Michael KreponTac Nukes in South Asia

Hans J. Morgenthau was a heavyweight whose books, including Politics Among Nations (1948) and In Defense of the National Interest (1951), packed a real wallop. Morgenthau also wrote with great clarity about nuclear weapons. Check out his essay, “The Four Paradoxes of Nuclear Strategy,” which appeared in the March 1964 issue of the American Political Science Review.

Here’s what Morgenthau had to say about tactical nuclear weapons and escalation control:

Both tactical nuclear war and graduated deterrence presuppose three capabilities on the part of belligerents: the rational ability to deduce the intentions of the enemy from his use of nuclear weapons, the rational ability to know exactly at every moment of the war what kind of nuclear weapon it is necessary and prudent to use, and the practical ability to impose the limitations so determined upon all nuclear command posts. Both tactical nuclear war and graduated deterrence require a rational interplay of the intentions and actions of the belligerents, an interplay which theoreticians may calculate in the form of ‘models’ but which it is impossible to achieve consistently in reality. That impossibility derives from three factors: the essential ambiguity of the military act (which it of course shares with the political act), uncertainty about the enemy’s intentions, and the enormous and irreparable risks, in nuclear war, of mistakes in interpretation.

Of the countries that possess tactical nuclear weapons, the two that currently seem to place increased value on them are Russia and Pakistan. Pakistan’s program raises more red flags because military friction between Pakistan and India is more likely than Russia coming to blows with NATO or China.

The history of wars on the subcontinent is rife with miscalculation: one side or the other has been surprised by their beginning and prosecution. Tactical nuclear weapons also lend themselves to surprise and miscalculation.

Very short-range delivery systems for nuclear weapons – like the 60-kilometer Nasr (or Hatf IX) missile that Pakistan has flight-tested, and India’s 150-kilometer Prahaar – are not very helpful against tank offensives or fast-moving targets; even if railheads and bridges were suitable targets, they may not be within reach. Very limited use of tactical nuclear weapons by Pakistan might serve to warn India against advances, but the job of Pakistan’s armed forces is to prevent, and not to detonate, mushroom clouds on home soil.

Whatever limited military utility short-range nuclear weapons possess depends on extreme forward deployments, where they would be most subject to attack, where early use would be most likely, and where command and control is most susceptible to breakdowns. Avoiding these pitfalls requires very slow-moving fronts on the subcontinent and the absence of air strikes. The first assumption is not unreasonable; the second is very questionable. In a crisis, there are also significant internal-security and escalation risks associated with the movement and forward-deployment of short-range systems advertised as being nuclear-capable.

After testing nuclear devices in 1998, Indian and Pakistani spokespersons downplayed the value of tactical nuclear weapons, without ruling them out. Pakistani military officers stressed that any use of a nuclear weapon would have strategic consequences — a very sound analysis, and one that greatly undermines the case for tac nukes. Why risk crossing this momentous threshold with hard-to-defend and hard-to-control short-range weapons when more survivable and controllable longer-range nuclear forces are available?

Pakistan, unlike India, does not announce its nuclear doctrine. Instead, those in authority use press releases and the occasional interview to make essential points. The press release after the Nasr’s flight test advertised the utility of tactical nuclear weapons. This statement is probably a rejoinder to India’s growing conventional capabilities and its more proactive military plans. While India, in typical fashion, is moving slowly to implement those plans, Pakistan’s military is methodically filling in perceived shortfalls in nuclear capabilities.

In defense of their perceived need for tactical nuclear weapons, Pakistani interlocutors point to NATO’s strategy during the Cold War of dealing with a conventionally superior foe. Hans Morgenthau’s warnings are again falling on deaf ears.


  1. blowback (History)

    “Very short-range delivery systems for nuclear weapons – like the sixty kilometer Nasr (or Hatf IX) missile that Pakistan has flight tested, and India’s 150 kilometer Prahaar – are not very helpful against tank offensives or fast-moving targets; even if railheads and bridges were suitable targets, they may not be within reach.”

    If you don’t have a plentiful supply of PGMs, they would seem to be very useful defending against the tank and associated infantry and artillery concentrations typical of manoeuvre warfare. In more traditional attrition warfare, where the advance might be spread along an entire front, they might be less useful.

    • John Schilling (History)

      Small atomic bombs turn out to make very poor antitank weapons, and not much better against infantry who are either dug in or buttoned up. Against an armored force deployed in combat formation, you’d probably only disable a company or two of tanks. The cost of a tactical nuclear weapon would be far better invested in even a modest number of second-rate PGMs, if tank-killing is your goal.

      Tactical nukes are somewhat more useful for counterbattery fire against enemy artillery, and better still against C3I or logistics targets. But for that, a somewhat longer range and a closer coupling to one’s own higher-level C3I assets is probably called for.

      The more “useful” application of the really short-range missiles is to effectively signal that every front-line colonel in your army can make the next war go nuclear if his back is to the wall. Irrevocable deterrence, because you can’t reliably order a colonel to let his regiment be overrun if he can help it.

      The dangers of this strategy are left as an exercise for the student…

  2. Captain Ned (History)

    If pressed to answer “where will the nukes go off first”, the Indo/Pak conflict over Kashmir is either #1 or #2 depending on the state of Israeli/Irani relations on any given day.

  3. Cameron (History)

    The shortfall that tactical nuclear weapons would appear to fill is to prevent a limited campaign by a superior military force that doesn’t threaten the country as a whole. If both sides have strategic nuclear weapons, an actor, especially one that does not publish its nuclear doctrine, has to worry about a scenerio where its stronger neighbor is tempted to fight a quick limited war, and then end it before it can reach a strategic nuclear threshold.

    NATO had this dilemma in re: Berlin. If the USSR invaded Berlin, and then stopped, would we risk an ICBM exchange to get it back.

    Tactical nuclear weapons in this situation extend the Pakistani nuclear deterrant “to the border” instead of simply protecting the nation as a conceptual whole. In this situation a lack of clarity between tactical and strategic useful for Pakistani strategy. If any conflict can spiral into a nuclear exchange, then hopefully India can be deterred from even limited war.

    This situation, however, can’t be good for regional stability in the long term and a rational actor would develop a capacity for proportional actions. But that may not be within Pakistan’s budget and strategic ability.

  4. Sharif (History)

    Pak. TacNukes are supposedly to address Indian “Cold Start” doctrine. i.e. to obviate India’s conventional advantage and knee-jerk (supposed) response to any major terrorist action, whether or not it can really be traced to GoP.

    They are, as the name suggests, nuclear weapons.

    What is the question? That they are bad. Yes, true. So are many other things.

  5. Sam (History)

    Interesting to think how LACM (think BrahMos) in addition to SRBM would complicate a future South Asian crisis. One wonders if Indian use of LACM against Pakistani troops or militant camps would be seen as more or less escalatory than traditional air power.

  6. Jonah Speaks (History)

    I guess my basic problem is understanding why Pakistan “needs” nuclear weapons in the first place. An invasion from India to conquer and hold Pakistan is most unlikely. At best, Pakistan now has the ability to terrorize India and (maybe) deter India from a punishing conventional military response. How is such uncertain small-potatoes deterrence worth risking the possible nuclear destruction of Pakistan? One might as well argue that Mexico needs nukes to better protect illegal migrants from Mexico.

    Pakistan is now doubling down on its nuclear risk taking by adding tactical nukes to its strategic arsenal. There is something surreal about tactical nukes to bomb a slow-moving army. Does one bomb the Indian army only when it is on Pakistani soil? Or does one bomb the army only when it is on Indian soil, but close to the border? Either way, there is a good chance India will retaliate with nukes. Even without confusion, mistakes, or unauthorized acts, what assurance is there that tactical nukes will not lead to full-scale nuclear war?

    I guess your main point is that tactical nukes are even more likely to start a full-scale nuclear war than strategic nukes. I think I agree, but the explanation needs more careful explaining. In particular, see:

    “Whatever limited military utility short-range nuclear weapons possess depends on extreme forward deployments, where they would be most subject to attack, where early use would be most likely, and where command and control is most susceptible to breakdowns. Avoiding these pitfalls requires very slow-moving fronts on the subcontinent and the absence of air strikes. The first assumption is not unreasonable; the second is very questionable. In a crisis, there are also significant internal-security and escalation risks associated with the movement and forward-deployment of short-range systems advertised as being nuclear-capable.”

    It took me several readings to unpack this one.

  7. Mansoor Ahmed (History)

    Pakistan is unlikely to develop or deploy any TNWs in large numbers as it does not have sufficient fissile material at present or will have in the near future for the purpose. Current and future stocks, mainly of Pu, and HEU will probably have to be judiciously distributed according to force goals and postures primarily among the 8-9 different types of ballistic and cruise missiles with the latter getting increasing priority.

    Secondly, since there appears to be so much scepticism surrounding Pakistan’s ability to miniaturize weapon designs to the extent claimed for Hatf-IX/Nasr and build sophisticated warheads without hot tests, what is all fuss about Pakistan developing TNWs?

  8. Indian (Abbotabad, Pakistan) (History)

    Indian nuclear doctrine is unequivocal. Any Nuclear or biological attack on our soil or our people would result in a massive retaliation causing unacceptable losses. All bets are off if Pakis attack advancing Indian troops by nukes.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      Are you suggesting India would initiate a city-destroying strategic war if Pakistan were to use nuclear weapons defensively, on its own soil, against invading Indian troops?

    • John Schilling (History)

      It almost doesn’t matter whether India would or would not start burning cities if Cold Start receives a nuclear-grade warm welcome. Per Morgenthau, Pakistan has to *believe* that India would engage in such escalation. Given a choice between believing instead that India’s official doctrine is a bluff, and accepting the loss of a chunk of Pakistani territory to India, it seems unlikely they will be deterred.

      And I don’t see what India can say or do to change that. If they implement Cold Start, either they lose on the conventional battlefield, or the nukes fly.

  9. Anjaan (History)

    India has successfully test fired its most advanced missile today, which also happens to be an ICBM, that brings all of China and 70% of Europe within its strike envelop.

    While the American arms control experts and nuclear ayatollahs are busy analysing India-Pakistan conflict scenario, India is quietly working towards the ultimate goal of achieving deterrance against the US and Europe.

    Pakistan is a pawn of the anglo-americans on one hand, and of the Chinese to a lesser extent. Therefore India rightly (although not publicly) considers Pakistan as an extension of the anglo-american powers.

    • krepon (History)

      I usually do not post comments like the last two, but these mindsets matter…

    • Sharif (History)

      Unless the Indian in Abbotabad [sic] or Anjaan [above] are government officials it matters little what they advocate.

      What is of more concern to Pakistani military planners is the OFFICIAL “Cold Start” doctrine which is highly misguided for being highly knee-jerk and thoughtless. It appears itself to be a kind of stupid deterrent and assumes GoP controls every terrorist wannabe in Pakistan. A false assumption.

      Here is why Pakistan is likely making more Pu/U and making more tacnukes — the ones GoP already has are not sufficient:


    • George William Herbert (History)

      I’ve heard Indian opposition politicians mumble about that sort of thing, so I know it’s in the idea space, but I don’t think anyone in a position of power in India thinks that the US or anyone in Europe has any hostile intent towards India. Particularly the military.

      We have crazy americans who think Japan’s a threat to us, and a few who look askance at Canada and wonder if we should fortify the border. That doesn’t mean that there’s any geopolitical tension there.

  10. matej (History)

    India’s latest test is not directed at U.S or EU. it is direct at ( well everybody knows it ). a 5000km to 6000km missile is just half the distance between U.S and India.
    anything above 6500km would be an overkill for India. they don’t need 11000 km or 13000 km missiles, as there threat perception is limited to Asia pacific only. obviously pakistan wants everybody to believe that missile with a range of 5000 km to 6000 km ( half the distance between U.S and India ) is directed at U.S this speaks of the mindset they have. may be pakistan can build an islamic ICBM to counter this one.

  11. Sultan (History)

    Nuclear deterrence is seen as more ‘credible’ once you have a proportionate response option. Use of strategic weapons in response to limited incursions could possibly be perceived as incredible, thus leading to the temptation of risk taking by India in the form of Cold Start Doctrine.

    ‘NASR’ may have strengthened deterrence at the regional level by obviating the possibility of even limited wars. One could therefore argue that TNWs could be aimed at ‘war prevention’ at all levels.

    Unlike the Cold War, where tactical and strategic weapons, were not necessarily deployed in the same theaters of war, the weapons deployment in South Asia may not be too far geographically. Therefore the apparent dangers associated with TNWs would be more or less similar to those associated with other types of NWs, especially if the command and control remains centralized.

  12. manoj joshi (History)

    I agree with your analysis. Tac nukes do, however, pose a dilemma for the Indian doctrine Mr Herbert has noted. Would India really take out a Pakistani city, because its armour has been struck by a tac nuke, and that, too, on Pakistani soil. I doubt it and that is where the dilemma lies. India has come up with a doctrine which has been lifted bodily from elsewhere. We need something that emerges from the South Asian soil, as it were.

  13. Zahir Kazmi (History)

    Why is Morgenthau wrong about tac nukes?

    The title of the article elusively offers a debate on tac nukes in “South Asia” but the focus is on Pakistan only. India’s DRDO flight-tested Prahaar on July 21, 2011 but it was developing the weapon system for almost two years. The flight test of Prahaar was a reaction to Nasr; decision to develop this short-range-nuclear-capable missile was not. The vices and virtues of introduction of nukes in South Asia date back to 1974 and Pakistan was a reluctant entrant into exclusive club of the nuclear-armed states.

    If rational thinking, restraint and responsibility continue to be the White Man’s burden, Hans Morgenthau was probably right. Morgenthau’s observations about the futility of the so-called tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) appear to be a priori, theoretical and lacks empirical evidence. Cynically, disregard to his warnings about the risks in the interplay of intentions and actions of the belligerents in the subcontinent can provide an evidence to validate the “Clintonian” arguments [It is a new term to refer to an idea that is not big enough or bold enough, or had too many angles of was just too political. White House staff uses it to kill weak arguments. See TIME, 23 April 2012, p.34.].

    The Cold War antagonists and subcontinent’s rivals continue to use the so-called tac nukes to good measure. Russia uses its inventory of tac nukes as a lever to negotiate with the U.S. about their ballistic missile defense (BMD) plans in Europe and to deter them from further eastward encroachment towards Russian core. Likewise, subcontinent’s nuclear weapons powers use the “short-range-low-yield nukes” to deter each other. There are several other explanations why states would not yield to Morgenthau’s warnings.

    The issue of tac nukes in the subcontinent raises three questions. First, what has prompted Pakistan and India to develop the supposed TNWs? For India, it could have been to experiment with all genres of nuclear weapons and to deter China on their common borders. For Pakistan, it is ostensibly to prevent India from fighting a limited war under nuclear overhang. Two, how would the so-called TNWs affect deterrence and strategic stability in the subcontinent? The following arguments suggest that these would be good for deterrence and add another layer to existing balance. Indian pursuit of BMD shield in collaboration with the U.S. and Israel could be another reason to develop these short-range weapons. Even a basic BMD capability may encourage first strike and pre-emptory tendency in Indian thinking. Three, is the subcontinent situation similar to the Cold War competition involving short-range weapons? This essay argues that the subcontinent’s situation is different.

    The terms TNW and tactical nuclear war are misnomers and Cold War relic that are not applicable to the subcontinent. Pakistan and India did not use the term TNW in their statements for their short-range missiles. The TNW moniker appeared in the Western analyses and was conveniently bought by the Indian and Pakistani experts. Even with their short-range and low-yield, Nasr and Prahaar would not remain pure counter force weapons. Hence, the term TNW is more applicable to the U.S. and Russian ‘European battleground’ because these weapons would not hit their mainlands.

    The Western construct of TNWs is fraught with definitional issues. A review of Western literature leads to the following definition. Short-range weapons (from as less as 2-4 km to a max range of up to 500 km), low-yield weapons (0.4 – 40 KT to a max of 150 KT) meant for counter force targeting in the battlefield. These can be both surface – ballistic and cruise – and air launched weapons.

    A Pakistan-India definition in similar vein would show that the Western construct on the TNWs is misplaced. These could be defined as ‘short-range weapons between 50 to 150 km range, with a maximum yield of 5 KT that would primarily target armed forces and affect only small border towns in the desert terrain.’ A look at border-geography of subcontinent shows that this line of argument would not even hold in sparsely populated areas of Cholistan Desert.

    No matter what the range and yield, all nuclear weapons in the subcontinent would be strategic in nature. The empirical evidence of last four crises between Pakistan and India shows that both states fought like ferrets but acted rationally and did not escalate the crises to a nuclear exchange. The presence of short-range-low-yield weapons in subcontinent would deter them from fighting a limited war – like the Indian Proactive Defense Strategy – rather than triggering one. Indian rhetoric of the Cold Start Doctrine became “Proactive Defense Strategy” lately and New Delhi has started divorcing the idea after Nasr’s test. That said all nuclear weapons present a stability-instability paradox, not just short–range weapons. Development of Nasr can be considered adding ‘another layer of deterrence’ and a back up to Pakistan’s “New War Fighting Concept” that is antithesis of Indian limited war doctrine.

    Presence of Prahaar in the same theatre as Nasr should ideally deter both states from crossing the nuclear Rubicon. If rationality fails during a conflict, a “tit for tat” use of short-range nuclear weapons would follow. The fear of horrific fallout would deter both from massive retaliation.

    While Nasr is India specific, Prahaar can be used against China. India projects China as its adversary and hence deploying Prahaar against China cannot be ruled out. This can lead to an arms race and the instability would not remain limited to the region.

    Contiguous South Asian territory implies that the Indians could – for instance – easily hit Lahore by Prahaar. Hence, the range and yield distinction used for TNWs would be irrelevant if Prahaar was used against Pakistan’s forces on or around the border / LOC.

    Theoretically, all nuclear weapons in South Asian territory would be strategic due to the extent of damage, casualties, radiation fallout and the administrative and logistical challenges long after the weapons have been used.

    Pakistan and India did not develop the TNWs in reaction to each other; only the flight test of Prahaar was a reaction. The development, hence, was a well-considered rational choice and both states find several incentives in taking that path. They choose to take Morgenthau’s bigger advice that the states do what they have to maximize their power (India) and deter adversaries (Pakistan). His lesson on so-called TNWs was probably more relevant to Europe.

    • krepon (History)

      Well argued, Zahir (and Sultan, Mansoor, and Majid). This is a worthy discussion.

      My response: All new nukes, new types “enhance” deterrence in that they send messages to an potential adversary to “back off and beware.” Public announcements “enhance” deterrence in this way, as well.

      Once the friction begins, readiness increases, etc., then some nukes are less helpful than others. Some nukes are more likely to be used than others. “Tac” nukes fall into the latter category for the reasons I have argued. Then, what was sought in order to strengthen deterrence upends deterrence.

      This hasn’t happened yet — but there’s a first for everything.

  14. Majid (History)

    Lets get to the basics of the debate.

    The fundamental Pakistani interests lies in the conflict prevention in the first place which coincides with the nuclear deterrent concept i.e. preventing war with a credible threat of annihilation of enemy.

    What Pakistan’s policy makers believe is that, in order to enhance its deterrence vis a vis India, the gap at the tactical/battle field level also needs to be bridged for complete coverage of deterrence layer at all the levels of threat spectrum; to deter aggression by India.

    This means that there is a tacit acceptance within Pakistan that deterrence at strategic level is not sufficient for Pakistan and it has to expand the deterrent layer to lower levels too.

    This belief, if true, rests on the interpretation of emerging realities in the region : offensive force postures at the eastern front, Indian military modernization fueled by major powers, new level of US- India Strategic partnership, BMD systems in region, advancement in Indian ISR and space based capabilities and extra regional forces in the region.

    The combined effect of perceptions regarding these trends is driving Pakistan’s current strategy on TNWs which may differ the cold war strategic context in some respect.

    Whether or not the strategy would work is a separate debate , the real issue is of these trends that are the source of instability in the region and not TNWs

  15. jeannick (History)

    Theater nuclear tactical weapons are optimum in a defensive role ,
    1- it is a serious warning that an aggression will be opposed by all means

    2- a local military inferiority is palliated by the degradation of the enemy lines of attack ,
    less than armor , the logistics assets are targeted

    3- they are used on one’s soil ,on the invader
    it eliminate the problem of aggression and give a last warning of the utmost seriousness .
    the weapons are not to be deployed close to the front
    the front come within range of them

    4- use of any nukes is a political decision with a chain of command largely independent of the military below army level

  16. Ehsan Khan (History)

    I am no way an expert to opine on the subject unlike Mr. Zahir Kazmi and the others who seem to be well versed with the subject. I have a simple question as a nuclear illiterate. What is so tactical about Tactical Nuclear Weapons (TNWs)? It is a Cold War lingo which did have a linkage with its makeup and usage. With the spread and development of nuclear technology alongside missilery, the tactical-strategic lines seem to be blurring especially when seen in the context of the Eastern Nuclear Cauldron (a term introduced by me in one of my papers, earlier) comprising the nuclear weapon states to include Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea, and a nuclear aspirant Iran. Geographical contiguity of the rival states, for instance, India and China, India and Pakistan, North and South Korea, Russia and Europe, and Israel with its Arabo-Persian neighbours makes it difficult to keep the sphere of effects of the so-called TNWs limited to tactical domain. What if a missile with nuclear payload is fired by one rival to the nuclear facility of another … would it still be a tactical strike? What if a missile if fired to choke a strategic railway or highway at a critical juncture in war … would it still be a tactical strike? What if a nuclear bomb of a given kilo tonnage is dropped by X country into an un-inhabited desert of Y country with no human or material damage, and what if Y country destroys the strategic command centre of X country with a missile? Will the former still be a strategic, and the latter a tactical nuclear weapon? Or else we would label the former a “tactical strike by a strategic weapon” and the latter as a “strategic strike by a tactical nuclear weapon”? The argument I want to make is that mere size of the weapons or its payload capacity does not make it tactical or strategic. It is the effect that must determine its domain. Looking for conclusive word on the subject from nuclear literates like Zahir Kazmi …