Nuclear deterrence in South Asia


Dr. Shaista Tabassum 

Professor & Chairperson,  Department of
International Relations,University of Karachi,Pakistan.

In South Asia the deterrence is actually the equilibrium
working as a promise for peace and stability of the region. The nuclear weapons
are an irrefutable truth of today’s South Asian security equation. The presence
of nuclear capability reduces the chances of any war between the two nuclear
rival states.  This nuclear capability of
Pakistan and India has actually created a balance of power thus the regions
security paradigm is overshadowed by the nuclear deterrence more stable than
conventional deterrence.

Since the Pakistan’s acquisition of nuclear weapons the
deterrence created has very effectively dissuaded Indian aggression on various
occasions. Thus one can say that the nuclear deterrence between the two states
played a pertinent role in maintaining strategic stability of the region.

In International Relations deterrence is defined as ‘practice
of discouraging or restraining someone— in world politics, usually a
nation-state—from taking unwanted actions, such as an armed attack. It involves
an effort to stop or prevent an action, as opposed to the closely related but
distinct concept of “compellence,” which is an effort to force an actor to do

While in the nuclear relations a most commonly used term
the credible deterrence posture  means
‘as one which can enable a state to survive a preemptive first strike of its
opponent and retain sufficient nuclear weapons and delivery systems to deliver
a second strike that can cause unacceptable level of damage to the opponent’.

Consequently, the concept of deterrence is a very dynamic
hypothesis which is based on multiple but inter-linked features. These include
nuclear technology, doctrinal postures and international nuclear regimes. Any
change in state’s nuclear policy it nuclear capability like, missile
capability, can have direct affects on the deterrence posture and nature.

It appears that the present nuclear doctrines of the two
South Asian nuclear states are based on minimum credible deterrence. Although
since 2003 many statements by India’s nuclear strategists and officials have
indicated that India is slowly and gradually trying to shift its nuclear
doctrine from ‘No First Use’ to ‘First-Use’. At the same time it is also noted
that India nuclear doctrine is in a state of fluctuation. But India has adopted
a provocative strategy also known as, Cold Start Doctrine. The aim of the doctrine
is to launch a limited offensive conventional attack against Pakistan, with
intentions to cause significant damage to the Pakistani armed forces deployed
along LOC without triggering a nuclear war.

On the other hand Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine is Indian
centric. It is aimed only to discourage Indian designs.  Pakistan’s National Command and Control
Authority has approved a ‘Full Spectrum Deterrence’. Which meant the
development of nuclear capability in such a way to counter every Indian target
into Pakistan’s striking range. Thus at present Pakistan’s “full spectrum of
nuclear weapons is in all three categories — strategic, operational and
tactical, with full range coverage of the large Indian land mass and its
outlying territories”

Many cold war era theories of deterrence modified
especially after India and Pakistan conducted the nuclear tests in 1998.
Western strategic analysts began re-visiting the theories of nuclear deterrence
to see how deterrence stability would operate in the India-Pakistan context.

One of the better known maxim of nuclear deterrence was
termed the ‘stability-instability paradox,’ wherein nuclear weapons contributed
to stability by acting as an effective restraint on a full-scale war, but
encouraged conflicts or wars at lower levels. There were enough examples of
this during the Cold War era.

Kenneth Waltz was of
the opinion that “Stability exists in the continent now, which hadn’t existed
since the partition of India and Pakistan. Now with the possession of nuclear
weapons on both the sides, India and Pakistan can no longer fight a
conventional war over the conflicting issue Kashmir, as former military chiefs
of India and Pakistan, General Beg and General Sardarji have admitted”.

Since the
independence of the two countries they have been involved in four wars, which
includes one undeclared war of 1999.

The first example of
nuclear deterrence working was in 1990. At that time the Kashmir intifada and
subsequent chaos in the Indian territory intensified resulted in the movement
of military forces of both Pakistan and India. This crisis had a nuclear
component to it. By late 1980’s American intelligence agencies have already
reported that Pakistan had developed full capability of fighting a nuclear war
with India, along with the capability to assemble and deliver nuclear weapons.
This message was clearly conveyed that it had the capability to inflict
monumental damage on India if India goes for any action that threatened
Pakistan’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. This was confirmed by the
then army chief General Mirza Aslam Baig, who stated that ‘both the nuclear
option and the missiles act as a deterrent and these in turn contribute to the
total fighting ability of the Army, which acts as a deterrent to the
enemy’.  There were some statements by
the Indian army chief as well.

Second such occasion
was Kargil. The Kargil conflict was an excellent model that unfolded the
possibilities of dangerous escalation to a larger war — if India had embarked
on operations across the Line of Control. Despite the fact that Kargil war did
not involve the use of nuclear weapons, it was centered around nuclear weapons,
the threat to use them, the threat to prevent their construction, and the
threat of future use. And there is no uncertainty that nuclear arms did figure
in Pakistan’s security calculus. This was confirmed by statements made during
the conflict by some of the top leaders regarding the use of nuclear weapons
possibly if the situation went out of control and turn into a conventional war.

Another such nuclear
deterrence was after the attack on the Indian parliament house by terrorist on
13 December 2001. India responded blaming Pakistan for the terrorist attack on
its Parliament and responded with a fully covered mobilization over the border
for a period of over ten month till October of 2002. There are two divergent
ideas the debate on effectiveness of nuclear deterrence. One perspective says
nuclear deterrence worked during the crisis because neither of the two states
launched a conventional war. While from the other standpoints perspective, if
there were nuclear deterrence such instability on the borders would not have
prevailed or intermittently escalated to dangerous levels to give the world the
feeling that a nuclear war was about to occur. But there is no doubt that if
India had followed a trans-LoC hot pursuit policy, possibly a conventional war
would have broken out and Pakistan might have resorted or moved to the use of
nuclear weapons if it lost too much ground.

Another example of
small scale conflicts or terrorist activities includes the 2008 Mumbai attack
and also the Pathankot attack. All these can be seen as an example of
employment of nuclear deterrence creating a strategic space for Pakistan to
engage in conflict with India at a lower level, short of high intensity
conventional war that might have involved the peril of nuclear escalation.  Pakistan, relatively secure with the idea
that its nuclear capability deters India from a military response, displays a
new confidence in constructing pressure in the Kashmir issue. This can be seen
as a creative version of the ‘stability-instability paradox’, which states that
nuclear stalemate permits sub-nuclear conflict and it can be called creative
because of the fact that original concept envisions conventional war in the
nuclear shadow. So it can be stated that nuclear weapons are useful for
deterring large-scale military actions and invasions.

The Pulwama incident
triggered an extremely tense situation in early this year. The Indian air raid
deep into Pakistani territory, the Balakot episode and the reaction by Pakistan
resulted in the first-ever direct air skirmish between the two nuclear states
since the advent of the nuclear age in the last century. It was definitely an
unprecedented and alarming development.

Military strategists
believed that a limited war is possible under a nuclear umbrella. But India’s
idea of limited military adventure under the nuclear umbrella is a suicidal
thought because for many years Pakistan has inducted many tactical nukes in its
military calculus.[1]

For India big
challenge following the Pulwama incident was when and at what level military
retaliation would be possible and how far that would cross Pakistan’s nuclear

It become apparent
that India did not cross Pakistan’s declared redline for the first use of
tactical nuclear weapons although the threat to use such tactical weapons were
there. The scale and nature of the surgical strikes were well below those of
military retaliations as designed under, say, the Cold Start doctrine of the
Indian army. There was no movement of the army battalion or armored division
into Pakistani territory. Moreover India had no intentions of occupying or
capturing Pakistani territory. The message of Pakistan’s retaliation in case of
any use of tactical weapons from India was also very clear and loud. Given that
Pakistan’s threat of using tactical nuclear weapon first, is designed to deter
low-scale military incursions by India.

Thus one can say
that the absence of a military retaliation by India, although effected not just
by Pakistan’s nuclear threat, strengthens Pakistan’s nuclear threshold and
deterrence.[2] And it is also
very clear that nuclear deterrence played a pertinent role in the relations of
these two states of South Asia.


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