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 something’.

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 redline.

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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