External Affairs

A Nuclear Arms Race That Could Spell Disaster For India, Pakistan

Islamabad will likely feel compelled to match New Delhi’s strategic modernisation, given that its pursuit of tactical nuclear weapons was provoked, in part, by Indian actions.

India and Pakistan flags being lowered at the Wagah border. Credit: Jack Zalium/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

India and Pakistan flags being lowered at the Wagah border. Credit: Jack Zalium/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

Strategic weapons modernisation in South Asia is increasingly becoming a bone of contention between India and Pakistan. With India recently introducing its first squadron of indigenously produced Tejas fighters – combined with its development of a nuclear triad, ballistic missile defence and intercontinental ballistic missiles – the contours of this strategic rivalry are evolving.

This dogged pace of modernisation means that even though Pakistan has six different nuclear-capable means of missile delivery and more on the way, Indian strategic modernisation will always present a new technological and strategic challenge that Pakistan would feel compelled to match, given that its pursuit of tactical nuclear weapons and nuclear-capable cruise missiles was provoked, in part, by Indian actions.

The stakes are even higher when factoring in India’s reported development of multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs). The action-reaction syndrome that the neighbouring countries have followed with regard to their strategic weapons modernisation implies that Islamabad will be tempted to react to MIRVs developed by New Delhi.

In a recent volume edited by the Stimson Centre titled The Lure and Pitfalls of MIRVs: From the First to the Second Nuclear Age, Feroz H. Khan and Mansoor Ahmed, both renowned Pakistani nuclear scholars, envision three potential strategic choices for Islamabad in response to India’s evolving nuclear capabilities and MIRVs in particular: the ‘ignore’ option (no response), the ‘tortoise’ option (a gradual, measured response) and the ‘hare’ option (a rapid response). Khan and Ahmed contend that Pakistan will reject the ignore option because of the dominance of the ‘military-bureaucratic-scientific enclave’ in Pakistan and the history of its strategic arms competition with India.

Similarly, while some in Pakistan’s strategic enclave would undoubtedly agitate for a rapid response to Indian MIRVs, the country lacks the financial wherewithal and specialised intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities to develop MIRVs aggressively. Therefore, the tortoise approach seems to be Pakistan’s best option. Not only would it allow Islamabad to gradually acquire capabilities without diverting scarce resources away from conventional needs, it would also have the extra benefit of seeming less controversial to the international community than the rapid acquisition of MIRVs.

Regardless of whether the MIRV buildup is measured or tenacious, the end scenario, however, would still remain a subcontinent with more fissile material, warheads and delivery systems than either country’s nuclear stewards imagined when they promulgated doctrines of “credible minimum deterrence” in 1998.

Transparency and accommodation?

One way for India and Pakistan to reduce the lure of MIRVs would be for India to signal the impact of its recent strategic weapons development upon its nuclear doctrine. A white paper or even a statement of clarification could help stabilise relations with Pakistan.

For its part, Pakistani leaders could put forth a declared nuclear doctrine that would assuage Indian and international concerns about Pakistan’s threshold for nuclear use. A joint Indian-Pakistani effort to bolster transparency could ameliorate the security dilemma and ease the external pressure for strategic modernisation.

The tortoise option that Khan and Ahmed propose would reinforce such signalling, potentially bringing forth a semblance of stability to the bilateral relationship. However, the Pakistani strategic establishment would have to clearly signal its intentions and avoid the veil of strategic ambiguity if it aims to curtail the security dilemma through the tortoise option.

Just as clearer signalling from Pakistan of its intentions might have a stabilising effect, so too would an international initiative to accommodate Pakistan into the global nuclear order. In the absence of integration into the institutions that comprise this order, such as the Nuclear Suppliers Group, it is hard to imagine Islamabad abandoning its behaviour in the region. This is an important point, as it is clear that without so-called normalisation, Islamabad does not have an incentive to exercise strategic restraint. International actors like China and the US would have to negotiate the form this accommodation would take, but the need for their involvement in diplomatic initiatives to ameliorate the subcontinental rivalry is no longer in doubt.

Assessing the security dilemma

Besides more responsible communication and institutional integration, Pakistan would also be wise to take a more sober view of India’s emerging nuclear position. The main set of Indian weapons that concern Pakistani force planners and drive competitive modernisation are long-range ballistic missiles – particularly the Agni-V and Agni-VI land-based missiles, and the K-4 and K-15 sea-based missiles. It remains unclear, though, what new threat these add to Pakistan’s strategic calculus. The Agni-V and Agni-VI are clearly targeted towards China, not Pakistan. Targeting Pakistan with such weapons would be ineffective, especially since shorter-range systems exist for this purpose.

The argument that India’s development of the K-4 and K-15 could threaten Pakistan is perhaps more persuasive, but second-strike sea-based forces are widely perceived as defensive, stability-inducing capabilities rather than offensive, destabilising ones.

Khan and Ahmed do not address why these future capabilities would be more threatening to Pakistan than India’s current arsenal of land-based missiles, particularly the Prithvi (I-III) and the Agni (I-IV) series. This is an important omission considering that existing missiles already enable India to securely target much of Pakistan. With this in mind, it seems that the authors dismissed the ignore option too quickly because matching Indian capabilities, even at a slower pace, might add little to Pakistan’s security, while further aggravating the security dilemma.

Given these factors, one could argue with Khan and Ahmed’s contention that the tortoise option is a stable path for Pakistan to adopt. It could make sense for Pakistan to allow India to pursue the expensive proposition of developing MIRVs while opting not to do so itself, because India is highly unlikely to use such capabilities against Pakistan. Moreover, New Delhi remains unlikely to contemplate a ‘splendid first-strike’ against Pakistan because Islamabad is sufficiently prepared to launch a nuclear response. Thus, matching Indian capabilities, even over time, might provide few security benefits while further aggravating the security dilemma. From this perspective, maintenance of the status quo – and deploying crucial resources toward other priorities – could better enhance Pakistan’s security than the pursuit of MIRVs.

Shadow of the near future

That Pakistan’s strategic modernisation will respond to Indian advances is no surprise. However, what form this will take is anybody’s guess. This is a classic security dilemma scenario, where the defensive developments of each state breeds insecurity on the other side. Sino-Pakistan cooperation with regard to MIRVs or the exquisite ISR capabilities needed for effective counter-force targeting would do little to improve Islamabad’s security while deepening Washington and New Delhi’s strategic embrace. As India and Pakistan increasingly depend on their strategic partners to assert power in the Indian Ocean region, such relationships are likely to be extremely consequential for the stability of the region in the near future. India and Pakistan’s strategic modernisations thus cannot be seen in a vacuum. They have important implications for regional and global stability. The endgame here for the actors involved should thus not just be strategic stability in the subcontinent, but a semblance of stability in the balance of power in the larger game between the US and China. If recent developments in the region are anything to go by, this isn’t anywhere close to happening.

Debak Das is a PhD student at the Department of Government, Cornell University. A version of this piece originally appeared at South Asian Voices (@SAVoices), an online platform for strategic analysis and debate hosted by the Stimson Center.