THE BUDDING ARMS RACE AMONG CHINA, INDIA AND PAKISTAN
ANDREW F. KREPINEVICH, JR.
In the summer of 2021, the world learned that China was dramatically expanding its nuclear arsenal. Satellite imagery showed Beijing building as many as 300 new ballistic missile silos. The Pentagon now projects that China’s stockpile of nuclear weapons, which had for years rested in the low hundreds, could spike to 1,500 warheads by 2035, confirming suspicions that Beijing has decided to join Russia and the United States in the front rank of nuclear powers. Security experts are only beginning to sort through the implications of China’s nuclear breakout. They would do well to consider Ashley Tellis’s new book, Striking Asymmetries, which assesses the implications of Beijing’s actions from the vantage point of the rivalries between South Asia’s three nuclear powers: China, India, and Pakistan. In a work that should be required reading for senior political and military leaders, Tellis presents a compelling case why this tripolar nuclear system, which has for decades remained remarkably stable, may be on the verge of becoming far more dangerous. Tellis draws upon decades of experience in South Asian security affairs, unique access to senior policymakers and military leaders in the three rivals’ defense establishments, and a remarkable ability to make seemingly abstract technical concepts readily understood by those with even a passing interest in the subject matter. The result is the most comprehensive, informed, and accessible assessment to date of this nuclear rivalry and one that cannot be ignored.
THE RACE IS ON
China and Pakistan have a long and close relationship, in part built around their mutual view of India as a rival. India finds itself sandwiched between these two often hostile powers. Yet despite a history of wars and persistent low-grade conflict between India and its two rivals, a general war has been averted since India and Pakistan became nuclear powers a quarter century ago. Moreover, the three countries have not found themselves caught up in a nuclear arms race. Until recently, they viewed their nuclear weapons primarily as political instruments, not as tools for actual warfighting. All three adopted a “minimum deterrent” nuclear posture, maintaining the lowest number of nuclear weapons necessary to inflict unacceptable damage to their adversaries’ key cities even after suffering a nuclear attack. In keeping with this strategy, the three Asian rivals avoided maintaining a significant portion of their arsenals on high alert. Instead, they stored their weapons in caves, in deep underground facilities, or in other concealed locations. Rejecting American and Russian notions that “retaliation delayed is retaliation denied,” the three countries, especially China and India, forswore the need for a swift response to a nuclear attack. To be sure, they would respond eventually in days, weeks, or even months but they did not accept the imperative of immediacy. As a result, these countries have avoided making heavy investments in early warning systems while retaining centralized control over their arsenals. But the prospects for sustaining this era of minimum deterrence appear increasingly shaky. The tripolar rivalry has not been locked in amber: Tellis describes strongly held beliefs among top security officials in China, India, and Pakistan that their nuclear postures are inadequate. Led by China and Pakistan, with India following in their wake, the three rivals are now on a course that will result in a dramatic expansion of their nuclear arsenals, even if Russia and the United States pursue substantial cuts to theirs.
TWO AGAINST ONE
At the core of Tellis’s assessment are the differences “asymmetries” driving the tripolar rivalry. One fundamental difference is that China and Pakistan are revisionist powers seeking to alter the existing order, while India remains content with the status quo. China possesses the most formidable nuclear arsenal of the three, followed by Pakistan, with India trailing. There is also an asymmetry in the three powers’ strategic focus. Pakistani security officials are obsessed with India, while India’s focus is overwhelmingly on China. China’s sights, however, have shifted beyond regional to global rivalries, principally with the United States. It is this competition with Washington that is driving Beijing’s nuclear breakout. For China, India’s deterrent is rapidly assuming a peripheral role, similar to that played by China in American nuclear planning during the Cold War. Beijing’s support for Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, which includes providing Islamabad with blueprints for a bomb and fissile material, has further complicated India’s position. Pakistan’s leaders are looking to abandon minimum deterrence in favor of “full-spectrum deterrence,” where their nuclear forces cover multiple contingencies in the event of war with India. There are three central factors spurring Pakistani officials to adopt this more aggressive posture. First, Islamabad is aware that its conventional forces are weaker than India’s and believes it has no alternative but to employ, if need be, its nuclear forces to offset this asymmetry. Second, given that India is far larger than Pakistan, Islamabad believes it must be able to inflict greater destruction on India in a retaliatory strike than India will inflict on it. This requires Pakistan to maintain a larger nuclear arsenal to target India’s population and economic hubs in the event of war. Third, Pakistan also hopes that its nuclear forces prevent India from undertaking large-scale military action against it in response to Islamabad’s ongoing support for militant groups in the disputed region of Kashmir. Tellis shows that accomplishing full-spectrum deterrence will require Pakistan to expand its arsenal substantially. For instance, he notes that stopping a major advance of Indian conventional forces into Pakistani territory would require scores of so-called tactical nuclear weapons, weapons that Islamabad currently lacks.
A FRAGILE PEACE
Although Tellis argues that Beijing’s and Islamabad’s nuclear provocations do not automatically portend growing instability in the region, the evidence he presents suggests otherwise. He finds that Beijing’s growing arsenal will not necessarily place India’s security at greater risk but describes a set of highly plausible Chinese actions that, in combination with a superpower-sized arsenal, risk undermining India’s confidence in its own nuclear deterrent. To begin with, Beijing is seeking the capability to launch nuclear reprisals far more quickly than ever before. This requires China to maintain a portion of its force on heightened alert, which may not have posed a threat to India when China possessed a few hundred weapons. But if Beijing placed a significant percentage of its expanded arsenal of 1,000 or more warheads on high alert, the strategic ground would shift considerably. India would now face a neighbor capable of launching a large-scale attack with little or no warning. India’s ability to withstand a nuclear strike and retain the capacity to inflict catastrophic destruction in response is closely tied to the security of its underground nuclear storage sites. China currently lacks the ability to destroy them even assuming it knows their locations. That could change, however, once China’s arsenal has more than 1,000 warheads, especially if China improves the accuracy of its weapons. Such a development, combined with Beijing’s adoption of increased alert levels for its nuclear forces, would set alarm bells ringing in New Delhi; Indian officials could conclude that China has the capacity to disarm India’s nuclear weapons arsenal. China may also enhance its air and missile defenses, making matters even more precarious for India. These defenses would minimize the threat posed by any “broken-back” Indian nuclear retaliation in other words, an attack that uses whatever weapons survive a disarming Chinese strike. But New Delhi would surely know that employing the remnants of its arsenal to retaliate against China would leave it vulnerable to Pakistani nuclear blackmail. Put simply, India would risk being left with no credible nuclear deterrent to resist coercion by Islamabad. Tellis is correct to note that China’s development of these capabilities is not assured. Yet during Beijing’s decades-old conventional military buildup, it has sought to match every significant U.S. capability, including stealth fighters, military satellite constellations, aircraft carriers, and cyberweaponry. Tellis recognizes that even if China creates such a set of capabilities, it must still know the location of India’s storage sites in order to target them and have high confidence that its intelligence is accurate and comprehensive. This uncertainty could restrain Beijing. But at the same time, New Delhi may not feel comfortable simply trusting that its nuclear sites have not yet been unearthed by Chinese intelligence or presuming that Chinese leaders are wary of taking big risks.
NEW DELHI’S DILEMMA
How might India respond to China’s and Pakistan’s nuclear provocations? Tellis points out that India is not without options but that each path has its pitfalls. First, he shows that if India wanted to, it could easily match China weapon for weapon. Yet he believes New Delhi would prefer to maintain its minimum deterrent strategy, emphasizing its ability to inflict severe damage on its adversaries’ cities. This stems in no small part from the expense India would incur by following Beijing in its quest to match America’s nuclear arsenal. Still, Tellis acknowledges that India’s arsenal will have to expand its nuclear holdings to possess the warheads needed to inflict unacceptable damage on both China and Pakistan. And as India increases its arsenal, Pakistan is sure to do the same completing the regional chain reaction triggered by China’s nuclear expansion. Tellis rejects the “more of the same” option of expanding India’s underground storage facilities, showing persuasively that it would prove costlier to accomplish than it would for China to simply expand the number of weapons needed to destroy them. Rather, he argues, India’s solution is to be found in stealth and mobility. This could be achieved by creating a nuclear ballistic missile submarine force and by shifting more of India’s arsenal to mobile road and rail missile launchers. As for China’s air and missile defenses, Tellis points out that India might address the problem by deploying penetration aid decoys on its missiles. These decoys are designed to present themselves as actual warheads to missile defense radars, thereby inducing the defender to expend precious interceptor missiles engaging false targets. This would offset, if only partially, New Delhi’s need to expand its nuclear arsenal. Yet even if India were to pursue these actions, it would still face significant challenges. The threat of a Chinese preemptive strike may compel India to develop an effective early warning system to enable it to reduce its arsenal’s vulnerability by sending its weapons out to sea and flushing its land-based missiles from their silos. New Delhi would also have to establish a new command-and-control system to direct the actions of its nuclear submarines. Yet while India is in the process of constructing nuclear-powered ballistic submarines, it still has a long way to go in building a significant force and overcoming the technological hurdles necessary to create a credible seaborne nuclear deterrent. Tellis notes that among these challenges, New Delhi is experiencing problems with its naval nuclear reactor designs. Then there are India’s nuclear weapons. New Delhi has only conducted a handful of nuclear testsnot enough to validate its thermonuclear designs to offer high confidence that these weapons will perform as designed. Its most reliable weapon has a yield of 12 kilotons, whereas China’s weapons have yields as much as 100 times greater. Addressing these shortfalls may require India to resume testingand risk incurring sanctions from the United States and other nations. Tellis hints at a tantalizing solution to India’s problems. The United States could provide India with a reliable thermonuclear weapon design. The trilateral security pact among Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States that is known as AUKUS, which will assist Australia in acquiring nuclear-powered submarines, could be expanded to include India. Might the Americans also share their nuclear reactor designs with New Delhi? But for this to happen, India, which has kept the United States at arm’s length practically since its birth, would have to finally and firmly close ranks with the leading Indo-Pacific democracies and formally forsake the nonaligned strategic autonomy it has long enshrined at the heart of its foreign policy.
Andrew F. Krepinevich, Jr., is a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute and an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
Courtesy: Foreign Affairs.