The Enduring Power of Bad Ideas: ‘Cold Start’ and Battlefield Nuclear Weapons in South Asia

Publication Date: 
November 2014
Arms Control Today
Nuclear Past, Present and Future Project
The Advanced Methods of Cooperative Security Program
In April 2011, Pakistan declared that it had tested a short-range battlefield nuclear missile, the Nasr. Since then, prominent purveyors of Pakistani nuclear doctrine, including Lieutenant General Khalid Kidwai and former diplomat Maleeha Lodhi, have portrayed the Nasr missile as a counter to India’s “Cold Start” war doctrine.That doctrine supposedly aims at rapid but limited retaliatory incursions into Pakistan by the Indian army to seize and hold narrow slices of territory in response to a terrorism event in India involving Pakistanis. The rationale is that the seized territory would be returned in exchange for Pakistani extradition of extremists inflicting terrorism onto India. The doctrine is based on the assumption that Pakistan would not resort to the use of nuclear weapons in response to a limited Indian incursion, thereby offering space for conventional conflict even in a nuclearized environment.Pointing to this Indian war doctrine, Pakistani decision-makers now argue that the deterrent value of their current arsenal operates only at the strategic level. According to this line of reasoning, the gap at the tactical level gives India the freedom to successfully engage in limited Cold Start-style military operations without fear of nuclear escalation. Development of the low-yield, tactical battlefield nuclear weapon, the Nasr missile, is seen as the solution providing “flexible deterrence options” for an appropriate response to Cold Start, rather than massive nuclear retaliation against India. Nasr proponents argue that by maintaining “a credible linkage between limited conventional war and nuclear escalation,” the missile will deter India from carrying out its plan.This approach might appear to be sensible, but it suffers from two important flaws. First, the Cold Start doctrine has not been actively implemented and therefore does not seem to represent a genuine threat to Pakistan. Second, battlefield nuclear weapons are a key part of the proposed solution, but it may be extremely difficult to establish a command and control system that would effectively preclude the possibility of an accidental or unauthorized launch.