Hudson Institute's Center for Political-Military Analysis, where he has focused on non-proliferation and international energy. Ian's analysis has been featured at prominent outlets such as Huffington Post, Business Insider, Foreign Policy Association, CBS News, and RealClearEnergy.