Nuclear Deterrence in South Asia: Theory and Practice

Article excerpt

NUCLEAR WEAPONS HAVE REVOLUTIONIZED the practice of war in the 20th century. Prior to the invention of such weapons in 1945, states in conflict could weigh their chances of military success against an adversary based on the expected costs and benefits of going to war. Since the introduction of nuclear weapons, however, the balance of this strategic calculus has changed considerably. Deterrence theorists argue that nuclear weapons now take the risk out of this calculation--the incredible destructive capacity of these weapons imposes such a high price on both warring parties that it renders any military victory virtually meaningless. In his pioneering work The Absolute Weapon, Bernard Brodie expressed this sentiment: "thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them. It can have no other useful purpose."(1)

This paper questions the basic soundness of the nuclear deterrence regime between India and Pakistan, and argues that the possibility of deterrence failure in this context is significant. Given the historical, geographic and psychological context of these rival states, nuclear weapons are more likely to create greater insecurity (than security) for the states involved. This view stands in stark contrast to the analysis by South Asian security experts, like University of Texas professor Sumit Ganguly, who argues that "the presence of nuclear weapons [in the region] has actually made things better, for now."(2) The central argument is that new nuclear states such as India and Pakistan are, inevitably, drawn towards nuclear war by their need to undertake lowlevel aggressive actions to maintain the credibility of their nuclear forces. Such actions, however, are in sharp contrast to the distant battles that were fought between the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and these actions have a significantly higher probability of triggering a catastrophic deterrence failure.

Beginning with an examination of the evolution of nuclear deterrence theory, this paper pays special attention to developments particularly important to India and Pakistan. It then proceeds with a case study of the nuclear weapons issue in India and Pakistan, up to the present day. Drawing on theoretical insights provided in the first section, it will then critically analyze the stability of the current deterrence regime. Finally, it examines some of the implications that these findings have for security studies, setting the agenda for future research.


Deterrence is fundamentally based on an expressed threat that exacts a cost greater than the potential benefits of an adversary's unwanted action, leading an adversary to avoid that unwanted action.(3) It can be based on a threat of punishment, where a state threatens to destroy assets that are valuable to its adversary if its own assets are destroyed. These punitive threats usually focus on targets such as cities and their economic infrastructure, objects that states value but which are unrelated to military operations. Deterrence can also be based on a threat of denial, where a state takes the action of convincing its adversaries that their unwanted actions, such as an invasion, will be stopped and they will not achieve their military or political objectives. Denial threats usually target counterforce targets such as military units and weapons of mass destruction, which prevent the unwanted military action from occurring. Ultimately, successful deterrence requires that the actors being deterred believe that the costs of a potential action outweigh the plausible gains.

During the Cold War, nuclear deterrence emerged as a crucial component of US strategy, as American strategists believed that nuclear deterrence was necessary to prevent the Soviet domination of Western Europe.(4) The West came to rely on nuclear weapons to deter Russian military action that could not be stopped with conventional military forces which were considered prohibitively expensive. Despite the fact that nuclear weapons were never actually used during the Cold War, many American analysts argued that nuclear threats were capable of influencing and shaping the strategic decisions of seemingly intractable opponents. These analysts cite Eisenhower's threat of a nuclear attack against North Korea and China as well as the ensuing armistice of the Korean War as examples of where such threats were able to compel, otherwise unobtainable, diplomatic concessions. As a result of its success in the Korean War, the Eisenhower administration developed a policy of "Massive Retaliation" (in 1954), under which the United States issued a general nuclear threat to retaliate against Soviet or Chinese aggression at times and places of its choosing.

By the late 1960s, however, the Soviet Union had developed a powerful nuclear force of its own to counter the American threat, forcing the United States to adopt a different nuclear doctrine.(5) In 1969, American leaders opened negotiations on arms limitations in an attempt to codify "strategic stability"--a condition in which neither superpower could achieve a useful nuclear advantage over the other. Under strategic stability, both the United States and the Soviet Union possessed large numbers of survivable nuclear capabilities to threaten the other party with retaliatory "assured destruction." This condition, also known as Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), was expected to create a stable mutual deterrence framework based on the assumption that rational leaders on both sides would avoid provocative and aggressive behaviour that could escalate into a mutually destructive nuclear war.

Recognizing the extremely high cost of resources necessary to sustain MAD, strategic theorists in smaller nuclear states like China sought to create a nuclear doctrine that could protect their strategic interests more cheaply and effectively. Their response was "Minimum Deterrence," which is defined as the ability to drop a small number of nuclear warheads on a handful of counter-value targets in a retaliatory second strike.(6) This was believed to be sufficient to deter any invader from using nuclear weapons against the defending state. Chinese nuclear doctrine, however, has increasingly shifted towards one of "limited deterrence," which has the broader aim of deterring conventional, theatre and strategic war, and suppressing escalation during nuclear war.(7) The credible practice of such a doctrine, theoretically, requires a broader range of weapons and operational capabilities that allows a threat to be met with an appropriately powerful, but limited, response.

Rather than focus on how strategic stability might be secured, recent theoretical works have tended to focus on the possible results of deterrence failure. Bruce Russet makes an important contribution to deterrence theory with his distinction between general and immediate deterrence.(8) General deterrence is characterized as a situation where adversaries are neither using military force against one another nor actively threatening to use it. It is, therefore, directed at preventing the emergence of a crisis in its initial stages. In contrast, immediate deterrence is what happens once a crisis situation has already erupted and the state actor is attempting to deter an attack amidst that crisis.

Complementing this distinction is Russet's five-stage account of a progression from peace to nuclear war. In the first stage, a state (known as the "defender") adopts a policy of general deterrence, which deters another state from altering the status quo. In the second stage, an opposing state (known as the challenger) makes a military move or an overt threat to change the status quo. At this stage, general deterrence has failed because a crisis has precipitated. In the third stage, the defender must decide whether to strengthen and reiterate its commitment to defense and, thus, enact immediate deterrence. In the fourth stage, the challenger must choose to press ahead or retreat; if the challenger chooses to press ahead, then immediate deterrence has failed. In the final stage, the defender resists the challenger through the use of nuclear force. This key distinction between general and immediate deterrence becomes important later in this analysis because what works well at one stage of this process may be ineffective at another stage.

Recent deterrence literature has also focused heavily on psychological components of deterrence. At the most basic level, deterrence requires a rational, pragmatic and reasonable opponent who can be reliably be deterred without sufficient loss by the instigator. This assumption, however, becomes problematic as leaders from different societies possess strikingly different forms of rationality and may attribute value to their assets in very different ways. Leaders of totalitarian regimes, for instance, have a higher propensity towards using the population of their states as a Clausewitzian instrument to be expended towards the attainment of state objectives. Counter-value deterrence directed at major population centres of a totalitarian regime have a much lower probability of success than would be expected. Furthermore, rational decision making can be affected in unpredictable ways by personal beliefs, cognitive distortion resulting from stress or drug use, overriding imperatives that lead to high-risk brinkmanship, or incomplete information.(9) These factors may affect the ability of leaders to properly evaluate their own capabilities or those of their adversaries, thus distorting the means-ends calculus necessary for deterrence to work. Overriding national or personal imperatives may cause even a "rational" leader to act in a high-risk manner considered "irrational" by other observers. In a highly influential analysis of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the 1973 crisis in the Middle East, Janice Gross Stein and Richard Ned Lebow have argued that "deterrence can impede early warning, lead to exaggerated threat assessments, contribute to stress, increase the domestic and allied pressures on leaders to stand firm, and exacerbate the problem of loss of control."(10) They, therefore, reject the utility of deterrence as a valid means of structuring security relationships between rival nuclear states.

In contrast to arguments put forward by theorists like Stein and Lebow, who argue against the stability of deterrence, advocates of deterrence, such as Elli Lieberman, argue that psychological factors may actually strengthen strategic stability rather than weaken it. According to Lieberman, "leaders challenge deterrence, or go to war, when there are uncertainties about the capability or will of the defender; and, once these uncertainties are reduced through the creation of specific reputations for capability and will, deterrence stability is created even when political pressures to challenge deterrence continue to exist." Thus, Lieberman concludes that the phenomenon of deterrence is "temporal, dynamic, and causal" and stability requires conflict. In other words, states may need to fight wars to create deterrence stability through the creation of "reputations for capability and will."(11) The tension between these competing arguments helps to frame the analysis as we begin to consider the efficacy of deterrence in the South Asian context.


Following the Second World War, Britain's colonization of India came to an end, and India achieved independence in 1947. Britain, bowing to religious schisms at the time, also created the Muslim state of Pakistan out of Indian territory; this, however, led to antagonism and conflict between India and Pakistan. The issues of contention between the two parties include the disputed territory of Kashmir; a small region situated in the foothills of the Himalayan mountains. Even today, Pakistani and Indian troops regularly exchange fire across the disputed Kashmiri border, and the dispute continues to be a central issue in the hostile relationship between India and Pakistan. This five-decades-long rivalry, which continues today, is the leading reason for why both countries are pursuing nuclear weapons as a means of furthering their strategic interests.

Early nuclear policy in India emerged in the late 1940s under the leadership of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who established a policy he argued was based on the Ghandhian tradition and ideal of non-violence. While he believed that India had to become a peaceful nuclear power because of the strategic value of nuclear technology, Nehru expressed a genuine horror of the nuclear menace and committed "all future governments" of India to the exclusively peaceful use of nuclear energy.(12) By the mid-1950s, India had built Asia's first atomic research reactor Aspara, and set in motion a broad-based and peaceful nuclear development program.(13) On the diplomatic front, Nehru launched three failed initiatives in the United Nations that aimed at securing global nuclear disarmament.(14) Even at this early stage, however, some members of the Indian elite argued that the development of nuclear weapons was an essential step for the attainment of great power status.

Pro-nuclear forces in India gained strength after the death of Nehru in 1964, following a surprise attack from China, which swept through Tanglha ridge and Tawang, near the Bhutan border, in 1962. The attack overwhelmed India's conventional forces with ease. The threat from China became even more prominent in 1964 when China detonated its first nuclear weapon. A year later, Pakistan sent its troops into Jammu and Kashmir, triggering a full-scale war between India and Pakistan. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Lal Shastri, India reacted by initiating a nuclear explosives program in 1965 (although some scholars have argued that the decision was motivated more by politics than a security agenda).(15) It also took a hard line at meetings of the 18-nation Disarmament Committee in Geneva and tried to ensure a Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that would protect it from the emergent Chinese nuclear threat. When the NPT finally did emerge in 1968, India refused to sign the treaty; argued that it provided inadequate security guarantees and that it codified the existing imbalance between nuclear and non-nuclear states without compelling the existing nuclear powers to move towards nuclear disarmament.(16)

As India's diplomatic attempts at nuclear disarmament began to crumble, public opinion in favour of developing nuclear weapons began to crystallize. A sample survey conducted by the Indian Institute of Public Opinion in 1970 showed that more than two-thirds of the respondents, irrespective of age, education and economic status, wanted India to develop nuclear weapons of its own.(17) Advocates of nuclear weapons got their wish in 1974, when India surprised the world by conducting a nuclear explosion at Pokhran, in the Rajasthan desert. Although the government described the explosion as a "peaceful" one, the Pokhran explosion symbolized to the world India's emergence as a nuclear power since there is no technological difference between a peaceful and war-like explosion. Despite openly demonstrating its technological capability to develop nuclear weapons, the Indian government reiterated its policy to use nuclear energy exclusively for peaceful purposes and discontinued its nuclear weapons program.(18)

The Pokhran test provoked an international outcry and much worry about the nuclearization of the South Asian peninsula. Almost immediately, the test sparked a predictable reaction from Pakistan, who initiated its own covert nuclear weapons program with the aid of China.(19) Pakistani nuclear scientists first attempted to gain access to the technology necessary for manufacturing missile material by purchasing a nuclear fuel reprocessing plant from France. US diplomatic pressure on France eventually killed the deal, however, forcing Pakistan to create its own uranium enrichment plant instead. By 1984, Pakistani scientists had successfully "cold tested" a nuclear device and were confident that they could test a weapon within a week's notice.(20)

Despite pressure from the nuclear scientists involved with the project, Pakistani General Zia-ul-Haq refused to publicly test the weapons for fear of provoking a nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan. Unlike the Indian nuclear program--aimed at deterring Chinese aggression, as well as protesting against the unfair conditions of the NPT, while displaying Indian technological ingenuity--the Pakistani nuclear program was designed with the sole intention of deterring potential Indian nuclear aggression. As long as the Indian nuclear arms program remained in recess, a pseudo-stable equilibrium in South Asia emerged as both states had achieved an undeclared mutual nuclear capability without the visible deployment of weapons on either side. This state of ambiguity helped to preserve a strategic equilibrium in the region, resulting in 27 years of continuous peace in South Asia. In comparison, there were three Indo-Pakistani wars in the first 24 years of their independence.

The equilibrium came to a dramatic halt in 1998, when India surprised the world again by openly conducting another series of nuclear explosions in Pokhran. Unlike the 1974 explosions, however, the "Pokhran II" explosions signaled a dramatic shift in Indian nuclear policy. Rather than a recessed nuclear deterrent, frozen in development, Pokhran II signaled India's intention to actively pursue and acquire all the trappings of an advanced nuclear power, including nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles and a secure second-strike capability aimed at deterring China and Pakistan.(21) Within three weeks, Pakistan responded by successfully conducting its own series of nuclear explosions, openly declaring its own nuclear status and its intention to pursue a nuclear force capable of deterring Indian aggression.

Although the full nuclear capabilities of India and Pakistan have remained shrouded in secrecy, both countries have been developing their nuclear stockpiles, as well as the delivery systems necessary to use nuclear weapons in war, for some time. Recent estimates place the size of the Indian nuclear inventory at somewhere between 60 and 150 weapons.(22) Their delivery systems include the Prithvi surface-to-surface ballistic missile, an offensive weapon capable of delivering a 1000-kilogram nuclear warhead within a range of 250 kilometres.(23) This missile system, already inducted and deployed, makes Pakistan's entire territory vulnerable to a nuclear strike.(24) In contrast, most scholars believe that Pakistan possesses 10 to 15 nuclear warheads, although some estimates place the number as high as 100. In 1992, Pakistan clandestinely acquired 25 to 30 M-11 missiles from China. Similar to the Prithvi, these missiles are capable of delivering a 500-kilogram nuclear warhead within a range of 300 kilometres.(25) With the help of North Korea, Pakistan also tested its Ghauri-II ballistic missile in 1999, an offensive weapon capable of delivering a 1000-kilogram nuclear explosive within a range of 1500 kilometres. Although only in developmental stages, the Ghauri II missile's payload and range will give Pakistan the ability to strike deep inside Indian territory, making it a credible deterrent to the Prithvi.

Both countries also possess numerous fighter aircraft that could be outfitted with nuclear weapons, if necessary. While limited in their destructive capacity by American and Soviet standards, India and Pakistan's respective nuclear arsenals are still quite powerful.(26) A recent study showed that even a single weapon detonated over Bombay could cause 850,000 casualties.(27) Despite the similarities between the two missile programs, several important differences merit explanation.(28) Both India and Pakistan have roughly the same number of missiles and are vulnerable to each other in terms of reach and strike capability; this makes their respective threats credible. Indian missiles, however, are indigenously designed and manufactured, while Pakistani missiles rely heavily on foreign technology. As a consequence of this technological gap, Pakistan is only manufacturing offensive surface-to-surface missiles, whereas India is producing a number of defensive weapons that are intended to provide a survivable second-strike capability.

Even more significant than the nuclear capabilities of India and Pakistan are their strikingly different policies concerning the use of nuclear weapons--policies that largely reflect the massive asymmetry between the two South Asian rivals. As a much larger and more powerful state, India has a greater interest in maintaining the status quo,rather than seeking to challenge it. Consequently, due to its massive conventional superiority over Pakistan, India's nuclear policy explicitly states that India's nuclear weapons are meant solely to deter nuclear threats, and not to deter conventional, chemical or biological attack. India's official policy, therefore, rejects the early American doctrine of massive retaliation, seeking instead the creation of a minimum credible deterrent. Consistent with this policy, India has adopted a "no first use" policy in which "India will not be the first to initiate a nuclear strike, but will respond with punitive retaliation should deterrence fail."(29) Finally, weapons are placed under strict control, with the authority to release nuclear weapons vested in the Prime Minister of India. Studies of the Pokhran II tests, however, suggest that a number of smaller, tactical nuclear explosives were among those tested in 1998. This suggests that, although the official Indian nuclear doctrine may be one of minimum deterrence, a shift towards the creation of smaller weapons necessary for limited deterrence remains possible in the future.

In contrast, Pakistan's nuclear doctrine is largely a direct consequence of its smaller size, weaker conventional forces, and strong desire to challenge the status quo. According to Pakistani General Khalid Kidwai, Pakistan's nuclear weapons are designed to act as a deterrent against Indian aggression of any kind. Should India attack Pakistan, conquer part of its territory, destroy a significant part of its armed forces, economically strangle its economy, or push Pakistan into domestic destabilization, then Pakistan will use nuclear weapons to defend itself.(30) The Pakistani nuclear arsenal and doctrine not only seek to deter nuclear threats, but conventional ones as well. Essentially, the Pakistani nuclear doctrine explicitly calls for limited deterrence, as opposed to the minimum deterrence requirements described in the Indian nuclear doctrine. Consistent with this policy, Pakistan has rejected a "no first use" policy for its nuclear weapons, arguing that "the possession of nuclear weapons by any state obviously implies they will be used under some circumstances."(31) Finally, while official policy states that command and control of nuclear forces are to be vested in the highest political authority, nuclear analysts have disputed the validity of this claim.(32) Instead, they argue that the Pakistani military "appears to have a greater say in nuclear matters which makes estimates of decision-making processes in that country difficult."(33)

The limits of these doctrines have been tested in recent years, most notably in a military confrontation that resulted from an attack by Muslim extremists against India's Parliament in December 2001. Ejaz Haider argues that this attack represented a "low intensity" form of warfare, aimed at neutralizing India's conventional military superiority by lowering the nuclear threshold in an attempt to confine India's military response on Pakistani terms.(34) Based on this logic, low-intensity threats could be directed at India without the threat of conventional retaliation because such retaliation would trigger a nuclear response by Pakistan. Rather than risking a nuclear war over these low-intensity threats, India would be forced to respond to these threats in a much more restrained manner than it otherwise would. Contrary to Pakistani expectations, however, the attack led India to mobilize its conventional forces along the Pakistani border, culminating in a Pakistani decision to back down from an open confrontation with India's conventional forces, despite its possession of nuclear weapons. In this context of the Pakistani nuclear doctrine, nuclear deterrence failed Pakistan because it was unable to deter India from pursuing military options that were detrimental to its own strategic interests.(35)


How does the historical evolution of deterrence theory in South Asia and the emergence of the nuclear-capable South Asian powers contribute to the broader discourse on nuclear deterrence? It can be argued that the growing number of nuclear states, including India and Pakistan, poses a serious threat to global security; this threat cannot be effectively contained through the use of nuclear deterrence. Conceptually, this argument can be broken down into three components: 1) The decision-making environment, marked by massive asymmetry between the two rival states, psychological alienation, and the failure of general deterrence as defined by Russett; 2) nuclear credibility, where a willingness to engage in conventional brinkmanship represents a critical ingredient to establishing nuclear credibility; and 3) the effect of brinkmanship on the deterrence relationship, in the context of the Stein/Lebow/Lieberman debate. This final component demonstrates an inherent contradiction with the use of brinkmanship to secure deterrence, namely its ability to strengthen immediate deterrence at the expense of general deterrence. At an empirical level, the suggestion is that deterrence by nuclear weapons may produce stability at the nuclear level, while producing instability at lower levels. This paper explores whether the resulting instability from this contradiction is likely to be successfully contained, and concludes that containment is unlikely in the context of the decision-making environment initially described.

The decision-making environment

Since partition, the Indo-Pakistani relationship has been marked by massive asymmetry in terms of land size, resources, population and conventional weaponry, while India enjoys a significant advantage in each of these categories. This asymmetry is particularly acute in light of the disparity between the nuclear capabilities of the two states--particularly, in terms of second-strike capabilities. With its limited conventional forces and its less technologically advanced delivery systems, Pakistan does not possess a secure second-strike capability and is incapable of countering the Indian nuclear threat. In contrast, India's highly accurate Prithvi missile makes it an ideal countering weapon against Pakistan's nuclear forces. India's pursuit of a submarine-launched ballistic missile and its hardening of ballistic missile silos gives it a more credible second-strike capability than what Pakistan possesses.(36) Accordingly, Vijai Nair argues that Pakistan's small geographic size makes it more vulnerable to an Indian nuclear attack.(37) In time, the gap between the nuclear capabilities of these two states is likely only to grow, given their immense differences in resources, as India will be able to pay for an Indian nuclear force that is larger, more accurate, more powerful and more technologically sophisticated than that of Pakistan.

The asymmetric nature of Indo-Pakistani relations is a significant factor influencing the psychological relationship between the two rival states; it also leads both states to value different assets and view the status quo differently. More specifically, patterns of past behaviour suggest that the status quo over Kashmir is valued very differently by the two South Asian powers. While neither state is fully content with the status quo, Pakistan appears particularly displeased with it and has consistently demonstrated a willingness to challenge it; India has, to some degree, assumed a greater role of defending the status quo. This may be due to both recognizing that the massive gap in conventional force capabilities between the two states is likely to grow in the future.(38) Pakistan's vulnerabilities (and its inability to bridge this gap through conventional means) coupled with its desire to challenge the status quo, therefore, helps to explain its use of nuclear threats to support its strategy of low-intensity, conventional warfare, as Haider argued.

Indo-Pakistani strategic relations are further complicated by intense hostility and a deep historical sense of alienation between the two states. Barry Buzan argues that this intense hostility poses a dilemma for deterrence theorists because it weakens the fundamental assumption of rationality. Buzan contends that "if hostility is extremely high, then irrational behavior, almost by definition, becomes more plausible."(39) A lack of knowledge about the opponent, miscommunication, misperception, and misinterpretation of events can all cause the challenger to doubt the capabilities and commitment of the defender, leading to catastrophic deterrence failure. In the South Asian context, the close proximity of the two states is likely to increase this sense of paranoia, given the dizzying pace at which decisions have to be made. For example, within three to four minutes of a ballistic missile being launched by a challenger, successful deterrence requires that the defender must be able to detect the launch, correctly ascertain whether that missile is nuclear-tipped or conventional, and decide upon an appropriate response.(40) The impossibility of a full deliberation before a response increases the incentive to launch a first strike and heightens the risk of deterrence failure.

A further complicating factor influencing the rationality of actors in the Indo-Pakistani strategic relationship lies in the constraints imposed by technological limitations to current command, control and communication systems in both India and Pakistan. According to former Indian Navy Chief of Staff Admiral L. Ramdas, robust command, control and communication systems currently do not exist in either state, and technologies to prevent the accidental deployment of nuclear weapons are still at an embryonic stage.(41) In support of his claim, Ramdas points to India's poor safety record in the nuclear power and mining industry, the collapse of its administrative machinery following the 2001 earthquake in Gujarat, its poor response to the 1999 hijacking of an Indian Airlines aircraft, and the shooting down of a "Pakistani Atlantique" aircraft by the Indian Air Force in peacetime as evidence of poor command and control systems in India. At one level, poor command and control systems impair rationality by presenting decision makers with a faulty or incomplete threat assessment that may potentially lead to faulty decisions that are inconsistent with the deterrence relationship. Even when full deliberation has taken place with complete information, however, the constraints imposed by poor command and control systems may prevent the proper execution of orders from those in charge.

Closely related to the idea of impaired rationality is the classification of the Indo-Pakistani conflict within Russett's general and immediate deterrence framework. Despite rhetoric from both sides indicating a desire to settle the five-decade-old issue of Kashmir, conflict over Kashmir's sovereignty persists to this very day; in fact, weapons fire is exchanged along the line of control on a regular basis. With India and Pakistan stuck in a state of perpetual crisis, nuclear weapons emerged in a political environment in which general deterrence was already very weak or had already failed altogether. As a consequence, limiting the conflict and preventing it from expanding into a nuclear war becomes an extraordinarily uncertain proposition. This is, in large part, due to the removal of fear as a war-prevention strategy--the barrier has already been breached given that a conflict is already under way.(42) Deterrence is, therefore, much more likely to be effective if used early, before a challenger becomes committed to the use of force or becomes correspondingly insensitive to warnings and threat. In the absence of these strategic and psychological constraints, deterrence is increasingly likely to become ineffective, irrelevant or even provocative.

The issue of nuclear credibility

Nuclear credibility is a critical factor that determines the success of a deterrence relationship. If a challenger is unconvinced that a defender has the political will and credibility to use its nuclear arsenal to protect their interests, deterrence fails because the challenger no longer fears a massive retaliation. The challenger can then continue to pursue their state interests unfettered and unrestrained by the defender. The deterring state must, therefore, demonstrate the political will to act in accordance with its stated nuclear doctrine and be willing to use nuclear weapons to defend state interests, if necessary.

Although, initially, the establishment of nuclear credibility appears fairly straightforward, it is complicated by a number of factors. The central problem lies in the fundamental irrationality of a commitment to use nuclear weapons; to do so would forcibly provoke a powerful and undesired retaliatory strike. Consider a scenario in which India seizes control of Kashmir through the use of overwhelming conventional force, but does not advance any farther onto Pakistani soil. Such an action would violate Pakistan's "space threshold" for the use of nuclear weapons, forcing it to launch nuclear weapons to maintain its credibility and protect its claim to Kashmir. This would provoke a retaliatory strike by India and then would almost certainly result in more severe losses than would have otherwise occurred had Pakistan simply accepted the loss of Kashmir without responding. The use of nuclear weapons by this calculus is, therefore, an irrational action, and the corresponding objective of nuclear credibility is to establish the fundamental irrationality of the state in an attempt to deter aggressive actions against it.

The difficulties of proving one's own irrationality requires extraordinary steps, if it is to be perceived as credible. In a political environment where both adversaries are deeply alienated and isolated from each other, experience and habituation emerge as the only basis for negotiating nuclear credibility. The alternative path of discourse, based on rational logic, is simply not possible because the argument for deterrence, itself, has no internal logical consistency to it. States must, therefore, aggressively deploy their conventional forces and engage in brinkmanship, while taking care not to actually trigger a war.

Brinkmanship reconsidered

If brinkmanship through the aggressive deployment of conventional forces is a prerequisite to nuclear credibility, what is the resulting fallout once credibility has been established? The result is a bifurcated security contradiction. On one hand, deterrence of nuclear weapons by other nuclear weapons may lead to stability at a certain level of the conflict. At this level, Lieberman's argument that brinkmanship creates stability by reducing uncertainties about the capability and will of the defender is correct because it strengthens nuclear credibility and, thus, enhances immediate deterrence. On the other hand, because nuclear weapons create greater deterrence stability at the nuclear level, greater instability at a lower conventional level occurs. Unable to risk escalation because of the fear of nuclear war, rival states may resort to resolving their conflict through proxy wars or through acts of subversion. This line of reasoning is explicitly addressed in Pakistan's nuclear doctrine, which specifically calls for the use of nuclear weapons in the event that India economically strangles the Pakistani economy or pushes Pakistan into domestic destabilization.(43) At this level, Stein and Lebow's argument about the instability of deterrence is correct because brinkmanship weakens general deterrence, which, by its very definition, precipitates a security crisis.

The resolution of this inherent contradiction, completely ignored by Lieberman and only implicitly considered in passing by Stein and Lebow, is the fundamental challenge that the South Asian nuclear dilemma poses to the international community.(44) Successful deterrence at the nuclear level, therefore, does not translate into successful deterrence at the conventional level. Thus, in the nuclear age, incidents such as the mass mobilization of troops after the December 2001 attack on India's Parliament are likely to occur with increasing frequency. In effect, brinkmanship becomes a medium of communication between rival states, through which they can use "speech acts" to invoke a statelevel logic to justify the irrationality of their nuclear doctrines.(45) Brinkmanship allows the nuclear issue to be framed as a security problem, giving the state a claim to a special right in defining the logical parameters of the issue. That special right, in the case of nuclear deterrence, facilitates the acceptance of this perverse deterrence logic in an environment that would not otherwise be possible.

While the prospect of a permanent general deterrence failure institutionalized by the mutual possession of nuclear arms is alarming, it would be infinitely preferable to the alternative of escalation to a nuclear conflict. Unfortunately, even a permanent general deterrence failure is unlikely to be stable in the South Asian context, given the current political environment. Kanti Bajpai argues that, as a proxy war grows in scope, it may escalate into full confrontations between conventional forces.(46) In an act of defense and brinkmanship, one side may resort to pursuing enemy forces across the border into enemy territory. This would likely plunge India and Pakistan into an escalating crisis, culminating in an immediate deterrence failure--the very outcome that brinkmanship was designed to avoid.


Nuclear deterrence is inherently unstable. As shown in the case study, this instability is particularly acute among new nuclear powers seeking to deter an adversary with whom they share a deep sense of alienation and hostility. Presently, the likelihood of a deterrence failure and nuclear catastrophe in India and Pakistan is not high, but it remains significant. Unless an alternative can be found, deterrence theory requires that both states undertake aggressive actions and engage in brinkmanship to establish nuclear credibility with each other. The deterrence dilemma, described earlier, is the consequential result; the challenge of overcoming this dilemma is considerable.

At the micro level, the conflict and tension that pervades Indo-Pakistani relations is deep-rooted and will not disappear overnight. The immediate question to be addressed by the security community is, therefore, not one of eliminating the core sources of conflict, but of devising a non-violent institutional means of conflict resolution that is acceptable to both parties. In the absence of stronger institutional measures, no long-term resolution to the nuclear dilemma is possible.

At the macro level, the central lesson to be drawn from the South Asian experience is that any form of hegemony over nuclear weapons, whether restricted to the original five nuclear powers or expanded to include India and Pakistan, is untenable. In the case of both India and Pakistan, each state's decision to pursue nuclear weapons was a strategic move inextricably bound to their own unique goals, resources, satisfaction with the status quo, and future expectations. In a security environment where nuclear weapons are viewed by some as essential for minimum deterrence, other states will inevitably feel political pressure to acquire these weapons. Pakistan's successful acquisition of nuclear weapons--despite concerted attempts by the US to deny them the necessary technology--also demonstrates that the "nuclear option" is almost always open to a country that already possesses nuclear power for peaceful purposes, due to the dual-use nature of that technology.

Viewed in this context, security studies must adapt to modern realities if they are to make a relevant contribution to nuclear deterrence theory in the 21st century. The nuclearization of the South Asian peninsula poses a challenge that is radically different from the Cold War deterrence scenario, forcing us to reconsider the applicability of deterrence theory and Western notions of rationality in the non-Western world. It also forces us to critically re-examine our own efforts at dealing with this issue through policies like nuclear disarmament, National Missile Defense, and the proliferation of dual-use nuclear technology. More immediately, it forces us to question whether engagement or containment is the best option for minimizing the impact of new nuclear powers such as North Korea. In the absence of such critical analysis that leads to a coherent long-term vision to address this problem, we risk nothing less than the real possibility of a nuclear cataclysm.

(1) Bernard Brodie, ed, The Absolute Weapon (New York: Harcourt Brace 1946), 69.

(2) Peter Grier, A Big test of Nuclear Deterrence, 1 December 2002, available at

(3) Keith Payne and Dale Walton, "Deterrence in the Post-Cold War World," in John Baylis et al., eds, Strategy in the Contemporary World (New York: Oxford University Press 2002), 162-3.

(4) Ibid, 165.

(5) Ibid, 168.

(6) Dipankar Banerjee, "The New Strategic Environment," in Amitabh Mattoo, ed, India's Nuclear Deterrent: Pokhran II and Beyond (New Delhi: Har-Anand Publications 1999), 284.

(7) Ibid, 284.

(8) Bruce Russet, "Between General and Immediate Deterrence," in Aharon Klieman and Ariel Levite, eds, Deterrence in the Middle East (Jerusalem: Jafee Center for Strategic Studies 1993).

(9) Payne and Walton, 179.

(10) Janice Gross Stein and Richard Ned Lebow, We All Lost the Cold War (Princeton: Princeton University Press 1994).

(11) Elli Lieberman, "The Deterrence Theory: Success or Failure in Arab-Israeli Wars?" McNair Paper 45 (October 1995).

(12) Bhanbani Sen Gupta, Nuclear Weapons: Policy Options for India (New Delhi: Sage Publications 1983), 2.

(13) Vinay Kumar Malholtra, Nuclear and Missile Race in South Asia (Panchkula: Wisdom House 2001), 24.

(14) Gupta, 1.

(15) Gupta, 2.

(16) Chris Smith, Security, Sovereignty and Nuclear Weapons in South Asia (London: Council for Arms Control 1993), 16.

(17) E.P.W. da Costa, "Indians and the bomb" Indian Express, 14 August 1970.

(18) Ibid.

(19) Former CIA director James Woolsey's stated before the US Senate Government Affairs Committee in 1993, "China has consistently regarded a nuclear-armed Pakistan as a crucial ally and counterweight to India." As a result, China was reported to have provided Pakistan with the weapons design and results of its fourth nuclear weapon test shortly after the 1974 explosion. Source: V.R. Raghavan, India's need for strategic balance (New Delhi: Delhi Policy Group 1996), 21.

(20) Zia Mian, Pakistan's Nuclear Descent, 1 December 2002, available at

(21) More specifically, the National Security Advisory Board's draft nuclear doctrine, which has been adopted by India, calls for a nuclear force that is "effective, enduring, diverse, flexible, and responsive." To achieve this objective, it intends to pursue delivery vehicles "based on a triad of aircraft, mobile land-based missiles and sea-based assets," modelled after the US and Soviet Union. The document is by the National Security Advisory Board, Draft Report of National Security Advisory Board on Indian Nuclear Doctrine, 1 December 2002, available at

(22) Bharat Karnad, "A Thermonuclear Deterrent," in Amitabh Mattoo, ed, India's Nuclear Deterrent: Pokhran II and Beyond (New Delhi: Har-Anand Publications 1999), 135.

(23) Although India has also deployed an Agni-II missile capable of hitting targets up to 3,000 kilometres away, it is directed solely as a deterrent against China. From Pakistan's viewpoint, the Agni and the Prithvi fundamentally pose the same threat as both delivery systems can hit anywhere in Pakistan.

(24) Malholtra, Nuclear and Missile Race in South Asia, 44.

(25) Ibid, 58.

(26) Although the magnitude of the Pakistani blast is disputed, even the largest estimate placed the explosion between 40-45 kilotons in a world where the explosive power of warheads exceed the millions of tons. Source: Zia Mian, Pakistan's Nuclear Descent, 1 December 2002, available at

(27) Peter Grier, A Big test of Nuclear Deterrence, 1 December 2002, available at

(28) Malholtra, 61.

(29) National Security Advisory Board, Draft Report of National Security Advisory Board on Indian Nuclear Doctrine, 1 December 2002, available at For more analysis of the Doctrine, see also P.R. Chari, "India's Nuclear Doctrine: Confused Ambitions," The Nonproliferation Review 4 (2000), 123-135.

(30) Rodney Jones, Is stable nuclear deterrence feasible? 1 December 2002, available at pdf/stablenucleardeterrence.pdf, 3.

(31) The quotation is attributed to Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, as quoted in Laurinda Keys, "Pakistan explains nuclear policy," Associated Press, 4 June 2002.

(32) This claim was articulated by Pakistani Brigadier General Feroz Hassan Khan, in RAND Corporation, Pakistan's Nuclear Future: How to Maintain Stability in an Unstable Region? 1 December 2002, available at

(33) V.R. Raghavan, India's Need for Strategic Balance (New Delhi: Delhi Policy Group 1996), 20.

(34) Ejaz Haider, "Stable deterrence and flawed Pakistani nuclear strategy," 1 December 2002, available at

(35) Another example of failed nuclear deterrence involves Pakistan's 1999 attempt to gain a strategic advantage over India by seizing control of Kargil. Despite the potential for escalation to nuclear war, India nevertheless sent its troops to recapture Kargil. As casualties mounted on both sides, Pakistan subsequently withdrew its forces when it became clear that support for its actions from the US was not forthcoming. Source: Bruce Riedel, "American Diplomacy and the 1999 Kargil Summit at Blair House," 1 October 2003, available at

(36) According to Malholtra, 45, Prithvi is capable of delivering a nuclear warhead as close as 50 metres to the target, making it much easier to accurately destroy an adversary's nuclear launchers.

(37) According to Nair, only 16 nuclear engagements directed against Pakistan would end "that country's capability of continuing as a socioeconomic entity." Source: Vijai Nair, "The Structure of an Indian Nuclear Deterrent," in Amitabh Mattoo, ed, India's Nuclear Deterrent: Pokhran II and Beyond (New Delhi: Har-Anand Publications 1999), 99.

(38) Comments by Pakistani officials supporting this interpretation as well as a comparison of conventional forces between Pakistan and India can be found in Zia Mian, "Renouncing the Nuclear Option," in Samina Ahmed and David Cortright, eds, Pakistan and the Bomb (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press 1998), 59.

(39) Barry Buzan, "The Evolution of Deterrence Theory: Lessons for Israel," in Aharon Klieman and Ariel Levite, eds, Deterrence in the Middle East (Jerusalem: Jafee Center for Strategic Studies 1993), 31.

(40) The three to four minute missile response time is taken from Dipankar Banerjee, "The New Strategic Environment," in Amitabh Mattoo, ed, India's Nuclear Deterrent: Pokhran II and Beyond (New Delhi: Har-Anand Publications 1999), 271.

(41) L. Ramdas, "Myths and Realities of Nuclear Command and Control in India and Pakistan," Disarmament Diplomacy 54 (February 2001).

(42) Ibid, 33.

(43) Jones, 3.

(44) Despite their criticism of deterrence, Stein and Lebow endorse a policy of "finite" nuclear deterrence, one that might use implicit nuclear threats to induce caution while simultaneously reducing the temptation to make explicit threats. In doing so, they recognize that such implicit threats go towards stabilizing immediate, but not general deterrence.

(45) The role of speech acts in security discourse is described in Ole Waever, "Securitization and Desecuritization," in Ronnie Lipschutz, ed, On Security (New York: Columbia University Press 1995).

(46) Kanti Bajpai, "The Fallacy of an Indian Deterrent," in Amitabh Mattoo, ed, India's Nuclear Deterrent: Pokhran II and Beyond (New Delhi: Har-Anand Publications 1999), 181.


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