Development towards production of Tactical Nuclear Weapons (TNWs) by Pakistan has increased much tension in South Asia. Experts from around the world have been recognizing and highlighting the risks that come along with the introduction of TNWs. The difficulties that the US and the former Soviet Union had in managing these weapons have been well established. When examined in the South Asian context, studies have accepted that these difficulties only worsen and have recommended that Pakistan should do away with these weapons, if stability is to be realized in the region. Pakistan, in an attempt to ease global concerns over its development of TNWs, has assured that its top leadership will continue to have a complete control over its tactical nuclear weapons. The validity of such an assurance, however, stands in question.


An analysis published by the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) in early 2014 quoted a high-level Pakistani government official as stating that “Pakistan’s top leaders would not delegate advanced authority over nuclear arms to unit commanders, even in the event of crisis.” The official was further quoted as saying that “the smallest to the largest – all weapons are under the central control of the National Command Authority, which is headed by the Prime Minister.” The statement essentially implies that the authority to launch tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) will not be delegated to unit commanders and would remain with the central authorities.


The claim made in the statement, if it is to be believed, certainly addresses some concerns, like the one of an accidental detonation. Those believing this statement, including even some retired senior officials from the foreign services and the armed forces of India, have argued that the decision to not delegate control of TNWs to the unit commanders would “ease global concerns about Pakistani nuclear arms being detonated precipitously in any future combat”. There is, however, a lack of assessment as to how reliable the quoted official statement is.


It is important to note here that there is no official nuclear doctrine in Pakistan. Even if one exists, as Brig. Gen. Naeem Salik argues, it has not been made public since “this ambiguity adds to the value of deterrence.” Thus, any discourse on Pakistani nuclear doctrine has to be based on either the statements made by senior government or military officials or other relevant press releases. If the statement on complete control of central command over Pakistan’s TNWs is to be believed, it only showcases, what clearly appears to be, a convoluted nuclear doctrine of Pakistan, as has been explained here.


It is well known that TNW is a loose category of nuclear weapons, as observable parameters, like range or yield, fail to distinguish them from strategic nuclear weapons, due to close geographical proximities in the case of South Asia, and the high yield levels of even the smallest of modern day warheads. In principle, however, TNWs are designed to serve tactical missions in battlefields, in the theatre of war. It is well established that during battles, communication systems and the command and control structures are subject to tremendous pressures and the chances of a break-down in the lines of communication are high. In such a scenario, if the launch authority were to remain with the central command, and if the lines of communication were to break down, the TNW assets deployed with local units would only be a liability, with the risk of a pre-emptive conventional strike by the adversary on them. Thus, the purpose behind the deployment of TNWs in battlefield would require pre-battle delegation of launch authority to local unit commanders. A strong centralised control would just defeat the very purpose these weapons are designed to serve.


Though Pakistan does not use the term “Tactical Nuclear Weapons” explicitly, it has developed and tested nuclear-capable short range surface-to-surface missiles Hatf II (Abdali) and Hatf IX (Nasr) which serves purposes that are accepted to be served by TNWs. The purpose behind the development of, say, Hatf II (Abdali), as has been argued by the Director General, Strategic Plans Division, Lt. Gen. (retd.) Khalid Ahmed Kidwai, is to counter the Indian Cold Start doctrine, which prescribes India to fight limited conventional wars without crossing over Pakistan’s strategic nuclear redline. While the Cold Start has never been acknowledged by the civilian government in India, which, unlike in Pakistan, has the final say over such matters, Pakistan has justified the development of these weapon systems, designed to serve the purpose of TNWs, as a response to the Indian Cold Start.


Taking into account this very purpose, it would require Pakistan to pre-delegate launch authority to local unit commanders with whom the TNWs would be deployed, if it is to deter India from using its conventional superiority over Pakistan in a low-scale battle. This, in fact, has been acknowledged by many military and government officials in Pakistan. For instance Brig. (retd.) Feroz Hassan Khan, former deputy director of Pakistan’s Strategic Plans Division (SPD), states that, “partial pre-delegation, especially for the weaker side, would be an operational necessity because dispersed nuclear forces as well as the central command authority (National Command Authority) are vulnerable.” Pervaiz Iqbal Cheema, from the National Defence University of Pakistan too argues that “even Corps Commanders would be involved in the decision to use nuclear weapons.”


Considering the fact that there is no official documentation of Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine which prescribes the delegation of launch authority over its arsenal of TNWs, the discourse so far has been based on statements made by certain officials. However, the statements made so far on this issue clearly appear to be contradictory. On one hand, the official cited by the NTI assures complete control of Pakistan’s central command over its entire nuclear arsenal, including TNWs. On the other hand, other experts and officials from Pakistan military and government have acknowledged the involvement of local unit commanders in the command and control structure for their tactical nuclear weapons. Therefore, a discourse on Pakistan’s doctrine on TNWs will be futile to pursue, which is solely based on such contradictory statements given by Pakistani government or military officials. Such contradictory statements regarding Pakistan’s nuclear strategies and doctrine, instead of adding to the value of deterrence for Pakistan, exasperate the already tense security environment in South Asia.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.