Pakistan and Nasr: Road-map to a Nuclear War


Islamabad: As bilateral tie between the nuclear armed India and Pakistan is worsening day by day with each flaunting its nuclear arsenal, specially the later, any sort of armed engagement is now capable of triggering a nuclear catastrophe between the rivals.

In a bid to counter India Pakistan’s nuclear planners have sought to develop and plan deployment of the short-range Nasr tactical missile to deliver nuclear weapons against advancing Indian armoured forces. This article explores the limited utility of the use of tactical nuclear weapons which could still prove to be catastrophic by triggering the escalation of a conventional conflict into nuclear war. An alternative could be that Pakistan and India revive the idea first proposed by India in 1949 and 1950 of a No-War Agreement. The actions forbidden could include support for cross-border militancy and military incursions across the border, as well as subversion, blockades, and disruption of river waters.

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A H Nayyar ( retired after teaching at the Department of Physics at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad, Pakistan. Zia Mian ( is at the Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University, United States.

Pakistan’s military planners have for a long time determined that they need to be prepared to escalate a military conflict with India into a nuclear war through the first use of nuclear weapons. Over the past decade, this has included preparing for using nuclear weapons on the battlefield against Indian armed forces crossing the border. They seem to believe that a credible threat to use nuclear weapons in this manner will deter such an attack.

In this article we explore briefly how Pakistan’s generals have thought about the role of nuclear weapons in the conflict with India and how some of their Indian counterparts have anticipated possible use by Pakistan of such weapons on the battlefield. The article then looks at some of the issues surrounding the limited utility of such tactical nuclear weapons against advancing Indian armoured forces and the most recent means Pakistan’s nuclear planners have sought to achieve this goal: the development and deployment of the new short-range Nasr tactical missile that had its first reported successful test launch on 19 April 2011 and is declared to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons at ranges of up to 60 km (Inter-Services Public Relations 2011).

Going Nuclear ::

In 2015, the former head of Pakistan’s Strategic Plans Division General (retired) Khalid Kidwai claimed that “the main purpose of…the Nasrs…is to ensure that war will not break out” with India and in particular Nasr is intended to close the “space for conventional war” (2015). The use of tactical nuclear weapons such as Nasr may not prove decisive, but it may still be catastrophic. The article concludes by exploring alternatives.

The decision to acquire nuclear weapons was taken in Pakistan soon after the military defeat by the Indian Army and the consequent fall of East Pakistan in December 1971. At the now famous Multan meeting in January 1972, the new President of Pakistan Zulfikar Ali Bhutto invited scientists to help make nuclear weapons. According to one participant,

The one and only question Bhutto repeatedly asked the scientists was: how could they help meet the threat to Pakistan’s security posed not only by India’s overwhelming conventional weapons superiority but lately also by a growing nuclear challenge from across the border? (Babar 1999).
By seeking to acquire nuclear weapons, Pakistan’s planners could have imagined attacking Indian cities in response to conventional attack as well as the use of nuclear weapons on the battlefield to stem such an attack. As early as 1958, General Ayub Khan, who ruled Pakistan from 1958 to 1969, was reading articles on “Pattern for Limited (Nuclear) War,” published in Britain’s Royal United Services Institute Journal. These articles, inspired by Henry Kissinger’s 1957 book Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, argued for a strategy based on conventional forces and tactical nuclear war fighting rather than limiting use of nuclear weapons to city destruction (which was seen as unrealistic given that the opponent also had nuclear weapons). By the 1970s, tactical weapons were being deployed by the United States (US), Soviet Union, United Kingdom and France.

Pakistan has sought an option of delivering nuclear weapons by aircraft since the late 1980s. For seven to eight years between 1985, when Pakistan claims to have had developed nuclear weapons, and 1998 when Pakistan tested its first nuclear capable missile, the only choice for using a nuclear weapon was dropping it by air. It is claimed (Khan 2012: 185–86) that Pakistan began design of a “deliverable bomb” in 1988 that was tested by dropping it from F-16 fighters and it was only “in May 1995 [that] PAEC finally succeeded in getting the desired result after several years of aerial drop cold tests.” This goal was to have the bomb detonate at 500 metres above the ground and the practice drops included rehearsing “low-level” attacks suitable for use on a battlefield (Khan 2012: 187).

There is evidence that by the early 1990s Indian military planners recognised that Pakistan might use nuclear weapons against Indian conventional forces, and they have been preparing for such a possibility ever since. In 1993, former Indian Army Chief General K Sundarji wrote a fictionalised account of an India–Pakistan war based on the premise of Pakistan initiating a nuclear first strike against India. The scenario includes Pakistan using nuclear weapons on Indian conventional forces on the battlefield “as a result of an Indian conventional counter-offensive into Pakistan in the plains sector as a result of Pakistan’s action in Jammu and Kashmir” (Sundarji 1993: 215). The novel includes detailed descriptions of the effects of nuclear weapons use against various military units, sites and other targets in India.

Outside analysts saw a similar possibility. In his book on the Pakistan Army, Stephen Cohen wrote:

Pakistani nuclear planners will have the choice of utilising their nuclear force for tactical or strategic ends. That is, nuclear devices can be used against massed troop concentrations (1998: 155).
After India and Pakistan tested nuclear weapons in 1998, Pakistan’s doctrine for use of nuclear weapons was assumed to include countering Indian conventional forces (Lodhi 1999). Indian military analyst Raja Menon in 2000 imagined a scenario of India reacting to attacks from Pakistan-based terrorist groups by launching a punitive surgical strike across the border, and Pakistan using nuclear weapons to counter an otherwise unstoppable Indian conventional incursion into Pakistani territory.

The current Pakistani idea of using nuclear weapons on the battlefield is claimed to be a response to the Indian Army adoption of a doctrine dubbed “Cold Start” starting in 2004 (Ladwig 2007). Pakistani military planners describe this doctrine as

pre-programmed, predetermined, shooting from the hip posture…with independent integral battle groups, of about armored brigade size… trying to hit Pakistan within 48 to 96 hours with tactical formations, eight to nine of them simultaneously (Kidwai 2015).
According to General Kidwai,

The doctrine was meant to be unleashed against us… Therefore in order to deter the unfolding of operations under the doctrine Pakistan opted to develop a variety of short range, low yield nuclear weapons, also dubbed tactical nuclear weapons.

The Effects ::

It is not hard to show that the battlefield use of nuclear weapons is largely ineffective in destroying or disabling large numbers of armoured vehicles if the weapons have yields of up to a few tens of kilotons yield, that is, comparable to the bombs used by the US against the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (Nayyar and Mian 2010). This simple fact is one reason why the US and Soviet Union needed to field thousands of tactical nuclear weapons.

Nuclear weapons cause three effects on the target and its surroundings: a blast wave of very high pressure which can damage tanks, armoured vehicles and artillery; an intense heat wave which can cause inflammable material like gasoline to catch fire but may not destroy or damage tanks; and, radioactivity that can cause debilitating sickness in military personnel. One can estimate each one of these at relevant distances with a fair amount of accuracy. Table 1 shows the effects of tactical nuclear weapons of yields 1, 5 and 10 kilotons of TNT equivalent exploding at a height of 400 metres over an advancing tank formation with average distance of 100 metres between adjacent tanks. It gives estimates for the number of tanks destroyed by the blast and the crews disabled by the radiation. The heat from the explosion would not have a lethal impact on either armoured vehicles or their crew.

Source: Defence News