A debate has been raging since the unveiling in April of Nasr, a solid fuelled battlefield range ballistic missile system developed by Pakistan. While analysts in Pakistan have taken pains to underline its utility, many defence planners in India have indicated they are sceptical. Regardless, the assumption underpinning the majority of the commentary is that Nasr is a potent weapon system with capabilities as advertised.
There appear to be four levels on which the system could operate: grand strategic, strategic, operational, and tactical. The reality is that there seems to be a contradiction in the implications of Nasr at these different levels, and how Pakistan resolves these contradictions will determine how it will eventually employ the weapon system.
At the grand strategic level, the idea seems to be to focus international attention on South Asia as a ‘nuclear flashpoint.’ The possibility of the use of nuclear weapons increases with the ‘use them or lose them’ connotations of tactical nuclear weapons (TNW). It’s expected that this would energise the international community toward crisis de-escalation and conflict termination, with the aim being to pressure Indian decision-makers and deprive them of autonomy in decision-making.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
At the strategic level, it has been rightly pointed out by Indian nuclear analysts that Nasr is an attempt at lowering, or rather projecting, a low nuclear threshold. The idea is to restrict the scope for India’s conventional operations. In the limited war logic, India doesn’t intend to flirt with Pakistan’s nuclear thresholds. In any event, keeping these low would help Pakistan preserve its territory and military forces to the extent possible.
At the operational level, the impact of Nasr is more psychological. The aim would be to slow down Indian offensive pincers by making them ‘button down’ for a battlefield that could potentially suddenly ‘go nuclear.’ The precautions, logistics load, and time cycle of standard operations procedures would slow and complicate operations. This would translate into increased combat friction, resulting in an increased leadership burden. There will be higher levels of vulnerability at bottleneck points, such as bridgeheads. Pakistan would then be able to counter thrust lines that it now can’t address due to the relative imbalance of forces – or if it’s surprised. Indian forces won’t be able to exploit opportunities with a sense of impunity, even those of pursuit. In fact, the more successful they get, the more the nuclear shadow of Nasr will loom large. The element of fear as well as surprise, and its disconcerting effect, will be exploited fully by Pakistan. India may therefore need additional forces to cater for various contingencies. This will have a corresponding effect on logistics, the pace of progress of operations, coordination, presenting potential targets, etc.
At the tactical level, the physical and psychological pressures of operating in a potential nuclear battlefield will add to the strain of combat. In hot weather, there would be increased physical attrition for troops, requiring earlier relief and time-consuming rotation in subunit/unit roles. the wider dispersion that nuclear tactics necessitate will increase command and control problems and the fog of war. Wide frontages increase the vulnerability to counter attack, since the freedom to concentrate would be with the counter attacker.
It would, then, appear that the seeming advantages stated above are what’s behind Pakistan’s development of Nasr. However, it’s surely a mixed blessing. What are the cons?
At the grand strategic level, attracting international attention to the region as a crisis point works both ways. As the Kargil conflict showed, India can profit from the situation and the onus on backing off could well be on Pakistan. Any propensity for first use may prompt the feared crackdown on its nuclear assets by the US-led international community, which would be to India’s advantage. This may convulse the Pakistan military into an internal battle over its assets, which would be especially untimely when faced with an Indian ‘threat.’ Pakistan will finally end up a nuclear pariah with a dysfunctional military, a state it has managed to avoid so far.