Guts, Grit and Glory | The TNW Conundrum

India should take Pakistan’s threat of TNWs with more than a pinch of salt

Maj. Gen. R.S. Mehta (retd)Maj. Gen. Raj Mehta (retd)

Tactical Nuclear Weapons (TNWs) are small nuclear warheads and delivery systems intended for warfighting. Less powerful than strategic nuclear weapons, TNWs are intended to devastate enemy targets without causing widespread destruction/ radioactive fallout.

The US began their development in the Fifties; the W-54 warhead, whose explosive force varied from 0.1 to 1 kiloton being the first. The W-54 was used on the single-soldier-manned Davy Crockett nuclear recoilless rifle. During the Cold War, America and the Soviet Union deployed tens of thousands of TNWs. None were used in combat as neither superpower was willing to risk all-out nuclear war by employing them.

While non-strategic nuclear weapons are sometimes referred to as ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons, the fact is that worldwide, any nuclear weapon usage has inherently strategic implications even if used on the battlefield as a tactical weapon. Modern TNWs are supposedly developed as a deterrent against aggression and not for full-fledged war.

However, in the India-Pakistan context, the pitch gets queered when Pakistan starts branding TNW strikes against advancing Indian battle groups as its weapon of choice. In India, any Indian forays into Pakistan are conventional retaliatory measures against Pakistani terror strikes operating below the perceived Pakistani nuclear red line. Should Pakistan target the Indian advance with TNW attacks, India sees no distinction between a tactical and a strategic nuclear weapon and will retaliate with a cataclysmic nuclear second strike.

T-90 tank is washed during exercise Sanghe Shakti

The TNW issue is not without its defenders though. In a recent article, director of the USAF Centre for Unconventional Weapons Studies, Albert J. Mauroni, suggests that tactical nuclear weapons are being advanced as a valid, contemporary, and necessary defence capability. He criticises the stand of analyst Michael Krepon, co-founder Stimson Centre. Krepon recently called the development and employment of tactical nuclear weapons both ‘unwise’ and strategically unsound. Mauroni disagrees and says that despite contrary Cold War experiences, the US interest in offensive TNW usage remains intact.

Mauroni opines that given the possibility of its enemies using TNWs, US has no choice but to invest in low-yield nuclear weapons and delivery systems for specific needs. Colin Gray once noted in his book Weapons Don’t Make War that the ‘absence of experience with nuclear conflict had resulted in the fashionable judgment that the only positive utility for nuclear weapons in the pursuit of statecraft was in their non-use’. In reality, if nation-states envisage threats to their security, there will be reasons for developing suitable nuclear weapons in pursuit of their security objectives. Clearly, the jury is out whether TNWs help nation-states ward off threats to their security or their usage can result in nuclear Armageddon by way of massive retaliation.

Pakistan’s Position

Pakistan claims that its sophisticated short-range Hatf IX (Vengeance) multi-tube TNW-enabled ballistic missile is an antidote for India’s ‘Cold Start’ doctrine. This doctrine in Pakistani perception would allow India to launch up to eight Indian Integrated Battle Groups (IBGs) culled from holding Corps into shallow offensive operations even as India’s strike Corps mobilise for war from hinterland garrisons. The IBGs could be supplemented with stand-off weapons such as the dual-use BRAHMOS and Nirbhay LACMs and Prahaar and Pragati battlefield ballistic missiles. Such ‘lightning’ action would upset the Pakistani time-for-deployment-and reaction calculus; the upgraded Indian Observe-Orient-Decide-Act (OODA) loop causing Pakistan irreparable strategic disadvantage. That India has conducted several recent military exercises involving simulated nuclear attacks on its forces adds substance to the Pakistani strategists’ fears.

Unsurprisingly, Pakistan’s Inter Services Public Relations Directorate (ISPR) recent hand-out claims that the Nasr adds ‘deterrence value to Pakistan’s Strategic Weapons Development programme at shorter ranges’. The Nasr could carry ‘nuclear warheads of appropriate yield with high accuracy and has shoot-and-scoot attributes’, the document opines. There is mention, too, of how Pakistan has created a Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP) that marries TNW usage with conventional warfare related command and control; a claim some Pakistan watchers find optimistic and theoretical in construct.

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