Pakistan defence minister Mohammad Khwaja’s threat to use “tactical” nuclear weapons is not just a case of political hyperbole. The notion that nuclear weapons deter retaliation by the Indian Army while allowing Pakistan to send jihadis to carry out terror strikes in India is a deeply held view in the Pakistani establishment.
The argument was not totally misplaced as the spectre of nuclear escalation has weighed on India as well – till the line was decisively breached by the surgical strikes by the Indian Army on terror launchpads in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. The decision indicated that India will no longer buy into the threat of an “irrational” opponent.
The belief in the invincibility of its nuclear weapons has seeped deeply into Pakistani elites, civilian as well as military, aided with a carefully nebulous nuclear stance that does not spell out nuclear red lines. So Pakistan has regularly rattled the nuclear sabre like when it “tested” the nuclear-capable Hatf missile during the Kargil war.
India has found it much easier to use force when its territory has been invaded, like in the Kargil conflict when it neither crossed the line of control nor did it enlarge the hostilities to other areas. The war made it clear that nuclear arsenals are no deterrent for limited hot wars along the borders or the LoC despite the possibility of escalation.
The Pakistan army’s “green books” that detail operational philosophies, conventional and jihadi outfits, like Lashkar and Jaish, and nuclear weapons are a seamless triad. “The Pakistan army is perceived to be the centre of gravity…of Pakistan which is backed by irregular forces (like mujahideen) and is reinforced by nuclear weapons,” the 2008 edition says.
In crossing the LoC and admitting it, India has taken on this nuclear blackmail, well aware that doing so carries the risk of escalation. “We are ready. The decision to go ahead with military action was taken with the full awareness that overt action can come at a cost,” said a senior minister in the know of the operation.
Calling out Pakistan’s bellicose military establishment has also meant abandoning the defensive posture and actively using force to settle a quarrel. The doctrine of “strategic restraint” served India well, building its credentials as a peace-loving, status quoist power. It has played well in arguing India’s case that it has a history of non-aggression.
But Pakistan became increasingly convinced that it could target India (perhaps avoiding a repeat of 26/11) and get away with few costs.Thursday’s action reflected the thinking that a big stick needs to be wielded once in a while and introduces compellence as different from traditional deterrence.
The nuclear equation predates the overt nuclearisation that followed India’s Pokhran tests in 1998, ordered by then PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Since the 1990s, Pakistan’s military and political leaders have seen the nuclear weapons as the great equaliser. Nuclear weapons became an albatross around the neck of successive Indian governments when it came to dealing with a Pakistan state that promoted terror against India.
While India has more advanced delivery systems, Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is larger. According to several international agencies, Pakistan has between 110 to 130 nuclear warheads. In the past 10 years, especially since the Mumbai attacks, Pakistan has focused on tactical or non-strategic nuclear weapons meant to deter precisely the kind of cross-LoC strike the Indian army carried out around midnight on Wednesday.
Tactical or low-yield nukes were seen as the single-most significant deterrent which Indian forces needed to contend with after major strikes by terrorists or even Pakistan army irregulars. These included the beheading of an Indian soldier in 2013, killing of five soldiers in August that year and more recently the attacks at Pathankot and Uri.
Another problem which India faced pertained to lack of information about the exact location of the terror camps. Indian diplomats who have served in Pakistan say the locations of these camps change regularly, more so after any flare-up at LoC.
Now not just Indian forces but many in India’s strategic community increasingly believe that the nuclear threat is a Pakistani red herring meant to nullify the asymmetry with India in conventional warfare.
The government seems convinced that the Pakistan army will not resort to nuclear weapons until the Indian army advanced well into PoK and or threatens Punjab. While tactical weapons may inflict heavy damage, Pakistan knows the radioactive fallout will affect its own territory too.