Exploring Pakistan’s Nuclear Thresholds – Analysis

Written by: Khan A. Sufyan

Recent testing of short range ballistic and cruise missiles by Pakistan has initiated a debate in India regarding possible use of battlefield tactical nuclear weapons by Pakistan and the strategic instability it has caused. Pakistan’s declared nuclear format clearly indicates deterrence against conventional as well as nuclear threat. To provide credibility to such deterrence a full spectrum response capability is essential which also devolves around the principle difference between the use of tactical nuclear weapons and tactical use of nuclear weapons.

Contrarily, the Indians state that their nuclear capability principally acts as deterrence against the use of nuclear weapons by any adversary. This clearly indicates that against Pakistan they intend to fight a conventional war using their superior conventional forces. An attempt to acquire anti-ballistic missile defence capability is also indicative of such intent.

Pakistan India RelationsPakistan India Relations

Various Indian Defence Ministers and Chiefs of Army Staffs, on different occasions have stated that all wars fought between India and Pakistan were limited in nature and that limited wars are possible in future also, under a nuclear overhang. It has been further qualified that the limited war would be fought for attainment of shallow objectives, while remaining short of Pakistan’s nuclear thresholds.

Accurate identification of an adversary’s nuclear thresholds is indeed a difficult proposition. Though the nuclear policies and various strategies guiding nuclear responses have relatively been well profiled by various nuclear weapon states, the thresholds however, have never been made public in the manner. More often than not, this ambiguity is deliberately left in order to cause uncertainty in adversary’s decision making calculus. This may force imposition of restrictions as to how deep or shallow the objectives of attacking forces may have to be.

In India – Pakistan nuclear environment as well, such circumspection has apparently added to the deterrence value and may dictate the duration, thrusts and locations in the application of forces. An examination of Pakistan’s possible nuclear thresholds will be in order to see if the Indian doctrine of conventional war under nuclear overhang is at all valid.

A Pre-emptive Response Threshold (PRT) may be evoked against Indian actions that may be premeditated, pre-emptive, incautious and accidental or events spiraling out of control. These strikes may invariably be launched on Indian territory and may take the form of nuclear strike on Indian armed forces, cities and economic and communication centers. The response may even be undertaken due to preparatory engagement of targets inside Pakistani territory, threatening strategic and forward assembly of Indian troops, on escalation of nuclear alert status or even an accidental or rogue firing of Indian nuclear missiles.

An Early Response Threshold (ERT) may result in a nuclear retaliation during the early stages of Indian offensive after the international border has been crossed. Early nuclear response may be resorted to when sensitive locations (important towns/cities etc close to the international border) of psycho-social and communication/economic importance are threatened or captured. It could also be the combined resultant affect of an existential extreme political and economic situation, exacerbation of which is blamed on India and may be undertaken by a government under intense public pressure.

In a Delayed Response Threshold (DRT) the nuclear strikes may be undertaken only after saturation of the conventional response. Evoking of such a response may vary according to the peculiar geographical lay of international border or contiguity of various sensitive locations to the international border and may even take the form of certain imaginary lines drawn on the map.

Finally, the Accumulative Response Threshold (ART) may be evoked if India initiates a graduated application of force. In such a scenario, a naval coercion gradually escalated to blockade coupled with graduated conventional selective air and ground strikes on economic targets, communication infrastructure, politically sensitive locations and military targets are undertaken. The accumulative destructive effect of such conventional strikes may evoke either an early or a delayed nuclear response depending on the summative effect of destruction that has taken place.

These thresholds highlight the fact that even limited wars which Indian defence intelligentsia believes in, are fraught with the threat of nuclear response even before the attacking forces attempt to cross the international border. The decision to initiate war therefore, even limited, must carefully factor in the nuclear response during the early stages of mobilization.

The Indian stated position that their nuclear warfare preparations are against China which would automatically take care of Pakistan’s nuclear threat, has indirectly infused a sense of inconsequentiality of Pakistan’s nuclear capability and has forced Pakistan to improve her nuclear response. This has led to stability – instability paradox for which only the Indians are responsible and not Pakistan.

With China factored in by the Indians, the bilateral India-Pakistan discussions on any nuclear restraint regime may not be helpful towards amenable regional environment. Therefore, inclusion of China in a regional strategic stability can produce the desired results.

(Khan A. Sufyan is a security analyst on South Asia and has advised government, semi-government and private organizations and institutions on national and international security issues, as well as participating in number of national and international seminars and presented papers on various regional and global security issues).

NOTE:This is a cross post from Eurasia Review.

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  • Ghulam Mustufa Leghari  On May 7, 2011 at 8:55 am

    like this

  • A Malik  On May 7, 2011 at 9:23 am

    The scenarios depicted are more of a defensive in nature i.e if Indians did this and that if so and so happenned then the nukes could be factored in. The article stops short of the consequent response – which in all possibility may be – considreing the worst case – an all out nuclear attack or something in between. And then one is not ware what may happen. So if the end response will /may be as said then why do we wait to use nukes only in a defensive mode. To amplify why should we wait for substantial damage that could accrue to our assets, industry or our army (having been mauled) to use the nukes – that is if we are clear that these will have to be used. Then in this case why not start off with the nukes and keep our assets/army in reserve to take care of the debris that may result because of the retribution/response expected. It is no use to wait for two/three weeks after we have suffered and then use the nukes. If death has to come after these few weeks then let it be so many weeks earlier. This we should be prepared mentally.

  • Iltifat Lone  On May 7, 2011 at 10:42 am

    Excellent purview. This is the first comprehensive purview I have seen written by a Pakistani on this subject. The earlier Pakistani explanation of the nuclear thresholds was outlined by Gen. Kidwai in an interview to some foreign journalists many many years ago. Majority of what one found on the subject was the anti-Pakistan trash written by Indians and similar diatribe by western analysts – they are again at it after the Osama incident.

    In my opinion this article has been published at exactly the right time as well. Indian and western media is after Pakistan and Indian Air and Army Chiefs have announced their intent by describing their capability to conduct a US type raid on Pakistan. The article also helps to display Pakistan’s resolve in response to such offensive Indian official thought process.

    Mr. Sufyan has been very articulate in categorizing the threshold levels, explaining each clearly and logically, crossing of which may evoke nuclear response from Pakistan. And I agree with his analysis that a conventional war under nuclear environment, as the Indians prescribe, is fraught with innumerable dangers. Though the Indians may not agree to include the Chinese in Indo-Pak bilateral dialogue on nuclear related aspects, without their inclusion a stable future environment probably cannot be conceived at regional level.

    A very thought provoking analysis indeed.

  • Tariq M. Haider  On May 7, 2011 at 12:41 pm

    Well balanced,well argued article. We must not trust our adversaries and our friendlike enemies. if we keep on doing,
    then Abbotabad like situation will rise again, God forbid.

  • Hasrat  On May 7, 2011 at 2:11 pm

    I agree with Mr Iltifat Lone. Definitely one of the most informative article on this subject I have ever read. I now stand much more educated with regard to the subject of Pakistan’s nuclear thresholds. It is a very complicated subject and reaching conclusions even more complicated under the environment. Kudos to this gentleman who wrote such a piece.

  • Salman  On May 7, 2011 at 5:26 pm

    Many Indian analysts and Generals say that while Pakistan will only destroy part of India and only limited number of Indians would be casualty, when India retaliates it will destroy the whole of Pakistan. The author has obliquely touched the subject. Pakistan is making more nuclear weapons apparently just for this reason. So that Pakistan’s first strike should take out most of India. Yes, India would respond from whatever it could muster after absorbing the first strike. So — both countries may be destroyed after whatever India can come back at Pakistan. A la MAD.
    After reading the nuclear thresholds Pakistan may follow, the Indians should not even think of launching a conventional war against Pakistan – even a small raid against Pakistan. The response may not be what the Indians may be expecting. Conventional war threats or actual wars in India Pakistan environment are over in the emerging nuclear environment. And it is time india understands this fact instead of threatening Pakistan again and again.

  • Mian Ijaz  On May 7, 2011 at 6:04 pm

    A very professional analysis indeed. Not many have written on such intense subject. Very good and balanced article which explains the criticalities in crisp and loaded sentences. Professionalism at its best.

  • Nasir  On May 8, 2011 at 1:47 pm

    Very thoughtful to publish this article indeed, particularly at this critical time. The thresholds outlined by the author in my opinion are also relevant for other countries who are inimical towards Pakistan.

  • Hasrat  On May 8, 2011 at 1:52 pm

    US National Security Adviser announced a short while ago that Pakistan did not know about the presence of Osama in Abbottabad. However, in my opinion their anti-Pakistan rhetoric will not stop and some of their officials may give out pro-Pakistan statements while others will speak against Pakistan. This kind of articles gives us hope that our nuclear thresholds are worked out to respond to anti-Pakistani forces.

  • Qadir  On May 9, 2011 at 4:50 pm

    Not many people understand this subject. But those who possess knowledge about its intricacies, appreciate the importance.

  • Jamal  On May 10, 2011 at 3:42 pm

    When one reads these thresholds carefully one understands the strength Pakistan has due to her nuclear capability. I personally feel that we should break diplomatic relationship with the US and stop the logistical supply to US troops and NATO in Afghanistan and tell the US to go ahead and use european – russian – central asian route over caspian sea to supply her troops. They can use the same route to withdraw her troops whenever that happens. The Afghan government can use the iranian route to get their supplies and continue bad mouthing against Pakistan. Pakistan Zindabad.

  • Sadiq  On May 11, 2011 at 6:19 am

    India is getting geo-politically isolated and has nowhere to go. The Pakistani nuclear thresholds explained in the article by Sufyan Sahib gives a good idea as to where indians stand at this stage – practically nowhere. Indians politicians are living in the cold war era and still think in terms of leaders of non-aligned movement. indians are going to become a very powerful nation but in a well (khoo in punjabi) and will remain there. All dressed up but nowhere to go.

  • Nadir  On May 13, 2011 at 6:07 am

    In my opinion the American attack inside Pakistan is probably the harbinger to geo-political change in this part of the world. This probably is the biggest US misadventure which is likely to cost dearly to the American efforts in gaining Pakistani support for their future presence here. The jingoism on both sides notwithstanding, US recklessness will be costly for them. If the Indians would want to take advantage of this it would certainly be very costly for them as well. You dont mess with a nuclear power, no matter how weak it is. The Soviets could squeeze themselves back to Russia – here there is no squeeze – there will be only response.

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