The test of the Hatf-IX (Nair) battlefield ballistic missile in April 2011 ushered in a heated debate among strategic policy circles in the region and beyond about Pakistan’s ability to thwart conventional security threats without taking to nuclear option.

Indians and many Western analysts perceived this test as an announcement from Islamabad of very low threshold of Pakistan’s conventional deterrence hence the introduction of tactical nuclear weapons and missiles that will carry them.

“Adding deterrence value to Pakistan’s Strategic Weapons Development program at shorter ranges.” developing “nuclear warheads of appropriate yield with high accuracy” as a “quick response system” was deemed as “the need to deter evolving threats.” in a press release issued by ISPR after the test back in 2011.

Islamabad contended that tactical nuclear weapon strategy has completed what was described as ‘full spectrum deterrence’ which offers a necessary counterweight to India’s Cold Start, or proactive military operations, doctrine—which calls for up to eight independent armored brigades to penetrate up to 50 kilometers (about 31 miles) into Pakistan without crossing Pakistan’s nuclear thresholds. On the other hand, in Delhi and many places around the world, this strategy of replying to conventional ingress by nuclear weapons was perceived as a sign of operational limitations in Pakistan’s ability to climb up the escalation ladder using conventional means.

Nair was a means to achieve stability at a higher level of conflict by preventing India from escalating any potential conflict in a conventional domain for which India had introduced the Cold Start Doctrine which eventually evolved into a limited war strategy. However, there was an intrinsic limitation in this Pakistani response strategy relying on tactical nuclear weapons that it failed to address growing instability at lower levels of the conflict escalation ladder.

This perception deepened after the former head of SPD, in 2015, Speaking at the Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference, Kidwai again reaffirmed that Pakistan’s battlefield nuclear weapons are an extension of the country’s conventional deterrent capabilities. He added that Pakistan needed short-range tactical nuclear weapons to deter India’s Cold Start doctrine, and that “having tactical nuclear weapons would make war less likely.” These weapons, he said, were developed “in response to concerns that India’s larger military could still wage a conventional war against the country, thinking Pakistan would not risk retaliation with a bigger nuclear weapon.”

Declared Nair as an extension of Pakistan’s conventional capabilities.  Kidwai called the Nasra force multiplier that, when supplemented by other ballistic and cruise missile systems with longer ranges, further enhanced Pakistan’s deterrent capability “at all levels of the threat spectrum,” including the strategic, operational, and tactical levels.

For years, India planned two front wars under nuclear overhang against Pakistan and China simultaneously.

To mature these plans, India invested in conventional capabilities and infrastructure near the Pakistan-India international border. Building this infrastructure remained a critical component of Indian strategy as it was aimed to cut short the preparation and mobilization time to make multiple shallow thrusts across the border to subdue Pakistan’s conventional defenses till a major assault of the Indian army could be launched.  To further complement this strategy, India also invested billions of dollars in its air power inducting new tactical and strategic air lifters like C-130Js and C-17s.

Pakistan and India came to the brink of a war in 2019 after the Pulwama attack in which 40 Indian troops were killed. India blamed the Pakistani military establishment for this attack and launched a preemptive air strike against the alleged terrorist camp located in mainland Pakistan’s KP province. After the 1971 war, this was the first time, India had deployed air power against Pakistan. Pakistan responded quickly through Operation Swift Retort in which multiple Indian military installations were locked on but weapons were diverted after launch to demonstrate Pakistan’s conventional ability to match rather than surpass Indian conventional air strikes.

PAF also brought down 2 Indian jets to cement Pakistan’s superior conventional tactics. This was the first time since Pakistan’s adaptation of the policy of tactical nuclear weapons that Pakistan’s conventional deterrence was put to the test. It held as it forced India not to climb up further on the escalation ladder as conflict could evolve into a full-blown war which no country can afford.

5 years after Op’s swift retort, Pakistan responded to yet another provocation from the Western side in the form of Op Merg Bar Sarmarchar using conventional capabilities which by now had enhanced even further. The highlight of this operation was Pakistan’s ability to use multiple newly inducted conventional systems to demonstrate horizontal and vertical modernization in the country’s conventional capabilities.

Pakistan has adopted a policy of smart inductions for its conventional capabilities which has strengthened its conventional deterrence providing more space to decision-makers and foreign offices to protect Pakistan’s interests without putting regional stability in jeopardy. It is only prudent to assume that Pakistan will keep developing these conventional capabilities.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email