It is not surprising that a militarily weaker Pakistan without sufficient strategic depth places its reliance on nuclear weapons to ensure its national defence. With the increasing conventional imbalance between India and Pakistan, nuclear weapons for the latter assume the role of an essential penalty to offset India’s conventional superiority.

The former Pakistani national security adviser and ambassador to USA, General Mahmud Durrani, stated that there are four objectives of Pakistan’s nuclear policy:

General (Retd.) Mahmud Ali Durrani

  1. Deterrence of all forms of external aggression that can endanger Pakistan’s national security.
  2. Deterrence will be achieved through the development and maintenance of an effective combination of conventional and strategic forces, at adequate levels within the country’s resource constraints.
  3. Deterrence of Pakistan’s adversaries from attempting a counter-force strategy against its strategic assets by effectively securing the strategic assets and threatening nuclear retaliation should such an attempt be made.
  4. Stabilization of strategic deterrence in the South Asia region.

Pakistan has made significant progress in the sphere of command and control of its nuclear weapons. This area has received more attention from the Pakistani authorities because of the propaganda to which they had been subjected and for the purpose of reassuring both internal and international observers. From the very beginning, a large number of western as well as Indian scholars and journalists have doubted the ability of Pakistan to effectively and safely handle its nuclear weapons. On 2 February 2000, the National Security Council approved the creation of the National Command Authority (NCA). The NCA is responsible for nuclear strategic policy formulation and exercises control over the employment and development of all strategic nuclear forces and strategic organizations. The NCA comprises the Employment Control Committee (ECC) and the Development Control Committee (DCC), as well as the Strategic Plans Division (SPD), which acts as Secretariat. The “Employment Control Committee”, chaired by the head of the government, includes the Ministers of Foreign Affairs (Deputy Chairman), Defence, and Interior; the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (CJCSC) and the Services Chiefs; and Director General of the Strategic Plans Division, who is also the secretary of this committee. Technical Advisers and others can attend if and when asked and/or required by the Chairman. The main duty of this committee is to formulate the country’s nuclear strategy, including the targeting policy. The Development Control Committee is responsible for the development of strategic assets. This committee includes the Chairman of the JCSC, who acts as Deputy Chairman; the three Services Chiefs; the Director General of the Strategic Plans Division; and the heads of concerned strategic organizations as and when required. The Strategic Plans Division (SPD) acts as the Secretariat for NCA. The primary duty of the SPD is the planning and co-ordination of the establishment of a reliable command, control, communication, computers and intelligence (C4I) network for the NCA.

Although Pakistan has not officially declared a nuclear doctrine, over the years a number of statements were made that provide a broad understanding that Pakistan’s undeclared nuclear doctrine is based on three pillars: first use option, credible minimum deterrence/ full spectrum deterrence and undefined nuclear threshold or redlines. Being a weaker party with comparatively lower conventional capabilities, Pakistan has to retain the option of first use. However, Pakistani leadership has made it clear time and again that its nuclear weapons are weapons of last resort.

Pakistan has been until recently stated that it would maintain a minimum credible deterrent capability in which numerical parity with India was not necessary as its nuclear policy is based strictly on deterrence, and not on war-fighting. Former Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar said in 1999 that “Pakistan’s minimum nuclear deterrence will remain the guiding principle of our nuclear strategy. The minimum cannot be quantified in static numbers. The Indian build up will necessitate review and reassessment. In order to ensure the survivability and credibility of our deterrent, Pakistan will have to maintain, preserve and upgrade its capability. But we shall not engage in any nuclear competition or arms race.” It is argued that Pakistan’s minimum credible nuclear deterrent posture is directly proportional to India’s military nuclear advancement, which to date is its primary and only nuclear threat. Therefore, Pakistan’s minimum credible deterrent cannot be quantified in numbers because what and how much deters India today may not be enough for tomorrow. In light of the ever widening imbalance between the conventional capabilities of India and Pakistan and the cold start doctrine, Pakistan has responded with developing tactical nuclear weapons to counter the possibility of a limited war under a nuclear umbrella. This comes under the new terminology used by Pakistani leadership of full spectrum deterrence. While a number of analysts especially Indian and western consider this a clear departure from the initial policy of credible minimum deterrence and consider this an offensive and a destabilizing factor in already unstable deterrence between India and Pakistan, one can see the full spectrum deterrence policy as a continuation of credible minimum deterrence policy of Pakistan in light of its contours discussed above.

As a matter of policy, Pakistan has not announced any clear-cut red lines. The only information available is that when all else fails, Pakistan would have no choice but to resort to the nuclear option in a last-ditch attempt to ensure its survival. What the late Agha Shahi, Pakistan foreign minister, wrote in 2000 is still applicable: “What would be the moment of last resort would be difficult to precisely define, given the asymmetry in conventional as well as nuclear arms in relation to India and its (Pakistan’s) lack of geographical depth. Whether a limited war imposed by India would warrant Pakistan’s nuclear response would turn on the scale and gravity of the threat to Pakistan’s existence. In these circumstances a policy of ambiguity would appear to be best for Pakistan’s security. Spelling out its nuclear doctrine would detract from the imperative of uncertainty about when a nuclear strike is to be resorted to. Not precluding first strike as a last resort would reinforce maximally credible nuclear deterrence by raising the threshold of Indian calculation of unacceptable nuclear risk.”

Lt. General Khalid Ahmed Kidwai (Retd), the founding head of Pakistan’s Strategic Plans Division (SPD), in a famous and widely quoted interview to a team of Italian experts outlined possible circumstances under which Islamabad might contemplate resort to defensive nuclear use:

  1. India attacks Pakistan and takes a large part of its territory;
  2. India destroys a large part of Pakistani armed forces;
  3. India imposes an economic blockade on Pakistan;
  4. India creates political destabilization or large-scale internal subversion in Pakistan.

Red lines in the Pakistan–India case is a dynamic and evolving concept, and not a clear-cut one. Today’s red line may well not be one tomorrow; hence, it is very logical that while Islamabad has made clear the existence of its red lines, it has adopted a vague and flexible approach about them.


Rizwan Zeb is consulting editor of Pakistan Review. He is also associate editor of the Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs (Sage). He is a former Benjamin Meaker professor, University of Bristol, UK; visiting scholar India-South Asia Project, Foreign Policy program of the Brookings Institution, Washington DC, USA. He specializes in South Asian Security Affairs and has researched and published extensively on Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine, security and learning. Few of his publications on the subject (and used for preparing this article) include Pakistan’s Nuclear Weapons: How Safe is Safe Enough? Transparency versus Opacity, Defence and Security Analysis, Volume 30, Issue 3, 2014; Pakistan’s Nukes: How Safe is Safe Enough? Swords and Ploughshares, Vol XVIII / No. 1 / Fall 2010, Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security (ACDIS), University of Illinois; Deterrence Stability, Nuclear Redlines and India-Pakistan conventional Imbalance, Spot Light on Regional Affairs, Vol. XXVIII, No. 4, 5, April-May 2009; David versus Goliath? Pakistan’s Nuclear Doctrine: Motivations, Principles and Future, Defense and Security Analysis, Vol. 22, No. 4, pp. 387–408, December 2006. He holds a PhD from University of Western Australia. He also studied at Gordon College Rawalpindi, Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad, Pakistan and the Uppsala University, Sweden.