The threat of ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons

Updated - September 23, 2016 12:28 am IST

Published - January 14, 2016 12:00 am IST

Pakistani nuclear scientist Pervez Hoodbhoy.— Photo: Shantanu Das

Pakistani nuclear scientist Pervez Hoodbhoy.— Photo: Shantanu Das

India-Pakistan relations, never smooth, have had, in recent years, the uneasy subtext of the escalation of the nuclear arsenals of both countries. In response to an alleged Indian Army secret plan, the Cold Start Doctrine — fast, punitive incursions into Pakistan territory in retaliation to terror attacks — Pakistan began to develop smaller ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons. India has officially denied that the Cold Start doctrine exists.

During his recent visit to India, The Hindu spoke exclusively to noted Pakistani nuclear and national security analyst Pervez Hoodbhoy about nuclear weapons development in both countries and what this could mean in a war-like situation.

It has been reported in the Western press lately that Pakistan has the largest growing nuclear arsenal in the world. What was the trigger for this development?

It has been reported and Pakistan has not denied this. It says it is necessary to make more nuclear weapons because India has this doctrine called Cold Start, rapid thrusts into Pakistan territory. To prevent that, Pakistan says it needs to develop tactical nuclear weapons, low-yield nuclear bombs that can be used to stall the progress of Indian troops.

Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary recently announced that Pakistan may first use nuclear weapons in a future war with India. How does this scenario play out with these smaller nuclear weapons?

The Pakistani nuclear doctrine now says that since [Indian army forces are] much larger than [Pakistan’s] own conventional defensive forces, Pakistan would be justified in using tactical nuclear weapons against, say, Indian tanks if they cross over. The position is that this would be a defensive rather than offensive. It would not target Indian cities but be used for protecting Pakistani territory. India has reacted to this saying that a nuclear attack on its forces on Pakistani territory would be considered a full-scale nuclear attack on India, and it reserves the right to act accordingly. This means that India could retaliate by using its own nuclear weapons against Pakistani cities as well. India does not have tactical nuclear weapons and, as far as I know, it has no plans to develop them; India is now developing very big bombs, hydrogen bombs that are city-busters. It is not interested in using nuclear weapons for use on the battlefield; it is developing nuclear weapons for eliminating population centres.

Are these ‘tactical nuclear weapons’ something that is unique to Pakistan?

‘Theatre Nuclear Weapons’ were first deployed by the Americans back in the 1950s, placed on Davy Crockett recoilless guns which could be handled by just two infantry men and fired from the shoulder. They were deployed on the Soviet Turkish border. The Americans realised how dangerous this was: if these two people misunderstood or went crazy and launched a weapon, the Russians would say that they were under nuclear attack and that could have begun a full scale nuclear war. So these weapons were very rapidly withdrawn.

Cold Start, I think, was the trigger that got Pakistan to think along these lines, because it seriously alarmed the Pakistan High Command. Earlier on, nuclear development in Pakistan was along the same lines as in India, except that India went in for the hydrogen bomb and Pakistan is still working with fissile material.

Does the presence of these weapons actually place us in a very precarious position?

Yes. Passions can get inflamed very soon, and rationality can break down. At that point, you don’t know how a country that is attacked with small nuclear weapons will react. Will it then go all out and go for a full scale nuclear response or will it absorb the blow?

The recent Pathankot attack: how do you think it was handled by both sides?

It has been handled very responsibly by both governments. It was clearly carried out by those elements that do not want to see peace between the two countries. It is very clear that the civilian government of Pakistan was taken by surprise and was quite shocked, and that it has taken steps to find out who was responsible. If this was carried out by the Jaish-e-Mohammed, as it was said, and if these attackers came from across the Pakistani border, then the question is, how did they manage to go across and who then allowed them to do that? It is not very likely that the high command of the Pakistan government knew about this or ordered this. However there could be rogue elements in the ISI or in those soldiers or units stationed close to the border.

Where does Pakistan stand on the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty?

Pakistan has said that it will not sign, because it needs to produce more fissile material to make tactical nuclear weapons. It needs large amounts, because these weapons need a large amount of fissile material. If you take about 20 kilograms of highly enriched uranium and that gives you, say, 30 kilotons (a unit of explosive power equivalent to that generated by 1,000 tons of TNT) of blast, [but] if you make two bombs of 10 kilograms each, you will get something like 12 or 13 kilotons; there is a huge drop in efficiency.

‘India went in for the hydrogen bomb and Pakistan is still working with

fissile material’

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