A precarious Indo-Pak nuclear balance

Pakistan has dismissed the credibility of India's declared no-first-use doctrine and has not elucidated the conditions under which it would be prompted to use its nuclear weapons.

Updated - November 17, 2021 01:21 am IST

Published - January 26, 2012 12:04 am IST

editpage indo-pak neclear balance bw 260112

editpage indo-pak neclear balance bw 260112

The recently held ‘India-Pakistan Expert Level Talks on Nuclear CBMs' have once again failed to move the two countries away from their precarious nuclear balance. The Islamabad meeting ‘achieved' two things: one, Indian and Pakistani officials agreed to recommend to their Foreign Secretaries the extension of the validity of the “Agreement on Reducing the Risk from Accidents Relating to Nuclear Weapons” (signed in 2007) for another five years; and two, “both sides reviewed the implementation and strengthening of existing CBMs in the framework of [the] Lahore MoU, and agreed to explore possibilities for mutually acceptable additional CBMs.”

Indeed, the substantive aspects of the India-Pakistan nuclear dimension remain consistently untouched by the negotiators in the two countries — both after their declared nuclear status in 1998 and earlier during their undeclared status. The 1999 Lahore Declaration was a progressive step that recognised the need to understand the role played by nuclear weapons. It was crafted with a view to “reducing the risk of [their] accidental or unauthorised use” as well as “elaborating measures for confidence building in the nuclear and conventional fields.” India and Pakistan have also dutifully followed their 1988 agreement to annually exchange lists of their nuclear installations and facilities, in order to avoid attacks against them.

However, since 1999, all that the two countries have done at successive meetings is to reiterate the spirit of the Lahore Declaration, and review the existing nuclear and missile-related confidence-building measures except, of course, the 2007 agreement. In 12 years, nothing substantial has been achieved by them to bring about nuclear stability in the subcontinent. This despite the fact that a nuclear war between India and Pakistan is arguably more likely than it was between the U.S. and the USSR during the Cold War. One of the reasons is an alarming obscurity to India and Pakistan's nuclear relations, apart from their geographical proximity.

Doctrinal dilemmas

Doctrinal and conceptual clarity on nuclear strategy is fundamental to the existence of stable deterrence in a nuclearised geopolitical context. This is recognised by the Lahore Declaration, which states “[t]he two sides shall engage in bilateral consultations on security concepts, and nuclear doctrines”. The agreement has, unfortunately, remained a mere promise. Although the strategic elites in both countries have pondered over their nuclear doctrines ad nauseam, they seem to have overlooked the ways in which credible cooperation may occur in order to achieve feasible nuclear risk reduction measures and nuclear stability. Such deficient thinking has led to a unilateral offensive strategising and the formulation of military doctrines such as India's ‘Cold Start', and the adoption of an asymmetric escalation posture by Pakistan.

Problems of ambiguity

The introduction of nuclear weapons in the Indo-Pak balance of power has not been to India's advantage. It has given the country diminishing returns from its conventional superiority and created a troublingly unpredictable nuclear escalation ladder. Moreover, Pakistan's ambiguous nuclear doctrine has plunged India into a deep dilemma on how to respond to the proxy wars that it believes Pakistan has unleashed upon it. India was forced to redeploy its forces after massing them on the border during the 2001-2002 military standoff in the wake of the attack on Indian Parliament, precisely due to this uncertainty.

Pakistan has apparently kept its nuclear doctrine ambiguous to continue to perplex Indian strategists. It has dismissed the credibility of India's declared no-first-use (NFU) doctrine and but has not elucidated the conditions under which it would be prompted to use its nuclear weapons. Apart from outlining some painfully general conditions of potential nuclear use, Pakistan has deliberately kept its ‘threshold levels' or the ‘red lines' unclear, contending that this is its only possible option to prevent an Indian attack. It is an argument that stems straight from the classical deterrence theory.

This ambiguity in the India-Pakistan conflict dyad has led to deterrence instability in the region, rather than deterrence stability. In a conflict dyad, theoretically speaking, when both parties clarify their nuclear postures, there will be relative stability. However, when both maintain doctrinal ambiguity there is likely to be increased stability; paradoxically, under such conditions deterrence has the maximum advantage. On the other hand, when one party maintains doctrinal clarity and the other maintains doctrinal ambiguity, there is likely to be instability rather than stability. This happens because the party that chooses to keep its doctrine ambiguous is also assumed to keep its various options open — ‘flexible responses'— including the tactical use of nuclear weapons. This generates a dilemma for its opponent, which is denied the option of similar flexible responses due to its pre-declared postures and resultant concerns about public opinion.

Cold Start

Cold Start, the Indian military's ‘undeclared' doctrine, is assumed to be a response to this dilemma India faces from Pakistan's doctrinal ambiguity. Indian strategists believe that if India were to use its Cold Start doctrine, it would have a flexible response option that may counter the open-ended Pakistani nuclear strategy. Cold Start imagines enabling the Indian military to carry out quick, offensive operations against Pakistan without crossing the latter's nuclear red lines in order to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure on the Pakistani side. Critics have argued that the doctrine is nothing but ‘hot air' as it has neither New Delhi's political backing nor is it considered a serious war-fighting strategy by the Indian army. While such scepticism may or may not be well-founded, the fact is even if some sections of the Pakistani war planners believe India is somewhat serious about Cold Start, it could lead to counter-strategising.

The existence of such doctrinal ambiguities, security dilemma and deep mistrust of each other — combined with the lack of a clear civilian control of nuclear weapons in Pakistan — means nothing short of a recipe for disaster for the people of both countries. There is, therefore, need to start talking about nuclear issues with far more seriousness and urgency along the lines enshrined in the Lahore Declaration.

This is all the more important because of the perceived implications of the India-U.S. nuclear deal as well as the China-Pakistan nuclear deal, and due to the potential impact of technology on the military strategies of India and Pakistan.

Ottawa Dialogue

There is also an urgent need to encourage non-official bilateral discussions on the issue in order to sensitise the strategic communities on both sides of the border. The Ottawa Dialogue, one of the very few track-two initiatives on nuclear issues, held most recently in Copenhagen in December 2011, recommended that India and Pakistan sign a CBM to the effect that their land-based nuclear arsenals will remain “de-mated” and “de-alerted” in peacetime; initiate a high-level official dialogue on how new and emerging technologies such as future sea-based systems and nuclear-armed cruise missiles will impact strategic stability; and add cruise missiles to the Agreement on Pre-Notification of Flight Testing of Ballistic Missiles.

The bilateral meeting also recommended that the existing hotlines and communication channels be hardened, manned 24x7 and supplemented with secure video links; a dedicated communications channel be established between the Indian National Security Advisor and the Pakistani equivalent and that each side establish a “strategic risk management unit”, which could serve some of the same communications functions as the Nuclear Risk Reduction Centres in other contexts.

(Happymon Jacob teaches Disarmament at Jawaharlal Nehru University and is a member of the Ottawa Track-two Dialogue on India-Pakistan Nuclear Issues. Email: happymon@gmail.com)

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