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Pakistan has been very proud of its nuclear weapons programme and its dependence on the weapons has enhanced tremendously with the continuing instability within the country and rising Islamic extremism in the region. Islamabad has long tried to balance its domestic vulnerabilities with the nuclear weapons which it treats as the ultimate guarantor of its survivability and security.


Pakistan has been an overt nuclear state for eighteen years now and its arsenal has grown considerably in size. Pakistan’s expansion of its nuclear arsenal, development of the delivery systems, and adoption of “full spectrum deterrence” does indicate its rather excessive reliance on nuclear weapons for its security.  Pakistan’s nuclear programme is on its way of becoming the third largest (in terms of arsenal) after that of the US and Russia. Islamabad’s induction of tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) (Hatf-9) does signal a dangerous strategy. Existence of TNWs not only injects complexities into the existing instability in South Asia, but also, by nature, tactical nuclear weapons exacerbate enormous command and control challenges. The weapons are vulnerable to falling in the hands of the non-state actors after they are deployed, or even, while they are being transported to the battlefield. Pakistan has been very proud of making ‘tiny bombs’ not realizing that these weapons could actually backfire on Pakistan given the volatile nature of the state and rising extremism in the Pakistani society.


Pakistan started to think about nuclear weapons seriously after their defeat in the 1971 war. Nuclear weapons were perhaps seen as the sole guarantor of Pakistan’s security against the (perceived!) hegemonic India, which remains Pakistan’s enemy number one till date!


The central assumption on which Pakistan has progressed and built its nuclear arsenal is that a credible nuclear deterrent would compensate for the inferiority of its defence forces. Pakistan received direct support from Beijing for its nuclear programme and in its pursuit of nuclear power status, it did have financial support from Saudi Arabia and Libya and eventually, it shared nuclear data and expertise with Iran, Libya and Iraq.


After the overt nuclearisation in 1998, Pakistan pronounced some notions regarding its nuclear thinking which form the basis of its doctrine and strategies. The doctrine does acquire a significant reference in the context of Pakistan’s nuclear programme given its clandestine nature and lack of empirical evidence to support critical propositions. In the pre-nuclear test period Pakistan’s doctrine was that of ambiguity. Although, Pakistan even today does not have an officially announced doctrine, statements made by responsible policy makers in Pakistan have clearly outlined basic elements in its nuclear doctrine. There is an unofficial code adopted by the Pakistani leadership, based on Indo-centricity, credible minimum deterrence (now full spectrum deterrence), strategic restraint and first use.  Very interestingly and rather ironically, the code asserts on the principles of peaceful programme revolving more around maintaining a balance against the Indian force build up, but it includes making a first strike in response to not only a conventional attack by India but also a posed threat from India.  Pakistan has been talking rather often about TNWs which it is confident would deter India from a conventional military response.


Pakistan has long held the belief that being the weaker state it can compensate that weakness by taking a bold initiative, preferably with strategic surprise, to attack Indian military capability and thus, reduce the adverse margin of capabilities. This was its military strategy it practiced in all the wars it waged against India including the last one which was a regular war in Kargil in 1999 and, more importantly, the war through terrorism across the border for a quarter century. The specific concentration of terrorism in the border districts of Punjab, west of River Beas were clearly aimed at similar goals. Seen in the context of this strategic mindset, it is not surprising that it has adopted a nuclear doctrine of First Use. In fact, it has often claimed that it would/could use nuclear weapon(s) at the very beginning of the war against India if the Indian military even crossed the international border.


The nuclear weapons were meant to neutralize India’s conventional superiority and to deter India from a conventional response in any form. The weapons are seen as the ultimate guarantee for Pakistan’s security. Pakistan has tried to project its nuclear assets as an instrument of blackmailing. The acquisition of the nuclear capability (in 1987) enhanced Pakistan’s capability to wage and escalate the covert war in Kashmir. Pakistan’s non-adherence to no first use was believed to serve the objective to deter India from responding with conventional military retaliation. Policy-makers in Pakistan seem to be convinced that they will be able to carry on, or rather accelerate, their activities in Kashmir under the broader threat using nuclear weapons, if required, and this would constrain India’s strategic moves. Although, this has been the Pakistani thinking for long, it has grown up tremendously with Pakistan’s acquisition of nuclear weapons and announcement of the first use policy. 


Pakistan claimed that it had the capability to build a nuclear bomb in 1987, and in 1989 the then Army Chief, General Aslam Beg announced the famous “offensive defence doctrine”. It is noteworthy that during the late 1980s, the activities in the Valley witnessed a shift and the terrorist acts increased significantly in numbers and were planned in a more organized manner.


The central strategic assumption of the Pakistan nuclear strategy has been that India cannot impose a conventional war against Pakistan, leave alone achieve a decisive victory without the risk of catastrophic consequence of Pakistan’s nuclear attack. Pakistani leadership believes that Pakistan’s possession of the nuclear arsenal and the first use policy, and, now, full spectrum deterrence would be sufficient to deter war. This logic in Pakistan has been reinforced by the common Pakistani perception that it was able to deter Indian military action on various occasions after highly provocative terrorist attacks.


Looking into Pakistan’s posture on nuclear weapons, some distinct contradictions can be seen. It talks about use of nuclear weapons as a last resort, with restraint and responsibility. But on the other hand, it boasts about TNWs projecting an extremely low threshold. Obviously, ‘last resort’ has not been defined by Pakistan, which adds to uncertainty and enhances deterrence. It would not be incorrect to state that Pakistan has very rationally adopted the posture of irrationality.


The following conclusions can be drawn regarding Pakistan’s nuclear behaviour in the last three decades:


1. The objectives of the nuclear weapons have not changed, and for Islamabad, nuclear weapons serve threefold objectives: avoid conventional war; support non-sate actors conducting terrorism against India; and ultimate guarantor of its security against India and the major powers (the US).  


2. Pakistan believes in ambiguity, as it enhances deterrence and it would maintain the posture of ambiguity in the future. It claims to be extremely transparent on the safety and security of the nuclear arsenal, but has maintained silence on the other aspects of its nuclear programme.


3. Pakistan believes in expansion of the arsenal and its arsenal is expected to continue to expand due to increasing number of insecurities.


4. Pakistani leadership is extremely confident of its doctrine – full spectrum deterrence, and it believes that it would deter India from any conventional response.


 5.  Despite claiming itself as a responsible nuclear power, Islamabad continues to threaten India with a nuclear attack.


6. Pakistan’s reliance on nuclear deterrence would intensify with constantly growing asymmetries between India and Pakistan.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.