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The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ latest Nuclear Notebook on non-strategic nuclear weapons has caused somewhat of a stir in India, no doubt due to newspaper reports that Pakistan may have acquired non-strategic nuclear weapons before India. Having bested their South Asian nemesis in four wars (at least in terms of denying the enemy its strategic objectives) since independence, Indians see Pakistan more as an irritant than as a rival. With this attitude, it is difficult to accept that their smaller neighbour has bested them in a field that is so closely linked to international prestige, at least for the public.

However, Indians need not worry much based on just the report. Unlike the more sensationalist newspaper stories, the report accurately states the difficulties in ascertaining any of the data for states like Pakistan. “The estimates come with considerable uncertainty due to the secrecy and opacity surrounding non-strategic nuclear forces.” In fact, as the Nuclear Notebook further explains, “There is no internationally agreed upon definition on what constitutes a non-strategic nuclear weapon.”

Given the official pronouncements of the two South Asian nations, their nuclear postures (however ambiguous), and their nuclear testing records, it ought not be surprising that either India or Pakistan would have or are acquiring non-strategic nuclear weapons. In Pakistan’s case, as the Nuclear Notebook reveals, the development of Nasr, a nuclear-capable short range ballistic missile (SRBM) with 60-kms range, strongly indicates the development of tactical nuclear warheads. This observation is buttressed by the statement from Noor Muhammad Butt, Chief Scientist at the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC), after Pakistan’s 1998 tests that Pakistan had built a sufficient number of neutron bombs and low-yield battlefield weapons. Pakistan’s interest in tactical nuclear weapons should not come as a surprise for one more reason: there have been consistent rumours that Pakistan’s response to India’s Cold Start doctrine is to be based on tactical nuclear weapons blunting the Indian spearhead. Though Cold Start is yet to be operationalised, India has taken a small measure of steps towards the goal, and Pakistan would be remiss not to keep its end of the devilish bargain.

Regarding China, it would be surprising if the Communist power did not have non-strategic nuclear weapons. In the nuclear age, China’s threat perception has been largely limited to the Soviet Union and the United States. A comprehensive strategy would demand that China be able to strike the homeland of both enemies. However, for tactical reasons, it would also be essential to destroy Soviet/Russian or US troop concentrations arrayed against China with minimum damage to the local area. Given China’s gatecrashing into the nuclear club in October 1964, it has had ample time to develop fairly advanced nuclear devices. Being one of the recognised nuclear powers also gives it access to technologies barred to India or Pakistan, such as the enrichment plants built in Lanzhou and Hanzhong by Russia’s Rosatom under a 1992 agreement.

While the Nuclear Notebook does not put India in the group of states possessing non-strategic nuclear weapons, it is hard to believe that to be the case. At least one of the devices tested by India in May 1998 was a sub-kiloton device – officially stated at 0.3 kT, it puts the device in the same range as the US M388 Davy Crockett round (W54 warhead). Furthermore, India’s Cold Start doctrine is premised on quick thrusts into enemy territory, a strategy that would be defeated by the greater radioactive release of strategic nuclear warheads (assuming use in response to Pakistan’s first use of tactical nuclear weapons). One more noteworthy observation is that publicly available records of Indian nuclear thinking indicate an interest in an area denial strategy – using nuclear weapons to seal Himalayan passes, for example – rather than laying waste to enemy cities. Given the close proximity of the Indian homeland to potential battlegrounds, this makes eminent sense. None of this is to say that India has a ready stockpile of tactical nuclear weapons – the country’s political masters have shown a shockingly lackadaisical approach to national strategy and security. However, it does indicate that it is unlikely that India is lagging in this area of nuclear weaponry.

It must be reiterated that the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists report asks questions of an incredibly opaque area of the security and nuclear complex and has very little data to work on and be pieced intelligently. Imputing meaning to their reports must be done with caution. Indian media reports have juxtaposed quotations from the Nuclear Notebook to imply that India is lagging behind its regional rivals – this may well be true (it most probably is vis-a-vis China), but it is quite unlikely in comparison to Pakistan.

Finally, there is this to consider – nuclear weapons are not a first past the post race. Little advantage is accrued by being first to master a technology as long as the relative gap between rivals is insignificant. What sliver of advantage might exist lasts only until the lagging state catches up; India could not have expected the advantage of 1974 to have lasted forever (or China of 1964). Also, that advantage can be capitalised on only if the technological superiority is used. With nuclear weapons, the sane person hopes that is never the case. Played right, nuclear deterrence remains only a very expensive game of chess.

This article appeared on Niti Central on September 27, 2012.