This piece is part of a compilation bringing together Regional Voices on the Challenges of Nuclear Deterrence Stability in Southern Asia.

“Notwithstanding the growing conventional asymmetries, the development and possession of sufficient numbers and varieties of nuclear weapons by both India and Pakistan has made war as an instrument of policy near redundant. The tried-and-tested concept of MAD has ensured that.”
—Lieutenant General (retired) Khalid Kidwai, Carnegie Nuclear Policy Conference, 2015


Sadia Tasleem
Sadia Tasleem is a lecturer at Quaid-i-Azam University’s Department of Defense and Strategic Studies in Islamabad, Pakistan.

On March 9, 2015, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Public Relations agency announced the “successful test launch of Shaheen III surface to surface ballistic missile, capable of carrying nuclear and conventional warheads to a range of 2,750 kilometers.”1 Responding to a question about the rationale for testing the Shaheen III missile, adviser to Pakistan’s National Command Authority Khalid Kidwai said the Shaheen III missile is meant to reach India’s nascent strategic bases on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.2 The purpose is to deny India a second-strike capability.3 Does this mean that Pakistan is moving toward a counterforce targeting or war-fighting doctrine? The Shaheen III tests have certainly caused speculation, but they may just be another sign of evolving trends in Pakistan’s doctrinal thinking.4 The Shaheen III has piqued curiosity recently, much as perceptions about Pakistan’s nuclear use doctrine have for the past twenty-plus years.

Since Pakistan tested its nuclear devices in May 1998, it has not formally declared an official nuclear use doctrine. Pakistani officials maintain that ambiguity serves Pakistan’s interests better, since ambiguity does not provide information about Pakistan’s nuclear thresholds that an enemy would need to exploit gaps in the plans.5 Whether this ambiguity actually brings stability or not is hard to figure.6 The lack of a public, official doctrine does not, however, suggest that no doctrine exists. A close look at official statements, interviews, and developments related to nuclear weapons provide substantive clues about the contours of Pakistan’s doctrine in practice.

Tracing the evolution of Pakistan’s nuclear use doctrine during the last two decades suggests that its position has remained constant on some issues, has been subject to ongoing disputes on other issues, and has been constantly evolving on still others. For example, issues like the possibility of nuclear first use and a unilateral moratorium against nuclear testing remain constant. Minimum credible deterrence and basing the nuclear posture on nondeployment and de-mated weapons are some of the disputed issues. In terms of issues on which there has been evolution during the past two decades, it appears that Pakistan’s doctrinal thinking—rooted in a simplistic understanding of existential deterrence in the early years—has gradually started changing. The country’s ongoing arms buildup, continuing fissile material production, and investment in sea-based second-strike capabilities suggest a shift toward a complex deterrence posture rooted in the notion of maintaining a strategic balance. Its diversification of delivery means also indicates a shift from massive retaliation to graduated response, coupled with changes in future targeting strategies. It is also expected that Pakistan might, in the near future, perceive a need to move away from the nondeployment of its weapons. Its evolving sea-based capabilities, as well as its short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs), may also necessitate a shift from centralized to delegated command and control.

The official Pakistani discourse maintains that the evolution of the country’s nuclear capabilities is being undertaken to maintain the viability of its long-standing nuclear doctrine of minimum credible deterrence. As India’s capabilities and strategies change, maintaining the deterrence status quo becomes a dynamic, rather than static, task. However, some observers see new capabilities like the Shaheen III and Nasr missiles as evidence of a changing nuclear use doctrine, not simply dynamic maintenance of deterrence.

It is also imperative to note that the discourse on nuclear doctrine in Pakistan is far from complete. For instance, crucial issues like escalation control and war termination rarely appear in the public discourse on doctrine and deterrence stability. This publication aims to identify the evolving trends in Pakistan’s doctrinal thinking; to review the disjuncture between capabilities and strategies, as portrayed in the existing discourse; and to explore what the country’s doctrinal thinking suggests about escalation control and war termination. An analysis of the discourse in Pakistan on doctrinal issues not only reveals the shallowness of public debate but also suggests the cognitive dissonance that is reflected in a pursuit of contradictory policy choices.

This analysis proceeds in three sections. First, it attempts to encapsulate the evolution of Pakistan’s nuclear use doctrine by surveying the discussion in the country. Second, it assesses the contingencies involving nuclear use and how the doctrine purports to use different nuclear weapons capabilities. And third, it offers an assessment of how escalation control and war termination are (or are not) being incorporated into the country’s nuclear use doctrine.

An Overview of Pakistan’s Nuclear Use Doctrine

A doctrine is meant to explain how material capabilities can be used to achieve policy goals. The key policy goal of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons capability is to deter Indian conventional as well as nuclear aggression.7 Its secondary policy goal, if deterrence fails, is to deny India victory in the event of a war.

The existing literature on Pakistan’s nuclear program identifies a wide range of political and economic roles that the program fills.8 Recently, references have even been made to the possibility of utilizing nuclear forces as a deterrent against threats emerging from states other than India.9 At this point, however, there is no evidence that the doctrine has actually evolved to encompass threats beyond India. Whatever the specifics of Pakistani nuclear doctrine may be, it is safe to assume the doctrine as a whole is specific to India.10 Therefore, it is best to consider this doctrine as it has evolved and as it exists today—primarily based on Pakistan’s perception of security threats emanating from India.

A close examination of Pakistan’s doctrinal thinking on nuclear use suggests that some of its features remain constant, some are disputed, and others are constantly changing. Below is a quick review of the key features of Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine as it appears to exist today.


Since the early years of its nuclear program, Pakistan has refused to declare a no-first-use policy; the country retains the option of using nuclear weapons first in the event of a war. This policy appears to have remained constant because of the growing conventional weapons asymmetry in India’s favor. Thus, by keeping the first use option open, Pakistan aims to deter any kind of attack against its territory.11 There is a broad consensus in both the academic and policy communities in favor of retaining the first use option.12 At the same time, there has been a recognition among the country’s scholars and security analysts that a first use option entails serious challenges.13 It requires a high degree of efficiency, good military intelligence, and a very effective early warning system.

From the perspective of the Cold War deterrence models that were followed by the United States and the Soviet Union, minimum deterrence may not appear sufficient for an effective first strike. However, given the limited nature of Pakistan’s objectives—deterring war or denying an enemy victory, as opposed to winning a war—the existing capabilities should be adequate.

A unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing is another constant. Although missile testing occurs regularly, nuclear tests have not been conducted since 1998. But if India were to decide to resume testing, Pakistan might break this constant and follow suit.14

Disputed Issues

During the past seventeen years, there has been a consistent emphasis on the need to prevent an arms race between India and Pakistan.15 Minimum credible deterrence was made the cornerstone of Pakistan’s doctrinal thinking since the early years to address this exact need.16 However, the conceptualization of minimum deterrence as a “dynamic as opposed to static concept” inherently contains prospects of arms buildup.17 Pakistan’s understanding of deterrence as a dynamic concept pushes it to look at Indian military capabilities and modernization efforts very carefully. Pakistan has a sense of urgency when it comes to neutralizing the impact of India’s modernization by developing its own capabilities and maintaining what it considers a rough strategic balance. This way of looking at deterrence makes the issue of nuclear arsenals more relative and therefore pushes Pakistan toward an arms buildup. A close look at Pakistan’s official statements shows this thinking. In the past few years, for instance, several official statements have indicated the inevitability of an arms race, spurred by India’s military modernization and development of what Pakistan considers “destabilizing capabilities.”18 It took policy makers some time to adjust their thinking about new requirements under the rubric of minimum deterrence. This confusion was reflected first in the omission of “minimum” from credible minimum deterrence,19 and later the replacement of credible minimum with full-spectrum deterrence.20 More recently however, official statements have started using credible minimum and full-spectrum deterrence in conjunction.21

Evolving Threat Perception and Changes in Doctrinal Thinking

Pakistan perceives that the threats posed by states and nonstate actors have increased in recent decades. However, the country’s nuclear policy has remained largely focused on perceived threats emanating from India’s growing military capabilities and evolving nuclear use doctrine.22 Although the existential threat posed by India may have subsided, assumptions about how India will use its growing capabilities against Pakistan keep Pakistani officials and analysts deeply concerned.23 For instance, India’s growing conventional military capabilities and its infamous Cold Start doctrine are seen as serious threats to deterrence stability and Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent. Likewise, India’s investment in ballistic missile defense (BMD) is perceived as a major source of instability in the region. It is often argued that BMD would generate a false sense of security in India that could lead to Indian military adventurism against Pakistan.24 Given the incipient increases in India’s fissile material stockpile under the Indo–U.S. nuclear agreement, India may even acquire the capability to make a decapitating first strike that would neutralize Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent.25 And these concerns are being exacerbated by India’s growing air power and sea-based capabilities.26 Some of these threats are considered immediate, whereas others are longer-term considerations.

The Pakistan military believes that these threats warrant changes in the country’s doctrinal thinking on nuclear use. As a result, Pakistan appears to be taking measures to address these perceived challenges to its security.

First, Pakistan appears to be amending its nuclear threshold and response options. The country has made significant progress in the development of military capabilities that are critical for this change. For instance, Pakistan has tested and developed the Babur land attack cruise missile, which has a range of about 700 kilometers, in response to India’s BMD capabilities. Likewise, the Ra’ad air-launched cruise missile, with a range of 350 kilometers, has reportedly been developed to provide Pakistan with “strategic standoff capability on land and at sea” that would neutralize India’s growing military capabilities.27 Pakistan has also tested the Hatf IX SRBM (also called Nasr) in order to “add deterrence value to Pakistan’s strategic weapons development program at shorter ranges.”28 Nasr missiles are meant to deter a proactive but limited military strike by India against Pakistan. Moreover, the development of warheads with multiple independent reentry vehicles (MIRVs) is also reportedly being contemplated to strengthen the credibility of Pakistan’s nuclear deterrence against India’s prospective BMD. Significant efforts are also being made to develop an effective sea-based deterrent. In addition to these developments with delivery vehicles, Pakistan is constantly increasing its fissile material stockpile to meet the growing requirements of its arsenal.29 From its official perspective, these are necessary because of India’s growing investments in destabilizing technologies like BMD and its aggressive doctrinal changes, which allow for proactive military operations inside Pakistan’s territory.

Change is also fairly obvious at the doctrinal level. With the introduction of Nasr missiles as a response to the threat of India’s proactive military operations doctrine, Pakistan has effectively lowered the threshold of its nuclear use option. At the same time, it has also moved away from massive retaliation to a flexible response.30 The introduction of Shaheen III, a longer-range ballistic missile apparently meant to target the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and a short-range ballistic missile, Nasr, may entail another change in Pakistan’s targeting strategy, which has long been focused on countervalue targets, to a combination of counterforce targets and countervalue targets. But how this combination of targeting strategies would improve Pakistan’s deterrence remains far from clear.

Other areas where change is a prerequisite for effective policy are command and control and export controls. Although Pakistan has made tremendous progress in both areas, command-and-control issues remain a subject of debate, particularly because of the impact of technological modernization, the introduction of SRBMs, and the possibility of a future sea-based deterrent. Both SRBMs and sea-based systems may necessitate delegated control over warheads, instead of the existing centralized command-and-control system.

These developments suggest that Pakistan’s nondeployed, de-mated nuclear arsenal may be reconfigured to be deployed and ready to use. As Zafar Nawaz Jaspal, a Pakistani defense analyst wrote, “Pakistan’s nuclear posture might shift from declared, recessed deterrence to active deterrence, which entails an ambiguous state of hair-trigger alert.”31 Pakistani officials have refrained from stating the official position. However, the above-mentioned developments might increase the likelihood of a change in posture.

Capabilities and Doctrinal Thinking: In Harmony or Dissonance?

Can its existing capabilities help Pakistan deter aggression from India? If not, are Pakistan’s capabilities sufficient to deny victory to India in a war? Denying victory to India in a full-scale war may not be inconceivable.32 Deterring aggression, however, largely depends on how deterrence is viewed and what criteria are used to determine whether deterrence is effective.

Pakistan appears to be gradually moving away from a position of simple deterrence and massive retaliation and toward a posture of complex deterrence with flexible response.33 These kinds of changes warrant a new evaluation of how Pakistan’s capabilities match the requirements of doctrine. Many in Pakistan confidently argue that Pakistan has what is required to establish “full-spectrum deterrence” and to ensure a second-strike capability. However, skeptics question the credibility of these assertions on various grounds. Below is a quick overview of the arguments about doctrinal harmony and dissonance.

Capabilities Complement Doctrinal Thinking

Deterrence optimists argue that Pakistan’s existing capabilities complement its doctrinal thinking. Tughral Yamin, a retired brigadier general and security analyst, maintains that Pakistan’s existing capabilities fit well with its doctrine aimed at ensuring nuclear deterrence. He notes:

Nuclear weapons of all descriptions in the Pakistani arsenal are meant to provide what is officially described as full spectrum deterrence. Tactical nuclear weapons are meant to deter any shallow Indian thrust at the lowest level of engagement, within the framework of the so-called Cold Start Doctrine / Pro-Active Operations. A second strike capability is being developed by equipping the conventional submarines with nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles. Cruise missiles are being developed to beat the Indian BMDs.34

Commenting on the threat of Cold Start, the Pakistani scholar Rifaat Hussain writes: “To guard against that possibility, Pakistan has plugged the gaps in its doctrinal thinking by evolving the notion of comprehensive deterrence, which is akin to the American notion of graduated response.”35 Official Pakistani statements also espouse confidence in the country’s capabilities to deter Indian aggression. All the same, they reiterate Pakistan’s commitment to keep developing new technologies and upgrading old ones to meet the evolving threats to its security.

Existing Capabilities Indicate Doctrinal Dissonance

Some circles point out the gaps in existing capabilities that prevent Pakistan from establishing credible deterrence. Particular views vary, depending upon the critic’s predisposition toward nuclear weapons. For instance, some critics tend to exaggerate the nature of threats from India, and they therefore propose both higher readiness levels and the development of second-strike capabilities. Others start from Pakistan’s stated doctrinal positions and focus on identifying shortcomings in the capabilities at its disposal. Some of the gaps and/or challenges identified in this discourse are as follows.

Inconsistent Posture

To some, Pakistan’s existing posture appears inconsistent with the threat posed by India. For instance, Munir Akram, a seasoned diplomat, makes a case for deployment, readiness, and higher alert levels in light of a bleak security environment. He writes that India’s advanced capabilities could “enable it to undertake pre-emptive counter-force strikes to eliminate Pakistan’s offensive systems at the outset of a conflict.”36 He further stipulates the possibility of international intervention in India’s favor, which could coerce or even preempt Pakistan from exercising a nuclear threat in the face of defeat. To address such a threat, Akram recommends that Pakistan “put its nuclear weapons delivery systems on higher alert, place some missiles in hardened and dispersed silos, and acquire one or more nuclear submarines as a survivable platform for a retaliatory second strike.”37 However, he not only appears to exaggerate India’s military capabilities but also conveniently ignores the threats inherent in predeploying delivery systems.

A few other aspects of Pakistan’s posture have also received some criticism. For instance, Pakistan rejects a no-first-use policy, but its existing forces are de-mated and nondeployed. Such a posture may preclude the readiness level required for a first strike. Naeem Salik, a retired army officer and a former head of arms control and disarmament affairs at the Pakistan Army’s Strategic Plan Division, proposes that Pakistan “not adopt a hair-trigger posture; it would have to maintain a comparatively higher degree of readiness of its forces.”38

Command and Control

Although the National Command Authority has time and again professed its confidence in Pakistan’s effective command-and-control system, critics argue that it does not fit well with the country’s doctrinal requirements. Ghulam Mujaddid, a former air force officer, writes in his critique of Pakistan’s Nuclear Command-and-Control System that “nuclear Command and Control for Pakistan is not yet fully developed. Instead, Pakistan has focused on developing its nuclear arsenal.”39 Zia Mian argues that the possibility of future crises turning into war “may pose important constraints on the kind of nuclear command-and-control system Pakistan may have established and would be a cause of additional possible dangers.”40 This concern is primarily caused by Pakistan’s shift from massive retaliation to graduated response. Traditionally, Pakistan has relied heavily on a centralized command-and-control structure. But these arrangements may not be appropriate for a graduated response strategy that requires a delegation of launch authority to the field commanders in control of battlefield weapon systems. Also, some analysts appear skeptical about Pakistan’s early warning capabilities, which in their view will push Pakistan into a “use-it-or-lose-it” dilemma.41

Battlefield Nuclear Weapons

The introduction of Nasr missiles into Pakistan’s arsenal has led to a new debate on whether these systems help deter low-level war or make war more likely. Even some deterrence optimists have opposed the introduction of SRBMs, arguing that these systems will actually hurt the credibility of the country’s nuclear deterrent.42 Those who support SRBMs argue that battlefield weapons have helped Pakistan plug the gaps at the low end of the spectrum of conflict and have therefore strengthened deterrence.43 Critics, however, raise a number of questions about the operational effectiveness of tactical weapons as instruments of deterrence. For instance, can Nasr missiles deter war without being deployed? And are Nasr missiles deployable and usable without hot tests?44 Some scholars argue that Nasr missiles are a “force-in-being,” meant only to deter limited strikes, and will not be used as an immediate response to an Indian provocation. This, however, defies the very logic of deterrence through SRBMs. To operationalize “full-spectrum deterrence,” Pakistan may need to deploy Nasr missiles in large numbers. If that is the case, critics argue, Pakistan does not possess enough fissile material to deploy a large number of Nasr missiles on the battlefield.45 Further, Pakistan lacks the capability to deal with the threat of a preemptive strike that could neutralize battlefield weapons. Most of all, existing command-and-control arrangements are inadequate for battlefield weapons. It is also argued that a change in command-and control-arrangements would accentuate the possibility of both inadvertent use and the threat of nonstate actors getting control of one or more weapons.46

A Review of the Existing Discourse on Nuclear Use

Nuclear discourse in Pakistan cannot be classified into clearly defined schools of thought. The closest approximation is to fit the wide range of views into different patterns and trends along the spectrum of opinion on issues as central as nuclear war. One important trend is that the discourse focuses almost exclusively on deterrence rather than on scenarios for actual use.47 Among the policymaking elite and most security analysts, there appears to be an unflinching faith in nuclear weapons’ ability to prevent war. Many interpret the history of the South Asian crises as evidence of the success of nuclear deterrence.48 They often argue that the success of nuclear deterrence during the Cold War and the twentieth century’s Indo-Pakistani crises provides sufficient evidence to believe that it will also work in future. Others offer a more nuanced explanation related to the bad incentives for South Asian leaders to use war as a policy instrument. Rifaat Hussain maintains that “the deliberate use of nuclear weapons by either side remains a farfetched possibility unless one makes the dubious assumption of ‘mad’ South Asian leadership.”49 He refers to “devastating economic consequences of any large-scale conventional war between India and Pakistan; varying degrees of realization that both countries should not be held hostage by non-state actors and above all emerging popular aversion to any fourth round of war” as major disincentives for India and Pakistan to engage in a war.50

In a similar line of argument, Tughral Yamin maintains: “I don’t foresee any use of nuclear weapons in South Asia in the near future. Poverty indices on both sides are extremely high, and people are too involved in the daily grind to earn one meal a day to think about war.” Alluding to Pakistan’s relative lack of interest in war, he notes that “the Government of Pakistan is embroiled on number of fields. It is battling an ongoing insurgency and an acute energy crisis, among other things. It is therefore understandable that it has on a number of occasions reiterated its desire to have peaceful and friendly relations with India. It understands that poor relations with its larger neighbor will only increase its problems.”51 This viewpoint is echoed widely within the strategic community.

However, there also appears a tacit understanding that the breakdown of deterrence between India and Pakistan would leave Pakistan with no other option except to use nuclear weapons to prevent an Indian victory. Some scholars have even argued that the likelihood of nuclear use in South Asia is far higher than any other place in the world.52

Contingencies Involving Nuclear Use

Some scholarly works illustrate the possible scenarios depicting the escalation of a crisis into war. In these scenarios, major contingencies include the failure of Pakistan’s conventional deterrence, India’s growing capabilities and the likelihood of preemption, and the failure of command and control and the possibility of inadvertent use. It is useful to briefly examine each one.

The Failure of Pakistan’s Conventional Deterrence

At least three scenarios could escalate hostilities between India and Pakistan to the point that Pakistan’s conventional deterrence crumbles, pushing the two countries into a situation that could involve the use of nuclear weapons. These scenarios include the possibility of a Mumbai-like terrorist attack in India,53 escalation of tensions across international border,54 or Pakistani actions in Kashmir. As a result, India could respond by carrying out punitive air strikes on Pakistan’s mainland,55 by conducting a limited conventional war, or by mobilizing its military across the “southern desert or central plains into Pakistan.”56 Based on his extensive experience with simulation games, Feroz Hasan Khan argues that “in a so-called limited conventional war, India is likely to cross two, if not three,” of the Pakistan’s declared nuclear use thresholds, including the “destruction and economic strangulation thresholds.”57 From a Pakistani perspective, all these actions would signal that deterrence had failed. Faced with the relative might of India’s conventional military, Pakistan could deploy nuclear weapons early in such a crisis.58 If the Indian army managed to successfully break through Pakistani defenses, or if it caused a major setback for Pakistani defenses that could not be undone by Pakistan’s own conventional forces, Pakistan would feel compelled to use nuclear weapons.59 Refraining from the use of nuclear weapons would put the credibility of Pakistan’s full-spectrum deterrence at stake. India’s limited war would quickly become Pakistan’s total war.60

India’s Growing Capabilities and the Likelihood of Preemption

Feroz Hasan Khan notes that the growing strategic asymmetry in India’s favor may increase Pakistan’s first strike options and, in conjunction, increase the likelihood of nuclear war.61 Likewise, India’s nascent BMD is also regarded as a potential cause of escalation. It has been repeatedly argued in Pakistan that India’s BMD might encourage India’s military adventurism against Pakistan to a degree that could result in a nuclear exchange.62 However, such arguments are currently entirely hypothetical.

The Failure of Command and Control and the Possibility of Inadvertent Use

Skeptics often postulate that a breakdown in Pakistan’s command and control would be a likely cause of inadvertent nuclear use. Feroz Hasan Khan argues that during a war, “deployment would become a necessity to ‘reestablish deterrence.’ Even if there is no desire or decision for deliberate use, the probability of inadvertence in wars and crises is much higher because the safety coefficient is less important and battle effectiveness becomes a security compulsion.”63 Zia Mian highlights the possibility that false alarms during a crisis could cause technological or human error and lead to an inadvertent nuclear war.64

Escalation Control and War Termination in Pakistan’s Doctrinal Thinking

If war were to break out between India and Pakistan, what course would it take? How would escalation be controlled? What would be the conditions for terminating the war? Are these questions answerable on the basis of Pakistan’s existing doctrinal thinking? Have any formal procedures been articulated to control escalation during a crisis or war? Escalation control is seldom discussed in Pakistan, so it can be safely assumed that formal plans for it are scarce. Former military officials and senior defense analysts affirm that neither India nor Pakistan really has a plan for escalation control.

Feroz Hasan Khan writes: “Neither India nor Pakistan have any great ideas how to de-escalate or seek war termination except to bring in the international community, especially the United States. And in the case of Pakistan, there is little understanding of ‘consequence management’ after nuclear first use.”65 Likewise, Rifaat Hussain argues: “There is no clarity in Pakistani doctrinal thinking about controlling the dynamics of nuclear escalation and war termination. If there is one, it has not been spelled out, for reasons of nuclear secrecy.”66 These statements indicate two possibilities about Pakistan’s doctrinal thinking on escalation control. First, escalation control may not be part of Pakistan’s nuclear use doctrine. Second, if it is, making it part of public knowledge may be detrimental to Pakistan’s security considerations.

This is not meant to suggest that the actual use of nuclear weapons is not being contemplated. However, two notions guide Pakistan’s thinking on nuclear use. First, deterrence is infallible—it will stand the test of time. Second, in the worst case scenario, if deterrence were to fail, all bets would be off. Any failure of deterrence would mean an all-out war, with little or no room for escalation control.

With this in mind, it is imperative to articulate ways to strengthen deterrence. Tughral Yamin explains deterrence in these words:

Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine is built around the concept of deterrence. The Pakistani concept of deterrence is very elastic and can be stretched to the nth limit before the use of nuclear weapons is even contemplated. Pakistani political, military, scientific, and diplomatic leadership has hands-on experience in escalation control during the crucial phases of nuclear signaling. These skills are being constantly honed and fine-tuned through war games. Senior leadership is well versed in the fine art of escalation dominance. Deterrent stability during various contingencies has been thoroughly war-gamed to keep deterrence intact.67

The first notion rests on the commonly held belief that escalation control is only achievable by strengthening deterrence before any war. For this reason, generating a perception of escalation dominance during a crisis might be considered helpful. Nasr missiles are supposed to help with this.

For others, deterrence might be undermined by talking about escalation control and war termination. Under this assumption, any signals suggesting the possibility that Pakistan was exploring and contemplating escalation control at the specific stages of a crisis could reveal too much information about the limits of Pakistan’s resolve. This could be perceived by the enemy as a signal of Pakistan’s weakness, resulting in efforts by the enemy to reinforce its own escalation dominance in order to strengthen its bargaining position.

India and Pakistan have fought at least three wars and had five major military crises in the past sixty eight years. Some scholars argue that though there may not be any formal mechanism for escalation control in South Asia, the region’s history and culture indicates an implicit tendency toward restraint from escalation. They further argue that the restraint shown by India and Pakistan in their wars of 1965 and 1971—choosing not to attack each other’s industrial complexes and irrigation dams—reflected a tacit understanding of each other’s vulnerabilities. However, the presence of nuclear weapons has fundamentally altered some of these ground realities. For instance, given Pakistan’s existing countervalue-targeting strategy, which does not distinguish between civilian and military targets, it might be hard to integrate restraint into the larger context of military strategy. A close look at the crises that erupted and were successfully managed between the nuclear-armed neighbors, though, may offer some insights about the dynamics of escalation control between India and Pakistan.

At least three factors are considered to have been crucial to crisis management and escalation control during all previous crises. These include operational measures, such as the separation of warheads from launchers; strategic realities, like deterrence; and diplomatic factors, like the involvement of the international community, particularly the United States. International involvement is always treated as a crucial factor during war games, but it is hard to discern whether Pakistan’s official policy on escalation control counts at least partly on international involvement or only sees it as a means to help strengthen deterrence.68

As far as the separation of warheads from launchers is concerned, this may not be possible in a future crisis, particularly if SRBMs are deployed on the battlefield. Of the three crucial crisis management factors, only the “strategic realities of deterrence” can be positively identified as part of current policy.

This way of approaching deterrence has reduced the uncertainty regarding the breakdown of nuclear deterrence. Thinking about crucial questions like “What if nuclear deterrence fails?” rarely gets reflected in the mainstream discourse.69 In fact, such questions often invoke serious emotional responses and are usually dismissed as reflecting an ethnocentric bias. Strategists argue that if deterrence worked in Europe during the Cold War, there is no reason it will not work in South Asia. This notion itself could be deeply destabilizing, because it generates a false sense of security that may cause complacency on issues that require sober and serious thought.

A new set of unilateral and bilateral measures may help improve the prospects of escalation control during a crisis. To begin with, it is important for both sides to recognize that the danger of escalation between nuclear-armed neighbors is real, but also avoidable. A next step should be a comprehensive study of all likely scenarios that could catalyze a crisis. Military strategy designed to deter war under any of those scenarios should be institutionalized, with the aim of keeping the nuclear use threshold as high as possible. Reducing the role of nuclear weapons for coercive and war-fighting purposes should be a high priority. Agreements should be concluded with various states possessing advanced reconnaissance capabilities, in order to verify information about the enemy during a crisis. This may help avoid inadvertent escalation due to misperceptions or intelligence failures. With respect to their bilateral relationship, India and Pakistan should enter into legally binding commitments to keep channels of communication open during severe crises. They should agree that at least two senior military and political leaders from each side will meet at the beginning of hostilities and conduct an exercise evaluating the possible gains and losses for both countries at the end of war. This may provide political leaders an opportunity to not only think about and reflect on the likely course and costs of war but also help them understand each other.

Escalation control, if formally instituted, can play a crucial role in diffusing a crisis at an early stage and could reassure the international community that all efforts will be made to deal with future crises in a logical manner. There certainly are no guarantees. The fog of war often takes over and leaves little space for control. However, small efforts like these may help avert large crises. A systematic approach toward escalation control and war termination is essential.


Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine aims, first, to deter India from committing aggression against Pakistan and, second, to prevent an Indian victory in the event of a war. 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 nondeployment 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.

A survey of opinions about Pakistan’s ability to operationalize effective deterrence with its existing capabilities reveals a wide range of views, from a high degree of confidence to some degree of skepticism. A comprehensive study of Pakistan’s nuclear discourse and material developments reveals arbitrariness, as well as some degree of cognitive dissonance, when it comes to the country’s nuclear needs and policy choices. For instance, there has hardly been any assessment of the value that the new Shaheen III missile adds to Pakistan’s existing deterrent capability. Likewise, though it has been broadly assumed that the development of SRBMs has increased Pakistan’s response options, there has been a lack of related discussions about the implications of a flexible response strategy on the conduct of war. Similarly, there are plenty of unsubstantiated calls for the need to develop a triad to ensure second-strike capability to strengthen deterrence, but these proposals do not address why the existing arsenal appears inadequate for Pakistan’s deterrence requirements.

Given the relatively less demanding objectives of Pakistan’s current nuclear use doctrine, at least when compared with objectives like absolute invulnerability or victory in a war, the country’s existing capabilities may prove sufficient.

The discourse in Pakistan reveals a widely held belief that a large-scale war between India and Pakistan is unlikely, as is the use of nuclear weapons. However, several contingencies that may lead Pakistan to contemplate the use of nuclear weapons cannot be entirely ruled out. These include a failure of Pakistan’s conventional deterrence, India’s growing military capabilities and the likelihood of preemption, a failure of command and control, and the possibility of inadvertent war. However, there has been no serious debate about escalation control and war termination. It is often said that in such an eventuality, the logic of war will take over. This is alarming. Serious thinking needs to be invested in reducing the risk of war and also in developing strategies for escalation control and war termination, particularly if a crisis inadvertently escalates.

Sadia Tasleem is a lecturer at Quaid-i-Azam University’s Department of Defense and Strategic Studies in Islamabad, Pakistan.


1 “No. PR61/2015-ISPR,” press release, Inter Services Public Relations, March 9, 2015,

2 Chris Mclachlan, “Andaman and Nicobar Islands as Strategic Deterrent,” Diplomat, May 6, 2014,; Dhiraj Kukreja, “Andaman and Nicobar Islands: A Security Challenge for India,” Indian Defence Review, September 16, 2013,; Ethirajan Anbarasan, “India Wary of Opening Strategic Islands,” BBC News, January 14, 2015,

3 “A Conversation with Gen. Khalid Kidwai” (transcript from the Carnegie Nuclear Policy Conference, Washington, DC, March 23, 2015), Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, In this reference, retired lieutenant general Khalid Kidwai said: “Of late, there have been reports of the Nicobar, and the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal, being developed as bases, potentially as strategic bases. And if those bases are not covered by Pakistan, and Shaheen-III does that, with 2,750 kilometers, if those bases are not covered then inadvertently Pakistan will be allowing, so to say, a second strike capability to India within its land borders.”

4 Some have argued that the test might be linked to Pakistan’s space program, whereas others think it might have been conducted to increase Pakistan’s bargaining leverage against the United States. See Iqtidar Khan, “Revisiting the ‘Sole’ Purpose of Developing Shaheen III,” News (Pakistan), April 11, 2015,

5 “Gen. Khalid Kidwai,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

6 Even within Pakistan, there is a divide between those who favor ambiguity and those who advocate transparency as a more effective approach to strengthen deterrence. For advocates of transparency, see Shireen Mazari, Emerging Nuclear Posture of Pakistan (Colombo, Sri Lanka: Royal College Computer Society, 2006),; Ghulam Mujaddid, “The Next Decade of Nuclear Unlearning: Command and Control and Management of Pakistan’s Nuclear Weapons,” in Nuclear Learning in South Asia: The Next Decade, ed. Feroz Hasan Khan, Ryan Jacobs, and Emily Burke (Monterey, CA: Naval Postgraduate School, 2014); and Sardar F. S. Lodi, “Pakistan’s Nuclear Doctrine,” Defence Journal, April 1999,

7 Naeem Salik, The Genesis of South Asian Nuclear Deterrence: Pakistan’s Perspective (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2009), 68; Zia Mian, “Renouncing the Nuclear Option,” in Pakistan And the Bomb: Public Opinion and Nuclear Options, eds. Samina Ahmed and David Cortright (Notre Dame, IN.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1998), 47–68. Although most scholars and policymakers explain the rationale behind Pakistan’s nuclear program in the above-mentioned terms, General Mahmud Ali Durrani contests this explanation and argues that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program was conceived only to neutralize the “looming nuclear threat from India, not to correct the conventional imbalance as is popularly believed.” See Mahmud Ali Durrani, Pakistan’s Strategic Thinking and the Role of Nuclear Weapons (Washington, DC: Cooperative Monitoring Center, 2004), 18.

8 Some of the key functions of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons include last-resort weapons to prevent military defeat or loss of territory; a deterrent to a conventional military attack; facilitator of low-intensity conflict; tools meant to internationalize the Kashmir conflict and escalate a conflict to draw international attention; enabler of extended deterrence; enabler of nation building; symbol of self-reliance and defiance; commercially useful weapons; and tools of civil military competition. Peter Lavoy, “Pakistan’s Nuclear Doctrine,” in Prospects for Peace in South Asia, eds. Rafiq Dossani and Henry S. Rowen (Hyderabad: Orient Longman, 2005), 280–300; Feroz Hassan Khan, Eating Grass: The Making of the Pakistani Bomb (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012); Scott D. Sagan, “Evolution of Pakistani and Indian Nuclear Doctrine,” in Inside Nuclear South Asia, ed. Scott Sagan (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2009), 219–63; Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, If I Am Assassinated (Lahore: Classic Publishers, 1976), 135–39; Rifaat Hussain, Nuclear Doctrines in South Asia (Bradford, UK: South Asian Strategic Stability Unit, 2005), 13; S. Paul Kapur, Dangerous Deterrent: Nuclear Weapons Proliferation and Conflict in South Asia (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007); S. Paul Kapur, “Revisionist Ambitions, Capabilities, and Nuclear Instability: Why Nuclear South Asia Is Not Like Cold War Europe,” in Inside Nuclear South Asia, ed. Sagan, 184–218; Bruce Riedel, “Enduring Allies: Pakistan’s Partnership with Saudi Arabia Runs Deeper,” Force, December 9, 2011, 20–21.

9 Pervez Hoodbhoy, “Pakistan’s Rush for More Bombs—Why?” Express Tribune,January 20, 2012,; Bruce Riedel, “South Asia’s Looming Arms Race,” Wall Street Journal, April 7, 2011,; Dean Nelson, “Pakistan Expanding Nuclear arsenal to Deter U.S. Attack,” Telegraph,December 7, 2012,

10 “Gen. Khalid Kidwai,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

11 In May 2002, Pakistan’s ambassador to the United Nations, Munir Akram, while defending Pakistan’s decision not to promise “no first nuclear strike” in case of an attack by India, said that it would give India a “license to kill” Pakistanis. See “Islamabad Refuses to Accept ‘No First Strike’ Doctrine,” Dawn, May 31, 2002,

12 Lodi, “Pakistan’s Nuclear Doctrine”; Hussain, Nuclear Doctrines; Shireen Mazari, “Formulating a Rational Strategic Doctrine,” Defence Journal, June 1999,; Zafar Cheema, Indian Nuclear Deterrence: Its Evolution, Development, and Implications for South Asian Security (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2010); Naeem Salik, The Genesis of South Asian Nuclear Deterrence: Pakistan’s Perspective, (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2010); Adil Sultan, Pakistan’s Emerging Nuclear Posture: Impact of Drivers and Technology on Nuclear Doctrine (Islamabad: Institute for Strategic Studies Islamabad, 2014), The only prominent exception is former president Asif Ali Zardari’s statement in support of a no-first-use policy at a conference organized by the Hindustan Times in November 2008. For details see, “Pakistan Will Not Use Nukes First: Zardari,” New Indian Express, November 22, 2008,

13 Hussain, Nuclear Doctrines; Naeem Salik, “The Evolution of Pakistan’s Nuclear Doctrine,” in Nuclear Learning, eds. Khan, Jacobs, and Burke.

14 Salik, “Evolution,” 78.

15 Agha Shahi, Zulfiqar Khan, and Abdul Sattar, “Securing Nuclear Peace,” News International, October 5, 1999.

16 Abdul Sattar, “Speech at the National Defence College,” Islamabad, May 24, 2000.

17 Ibid.

18 “Sartaj Sees Arms Race in S. Asia after India–U.S. Agreements,” Dawn,January 30, 2015,

19 “No. PR506/2010-ISPR,” press release, Inter Services Public Relations, December 14, 2010,

20 “No. PR180/2013-ISPR,” press release, Inter Services Public Relations, November 5, 2013,; “No. PR210/2014-ISPR,” press release, Inter Services Public Relations, September 26, 2014,

21 ISPR Press Releases issued on November 13, 2014 and November 17, 2014 used the term Full Spectrum Minimum Credible Deterrence. “No. PR247/2014-ISPR,” press release, Inter Services Public Relations, November 13, 2014,; “No. PR256/2014-ISPR,” press release, Inter Services Public Relations, November 17, 2014,

22 Some commentaries allude to the United States as also constituting part of Pakistan’s threat perception and, consequently, its nuclear policy.

23 Maleeha Lodhi, “Pakistan’s Nuclear Compulsions,” News, November 6, 2012,; Munir Akram, “Gambling Against Armageddon,” Dawn,October 26, 2014,

24 Zafar Nawaz Jaspal, “The Introduction of Ballistic Missile Defense in South Asia: Implications on Strategic Stability,” in Nuclear Learning, eds. Khan, Jacobs, and Burke.

25 Zahid Ali Khan, “Indo-U.S. Civilian Nuclear Deal: The Gainer and the Loser,” South Asian Studies 28, no. 1 (January–June 2013): 241–57.

26 “Pakistan Pledges Response to Indian Nuclear-Capable Submarines,” Global Security Newswire, February 27, 2012,

27 “No. PR104/2011-ISPR,” press release, Inter Services Public Relations, April 29, 2011,

28 “No. PR94/2011-ISPR,” press release, Inter Services Public Relations, April 19, 2011,

29 International Panel on Fissile Materials, Global Fissile Material Report 2013 (Princeton, N.J.: International Panel on Fissile Materials, 2013),

30 Adil Sultan uses the word assured deterrence. Others have even called it graduated response. See Sultan, Pakistan’s Emerging Nuclear Posture.

31 Jaspal, “Introduction.”

32 Walter C. Ladwig III, “Indian Military Modernization and Conventional Deterrence in South Asia,” Journal of Strategic Studies 38, no. 5 (2015): 729–72.

33 Sadia Tasleem, “Conceptualizing the Relationship Between Nuclear Learning and Doctrinal Thinking: Understanding the Pakistani Perspective and Assessing Deterrence Stability,” in Nuclear Learning, eds. Khan, Jacobs, and Burke.

34 Tughral Yamin, e-mail interview with Sadia Tasleem, April 6, 2015.

35 Rifaat Hussain, e-mail message to Sadia Tasleem, April 6, 2015.

36 MunirAkram, “Reversing Strategic ‘Shrinkage,’” in Pakistan: Beyond the Crisis State, ed. Maleeha Lodhi (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2011), 299.

37 Ibid.

38 Salik, “Evolution,” 82–83.

39 Mujaddid, “Next Decade,” 106.

40 Zia Mian, “Commanding and Controlling Nuclear Weapons,” in Confronting the Bomb: Pakistani and Indian Scientists Speak Out, ed. Pervez Hoodbhoy (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2013), 217–18.

41 Zia Mian, R. Rajaraman, and M. V. Ramana, “The Infeasibility of Early Warning,” in Confronting the Bomb, ed. Hoodbhoy, 237–246.

42 Ejaz Haider, “Stupidity Goes Nuclear—I,” Express Tribune, April 25, 2011,; Naeem Salik, Tactical Nuclear Weapons and Deterrence Stability (Monterey, CA: Naval Postgraduate School, 2013).

43 Zahir Kazmi, “SRBMs, Deterrence and Regional Stability South Asia: A Case Study of NASR and Prahar,” Regional Studies 30, no. 4 (Autumn 2012): 73; Zafar Nawaz Jaspal, “Tactical Nuclear Weapons: Deterrence Stability between India and Pakistan,” in U.S.–Pakistan Strategic Partnership: A Track II Dialogue (Monterey, CA: Naval Postgraduate School, 2012); Sultan, Pakistan’s Emerging Nuclear Posture; Mansoor Ahmed, “Why Pakistan Needs Tactical Nuclear Weapons,” Pulse, May 6, 2011,; Rabia Akhtar, “NASR and Pakistan’s Nuclear Deterrence,” Eurasia Review,May 2, 2011,

44 Mian, “Commanding and Controlling Nuclear Weapons,” 231; Jeffrey Lewis, “Pakistan’s Nuclear Artillery,” Arms Control Wonk (blog), December 12, 2011,

45 Mark Fitzpatrick, Overcoming Pakistan’s Nuclear Dangers (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2014), 34; A. H. Nayyar and Zia Mian, The Limited Military Utility of Pakistan’s Battlefield Use of Nuclear Weapons in Response to Large-Scale Indian Conventional Attack (Princeton, NJ: Pakistan Security Research Unit, 2010), 7.

46 Haider, “Stupidity”; “A Cut-Off Point for Nuclear Weapons,” Express Tribune, May 7, 2013,; Nayyar and Mian, Limited Military Utility; Michael Krepon, “Tac Nukes in South Asia,” Arms Control Wonk (blog), April 18, 2012,

47 Some works only refer to the likelihood of nuclear use in an abstract manner. For instance, Adil Sultan argues that nuclear weapons are weapons intended for use, and it appears that this position is also meant to reinforce deterrence by signaling through discourse. He does not explain any possible scenarios where nuclear use would be helpful for Pakistan. He writes: “The general perception that nuclear weapons are intended only for the purpose of deterrence, and not for use, may not hold good for a region like South Asia, where incentives for a nuclear use out-number the disincentives, especially if the conventional imbalance is increasing to one party’s favor.” See Sultan, Pakistan’s Emerging Nuclear Posture. There is almost no discussion on the aspects relating military strategy in case of an actual war. The little attention to the question of how an actual nuclear war is paid for, from a human/moral perspective that probes the possible costs of a nuclear war. See, for example, Matthew McKinzie, Zia Mian, A. H.Nayyar, and M. V. Ramana, “What Nuclear War Could Do to South Asia,” in Confronting the Bomb, ed. Hoodbhoy, 267–76.

48 Sultan, Pakistan’s Emerging Nuclear Posture; Also see Salik, Genesis.

49 Rifaat Hussain, e-mail message to Sadia Tasleem, April 6, 2015.

50 Ibid.

51 Tughral Yamin, e-mail message to Sadia Tasleem, April 6, 2015.

52 Feroz Hasan Khan says, “There is no other place in the world where the possibility of nuclear use is more likely than in South Asia. This is so because of the nature of conflict, which has become far more complicated than it was in the past. Nowhere else is a conventional war between two nuclear-armed neighbors more likely to breakout than between India and Pakistan.” Feroz Hasan Khan, e-mail interview with Sadia Tasleem, April 5, 2015.

53 “Terrorist Attack in India May Lead to Nuclear War—U.S. Experts,” Dawn News,February 28, 2015,

54 “Modi’s Bravado Ups the Ante in India-Pakistan Fighting,” Reuters, October 12, 2014,

55 Although Michael Krepon raises this issue as a possible source of crisis escalation, this aspect has not received much attention in the discourse in Pakistan. See Michael Krepon, “Pakistan’s Nuclear Strategy and Deterrence Stability,” in Deterrence Stability and Escalation Control in South Asia, ed. Michael Krepon and Julia Thompson (Washington, DC: Stimson Center, 2013), 47.

56 Mian, “Commanding and Controlling Nuclear Weapons,” 214.

57 Feroz Hasan Khan, e-mail interview with Sadia Tasleem, April 5, 2015.

58 Mian, “Commanding and Controlling Nuclear Weapons,” 229–30.

59 Rifaat Hussain, e-mail interview with Sadia Tasleem, April 6, 2015; Sardar F. S. Lodi, “Pakistan’s Nuclear Doctrine,” Defence Journal, April 1999, 4.

60 Feroz Hasan Khan, e-mail interview with Sadia Tasleem, April 5, 2015.

61 Feroz Hassan Khan, “Reducing the Risk of Nuclear War in South Asia,” Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, August 12, 2009,

62 Jaspal, “Introduction,” 127–28.

63 Feroz Hasan Khan, e-mail message to Sadia Tasleem, April 5, 2015.

64 Mian, Rajaraman, and Ramana, “Infeasibility,” 250.

65 Feroz Hasan Khan, e-mail message to Sadia Tasleem, April 5, 2015.

66 Rifaat Hussain, e-mail message to Sadia Tasleem, April 6, 2015.

67 Tughral Yamin, e-mail message to Sadia Tasleem, April 6, 2015.

68 The issue of seeking international attention and consequently involvement is a tricky one. Narang’s argument on catalytic deterrence would make any such move as part of a broader deterrence strategy and not an isolated or independent variable. In such case, this factor (as part of a deliberate strategy) would become irrelevant in case of a breakdown of deterrence. Besides, given the changing nature of relations between the United States and Pakistan on one hand and the United States and India on the other, the United States may not be considered an honest broker in a future crisis. See VipinNarang, “What Does It Take to Deter? Regional Power Nuclear Postures and International Conflict,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 57, no. 3 (2012): 478–508.

69 There is also a larger sociocultural tendency to put heads down in the sand and avoid contingency planning. This is reflected in Pakistan’s inaction to prevent or prepare for contingencies like floods and earthquakes that have repeatedly caused havoc in different parts of the country during the last two decades. Under such circumstances, Pakistanis tend to leave everything to God or fate.