For over two decades, a dominant section of western analysts harped on the volatilities of the India and Pakistan nuclear dyad, often overselling the ‘South Asia as a nuclear flashpoint’ axiom, and portending a potential nuclear flare-up in every major stand-off between the two countries. The turbulence in the sub-continent propelled such presages, with one crisis after another billowing towards serious confrontations, but eventually easing out on all occasions. While the optimists described this as evidence of nuclear deterrence gradually consolidating in this dyad, the pessimists saw in it the ingredients of instability that could lead to a nuclear conflict. Though there is no denial of the fact that the three major crises since the 1998 nuclear tests – Kargil (1999), the Parliament attack and Operation Parakram (2001-2002) and the Mumbai terror strike (2008) – brought the two rivals precariously close to nuclear showdowns, not once had their leaderships lost complete faith in the efficacy of mutual deterrence. Fifteen years after the nuclear tests, it is relevant to examine if deterrence remains weak in this dyad or has consolidated towards greater stability.
With its history of deep-rooted hostility, the South Asian binary went through a tumultuous evolution of deterrence structures and postures. The early years were marked by limited war and terror strikes literally validating the western notion of an unstable region. India’s perceptibly transparent no-first-use (NFU) doctrine was met with a policy of strategic ambiguity from Pakistan, which preferred to keep its nuclear first-use option open and at the same time refusing to declare its threshold(s). The proclaimed aim was to deter India at all levels of military action – sub-conventional, conventional or nuclear. India’s military might was cited as justification for such postural asymmetry. The unprofessed objective though was to carve out a space to sustain the low-intensity conflict (Kashmir insurgency and terror strikes in Indian heartland) while mitigating any Indian retaliation. With its nuclear brinkmanship behaviour fuelling global paranoia, the early years of nuclearisation and its primal instability was proving to benefit Pakistan with no decisive Indian challenge to its sub-conventional influx.
Many Indian analysts highlighted this as evidence of the doctrinal imbalance, with some questioning the efficacy of nuclear deterrence against Pakistan and a few others even demanding a review of India’s NFU posture. Though the Indian leadership upheld the NFU as sacrosanct, the need to challenge the status quo began to be felt after the 2001-2002 crises. Largely attributed to the ‘lessons’ of Operation Parakram (which proved to be a costly mobilisation effort with scope for rapid escalation), the Indian Army initiated a major doctrinal shift at the conventional level through what is termed as the ‘Cold Start’ strategy. With its plan for rapid battle-group thrusts into Pakistani territory without hitting its perceived nuclear tripwires, the military leadership conceived the possibility of calling Pakistan’s ‘nuclear bluff’ by taking its response to Pakistani soil. Though backed by an incipient belief that the space for a limited conventional war exists, Cold Start embodied India’s resolve to alter the deterrence landscape without disturbing the nuclear doctrinal framework.
Albeit the feasibility of this strategy was consistently doubted, its signalling spin-off was immense as Pakistan began to doubt the credibility of its brinkmanship behaviour and ability to sustain the LIC without inviting India’s retaliation. Through an assortment of political campaigns (by hyping the Cold Start as escalatory) and technological responses (Nasr tactical nuclear missile, Babar and Ra’ad cruise missiles), Pakistan struggled to project confidence in its deterrent. The lack of a unitary effort from the security establishment to promote the Cold Start and the Indian Army eventually having to disown it (by renaming as proactive strategy) largely denoted the efficacy of Pakistan’s campaign, aided in some measure by the western alarmists.
Yet, its introduction marked a complex game of deterrence: while one actor propagated a proactive nuclear posture to feed its sub-conventional plan, the other responded with a proactive conventional posture for a range of non-nuclear responses. The official silence on Cold Start matched by Pakistan’s refusal to brand the Nasr as a tactical nuclear response only added to this complexity, until the recent articulation by the Chairman of India’s National Security Advisory Board (NSAB).1 By clarifying that India will not differentiate between tactical and strategic nuclear weapons and will consider any such use against its forces or territory as a first-strike (implicitly inviting nuclear retaliation), the security establishment has belatedly implied the existence of its proactive strategy. The next stage in this deterrence churning could come in the form of Pakistan’s response to the latest Indian posturing, even as western observers anticipate India’s proactive military plan to see action after the next major terror strike.
While its tryst with doctrinal realignments continues, India initiated a decisive new level of posturing, with greater implications for the deterrence calculus, by introducing ballistic missile defence (BMD) into the scene. Although India’s BMD programme originated out of concerns on Pakistan’s missile prowess and the China-Pakistan proliferation nexus, the rapid advances on India’s BMD platforms has emerged as a potent challenge to Pakistan’s deterrent. Despite the fact that interception technologies are still evolving and are yet to guarantee leak-proof protection, the Indian programme is geared towards developing an extended area defence capability, and possibly a nationwide shield, that could limit the damage from Pakistani (and Chinese) missiles, if not absolute destruction. With no technological counter of its own, but for the nascent cruise missile inventory (with limited engagement scope against BMD systems), Pakistan realises that India’s pursuit of a multi-tier interception network will negate its first-strike advantage, and could provide India with greater defensive depth, which it argues, could encourage India towards pre-emption. Besides the fact that even a failed first-use might invite Indian retaliation, the shift in the deterrence calculus is such that even a marginally-effective Indian BMD could diminish the combative edge of Pakistan’s strategic forces.
Similar to its response to the Cold Start, Pakistan is now projecting missile defence as causal for instability and had reportedly argued against its deployment at the recent talks on nuclear Confidence Building Measures (CBMs). Consequently, Pakistan attempted a weakly-devised signalling effort in May 2012 by declaring a survivable second-strike capability on its naval platforms.2 While the strategic component of its naval platforms remains unclear, the fact that Pakistan declared a second-strike alternative (after years of reliance on its first-strike posture) is intrinsically a reflection of its desperation on the Indian BMD. However, with no takers for this signalling effort,3 Pakistan may now be left with fewer options, including: (a) developing its own BMD capability, which could be too costly for its sinking economy,4 and (b) seek technological assistance from China or acquisition of its air and missile defence systems.
Fifteen years of nuclear South Asia was all about a paradoxical deterrence seesaw that was intense, yet not unstable enough to cause its failure. After the gains that Pakistan accrued from the initial asymmetry, the scales are now favouring India with its doctrinal rejuvenation and technological advances. Events like the Indo-US nuclear deal, the Abottabad operation and restoration of democracy in Pakistan have also impacted this turnaround. While Pakistan attempted to match India’s nuclear deal advantage by feverishly augmenting its fissile stocks, the Abottabad operation eroded the credibility of its Army and diminished its leverage in the India-Pakistan reconciliation process. With its leading political parties now favouring improved relations with India, there is scope for a postural balancing that could contribute to greater stability between the two nuclear neighbours. President Zardari’s suggestion for Pakistan’s adoption of a NFU posture is one such step that the new civilian government could consider in this direction.
However, as is a well known fact, it will be the Pakistani army which will have the final say on nuclear policy issues. Besides resisting any such proposal to alter its nuclear policy, the army will have the strongest urge to counter India’s recent gains by triggering newer crises. But with conditions no longer favouring any strategy of brinkmanship, the onus may now shift on to the civilian government to devise a postural transformation that could project Pakistan as a more responsible and rational nuclear power. This is an imperative forced upon Pakistan not just by the current strategic environment, but also will be a factor in determining its future status in the normative structures of the non-proliferation regime.
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.