Since 1980s nuclear weapons have figured prominently in Indo-Pakistan conflicts. Even before the overt nuclearization of both countries in 1998, nuclear weapons played a decisive role in at least two crises — Brasstacks and the Compound Crisis 1990. After the nuclearization, India and Pakistan twice came close to a nuclear confrontation according to various accounts (Kargil 1999 and the military standoff 2002).

Even before the ‘Brasstacks’, Washington Post quoting US intelligence sources claimed that India was contemplating a pre-emptive strike against the Kahuta uranium enrichment plant in March 1982 a la the Israeli attack on the Iraqi Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981. The Indian government, however, denied the report dubbing it “totally false and unfounded” and “absolute rubbish.”

The Brasstacks crisis of 1986-87

Operation Brasstacks was a military exercise undertaken by the Indian army in Rajasthan during November 1986 and March 1987. The exercise was the brainchild of General Krishnaswamy Sundarrajan (General Sundarji). Its aim according to him was to provide the Indian armed forces an opportunity to test new concepts of mechanization, mobility and air support. The exercise was bigger than any NATO exercise till the time and according to many was among the biggest land exercises since World War II. Mobilization of almost a quarter of a million troops just 20 miles from the international border opposite the Pakistani province of Sindh, and the fact that the Indian forces were carrying ammunition, compelled the Pakistani leadership to suspect that India was preparing to attack Pakistan. This was an alarming situation as Pakistan was already covertly involved in Afghanistan against the Soviet troops. Pakistan leadership feared that with the Indians preparing for an attack on the country from the east while it was engaged on the western front against the USSR would develop into a two-front war for Pakistan creating more problems for its security. Pakistan counter-mobilized its attack formations in Punjab and adopted a defence posture in Sindh. As the situation was developing, war seemed imminent between the two.

This was the first crisis between the two neighbours in which nuclear weapons figured as a decisive factor and nuclear signalling at the highest level was used.

The most prominent of such signalling was the interview given to Kuldip Nayer by Dr. A. Q. Khan in which he reportedly stated: “America knows it. What the CIA has been saying about our possessing the bomb is correct and so is the speculation of some foreign newspapers,” adding that “Nobody can undo Pakistan or take us for granted. We are here to stay and let me be clear that we shall use the bomb if our existence is threatened.” The Indian side was quick to issue their response on these signals. Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi stated that “the Indian people will not be found wanting.” The crisis was defused only when Pakistan’s president General Ziaul Haq travelled to India, to watch a cricket match and held talks with the Indian leadership. By March 1987, both sides agreed to a phased withdrawal to peacetime positions. A number of confidence-building measures were agreed upon, with the Agreement on the Prohibition of Attack against Nuclear Installations and Facilities, signed on 31 December 1988, perhaps being the most prominent.

The 1990 compound crisis

An indigenous armed freedom struggle erupted in 1989 in the Indian-controlled Kashmir. India blamed Pakistan totally ignoring the ground realities. By 1990, the freedom struggle was getting stronger by the day and a view was emerging in Indian power corridors that Pakistan needed to be given a message that Indians would not allow it to create troubles in areas which they believed were theirs. India decided to replay Brasstacks and deployed its strike corps along the border near Rajasthan and also took up defensive positions in the north. The then prime minister of India, the late V.P. Singh, also publicly threatened Pakistan that it could not get away with taking Kashmir without a war.

Pakistan also countermobilized and strengthened its defences. As Pakistan was weaker in terms of conventional weapons, it was believed by Americans that Pakistan would use its nuclear weapon in case of a war. This perception was further strengthened by a report published in the London-based Sunday Times. According to it, American spy satellites photographed heavily armed convoys leaving the top-secret Pakistani nuclear weapons complex at Kahuta, near Islamabad, and heading for military airfields.

President George Bush Sr was quick to send Robert Gates to defuse the situation in the region. The Gates Mission, after intense negotiation was able to resolve the so-called ‘compound crisis.’

Kargil conflict

Kargil conflict (May-July 1999) was limited in space, yet it lasted longer than any other Indo-Pak war resulting in approximately 1700 deaths on both sides. New Delhi is of the view that it was Pakistan army’s belief that the Indian army was exhausted and suffering from low morale due to its long drawn-out involvement in anti-insurgency operations in Kashmir, led to this operation. Whereas Islamabad claims that this operation was a pre-emptive operation to the possible Indian operation in the Shaqma sector with the objective of weakening Pakistan’s ability to effectively interdict the Dras-Kargil road. Another group of Pakistani analysts link this operation to the larger Kashmir problem and the Siachen conflict of 1984. Therefore, according to their reasoning, the Kargil conflict also falls under similar “nibbling” operations that had acquired some legitimacy over the years.

The conflict started with reports emerging of intruders on the Indian side of the LoC on 6 May 1999 and ended with an announcement by Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif, which came soon after his visit to the United States and meeting with president Clinton, that Islamabad would withdraw its troop. The Indians throughout the crisis practised coercive diplomacy vis-à-vis Washington. New Delhi on more than one occasion made it clear to the Americans that unless they pressurized Islamabad to pull back it would have to escalate the situation by opening up another front.

This crisis was unique in a number of aspects. During the crisis communication between the two states remained active and their prime ministers kept talking, unlike earlier conflicts in which communication links were among the first casualties. Niaz Naik, a seasoned diplomat, and veteran journalist R.K. Mishra represented Pakistan and India respectively. Both had several rounds of talks which continued even during the Kargil Conflict.

It was the Kargil conflict in which, if the American electronic intelligence is to be believed, Pakistan allegedly moved its nuclear weapons for a possible deployment. Bruce Riedel, who was present at the Sharif-Clinton meeting, claimed the American president told the Pakistani prime minister about the movement and warned that any such movement would bring the two countries much closer to a nuclear war.

Another important aspect of this crisis is that India made a cognizant effort to remain focused on the Kargil sector and not open another front. This is something totally against the previous Indian behaviour during the 1965 Operation Gibraltar, when the Indians crossed the international border and attacked Pakistan.

2002 military stand-off

The attack on the Srinagar legislative assembly on 1 October 2001 and another on the Indian Parliament on 13 December 2001 provoked a massive Indian military mobilization and a year-long stand-off between India and Pakistan. The Vajpayee-led Indian administration was quick in putting the blame on Pakistan and the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammad. A list of demands was given to Islamabad which was rejected by then President Musharraf.

Within days, India mobilized almost 80000 troops including its three strike corps as well as its Air Force and Navy. Pakistan counter mobilized. This resulted into a military stand-off in which the two armed forces stood eyeball to eyeball. During the year-long stand-off, on more than one occasion India wanted to cross the LoC and attack Pakistan. However, such plans were ultimately cancelled.

After the end of the stand-off president Musharraf stated that had India decided to cross the LoC or the international border, it would have been “unconventional war” on India. Reacting to this, George Fernandes, then defence minister of India, claimed that there would be “no Pakistan left if India retaliated with nuclear weapons of its own.”

Perhaps the most ironic feature of this year-long military mobilization was that instead of Pakistan which is considered to be the one using the threat of a nuclear war in the region to achieve its objectives, this time round it was India which was using the threat of nuclear war, primarily aimed at the United States, to pressurize Pakistan.

Limited War India Planned for January 2002

Source: Lt Gen (Retd) V.K. Sood & Pravin Sawhney, Operation Parakram — The War Unfinished, (New Delhi: Sage, 2003), p.74.


Source: Lt Gen (Retd) V.K. Sood & Pravin Sawhney, Operation Parakram — The War Unfinished, (New Delhi: Sage, 2003), p.74.

India’s Full-Scale War Plan for June 2002

Source: Lt Gen (Retd) V.K. Sood & Pravin Sawhney, Operation Parakram — The War Unfinished, (New Delhi: Sage, 2003), p.74.

This discussion of the role of nuclear weapons in the four India-Pakistan crises shows how 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. This is exactly why Pakistan has opted for a first use policy and has kept its nuclear threshold undefined.

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.