Moving from deterrence to credible minimum deterrence

By Beenish Altaf

Deterrence is defined or explained differently by the states keeping their own personal nature of threat or policies to counter certain coercion. Therefore, it is likely to say, an ambiguously defined concept generally. Undoubtedly, every country has to meet certain policies in order to meet its security concerns both globally and internationally. Now, while defining the tasks for adopting a certain set of principals or policies, Henry Kissinger stated that the aim of choosing certain policy options is to translate the power into policy’, so that states know ‘what objectives are worth contending for and determine the degree of force appropriate for achieving them.’

Keeping in mind the Pakistan’s perspective, it had two choices while designing its nuclear deterrence, ‘one was the war denying deterrence and the second is the nuclear war fighting deterrence.’ Both choices had a different pattern of implications including developmental strategies. War denying deterrence required minimum number of weapons while war fighting deterrence needed large number of nuclear arsenals, variety of delivery means and missile defence programs etc. Pakistan’s economy and strategic interests allow only the pursuit of war denying deterrence.

This is the reason why Pakistan does not believe the need of nuclear parity and is just seeking to maintain a deterrent equilibrium or more precisely is just balancing the threat caused by the conventional superiority of the enemy. Pragmatically, if one state has to go for a war fighting nuclear doctrine then it is desirable for that state to opt for nuclear parity from its adversary but if the purpose is only to serve the deterrence then it is better to seek a balanced deterrent posture. Resultantly, Pakistan principally decided to adopt the option of ‘Credible Minimum Deterrence’. Now the question of minimum deterrence and its credibility comes under view.

Rodney W. Jones, an expert on the subject defined minimum deterrence as the term minimum rapidly became a fixture of the public nuclear discourse in South Asia. Neither India nor Pakistan officially clarified what the term minimum means leaving this open to speculations. Does minimum imply the sufficiency of small numbers of nuclear weapons; Nuclear weapons held in reserve; low reading or alert rates of a nuclear force; renunciation of nuclear war fighting or mainly counter-value targeting? Or does the minimum merely make a virtue of today’s facts of life in the subcontinent – limited resources, scarce weapons material, unproved delivery systems, and still undeveloped technical military capabilities?

The then Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar, spoke at the ISSI seminar about the matter of Minimum Deterrence taken by Pakistan is, largely seen as a dynamic concept. He said “Minimum cannot be quantified in static numbers. The Indian build up would necessitate review and reassessment….but we shall not engage in any nuclear competition or arms race.” Whereas, since Pakistan is a minor nuclear weapon state of the second atomic age, the term minimum is only used to signal or to send a satisfactory message to the international community and also that depending on smaller nuclear weapons that are comparably be better managed in terms of deployment, maintenance, command and control systems etc. Certainly the minimum minimizes the dangers of inadvertence and misuse of nuclear weapons. The term Minimum also mollifies the proliferation concerns of the international community.

Whereas, Credibility has been added in order to add ambiguity, may be to have a psychological comfort or to leave room for modernizing the weaponry inventories. Paradoxically narrating, policy-makers in Pakistan feel convinced that this ambiguity serves deterrence well. Credible would in such circumstances help keep a psychological check on the adversary. Also, it would provide the protagonist an additional cushion of comfort as viewed by Ms. Sadia Tasleem in her write-up titled “Towards an Indo-Pak Nuclear Lexicon – II: Credible Minimum Deterrence”. The emphasis on the word ‘credible’ was meant to reinforce the importance of credibility.[1] It does not suggest a shift from Minimum Deterrence.

Nevertheless, posture of Credible Minimum Deterrence has remained a principle option of Pakistan’s nuclear policy. This principle is based on the concept that Pakistan’s nuclear policy is driven by its perceived threat to its security from India and is therefore India centric. Deterrence is the sole aim and a small arsenal is considered adequate for satisfying it.[2] But ironically this is also a fact that with the introduction of Tactical Nuclear Weapons in the region or with the introduction of battle field weapons is actually a modernized advancement in the inventories. Those are ironically meant to balance out this superiority complex. So, it could be concluded that it is only when states feel threatened they opt for defending their territory and sovereignty that actually compels them to maximize and enrich their security measures under the perceived threat of vulnerability. But for maintaining a deterrent posture according to my understanding, quantitative number is not necessary as the possession of a nuclear weapon is itself enough for crafting deterrence. Because even by possessing one nuke, the nuclear aggression from the other state can be discouraged. So the question of numeric parity or nuclear sufficiency does not make sense for instance. Therefore, it would not be in correct to conclude that credible minimum deterrence is something different then nuclear parity and nuclear supremacy.


  2. Brig (Retd) Naeem Salik, “Evolution of Pakistan’s Nuclear Doctrine”

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Beenish Altaf

Beenish Altaf works as Research Associate for Strategic Vision Institute, Islamabad and can be reached at

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