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Reconsidering Nuclear Deterrence in South Asia – Past, Present and Future
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Ever since Hiroshima and Nagasaki the impact of nuclear weapons on war and peace has been fiercely debated. Most well-known is the repeated argument between Kenneth N. Waltz and Scott Sagan, the so-called Waltz-Sagan-debate.[i] Waltz, representing the position of proliferation optimism, was confident that rational actors, whose primary aim was survival, would never engage in nuclear war. Sagan instead was pessimistic about the deterrent value of nuclear weapons by pointing to the fallacy of organizational routines and the distorting influence of bureaucratic competition. A third position negating any impact of nuclear weapons whatsoever was developed later by John Mueller, who questioned the relevance of nuclear weapons for peace and security in the 21st century.[ii] Ward Wilson more recently provided another comprehensive rebuttal of both proliferation optimism and pessimism.[iii]

All three perspectives suffer from conceptual inconsistencies and/or empirical anomalies. Contrary to the hypothesized pacifying influence of nuclear weapons, quantitative studies showed that, on balance, (new) nuclear powers are more likely than nonnuclear states to be involved in interstate crises.[iv] What is more, there have been some conventional wars between nuclear powers (China versus Soviet Union 1962, India and Pakistan 1999). Also nuclear powers have been attacked by nonnuclear powers (Israel 1973, Great Britain 1982). As regards nuclear pessimism, one is left wondering why, despite so many instances of nuclear brinkmanship and near disasters, there has been no nuclear strike since 1945. Was it sheer luck? Or is there something that systematically works against escalation traps and unintended wars? Finally, Mueller and Wilson go to great lengths to criticize the political and human costs of counter-proliferation policies. But they are unable to explain the persistent belief in the singularity of nuclear weapons.

It is beyond the purpose of this essay to explore these and other critical arguments comprehensively. My aim rather is to probe into the plausibility of each school of thought with respect to a particular region. South Asia, after all, figures prominently in the proliferation debate, at least as far as pessimists and optimists are concerned. Pessimists point to what they see as nuclear brinkmanship while optimists interpret the absence of major war between India and Pakistan as resulting from nuclear deterrence. Nuclear skepticism, surprisingly, has so far ignored the region, even though one could argue that it is this perspective which should have anticipated the many continuances of pre- and post-nuclearized South Asia.

In the remainder of this essay I argue that the history of Indian-Pakistan relations neither supports the pessimist nor the optimist view. This is not to say that nuclear weapons in South Asia are nothing to worry about. To the contrary, there is reason to be concerned. But dangers are not so much result from the existence of nuclear capacities per se. Rather it is specific nuclear doctrines and postures which can either work as reassuring or escalatory factors. As a consequence, more analytical effort should be devoted to the evolution of nuclear policies and doctrines as opposed to the proliferation of nuclear capacities.

Nuclear Weapons and the Indian-Pakistani Conflict

A number of factors seem to decrease the stability of nuclear deterrence in South Asia.[v] First, reaction times shrink drastically because of territorial contingency and due to the fact that major Pakistani cities are situated close to the border. Second, Pakistani statehood is fragil and the political influence of radicals, even within the security authorities, worrisome. Third, identity politics occupies center stage particularly with respect to Kashmir. As a result, both conflict parties are ready to take huge risks and their willingness to back down and to make concessions is very limited. All of this supposedly makes South Asia a “least-likely case“ from the perspective of deterrence theory.[vi]

In order to understand whether it has passed or failed to pass the test we need to take into account different sorts of empirical evidence. Comparing pre- and post-nuclearization levels of interstate violence gives us a first clue. Before becoming nuclear powers, India and Pakistan fought three conventional wars. Neither the first (1948) nor the second Kashmir War (1965) deserve to be labelled as all-out war. Military violence was rather limited, as were the territorial goals of both conflict parties.[vii] Combat-related casualties are estimated at 7000 and 7500 respectively.[viii] During the 1971 Bangladesh War, combat in which Indian troops were involved, resulted in an estimated 11,200 battle-deaths[ix], still a far cry from the hundreds of thousands who died in clashes between West Pakistani supporters and their opponents.

Considering this evidence, we should refrain from assuming an unlimited readiness to escalate prior to the nuclearization of South Asia. That is, we should not create a historically inaccurate benchmark against which contemporary crisis dynamics are judged. Doing so, we would grossly exagerrate the effect of nuclear deterrence. The counterfactual of major war in the absence of nuclear weapons is implausible for other reasons as well. For one, South Asia entered a relatively calm period of 28 years without any Indian-Pakistani war after 1971. For another, the end of this period roughly coincided with India and Pakistan acquiring an operational nuclear weapons capability. At the very least, this chronology is somewhat at odds with nuclear deterrence theory.

The 1999 Kargil war started with camouflaged Pakistani troops and paramilitaries occupying mountain terrain in the Kargil region. Some might say that this posed no major threat to India and, hence, that it did not disconfirm the expectation of reliable deterrence after nuclearization. But the region had played a role in all prior wars between India and Pakistan because of its strategic value.[x] Most importantly, India had to fear being unable to supply Ladakh via the  National Highway NH1D. For this and other reasons, Indian decision-makers authorized a costly but ultimately succesful counteroffensive.

The fact they did so without sending the Indian army or the Indian air force across the line-of-control has been regarded as proof of a working nuclear deterrence. The same applies to a statement by the Pakistani foreign minister on May 31st 1999, in which he threatened to use all means to defend the territorial integrity of Pakistan.[xi] In this case, historical comparison lends further credibility to proliferation optimism: After all, Indian troops operated within Pakistani Punjab during the 1965 war and massive air raids were conducted against West- and East-Pakistan in 1971.[xii] So what made them relinquish these options in 1999 if not Pakistan’s nuclear weapons?

I argue that reasoning along the lines of nuclear deterrence, again, is not completely convincing if all strategic and international circumstances enter the equation. First, India proved to be able to reoccupy her territory without crossing the de facto border in Kargil. In other words, violating the line of control was operationally unnessecary due to India’s conventional superiority. Second, if it had authorized operations beyond the line-of-control, it would probably have lost the diplomatic support of the United States who demanded an unconditional retreat from Pakistan.[xiii] This diplomatic asset was certainly more valuable than the operational benefits of  invading the Pakistani hinterland.[xiv] Methodologically speaking, there is a situation of equifinality in the sense that tactical and diplomatic factors explain India’s cautious approach just as well as nuclear deterrence.

Another puzzle for nuclear optimism consists in the fact that Pakistan started the war in the first place despite a nuclear balance of power and India’s conventional superiority. S. Paul Kapur refers to a paradox in this regard: Not despite but because of its relative weakness, he argues, Pakistan was able to attack India with conventional military units. Lack of strategic depth, conventional inferiority, fragile political institutions – all these factors maximized the risks of nuclear escalation. Hence, the Pakistani military was confident that there would not be a major Indian counterattack.[xv] There are in fact several statements, for example by former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, that support such an analysis.[xvi]

Yet even if this were true, the story remains incomplete as long as we do not take into account the political purpose of such an attack. S. Paul Kapur and Bhumitra Chakma agree that Pakistan was not driven by the hope of significant territorial gains. Rather it seems that limited war was seen by the Pakistani leadership as a political tool to redirect international attention to the Kashmir conflict in general.[xvii] Such a strategy, of course, requires to not appear as aggressor and, thus, to minimize casualties. Several analytical implications follow: Not only did Indian nuclear deterrence fail to prevent a Pakistani attack. Indian nuclear weapons also do not necessarily explain the limited-war approach that was chosen by Pakistan. Again, this is an issue of equifinality. Pakistan’s military mission might have been the only reasonable way to attack a nuclear-armed power. But it might just as well serve overriding diplomatic priorities.

Finally, assessing the impact of nuclear weapons on the Indian-Pakistani conflict needs to include also subconventional means of political violence. With respect to terrorism and insurgency, whether state-sponsored or not, nuclear deterrence has not achieved anything.[xviii] To the contrary, Pakistani security forces apparently increased their logistical support of militias and extremists in the early 2000s. Major terrorist operations were directed against the Indian parliament in December 2001 and against an Indian military camp in Kashmir in May 2002. Towards the end of the decade, in 2008, Bombay suffered from a devastating terrorist attack. Proliferation optimists, of course, argue that Pakistan’s support of terrorism grew because there was no other way to pursue revisionist goals within the confines of nuclear detterence.

They also point to India’s hesitant reaction. Both in 2001/02 and, again, in 2008 India issued threats of major counterterrorism campaigns against Pakistan. Why weren’t these threats realized? For fear of nuclear escalation?[xix] Once more, this is only one of several explanations. Just like in 1999, the United States sided unambigously with India in 2001/02. It pressured Pakistiani Prime Minister Musharraf into publicly withdrawing political support from transnationally operating militias, and into arresting their leadership. Hence, India’s coercive dilpomacy was succesful, at least temporarily. It certainly achieved more than India could have gained by unilateral military strikes.[xx] If it had nonetheless authorized military operations deep inside Pakistani territory, its bilateral relations with the US would have been seriously harmed, with consequences extending into the areas of trade, nuclear cooperation etc. What is more, any military offensive would have led to very high casualties, given that round about one million troops had been deployed to the line-of-control during the so-called ‘war-in-sight crisis‘.[xxi] Hence, any element of surprise was already lost.

The Impact of Nuclear Doctrines and Force Postures

Summing up, the evidence does not tell whether the advent of nuclear weapons in South Asia really had established a new pattern of conflict behavior. On this account, proliferation optimism is unconvincing. This is not to say that proliferation pessimism fares any better. True, there have been critical situations and, perhaps, even instances of nuclear brinkmanship.[xxii] Yet these instances resulted not from the existence of nuclear weapons per se. Neither was it the case that bureaucracies and military organizations proved unreliable throughout those crises. The more there is variation in terms of nuclear risks and organizational performance, the less promising are speculations about the general effects of nuclear proliferation. In contrast, nuclear postures (force structures, organizational procedures) and their interaction with conventional military capabilities deserve more attention.[xxiii] Also from a political point of view, it makes much more sense to focus on the impact of nuclear postures and doctrines. India and Pakistan will keep their nuclear weapons for the foreseeable future, as long as there is neither a solution of regional conflicts and/or an international breakthrough of nuclear disarmament. For the time being, then, any effort that decreases the danger of nuclear war without relying on the abolishment of nuclear weapons is of highly practical value.

Several developments are worrying in this regard. Firstly, Indian strategists and military officials since the early 2000s have been working on a concept that allows rapid incursions into Pakistan territory. The goal is to strike terrorist infrastructure without triggering the threat of nuclear retaliation and/or international condemnation.[xxiv] While this doctrine, dubbed Cold Start, has never been endorsed by the Indian government nor operationalized by the military, its imprint on Pakistani threat perception is undeniable.[xxv] At a minimum, it reinforced Pakistani efforts to lower the nuclear threshold by resorting to readily deployable nuclear weapons for battlefield use.[xxvi] The 60 kilometer short-range ballistic missile Nasr, that is capable of carrying nuclear warheads, is a case in point.[xxvii] This is the second major destabilizing factor. For tactical nuclear weapons create a major dilemma. Either they are vulnerable to counterattacks and communication breakdowns and, thus, unreliable. Or they maximize the risk of unintended escalation because those weapons have been pre-deployed and the authority to use them has been pre-delegated to local commanders.[xxviii]

There is no official nuclear doctrine in Pakistan. However, experts believe that Pakistani nuclear weapons can be deployed and used on very short notice and without necessarily requiring top-level authorization during a crisis.[xxix] If tactical weapons were ever used, India would have to deal with a commitment trap because its nuclear doctrine threatens to respond to any nuclear attack (including against her military troops in the field) with massive retaliation.[xxx] A third factor relates to India’s interest in ballistic missile defense systems. Finally, the fact that India and Pakistan increasingly rely on delivery vehicles and platforms that can be equipped with both conventional and nuclear warheads further aggravates risks of misperception.

What can be done to ameliorate the situation? Mark Fitzpatrick has recently suggested a nuclear deal with Pakistan as a complement to the US-Indian nuclear cooperation agreement and the subsequent decision of the Nuclear Suppliers Group to exempt India from trade restrictions.[xxxi] Pakistan could be granted the same status in exchange for nuclear posture changes (strengthening of civilian institutions, no pre-delegation of authority, no deployment of tactical nuclear weapons) and a more positive attitude to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and negotiations on a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty (FMCT). Even more important, India and Pakistan should be encouraged to improve their early warning systems and to engage in serious talks about new confidence-building measures (improved crisis communication capabilities, notifications, transparent doctrines, etc.).

Dr. Mischa Hansel is holding the position of an Assistant Professor at the Justus Liebig University Giessen (Germany). He received a Ph.D. from the University of Cologne in 2011. His research interests include Indian foreign policy, nonproliferation and arms control issues as well as international humanitarian norms.


[i] See Waltz, Kenneth N./Sagan, Scott 2013. The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: An Enduring Debate, 3rd ed. New York/London.

[ii] See John, Mueller 2013. Atomic Obsession. Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda, New York; Mueller, John 1988. The Essential Irrelevance of Nuclear Weapons. Stability in the Postwar World, in: International Security 13:2, 55-79.

[iii] Wilson, Ward 2013. Five Myths about Nuclear Weapons, Boston/New York.

[iv] Horowitz, David 2009. The Spread of Nuclear Weapons and International Conflict. Does Experience Matter?, in: Journal of Conflict Resolution 53:2, 234-257; Rauchhaus, Robert 2009. Evaluating the Nuclear Peace Hypothesis. A Quantitative Approach, in: Journal of Conflict Resolution 53:2, 258-277.

[v] See Chakma, Bhumitra 2012. Escalation Control, Deterrence Diplomacy and America’s Role in South Asia’s Nuclear Crises, in: Contemporary Security Policy 33:3, 557; Ludwig, Walter C. III 2007/2008. A Cold Start for Hot Wars? The Indian Army’s New Limited War Doctrine, in: International Security 32:3, 170-175; Winner, Andrew C./Yoshihara, Toshi 2002. India and Pakistan at the Edge, in: Survival 44:3, 69-86.

[vi] On the methodological categories of least-likely versus most-likely cases see Eckstein, Harry 1975. Case Study and Theory in Political Science, in: Greenstein, Fred I./Polsby, Nelson W. (Hrsg.): Strategies of Inquiry, Reading, 118.

[vii] Ganguly, Sumit 2008. Nuclear Stability in South Asia, in: Brown, Michael E./Owen R., Coté/Lynn-Jones, Sean M./Miller, Steven E. (Hrsg.): Going Nuclear: Nuclear Proliferation and International Security in the 21st Century, Cambridge, 207-208.

[viii] See Battle Deaths Dataset des Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), available at http://www.prio.no/Data/Armed-Conflict/Battle-Deaths/The-Battle-Deaths-Dataset-version-30/.

[ix] Battle Deaths Dataset des Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), available at http://www.prio.no/Data/Armed-Conflict/Battle-Deaths/The-Battle-Deaths-Dataset-version-30/.

[x] Bommakanti, Kartik 2011. Coercion and Control. Explaining India’s Victory at Kargil, in: India Review 10:3, 284.

[xi] See Ganguly, Sumit 2008. Nuclear Stability in South Asia, 216-217.

[xii] Ganguly, Sumit 2008. Nuclear Stability in South Asia, 225; Gangul, Sumit/Wagner, Harrision 2004. India and Pakistan: Bargaining in the Shadow of Nuclear War, in: Journal of Strategic Studies 27:3, 490-419.

[xiii] Bommakanti, Kartik 2011. Coercion and Control, 298; Kapur, S. Paul 2008. Ten Years of Instability in a Nuclear South Asia, in: Brown, Michael E./Owen R., Coté/Lynn-Jones, Sean M./Miller, Steven E. (Eds.): Going Nuclear: Nuclear Proliferation and International Security in the 21st Century, Cambridge, 235-237.

[xiv] Kapur, S. Paul 2008. Ten Years of Instability in a Nuclear South Asia, 237.

[xv] Kapur, S. Paul 2003. Nuclear Proliferation, the Kargil Conflict, and South Asian Security, in: Security Studies 13:1, 98-102; See also Ganguly, Sumit/Wagner, Harrision 2004. India and Pakistan: Bargaining in the Shadow of Nuclear War, in: Journal of Strategic Studies 27:3, 490-491.

[xvi] Kapur, S. Paul 2008. Ten Years of Instability in a Nuclear South Asia, 233-234.

[xvii] Chakma, Bhumitra 2012. Escalation Control, Deterrence Diplomacy and America’s Role in South Asia’s Nuclear Crises, 561; Kapur, S. Paul 2008. Ten Years of Instability in a Nuclear South Asia, 230 and 2003. Nuclear Proliferation, the Kargil Conflict, and South Asian Security, 86.

[xviii] Chari, P.R. 2014. India’s Nuclear Doctrine: Stirring of Change, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, available at: http://carnegieendowment.org/2014/06/04/india-s-nuclear-doctrine-stirrings-of-change.

[xix] Ganguly, Sumit 2005. The 2001-2002 Indo-Pakistani Crisis. Exposing the Limits of Coercive Diplomacy, in: Security Studies 14:2, 311.

[xx] Chakma, Bhumitra 2012. Escalation Control, Deterrence Diplomacy and America’s Role in South Asia’s Nuclear Crises, 568; Kapur, S. Paul 2008. Ten Years of Instability in a Nuclear South Asia, 240.

[xxi] Ganguly, Sumit 2005. The 2001-2002 Indo-Pakistani Crisis. Exposing the Limits of Coercive Diplomacy, in: Security Studies 14:2, 319.

[xxii] See See Fitzpatrick, Mark 2014. Overcoming Pakistan’s Nuclear Dangers, London, 51-65.

[xxiii] Narang, Vipin 2012. What Does It Take to Deter? Regional Power and Nuclear Postures and International Conflict, in: Journal of Conflict Resolution, 57:3, 478-508; 2014. Nuclear Strategy in the Modern Era: Regional Powers and International Conflict, Princeton/Oxford.

[xxiv] See Ludwig, Walter C. III 2007/2008. A Cold Start for Hot Wars?.

[xxv] See Narang, Vipin 2009/2010. Posturing for Peace? Pakistan’s Nuclear Postures and South Asian Stability, in: International Security 34:3, 73-75.

[xxvi] See Fitzpatrick, Mark 2014. Overcoming Pakistan’s Nuclear Dangers, 31-33, 50.

[xxvii] Kristensen, Hans M./Norris, Robert S. 2012. Nonstrategic Nuclear Weapons, 2012, in: Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 68:5, 102-103.

[xxviii] Fitzpatrick, Mark 2014. Overcoming Pakistan’s Nuclear Dangers, 87-90.

[xxix] Biswas, Arka 2014. Deconstructing Pakistan’s Command and Control – Tactical Nuclear Weapons, South Asian Voices,available at  http://southasianvoices.org/deconstructing-pakistans-tactical-nuclear-weapons/.

[xxx] Fitzpatrick, Mark 2014. Overcoming Pakistan’s Nuclear Dangers, 86-87; See also Chari, P.R. 2014. India’s Nuclear Doctrine.

[xxxi] Fitzpatrick, Mark 2014. Overcoming Pakistan’s Nuclear Dangers, 162.

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