Nuclear Dynamics South Asia – A Comprehensive Look

anil chopra, air power asia, Nuclear Dynamics, India, Pakistan, China

Pakistan continues to be obsessed with Kashmir and just yesterday Prime Minister Imran Khan once again brought up the issue at UNGA. Pakistan also continues to support cross border terrorism. As war clouds hover over Ladakh, and world’s two largest armies ,  are face-to-face, and also with Pakistan continuing to invoke nuclear threat every now and then, there is a need to visit nuclear dynamics in South Asia, and call the Pakistani nuclear bluff. As early as 26 June 1946, Jawaharlal Nehru, later India’s first Prime Minister had said “As long as the world is constituted as it is, every country will have to devise and use the latest devices for its protection. I have no doubt India will develop her scientific researches and I hope Indian scientists will use the atomic force for constructive purposes. But if India is threatened, she will inevitably try to defend herself by all means at her disposal”. The then Pakistan Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi had said in 2018, that his country has developed short- range nuclear weapons to counter the ‘Cold Start’ doctrine of the Indian Army. Nuclear War in South Asia is a real possibility, warned the then Pakistan NSA, Lt Gen (retired) Nasser Khan Janjua in 2018. India has been stockpiling a range of dangerous weapons and threatens Pakistan continuously of conventional warfare, he added. In December 2019, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan once again threatened India with nuclear war over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, which promised Indian citizenship to non-Muslim refugees of the neighbouring countries. The then Indian Air Force (IAF) Chief, Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa said “the IAF has the capability of locating and striking nuclear and other targets in Pakistan. We have a draft nuclear doctrine. It is answered in that – what happens when the enemy decides to use nuclear weapons on us. As far as IAF is concerned, it has the ability to locate, fix and strike and that is not only for tactical nuclear weapons but for other targets across the border (as well).”

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Global Realities

Today there are eight overt nuclear powers, USA, Russia, UK, France, China, India Pakistan and North Korea; one covert (Israel), one nuclear aspirant (Iran). Saudi Arabia has stated that they will go nuclear if Iran acquires. There is a  risk that middleweight militaries and non-state actors may muster Nukes. As per a recent US report, Global nuclear war threat is down, but risk of a nuclear attack is higher. Mary Robinson, wrote in The Elders, in December 2019, “The risk of a nuclear war is higher than at any time since the end of the Cold War. Nuclear Weapons  and the Climate emergency are the two existential threats facing humanity today”. The risk of nuclear weapon use over the next 20 years, will still be low but greater than it is today. Multi-polar world is watching efforts to deter N Korea and Iran, and that will decide the future of Nuclear Non-Proliferation. World is ill prepared for rise of nuclear aspirants and opaque or non-existent nuclear doctrines of those countries. 

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Indian Nuclear Scenarios

          India has declared policy of ‘No First Use’ (NFU) of nuclear weapons but India will react with a massive retaliation in case attacked. China also has an NFU policy. Mishra, Sitakanta write in “Pakistan’s Nuclear Threshold: Not as Low as Perceived”, though the exact contours of Pakistan’s nuclear threshold is unclear, Khalid Kidwai, the former head of Strategic Planning Division (SPD), in 2001 delineated four generic ‘redlines’: spatial threshold (loss of large parts of territory), military threshold (destruction of large parts of land or air forces), economic threshold (economic strangulation), and political threshold (political destabilization or large scale internal subversion). In 2002 then-President Pervez Musharraf stated that “nuclear weapons are aimed solely at India,” and would only be used if “the very existence of Pakistan as a state is threatened”. Under this background, India does not envisage a nuclear war with China. In any case China does have conventional military superiority and there is unlikely to be a situation when it threatens India with nuclear weapons, and invite a massive retaliation. The threat of a nuclear attack therefore is only from Pakistan. The first Scenario is that Pakistan launches a full-fledged nuclear attack, and India is forced to respond with massive retaliatory nuclear strike. The second scenario is that Pakistan attacks India with Tactical Nuclear Weapons (TNW). As per India’s declared policy, it is expected to respond with a massive retaliatory nuclear strike. Both these scenarios will mean assured mutual destruction. The third scenario is that Pakistan attacks with TNWs but Indian political leadership dithers in decision making or inordinately delays response under international pressures. In such a case Indian Armed Forces will have to continue conventional offensive under NBC environment.

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Indo-Pak Nuclear Reality

          Both India and Pakistan are overt nuclear weapon powers since 1998, with each having around 100-150 nuclear warheads. There are serious territorial disputes between the two countries. Pakistan is running a proxy war in India’s Jammu and Kashmir region by infiltrating and supporting terrorists. A large number of terrorists, civilians, and members of security forces are getting killed every year. Pakistani establishment routinely makes loose statements telling the world of high risk of nuclear war in the South Asian region, and indirectly implying to India that it will respond with a nuclear attack if it was threatened beyond a point. India is engaged in protracted counterinsurgency operations, constantly diverting its attention. India has to therefore remain prepared for a possible nuclear strike. Since Pakistan’s implied threat of nuclear response and its threshold is somewhat vague, there is a significant space for conventional offensive operations. Uri surgical strike and Balakot air strikes were case in point. A scenario of “repeated alerts and false alarms” is likely to prevail in the Indo-Pak context, particularly till confidence building and risk reduction measures are firmly in place. India would have  to manage escalation and de-escalation control by following a  Blow-Hot-Blow-Cold strategy.

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Pakistani Nuclear Capability

          Pakistan started its nuclear program in 1972 just after its dismemberment in 1971 Indo-Pak war when Bangladesh was liberated. The first nuclear weapon test was in May 1998. Pakistan is estimated to have a stockpile of 130 warheads. The maximum missile range currently (Shaheen-III) is 2750 km. That will cover most of India. People’s Republic of China (PRC) has allegedly transferred missile and related materials to Pakistan. North Korea had been secretly supplying Pakistan with ballistic missile technology in exchange for nuclear weapons technology. Pakistani low-yield weapons can be carried on fighter-bombers and on short-range ballistic missiles Shaheen and Gauri. They have built Soviet-style road-mobile missiles, and air defences around strategic sites, and taken other concealment measures. Pakistan also possesses nuclear tipped Babur cruise missiles with ranges up to 700 km, extendable to 1,000 km. The Hatf-IX (Nasr) is battlefield TNW with ranges up to 70 km. PAF has two dedicated squadrons of the JF-17 Thunder, now believed to be the preferred vehicle for delivery of nuclear weapons. One squadron of F-16s is capable of carrying nuclear weapons. The French Mirage-III are also upgraded to carry a new air launch cruise missile. Pakistan is developing a sea-based variant of the Hatf-VIII Babur nuclear cruise missile. Pakistan is pushed forward a proposal to build its own nuclear submarines.

Pakistan’s Nuclear capable Babur cruise missiles. Image Source:

          There are geographic gaps and corridors that Pakistan feels vulnerable to exploitation by Indian mechanized forces. Pakistan refuses to adopt NFU indicating that it would strike India with nuclear weapons even if India did not use such weapons first. Pakistan’s asymmetric nuclear posture has significant influence on India’s decision and ability to retaliate, as seen in 2001 (Indian Parliament) and 2008 (Mumbai) deadly attacks on Indian soil. Pakistan’s motive for pursuing a nuclear weapons development program is to prevent another invasion of Pakistan. Pakistan is not a signatory to Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). While the world has been worried of Pakistani nuclear weapons passing on to rouge states or even terrorists, Pakistan has repeatedly claimed that their weapons are most secure. Unlike rest of the world where the nukes are controlled by civilian heads of government, in Pakistan the nuclear button is reportedly with the Army.

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Indian Nuclear Capability and Response

          India launched its nuclear program in 1967 just after China exploded a nuclear device in 1964. India carried out first nuclear explosion in 1974, and first nuclear weapons test in May 1998. India is reportedly having a stockpile of around 110 nuclear warheads. The maximum operational ballistic missile range of (Agni -V) is 5,800 km. This covers all of China. India was estimated to have 800 kg of separated reactor-grade plutonium with a total amount of 8,300 kg of civilian plutonium, enough for approximately 1,000 nuclear weapons. Supersonic BrahMos cruise missile with nuclear warhead 300kg and range 450 Km, and Nirbhay long range cruise missile with 1500 Kg war-head and 1000 km range are also part of the arsenal. India is a member of the Missile Technology Control Regime, Wassenaar Arrangement and Australia Group. India has signed neither the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test Ban Treaty nor the NPT. India maintains NFU nuclear policy and has a nuclear triad capability as a part of its ‘Minimum Credible Deterrence’. India’s Strategic Forces Command (SFC) was established in 2003 and is the joint services custodian of all of India’s nuclear weapons, missiles and assets. However, the civil leadership, in the form of the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) is the only body authorized to order a nuclear strike. Nuclear-armed fighter-bombers were India’s first and only nuclear-capable strike force until 2003 with free-fall nuclear bombs. The estimated 68 nuclear warheads of land-based nuclear weapons of India are operated through the Indian Army. They currently consist of Agni Series of ballistic missiles and the Prithvi missiles. Agni-VI and Surya under development will have range going up to 16,000 km. The Indian Navy has developed two sea-based delivery systems for nuclear weapons, completing Indian nuclear triad in 2015. Dhanush (350 km) Sagarika (700 km) and K-4 (3500 km) are the three Naval missiles. Coupled with nuclear powered submarines, including indigenous, it is a formidable capability.

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Indian Air Defence Strategy

          To a defender, for identifying a nuclear vis-a-vis conventional missile or aircraft strike there is little difference. In case of such high level vagueness, India will have no choice but to presume every incoming raid as a nuclear attack. The threat to intercept includes subsonic low-flying tactical cruise missiles and aircraft, and fast moving long-trajectory Ballistic missiles. The air defence aircraft with Indian Air Force (IAF) have air-to-air missiles, and the surface-to-air missiles with IAF and Indian Army will be used to intercept as many incoming projectiles as possible. IAF’s plans to keep the forward edge of battle in enemy territory. Launch Offensive sweeps with Rafale, SU-30‘s, Mirage-2000 and MiG-29s among others. Later the new fighters, LCA Mk II, and AMCA will augment this ability. Credible SAM capability with SPYDER, Akash among others exists. Later S-400 Triumf will join the fleet. The Indian Ballistic Missile Defence Programme is an initiative to develop and deploy a multi-layered ballistic missile defence system against a ballistic missile attack. The two-tiered system is planned to intercept any incoming missile launched from 5,000 kilometers away. Prithvi Air Defence (PAD) missile is for high altitude interception, and the Advanced Air Defence (AAD) Missile for lower altitude interception. It includes the Long Range Tracking Radar, and 3D Multi Function Control Radar. The PAD was tested in November 2006, followed by the AAD in December 2007. On 27 March 2019, India tested an anti-satellite weapon during an operation code named Mission Shakti. The target of the test was a satellite present in a low Earth orbit, which was hit with a kinetic kill vehicle. The ASAT test utilized a modified anti-ballistic missile interceptor, Prithvi Defence Vehicle Mark-II, which was developed under Project XSV-1. The test made India the fourth country after the US, Russia and China to have tested an ASAT weapon. This capability further reinforces the Air Defence capability against a nuclear ballistic missile. Strong Passive air defence measures, including against NBC threat need to be regularly rehearsed.

IAF’s SPYDER (Surface-to-air PYthon and DERby) low-level, quick reaction missile (LLQRM). Image Source:

Indo-Pak Bilateral Agreements

          India and Pakistan reached bilateral agreements on nuclear issues. In 1989, they agreed not to attack each other’s nuclear facilities. Since then they have been regularly exchanging lists of nuclear facilities on 01 January of each year. In June 2004, the two countries signed an agreement to set up and maintain a hotline to warn each other of any accident that could be mistaken for a nuclear attack. These were deemed essential risk reduction measures in view of the seemingly unending state of misgiving and tension between the two countries, and the extremely short response time available to them to any perceived attack.

Pak Tactical Nuke Approach

          Pakistan hopes that a limited nuclear strike offers a quick tactical victory through speed and penetration against critical targets. It may use Hatf IX (Nasr) which is a solid fuel, low-yield, sub-sonic surface-to-surface, tactical missile with 100 km range, 500 Kg warhead. It is normally used like an artillery system, with 5-6 missiles fired simultaneously at the target area. Pakistan hopes/intends that quick strike could induce delays in Indian decision-making cycle.

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Military Op Considerations in NBC Environment

          If Indian Armed Forces are forced into continued conventional operations because the political executive dithers or delays decision for a nuclear response then it must ensure to keep critical elements intact to carry on an offensive under NBC environment. Nuclear warfare sits at far right in spectrum of Ops, yet it is essential that military and executive understand affects to overcome. Mass for mass, nuclear detonation is a  millions times more powerful and results in blast, fire, and radiation. Free electrons emitted affect radio waves, especially at lower frequencies of Radar, VHF and UHF. Electromagnetic pulse (EMP) generates high voltages that can destroy unshielded electronics. Military needs to war-game actions under EMP effects. For Military, operational nuclear affects is in context of force protection and ability to respond. Forces need to repeatedly revisit nuclear operational doctrine and need to educate nuclear operators and decision makers.

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Indian Nuclear Response Preparation

          Peacetime capability building and demonstration contributes to deterrence. Early warning and attack assessment needs network of radars, other sensors and processing stations. A fail-safe communication system must link the surveillance, early warning, command and control systems with the nuclear forces (C4SR). Artificial Intelligence (AI) is already helping strategic decision making. Ability of Indian military elements to absorb enemy first strike through dispersion and redundancy and remain operationally efficient is critical. Survival of decision makers and other support services through active and passive means is important. There is a need to provide air defence to all these elements, critically the national Capital. All resources for nuclear mission must be earmarked, disbursed & secured. Integrated satellite, aerial and ground-based surveillance system to gather data for ‘targeting’ must be in place. Adequate processing facilities for rapid retargeting based on event templates, current intelligence & higher inputs. All nuclear warheads must be pre-positioned and ready to be armed. There should be a clear plan to kill enemy second strike ability by targeting higher direction centers, and simultaneous deep operations to disrupt enemy’s preparation and movement. Must inhibit or deny vital enemy operating systems (C2 , logistics, air defence) and target transportation networks and Lines of Communications to slow the forward movement of enemy armored forces. The attack would have to be simultaneous on many targets for massive response. Target would also include enemy airfields & silos from where nuclear and other major offensive can be launched.

Ground Offensive Under Nuclear Overhang

          A tactical nuclear weapon can threaten employment of mass formations and forward fixed operating bases. Field Commanders may be forced to ensure dispersal, survivability, and force protection. Isolation of units, mass casualties, and loss of C2 capabilities will necessitate semi-independent operations and decentralized control. This may add functional stress. A tactical nuclear weapon can alter terrain and create obstacles such as fallen trees, fires, craters, rubble, and radiation. Creation of obstacles will deny terrain and slow the counterattacks. The striking force may have to cross areas contaminated by fallout and initial radiation. Army may have to replace units in case of tactical nuclear attack in TBA. Only disciplined, well-trained, and physically fit units can function well in NBC environment. Commanders who understand this, must provide soldiers with strong, positive leadership; instill aggressiveness, and ensure good mental and physical preparation. In a nuclear environment decisive battles must be greatly compressed and campaigns accelerated. IAF would support Indian Army’s offensive and defensive operations by creating air superiority in TBA and providing an air umbrella to Surface Strike Forces. It would undertake interdiction missions. Fixed wing and rotary wing will provide logistic/replenishment support and also mass casualty/medical evacuation in case of nuclear attack. IAF will also support nuclear disaster relief operations at national and tactical level by moving disaster management teams, NBC equipments and medical supplies. It will also set up ‘Rapid Air Mobile’ hospitals.

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Calling the Pakistani Nuclear Bluff

          Deterrence is a product of a nation’s military capabilities and willingness to use them. Indian policy is to terminate conflict at the lowest possible level of violence. Nuclear deterrence also requires air superiority; space superiority; cyberspace superiority; global precision attack; rapid global mobility; global integrated Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance; and Command and Control. Escalation control is essential. It involves conveying to the enemy that, although we are capable of escalating to a higher level, we have deliberately held back. Escalation can be controlled by tight limits on the area of employment and timing and duration of employment be kept short. A channel of communication with the adversary must remain available to permit negotiations for escalation control and conflict termination. Critical thing is the turnaround time for the decision to launch a nuclear counter-strike. The final decision on use of nuclear weapons has to be made by the leader (Prime Minister), based on political and military advice, especially when you are going to act only in retaliation.

Pakistan Strategic Weapons. Image Source:

          Pakistan has been routinely reminding the world about the escalated risk of a military show-down in South Asia. It is often geo-political brinkmanship to extract American  sympathy and military aid. The Pakistani politicians and Generals have looted their country for long and amassed huge wealth and parked it mostly in the Middles-East or in the Western world. They have huge properties and built an empire within Pakistan. They would never dare to risk their own and their future generations through a nuclear attack. Pakistani reaction to shooting down of Atlantique aircraft, its response to heavy casualties in Kargil, and its response to URI and Balakot strikes were all very mute. Pakistan is always painting itself bigger/bolder than it is. If India had gone 20 kilometers deep during Kargil war, the response would not have been a nuclear strike. India must therefore remain aggressive in its conventional Ops and intelligently manage escalation. It is time to call Pak nuclear bluff.

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Published by Anil Chopra

I am the founder of Air Power Asia and a retired Air Marshal from the Indian Air Force.

8 thoughts on “Nuclear Dynamics South Asia – A Comprehensive Look

  1. Sir, as per India’s draft nuclear doctrine India won’t just launch a retaliatory nuclear attack if it’s attacked with nuclear weapons. India will launch a retaliatory nuclear attack even if the enemy uses non-nuclear weapons like radiological, biological and chemical weapons.


  2. Sir, please read this article to know that God has blessed India by giving us a stupid enemy like Pakistan. Their SPD’s stupidity is evident in how it uses civilian-style vehicles to transport their nukes to avoid being detected by American and Indian intelligence services. Even the West doesn’t believe in the SPD being professional. Pakistan hasn’t changed. The article says elements in Pakistan Navy have high sympathy for Islamic terrorists, no wonder Pakistan Navy’s NAS Mehran was attacked and then AQIS tried to attack America and India in their failed attempt to take over a Pakistan Navy warship!


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