Features | Security | South Asia

Pakistan’s Nuclear-Capable Missile

Pakistan’s unveiling of the nuclear-capable Nasr missile has prompted intense debate in India about what this means for the country’s defence.

By Ali Ahmed for

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.

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.

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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.

At the strategic level, by displaying its newfound capability, Pakistan has partially attempted to go down the NATO road during the Cold War. NATO planned to employ the tactical nuclear weapon route to counter the overwhelming mechanised attacks that were expected to be carried out by the Warsaw Pact forces. Using tactical nuclear weapons would destroy the very land being defended. The difference in Pakistan’s case would be in the limited numbers of such weapon systems and, secondly, on India’s self-restraint in pulling its conventional punches. As a result, the employment of Nasr won’t so much effect the military situation as signal the crossing of the nuclear threshold. Since this would trigger the Indian nuclear doctrine of assured retaliation, in uncertain ways, it’s not self-evident what Pakistan could achieve by this. It could, however, attempt to escape paying the price by choosing a ‘green-field’ option of a demonstration strike on its own territory, for instance, in the Cholistan desert.

The operational level fallout of the use of Nasr will fall equally on Pakistani forces. The advantages that Pakistan seeks as a defender would be nullified in a violent, possibly nuclear, Indian response. (The former Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee Air Chief Marshal P. V. Naik let on as much in his meeting with the press prior to leaving office.) The psychological, physical, and logistics load will be exponentially increased by the panic among civilian populations. This will be relatively greater in Pakistan since the theatre of operations, defined by proactive Indian offensives, will be inside Pakistan.

At the tactical level, there are no empirical studies on the sociological impact of a nuclear battlefield. If combat cohesion breaks down, it will be as likely among Pakistani troops as Indian. The depth in terms of numbers available with India may help it compensate. This luxury isn’t available to Pakistan. The effect on the force multiplier that Pakistan intends using – irregulars – can only be expected to be negative. Since Pakistani civilians will be more affected, the ties of Pakistani soldiers to kith and kin may prove distracting. There’s no evidence of either side having thought through the leadership, bonding, and discipline issues on a nuclear battlefield – the emphasis has only been on personal protection at best, and that, too, is largely lip service for want of training equipment.

As can be seen, there are some operational level dividends that would accrue to Pakistan by using Nasr, though it will come at some strategic cost. Two possibilities emerge. The first is that the Pakistani military—more sensitive to military rather than political and strategic concerns—has perhaps focused excessively on the operational gains as against strategic costs. Alternatively, given the inescapably obvious costs that it will incur, the military is sensitive to the contradictions. It’s only milking Nasr as an information war opportunity.

The judgment here is in favour of the latter. Nasr can at best likely increase India’s natural restraint and operational caution. There’s no particular harm in this, for there’s little cause for nuclear haste, and any additional operational caution can only energise prior preparation. In its employment, the Nasr is unlikely to halt India in its tracks. Instead, it will likely be employed in nuclear signalling, the most likely manner of which could be in a demonstration strike.

India can arrive at a prudent answer for the challenge this poses, both at the conventional and nuclear levels. What might such an answer be? Surely the employment of Nasr, even in a ‘green-field’ mode, would release India from its no first use constraints. This doesn’t imply default retaliation. Instead, it should prompt debate over whether manipulating the threat of nuclear attack will bring India more political and military dividends than indulging in nuclear action.

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Ali Ahmed is Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared here.