Pakistan’s Nuclear Use Doctrine, An ambiguity prevails

Pakistan's Nuclear Use Doctrine, An ambiguity prevails

By: Asfand Yar Bhutto

An overview of Pakistan’s Nuclear Use Doctrine

Since the start of its nuclear weapons programme, particularly nuclear tests of May 1998, Pakistan has not come up officially with its nuclear use doctrine. However, No First Use (NFU) policy has remained deeply rooted in its nuclear deterrence assumptions with the objective to make the deterrence more credible and dynamic so that no aggressor could speculate what is its nuclear threshold. Pakistan has retained such posture owing to its numerical inferiority vis-à-vis India in conventional warfare. But, the lack of nuclear use doctrine manifests the ambiguity as to when, where and how nuclear weapons would be used. Some security analysts are of the view that Pakistan would use its nuclear weapons only as a last resort. Thus, this sort of ambiguity plays a central role in pursuing Pakistan’s interests better.

Pakistan’s nuclear threshold clarifies the policy goal which is ‘to safeguard territorial integrity by deterring India’s conventional as well as nuclear aggression’. There is no evidence that the doctrine entails threats beyond India. Since the test of nuclear weapons, the policies in the realm of nuclear power have remained India-centric, owing to Pakistan’s perception of security threats emanating from its eastern neighbour, and an arch-rival.

In the wake of Pakistan’s nuclear tests, the then Prime Minister of Pakistan, Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif, declared that the purpose of these weapons is only ‘to deter aggression, whether nuclear or conventional.’ This statement evinces that Pakistan may use its nuclear capability first to thwart all forms of aggressive attacks against it. Moreover, Pakistan rejected India’s offer of ‘No First Strike” pact after its nuclear tests because Pakistan quested to ensure balance of power – and threat – in South Asia via Credible Minimum Deterrence.

Ambiguity between the ‘First Use’ and the ‘Last Resort’

It is quite perplexing to know as to why Pakistan retains the first use posture and why, at the same time, it claims that it would use its nuclear weapons only as a last resort. To understand Pakistan’s rationale for both the stances, it is necessary to observe the Cold War debate on ‘First Use’ and ‘No First Use’ which indicates that the proponents of the latter stance failed to convince the established nuclear weapons states, in general, and minor nuclear weapons states, in particular, to renounce the first use to offset conventional vulnerabilities. During the Cold War era, the US adopted the First-Use posture which relied on two principal reasons as stated by Dr Zafar Khan in his book, ‘Pakistan’s Nuclear Proliferation, A Minimum Credible Deterrence’. He says, “The US and NATO were not in favour of First-Use policy option but due to the need of ensuring security assurances and guarantees to the US allies and making them credible, the US had to retain the First-Use option; and secondly, the adoption of NFU policy posture by the United States could have increased its vulnerability against possible chemical and biological attacks from enemies.

However, the proponents of First-Use were of the view that the US’s First-Use posture remained successful not only in sustaining the credibility of the US deterrence but also in ensuring security assurances against conventional and nuclear Soviet forces. Thus, having followed the suit, Pakistan’s security policymakers decided to adopt the First-Use policy option because it is a cost-effective strategy that is also consistent with minimum deterrence. It would also enhance the credibility of Pakistan’s nuclear deterrence. Besides, conventional imbalance vis-à-vis India and the fear of pre-emption from Indian forces are some important reasons that precipitate Pakistan to cling to the First-Use option.

Statements of Civ-Mil Officials

Statements of civil and military officials clearly manifest that Pakistan maintains an ambiguous doctrine that whether it is First-Use or No-First-Use. In this context, Brigadier (retired) Feroz Hassan Khan once said, “Pakistan follows the pattern of the United States that followed the First-Use posture. Pakistan cannot renounce the First-Use option owing to its conventional inferiority in comparison to India.” The ambiguity has, in one way or another, played a vital role in Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme and such level of ambiguity can still further be speculated in the statement of a former diplomat, Tariq Osman Hyder, who suggested that “Pakistan has not officially announced that it would first use its nuclear weapons. No NWS (Nuclear Weapons State) uses aggressive words when it comes to NWs use. Every NWS says that these are the weapons for strategic peace. However, Pakistan could use NWs in extreme conditions, that is, against any aggression.”

In 2002, former President, General Pervez Musharraf, stated: “Nuclear weapons are the last resort. I am optimistic and confident that we can defend ourselves with conventional means, even though the Indians are buying up the most modern weapons in a megalomaniac frenzy … if Pakistan is threatened with extinction, then pressure of our countrymen would be so big that this option, too, would be considered.”

In 2008, former President Asif Ali Zardari stated: “We will most certainly not use first.” Hence, by analyzing the above statements, it is clear that Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine is ambiguous and vague. It does not clearly state as to how the nuclear weapons would be used and this sort of debate has deliberately blurred to make India remain perplexed.

Anchoring the Threshold

Offensive Indian Cold-Start Doctrine (CSD) and Defensive Pakistani response via Tactical Nuclear Weapons (TNWs): India’s ‘Cold Start Doctrine’ has its roots embedded in the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament which India blames on Pakistan. India informally came up with this strategy, which was first presented in 2004 by the then army chief of India, in order to enable its forward-deployed land forces to carry out an offensive by intruding into Pakistan, in case it provokes aggression. This led to the ‘Operation Prakram’ in which India deployed its troops on the border with Pakistan but could not take any decisive action. The same posture was adopted in the aftermath of the 2008 Mumbai attacks. In both these incidents, India did not respond with force because political leadership there was oblivious to Pakistan’s nuclear threshold. That is the reason why Pakistan has intentionally left its nuclear threshold vague so that Indian leaders could be put into trouble.

In response to India’s Cold Start Doctrine, and being sensitive to Indian supremacy in conventional forces, Pakistan relies on the Tactical Nuclear Weapons as its deterrence against such inferiority. Pakistan’s former foreign secretary Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhary suggests that “Pakistan is fully capable of answering any aggression from India as it has developed ‘short-range tactical nuclear weapons’ such as Nasr (Hatf-IX) equipped with low-yield nuclear warheads.” He further stated, “Pakistan knows how to show India the right path as it has developed small tactical nukes to convert any ‘adventure into misadventure.” Thus, development of TNWs by Pakistan has been viewed as a befitting response to curtail CSD.

Evolving threat perception and changes in doctrinal thinking: Today, Pakistan is faced with a number of threats emerging from state and non-state actors. However, the most potent threat to Pakistan’s territorial integrity emanates from India’s growing nuclear capabilities and shift in its nuclear use doctrine. There are assumptions that India will use its rapid growth of military capabilities against Pakistan and that has kept Pakistani security planners in hot waters. India’s exponential investment in Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) to deter Pakistani missiles is being perceived also as a potential threat to Pakistan, especially BMD’s provision of false sense of security in India that could lead to a military adventurism against Pakistan. Moreover, Pakistani security planners show great concerns for the Indo-US Nuclear Deal and NSG special waiver to it as these steps would provide more incentives to India to pursue more nuclear cooperation agreements and enhance its nuclear weapons and delivery capability. Therefore, all these developments that have disrupted the strategic balance in South Asia are worrisome for Pakistan.

On the other hand, a simultaneous, significant progress in the military capabilities of Pakistan has been witnessed. Land attack cruise missile Babur having a range of 700 kilometres and air-launched cruise missile Ra’ad ranging 350 kilometres have been developed and tested by Pakistan in response to Indian BMD system. Moreover, Pakistan has also tested Hatf IX, short-range ballistic missile, also called Nasr, in order to add deterrence value to its strategic weapons development programme at shorter ranges. Furthermore, introduction of Shaheen-III is apparently meant to reach India’s new strategic bases on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Hence, Pakistan’s rapid growth of arms and capabilities and its continuous fissile material production, as well as its investment in sea-based second-strike capabilities portray a shift towards complex and full spectrum deterrence that would help maintain strategic balance in the region.


In a nutshell, Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine aims, first, to deter India from committing aggression against Pakistan; and, second, to thwart an Indian victory in case of any eventuality. Pakistan’s doctrinal thinking, which was once rooted in a simplistic understanding of existential deterrence largely dependent on a massive retaliation strategy, has been gradually shifting toward a complex deterrence policy with graduated response options. This change, evidenced by the ongoing development and diversification of delivery systems, may require a shift from non-deployment to a higher readiness level, and a corresponding change from centralized to delegated command and control. These evolutions have important implications for stability in the region.

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