Nuclear Stability and Arms Sales to India: Implications for U.S. Policy

By Arnett, Eric | Arms Control Today, August 1997 | Go to article overview

Nuclear Stability and Arms Sales to India: Implications for U.S. Policy


Arnett, Eric, Arms Control Today


The news from South Asia has been surprisingly good in this, the 50th anniversary year of India's and Pakistan's independence. Despite earlier signs that both countries would continue to be governed by perennially weak governments, 1997 has seen the strengthening of democratic institutions in Pakistan and the emergence of surprisingly decisive and conciliatory leaders on both sides: Inder Kumar Gujral, the new Indian prime minister, and Nawaz Sharif, the Pakistani prime minister re-elected with a confidence-inspiring majority after Benazir Bhutto's government was dissolved by President Farooq Leghari. Sharif's position was further strengthened when the provision allowing the president to dissolve the government was eliminated. Gujral and Sharif appear to have a better chance of bringing a sturdy peace to the region than any of their predecessors. This is as much a result of their personal abilities and a creeping recognition of the status quo after more than 25 years without a war as the expectations of those who believe in nuclear deterrence or the inevitability of peace among democracies.

Still, not everything is going the right way at this hopeful moment. Politically both prime ministers seem to derive their strength in part from a willingness to play to the consensus in their respective polities against meaningful nuclear arms control. Militarily, ballistic missile programs are being reinvigorated in both countries due as much to the spirit of nuclear populism as to any realistic threat to the security of either state.

For its part, the United States, understandably eager to engage both countries as they pursue a renewed bilateral dialogue, has apparently decided that the transfer of military technology is a useful inducement to offer India. While technology transfer is a prize which the United States can offer in a quantity and quality unmatched by most of its economic competitors, greater care must be taken than has been the case up until now in offering military technology to New Delhi. Transfers should take into account India's nuclear weapon capabilities, as well as the region's strategic dynamics, but so far signs are that U.S. policy-makers and their advisors tend to think the details of the South Asian conventional balance do not matter much.

In fact, they matter quite a bit, both for the sake of regional stability, should IndianPakistani relations deteriorate, and for the success of the U.S. goal of capping the nuclear weapon and ballistic missile capabilities of the two states. The Clinton administration has already allowed the transfer to India of potentially destabilizing conventional weaponry-guidance kits for "smart" bombs that could be used in conventional counterforce attacks on Pakistan's nuclear delivery systems. With other transfers of concern possibly in the works, it is vital that guidelines covering transfers of military technology to South Asia be considered more carefully.

Nuclear Stability in South Asia

With the end of the Cold War and the opportunity for improved U.S. relations with both India and Pakistan, some proponents of increased arms sales to New Delhi have advocated accepting the purported stability of nuclear deterrence between India and Pakistan and using arms and technology transfers as a means to create a "strategic partnership" with India.l Unfortunately, there is good reason to believe nuclear deterrence is not stable in South Asia and that U.S. arms transfers have already made the problem worse.

The claim that a stable deterrent is emerging in South Asia and can be managed with judicious transfers of technology is rooted in an oversimplified model of Indian and Pakistani strategic planning, viewed through the distorting lens of the Cold War relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union. In the later years of the Cold War, the superpowers enjoyed a sort of nuclear parity and pursued their rivalry through proxy conflicts on the territories of other states with little risk of direct conventional war. …

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