Essay on Nuclear Deterrence in South Asia – Possibilities and Limits


Some General Introductory Remarks:  

Since the book by Herman Kahn “On Escalation” was published in 1965 the world has been accustomed to look at questions of nuclear deterrence from a widely different perspective. The nuclear arms race as it had developed throughout the so called “Cold War” was finally stopped as the main rivals, the USA and the Soviet Union realized that the reciprocal quest for nuclear dominance was about to endanger the strategic stability and to increase the probability of nuclear exchange cum escalation. Notwithstanding quite a number of crises, misperceptions and technical faults, the history of which still remains to be written, in the first place there was one main reason which prompted the adversaries to look at the nuclear arms race with different eyes: Based on experiences in situations of crises but also on game theoretical analysis the insight spread that strategic stability or the improbability of nuclear exchange was in inverse proportion to the level of nuclear armament achieved on both sides: The more nuclear weapons both sides could field the more likely it was that one side would push the button in order to avoid neutralization of its nuclear potential by the other one. Comprehension began to dawn on the adversaries that more nuclear weapons do not equal more stability - at least not from a certain level of armament. This is to say that answering the question whether possession of nuclear weapons implies more or less stability with a simple Yes or No is not doing sufficient justice to the underlying complexity. A closer look at – let us say two adversaries`- nuclear arms race shows that the process can be seen as going through three stages:

  1. The stage at which the competitors start showing intention to acquire nuclear weapons. At this stage stability is very low because the stronger competitor will do nearly everything in order to stop the weaker one in his efforts to get hold of nuclear weapons.
  2. The second stage at which the different sides dispose of relative modest nuclear capacities whereby distribution of those capacities will be more or less symmetrical. Since nuclear weapons are something like a “great equalizer” the weaker competitor will be relatively safe because the stronger one will always try to avoid the risk of a nuclear second strike. Stability at this stage is relatively high.
  3. The stage of high – level and further increasing nuclear capacities and also of increasing efficiency of delivery systems at which tension is growing in direct proportion to the efficiency of weapons systems on both sides: On the one hand either side are tempted to risk a first strike in order to disarm the adversary. On the other hand such a first strike is pondered because the adversary is perceived as calculating in exactly the same way and must thereby be preempted. That stage is characterized by – again- growing instability.

Therefore, if we look at nuclear armament or a nuclear arms race in a more differentiating way we find that the second stage implies least probability of military confrontation .- I should add: If we have to deal with more or less rational players.

After those introductory and general remarks we look at the situation of nuclear armament and nuclear strategy in South Asia.

Nuclear armament in South Asia: Some aspects to be taken into consideration

If we refer to nuclear armament, nuclear strategy and nuclear policy in South Asia we have to narrow down our focus to the respective Indian – Pakistani relationship. The reason why “South Asia” has been integrated in the title has to do with the fact that South Asia as a whole is negatively affected by the Indian – Pakistani antagonism which in itself is to a great degree characterized by the –hitherto in vain- attempt at finding a stability prone approach to the problem that we have two nuclear armed states which still struggle with the fact that their nuclear strategy –if we euphemistically want to call the ongoing quest for a rational approach a “strategy”, is not helpful yet to rule out a nuclear exchange within a sufficient scope of probability. At first glance one tends to believe that the process of procuring nuclear arms has reached the above mentioned second stage, where, in spite of a still comparatively “modest” (when I am saying “modest”, I do not overlook the fact that the nuclear arsenal of India and Pakistan is about to overtake that of other traditional nuclear powers) level of nuclear armament on both sides, either side is able to inflict damage on the adversary to a degree which would seriously question the survival of the nation in each conceivable sense. Neither India nor Pakistan has the ability to launch a disarming strike which would annihilate the ability of a second strike.

Moreover, in the foreseeable future none of the two will possess the BMD – capacities to render a second strike useless. In other words: Both are vulnerable to a degree which forbids any thought of using nuclear weapons. This again will also limit military clashes with conventional means to a level of very low intensity because large scale conventional clashes would sooner or later move dangerously close to the red line beyond which use of nuclear weapons and the start of nuclear escalation becomes a realistic possibility. Presupposing rational actors one could thereby arrive at the conclusion that the stage of nuclear armament reached by both sides not only rules out the use of nuclear weapons but even forces both sides to keep conventional clashes at the lowest possible level.

From this point of view possession of nuclear weapons by both adversaries has implied a lower probability of military conflict altogether: Never in the history of India and Pakistan has the probability of major military conflict been lower than since 1998 when both sides demonstrated their nuclear capacities. Pointing to the variety of nuclear weapons both countries have at disposal and which allow for thorough use from the tactical up to the strategic level one could argue that the present factual situation of mutually assured destruction could be followed by doctrines of flexible response whereby conventional challenges will be answered by conventional means, use of tactical nuclear weapons will be answered by use of respective tactical ones and so forth.

This, as the theory of “flexible response” holds, would provide opportunities to stop the turning of the escalation spiral and to do a cost –benefit analysis at each level of escalation and thereby provide an option of ceasefire even after nuclear weapons have been used already.

I do not believe that in the case of a major military conflict between India and Pakistan flexible response is a realistic option. Escalation management will spiral out of control as soon as Indian conventional superiority would seriously question the territorial integrity of Pakistan. There is no doubt that in such a case Pakistan would resort to the use of tactical nuclear weapons instead of getting used to the idea of another war lost. The only possibility for India to dissuade Pakistan from the use of tactical nuclear weapons would be the threat of massive retaliation, an approach which was advocated earlier this year by Shyam Saran, convener of the NSAB. It has not yet become really clear to which degree this approach is an official one or not. In any case there is reason to doubt that in case Pakistan uses tactical nuclear weapons in order to stop Indian troops advancing onto Pakistani territory, India would resort to massive retaliation as this again would no doubt trigger a similar reaction on part of Pakistan.

In other words: In case a conflict would take such a course, there would be no winner but only losers in the most dramatic sense. Therefore one must be inclined to believe that the Pakistani decision to balance Indian conventional superiority by employment of tactical nuclear weapons has in fact annihilated any option of “cold start” or the like. (for a thorough analysis of this see: Zafar Nawaz Jaspal: “Tactical Nuclear Weapons: Deterrence Stability between India and Pakistan”, CCC, Monterey 2012)  

Against this background it makes sense to expect that Indian reaction to for instance Pakistani sponsored terrorist attacks would be very carefully calibrated in such a way that they would remain below the threshold beyond which Pakistan would feel compelled to react with the use of tactical nuclear weapons. Accordingly Indian reaction would be limited to conventional surgical strikes or/and economic sanctions.

In a nutshell: The present stage of nuclear armament on both sides implies a maximum of stability or in other words a maximum of credible minimum deterrence.

This of course is no reason to firmly trust without any reservation that there is a watertight guarantee of 100% absence of a possible nuclear conflict.

The history of the Cold War gives very disturbing examples of growing possibility of nuclear war due to the specific psychological conditions in situation of crises, wrong perceptions regarding intentions of the other side or simply technical deficiencies.

Another disquieting aspect lies in the fact that one cannot rule out with absolute security that unauthorized entities the mindset of which is not influenced by rational cost – benefit calculation, can gain control of nuclear weapons. But this refers to the problem of safeguarding nuclear weapons which is a topic in itself. Given safety measures and -procedures in place and the degree of professional expertise in place the likelihood that doomsday – minded groups can get hold of nuclear weapons and unleash nuclear Armageddon, can be considered extremely small at least for the foreseeable future.

There are nevertheless two developments which have the potential to undermine the present situation of stability: 1.Miniaturization of nuclear weapons and 2.increase of nuclear stockpiles together with increasing sophistication of delivery systems.

On point 1: Conventional wisdom holds that there is in principle a floating transition between the category of small nuclear weapons and powerful conventional weapons. This is not a really realistic assessment if one considers that the yield of the most powerful conventional weapons, so called thermobaric weapons is around 40tons of TNT, while a standard nuclear artillery shell such as the W48 equals ca. 80 tons of TNT.

Irrespectively, it may well be though, that through use of new and more potent conventional explosives or further miniaturization of nuclear weapons the difference in terms of yield between conventional weapons and small nuclear devices may be further blurred. But there will still always be one qualitative difference regarding the use of conventional and nuclear battlefield weapons: The nuclear pollution caused by employment of the latter. And this fact of the case has not only, as one might be inclined to assume, a bearing upon the postwar situation in the regions where nuclear battlefield weapons have been used, but also on the military strategy and tactics as such. This becomes understandable if one looks at possible scenarios:

The first one is based on the case that conventionally superior Indian forces break through the Pakistan defense which sees no other means than to stop the Indian advance through the use of tactical nuclear weapons. In this scenario Pakistani tactical nuclear weapons would be used on Pakistani soil and irrespective of whether thereby Indian troops can be stopped or not, it would in first place be Pakistani territory to be affected by radioactive pollution. If one additionally assumes that the Indian side in such a case would respond on its part with nuclear weapons, be it nuclear artillery or nuclear tipped short range missiles, the collateral damage in this scenario would be greater than any Pakistani leadership could accept.

Accordingly a second scenario becomes more realistic, namely preemption of a conventional Indian attack on Pakistani territory through attempts at annihilating Indian troop concentrations as long as those are still on Indian territory. This scenario carries nightmarish implications insofar as the decision on the use of Pakistani nuclear weapons would depend on the quality of intelligence regarding Indian intentions.

History, in at least one known example shows that questionable intelligence can lead to the brink of nuclear war: the KGB – project RJaN (attack by nuclear rockets), launched by former KGB director Juri Andropow in 1981 had created such a strong believe cum hysteria in a forthcoming nuclear strike by NATO that during the NATO - maneuver “Able Archer” in 1983 false intelligence on the Soviet side would nearly have triggered a nuclear war.

There is no reason to believe that the Pakistani side will never mistakenly consider Indian troop concentration as being based on intention to launch an attack which would have to be preempted by nuclear means. And there is equally no guarantee that the Indian side would under no circumstances anticipate Pakistani nuclear strikes on Indian troop concentrations and on its part not try to preempt such Pakistani preemption with whatever suitable means, not at last with nuclear ones.

At this point of the discussion a lot of criticism is imaginable. Such criticism can be based on the argument that the rationality of both players is greatly underestimated, that confidence building measures can be developed to such a degree as to rule out a development whereby the rationality of deterrence by means of small nuclear weapons would metamorphose into the irrationality of preemption cum escalation and that the positive sum game of increasing economic interaction would contribute to the nearly 100% unlikelihood of nuclear warfare.

All these are valid arguments but they are questioned by a second scenario: If we presuppose that miniaturization of nuclear weapons which allows for their use as battlefield weapons is progressing on both sides, then we also have to take into account that this process will additionally imply decentralization of the decision making process regarding use of nuclear weapons respectively devolution of the command authority from a National Command Authority to regional or local commanders. The smaller nuclear weapons are, the shorter the lines of command, which determine their use, have to be.

It makes no sense to have nuclear artillery or/and other battlefield nuclear weapons if in the fluid battlefield situation decision on their use must come from the very top each time. This is to say that it will be the limited perspective of regional or local commanders which governs decision on the use of nuclear weapons. Their overriding ratio though will always be survival on the battlefield and no other aspect whatsoever and the decision in favor of use of nuclear weapons will not take into account the likely course of ensuing escalation but will exclusively aim at carrying the day at one concrete and short point in time.

What do these few remarks boil down to? It has been stated above that due to reciprocal vulnerability since 1998 a stage of relative deterrence stability between India and Pakistan has been reached. But this stage is only transitory in nature to the degree to which development of nuclear battlefield weapons is moving forward together with the overall increase of the nuclear arsenal of both sides.

If the development of more, new and also smaller nuclear weapons is not stopped, the presently reached deterrence stability will become eroded and the probability of nuclear war will start increasing again.

This not only has to do with implications of the fielding of battlefield nuclear weapons I have tried to allude to, but also with the logic of a nuclear arms race as such. As indicated in the introductory remarks the relationship between the level of nuclear armament of two adversaries follows a development which could be illustrated by a curve very similar to the “Laffer – curve” supposed to describe the relationship between taxation and revenues of the state derived from taxation. In our case we have to depict the relationship between deterrence stability and the level of nuclear armament: The respective curve runs from a low level of stability in correlation to low levels of armament over high stability related to a minimum credible second strike capacity of both adversaries to decreasing stability in spite of growing armaments levels. The reason for decreasing stability is the growing constraint to preempt. Translated into our concrete case one can say that deterrence stability has more or less reached a maximum ever since a couple of years. The duration of this stage of relative stability depends on the speed with which armaments’ levels are increased.

After this period, the duration of which is very difficult to estimate, there will be a decrease of stability and the probability of nuclear exchange will grow due to a growing affinity to a preemptive mindset.

In order to illustrate what is being said one could imagine two hostile persons who are both not armed. The probability that the two will start fighting each other physically is high because none of the two is in danger to get killed. If both dispose of weapons which in principle could lead to the death of both (for instance hand grenades) they would be much more careful, watch the adversary carefully but try to avoid throwing the hand grenade. Stability in such a case would be relatively high. But, if both adversaries point with a laden gun at each other, at short notice the inclination to press the trigger in order to preempt shooting by the other person is very high. This stage has in my view not been reached, yet in the concrete case of the two nuclear armed adversaries. But it will become gruesome reality if nothing is done about the factors which sooner or later will imply the third stage of increasingly likely preemption.

Some concluding trains of thought

There is a precarious situation because the phase of relative stability will be followed by growing instability if determining factors cannot be changed. Those factors are the following:

Pakistani awareness of Indian conventional superiority which is the main reason of the Pakistani nuclear arms program; Indian quest for deterrence stability not only vis-à-vis China but increasingly also vis-à-vis Pakistan; lack of a nuclear doctrine on both sides which in combination with suitable confidence building measures would allow for a freeze of the nuclear armaments process.

All this is in place and it makes little sense to believe that those determining factors can easily be changed: India will hardly cut down on its conventional strength, which, although it is in fact mainly China–specific, is considered a threat by Pakistan.

There is also little hope that both countries would enter into an agreement on strategic – cum nuclear arms reduction.

And finally, it would be overoptimistic to assume that incidents between the two states which again and again will lift tensions to dangerous levels can be avoided in future. There is not much hope that those factors can be changed before the phase of decreasing stability is being reached. Such a pessimistic expectation doesn’t necessarily have to come true, because, as Karl Popper claims, today we cannot know what we will know tomorrow.

Yet, it would be questionable to draw comfort from this and stop thinking about possibilities to avoid the dangers of nuclear war.

Taking into account the apocalyptic implications of nuclear war, it is more rational to start from a worst case – scenario. The following aspect might point into the direction where a solution to the problem of increasing risk could be found: The problem we have to deal with has in my view a lot to do with the modular character of thinking about socio-economic problems and security-related reasoning.

In both countries there is very little interaction, communication and feedback between for instance economic rationality and the rationality which governs deliberations on security.

War, particularly nuclear war, would appear the greatest possible irrationality in the eyes of the economic players.

On the other hand, while for decision makers in the field of security, every decision which does not justice to the worst case regarding security, is considered as irresponsible if not as forfeiting national interest or even national existence.

If one communicates in India and Pakistan, on the one hand with representatives of the business community, on the other hand with representatives of the security establishment this is like moving between completely different worlds. What, in my view, is at the heart of the danger I have tried to allude to, is the lack in both countries of a more holistic approach when looking at each other.

The hope must therefore be to overcome the named modular character of thinking in terms of socio –economic rationality and of exclusively thinking in terms of security. There are indications in my view that such modular thinking is being increasingly questioned. One would wish that this process becomes a determining one before time is running out.


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Author: Prof. Dr. Klaus Lange