Stepping Back from the Brink: Avoiding a Nuclear March of Folly in South Asia

By Davis, Zachary | Arms Control Today, January/February 2009 | Go to article overview
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Stepping Back from the Brink: Avoiding a Nuclear March of Folly in South Asia


Davis, Zachary, Arms Control Today


Historian Barbara Tuchman described the trail of misperceptions and bad decisions that led to mankind's worst self-imposed disasters as a "March of Folly." Now is the time for India and Pakistan to take steps to ensure that another war or crisis between them does not result in a nuclear exchange that destroys both societies.

The prospects for rolling back India's or Pakistan's nuclear weapons programs during the Obama administration are zero. Nevertheless, the administration can help reduce the risk of nuclear war in South Asia. There is a growing recognition by New Delhi and Islamabad that a crisis, triggered by events such as the November terrorist attack in Mumbai, could escalate out of control and result in an unintended nuclear exchange. The Kargil crisis in 1999 and the 2002 cross-border attack on the Indian parliament brought the two nuclear rivals to the brink of war. Having survived two Cuban missile crises of their own, it is time India and Pakistan take steps to manage the risks inherent in their tense nuclear relationship.

War planners on each side recognize the risks of escalation, but instead of exercising caution to prevent mistakes and misun- derstandings during a conflict, they have developed risky strategies they hope will enable them to fight a conventional war without crossing the nuclear threshold. India's Cold Start doctrine, formulated after the 2002 standoff to enable India to respond quickly to cross-border terrorism, is a good example of this dangerous reason- ing. Under Cold Start, India would conduct quick, punishing strikes into Pakistan, hopefully without crossing Pakistan's fuzzy redlines for a nuclear response. The vague redlines include cutting off a major supply route, seizing key territory, defeating a ma- jor Pakistani military group, or blockading Karachi with Indian naval forces. Indian planners believe they can achieve a quick military victory and sue for peace without Pakistan resorting to nuclear weapons. Pakistani military strategists warn that Cold Start would cross their redlines. Despite President Asif Ali Zardari's recent off-thecuff statement about adopting a no-first-use policy, Pakistan still depends on nuclear weapons to offset India's overwhelming conventional superiority and will use them as a last resort rather than accept military defeat resulting from an Indian invasion. Flirting with nuclear escalation is perilous business that should be avoided.

The risk of escalation is heightened by the fact that each side has deployed nuclear-capable, short-range ballistic missiles armed with conventional payloads as part of their conventional war plans. These missiles are likely to be used early in a crisis against a variety of targets. There is, however, a growing recognition that the use of these missiles in a conflict could easily be misinterpreted as a nuclear attack. A nonnuclear missile strike on an opponent's nuclear forces, or a nuclear facility despite their agreement to refrain from such attacks, or even an accident involving nuclear assets could escalate quickly and even provoke nuclear retaliation. Existing crisis-management measures, such as the underutilized hotline between New Delhi and Islamabad and the agreements to give advanced notice of nuclear accidents and missile tests, are insufficient. Negotiating the elimination of these missiles - India's liquid-fueled Prithvi I and Pakistan's Hatf I-could remove a significant risk of unintended escalation. Such an agreement could be verified, perhaps with international assistance, and pave the way for other restraints.

For example, the "restraint regime" discussed with U.S. officials after the 1998 tests would lengthen the nuclear fuse by establishing a formal agreement to codify the current practice of keeping nuclear warheads separate from missile airframes. Movements of warheads from declared locations would set off alarm bells and hopefully trigger efforts to cool down the crisis. Other risk-reduction options could include negotiated protocols to prevent incidents at sea, as India and Pakistan each plan to add a sea leg to their nuclear triads, and an agreement not to deploy nuclear weapons in provocative border locations such as Kashmir.

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