Pakistan is continuing to develop tactical nuclear weapons for use on the battlefield against India, a senior U.S. intelligence official said this week.
In providing a worldwide threat assessment to the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Vincent R. Stewart, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, discussed Pakistan’s expanding nuclear delivery systems.
“We anticipate that Pakistan will continue [its] development of new delivery systems, including cruise missiles and close-range ‘battlefield’ nuclear weapons to augment its existing ballistic missiles,” Stewart said during his opening statement, according to an official transcript.
Tactical nuclear weapons are low-yield, short-range nuclear missiles designed for use against opposing troops on the battlefield, rather than against enemy cities like strategic nuclear weapons. Both the U.S. and Soviet Union deployed them in Europe (among other places) during the Cold War, and Washington and Moscow continue to deploy them today. They are not covered in existing U.S.-Russian arms control treaties like New START.
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In April 2011, Pakistan first tested the Hatf-9 (Nasr) missile, which it called a “Short Range Surface to Surface Multi Tube Ballistic Missile.” In the official statement announcing the test, Pakistan’s military said the Hatf-9 missile was nuclear-capable and had been developed to be used at “shorter ranges.”
“NASR, with a range of 60 km, carries nuclear warheads of appropriate yield with high accuracy, shoot and scoot attributes. This quick response system addresses the need to deter evolving threats,” the statement said. It added that the “test was a very important milestone in consolidating Pakistan’s strategic deterrence capability at all levels of the threat spectrum.”
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Testing continued throughout 2012 and 2013, and Pakistan’s Strategic Forces are believed to have inducted the missile into service following an October 2013 test. Pakistan has continued periodic testing since that time, most recently in September of last year. However, it is unclear whether Pakistan is capable of building nuclear warheads small enough to use on the Hatf-9.
The missile itself is a derivative of the Chinese-made Weishi-2 (WS-2) short-range ballistic missile, which Beijing developed specifically to export. Starting in 2012, Pakistan began firing the Hatf-9 in four missile salvos from what it called a “state-of-the-art multi-tube launcher,” which was also derived from Chinese systems.
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Pakistan developed tactical nukes as a way to counter India’s conventional military superiority. In particular, Islamabad's tactical nuclear weapons were a response to India’s development of the so-called “Cold Start” military doctrine, which calls for using small and limited excursions into Pakistani territory to respond to Islamabad-sponsored terrorist attacks.
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As one analyst explained “The idea is that smaller nuclear weapons, used on Pakistani soil, would stop invading Indian forces in their tracks.” Similarly, a Pakistani missile expert told local media outlets at the time of the first test: “This is a low-yield battlefield deterrent, capable of deterring and inflicting punishment on mechanized forces like armed brigades and divisions.”
As The National Interest has previously noted, Pakistan’s tactical nuclear weapons are one of the most dangerous nuclear threats facing the world today. That’s because fielding tactical nuclear weapons underscores Islamabad's willingness to use atomic weapons even to counter non-nuclear threats (unlike India, Islamabad does not maintain a no-first-use nuclear doctrine.) Moreover, in order to be effective, Pakistan’s tactical nuclear weapons would have to be kept in a more ready state in order to be usable on short notice. Furthermore, once deployed on the frontlines, the battlefield commanders would likely be granted the authority to use them, raising the danger of a rogue general sparking a nuclear armageddon. Finally, tactical nuclear weapons, especially when deployed, would be more susceptible to theft by any one of the countless terrorist groups that find safe haven in Pakistan.
For these reasons, the U.S. intel community expressed alarm about Pakistan’s development of tactical nukes back in 2013. Stewart’s statement confirms that this remains the case today.
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