May 28, 2023, is the 25 th anniversary of Pakistan’s nuclear weapon tests. As a relatively
young nuclear weapon state and despite facing several odds Pakistan has been able to
develop and manage a credible nuclear deterrence capability that continues to play an
important role in safeguarding the national security interests.
With the changing geo-strategic environment and the emergence of new technologies that
could lead to the entanglement of conventional and nuclear capabilities, the deterrence
dynamics over the next decade are likely to be different from the nuclear learning of the
past 25 years. Therefore, it is crucial to foster open discussions amongst the academic
community and think tanks to gain a deeper understanding of future challenges. Such
discourse will enable the identification of cost-effective solutions that could uphold the
credibility of Pakistan’s overall deterrence posture in the face of emerging threats.
Pakistan’s decision to develop nuclear weapons was primarily driven by the need to restore
the strategic balance in the region, which was disrupted by India’s first nuclear test in 1974.
It was not intended for any other purpose but to deter a major war with India.
Since the nuclearization of South Asia, both India and Pakistan have experienced several
serious military crises. However, the existence of nuclear weapons deterred both sides from
engaging in a full-scale war. This stability at the strategic level may have influenced India to
consider a limited war fighting doctrine known as ‘Cold Start’, along with concepts like
‘surgical strikes.’ These developments can be attributed to the ‘stability-instability’; paradox,
where stability at the strategic level encourages adversaries to engage in lower spectrum of
conflict while voiding crossing each other’s nuclear thresholds.
To address the challenges posed by India’s limited war fighting doctrines, Pakistan
introduced its Full Spectrum Deterrence (FSD) posture. FSD encompasses the development
of capabilities at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels to deter the entire spectrum
of threats emanating from India. The core principle behind FSD was that ‘there is no space
for a major war between the nuclear-armed adversaries.’
FSD represented qualitative improvement in Pakistan’s military options, aligned with the
overarching philosophy of ‘Credible Minimum Deterrence’ (CMD). However, recent explanations by senior decision-makers, such as former DG SPD Lt Gen (Retd) Khalid Ahmed
Kidwai seems to have expanded the scope of FSD.
In Feb 2020, while speaking at a workshop in London, Gen Kidwai who is also Advisor to the
National Command Authority (NCA), described FSD as comprising of “a large variety of
strategic, operational and tactical nuclear weapons, on land, air and sea, which are designed
to comprehensively deter large-scale aggression against mainland Pakistan.” The main
objective identified was the ‘prevention of a major war or large-scale aggression’ from the
In his recent explanation, Gen Kidwai seems to have further expanded the scope of FSD by
stating that it “comprises horizontally of a robust tri-services inventory of a variety of
nuclear weapons”, which can also be considered as “a triad”, and “vertically the spectrum
encapsulates adequate range coverage from 0 meters to 2750 km….” This capability,
according to Gen Kidwai provides Pakistan the option of launching “counter-massive
Developing a ‘counter-massive retaliation’ would require expanding the scope of the FSD
from the earlier version that was only intended to deter ‘large-scale aggression’. His further
assertion that “the illogical logic of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) will remain as
relevant in South Asia as it does in Europe and across the Atlantic”, further enforces the
impression that the FSD is likely to be broader in terms of ‘quality’ and ‘quantity’ than its
The newer explanation of FSD which includes developing a capability of ‘zero-meter range’
of weapons, is likely to bring negative focus with more questions being raised on the future
trajectory of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. Since Pakistan had traditionally
maintained ambiguity on its nuclear use policy, the statements by the Advisor NCA are
generally viewed as the reflection of the official thinking. However, these statements need
to be contextualized through public debates and academic writings, to bring more clarity
and convey the intent clearly to the intended audience (India), which is important for
maintaining the credibility of nuclear deterrence.
Due to declining debate on the nuclear issues within the country, there is a likelihood that
the recent explanation of Pakistan’s FSD could be misinterpreted by the domestic as well as the external audience. Misrepresentations of such statements on social media that Pakistan
now “possesses nuclear RPGs and artillery. Pakistan has man-portable nukes which can be
carried in a backpack/ briefcase”, are disingenuous and dangerous. They reflect a lack of
understanding amongst the general public regarding nuclear issues, which if left
unaddressed, could harm Pakistan’s credibility as a responsible nuclear weapon state.
The Strategic Plans Division (SPD) which had been an important source of credible
information in the past through its proactive public outreach efforts seems now reluctant to
engage in the nuclear discourse. This was evident from several events organized by
government-sponsored think tanks to celebrate the 25 th anniversary of nuclear tests where
most of the discussions remained focussed on peaceful applications of nuclear technology
and had no relevance to the occasion.
The government-sponsored think tanks that are working on nuclear issues have not fostered
a culture of healthy public debates and paper publication due to capacity limitations and
centralized bureaucratic structures. Universities that should provide an environment
conducive to open debates, are being discouraged from engaging in nuclear discourse or
establishing connections with foreign entities. This negative trend in nuclear learning could
lead to a dangerous void in academia, with fewer future scholars willing to participate in
For a country facing enormous political, military, and economic challenges, maintaining a
credible nuclear deterrence remains critical for Pakistan’s integrity and national security.
The nuclear program is one of the few issues that is owned and supported by all the
stakeholders in Pakistan, particularly the public. It is therefore imperative that this
ownership is further strengthened by engaging the public and academia in the evolving
nuclear discourse. A better understanding of these issues would help future scholars to
engage with confidence and publish their ideas that could help find solutions to the complex
problems that are likely to be faced by all nuclear weapon states over the next decade.
About the author: Dr Adil Sultan is the Dean Faculty of Aerospace and Strategic Studies
(FASS), Air University Islamabad. He can be reached at [email protected]. The
views expressed by the author are his personal opinion.