May 30, 2020
The author reviews the conceptual evolution of nuclear deterrence in both countries over the past two decades, and the role nuclear weapons play in their national security strategies
This month saw the 22nd anniversary of the Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests. In May 1998, India chose to announce its nuclear weapons capability by conducting five tests on 11 and 13 May. Pakistan followed about two weeks later with six nuclear tests. As summer temperatures peaked, so did nuclear rhetoric on both sides.
Both countries have been operationalising their individual concepts of nuclear deterrence over the past two decades. India follows the dictum of credible minimum deterrence as enunciated in its nuclear doctrine—which was announced as a draft in 1999, and then as an official document in 2003. Pakistan began with the same concept but transitioned a few years ago to the idea of full spectrum deterrence. This new concept is meant to project deterrence at all levels of conflict—sub-conventional, conventional, and nuclear—with an arsenal that includes varied yields of warheads and a range of delivery systems.
Advances in the technological sophistication of Indian and Pakistani nuclear capabilities were only to be expected. Indeed, the types of delivery vehicles have grown, as has their range, accuracy, and reliability across launch platforms. Both countries have come a long way from the first-generation short-range ballistic missiles; Prithvi 1 in the case of India and Hatf 1 and 2 in the case of Pakistan. The numbers of nuclear warheads are estimated at 130-140 for India and 150-160 for Pakistan. Of course, neither officially corroborates or denies these figures. Some of the newer capabilities that are currently under development and testing include the ability of missiles to carry multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) in Pakistan, and rudimentary developments in hypersonic technologies in India.
Capability, however, is only one leg of the three-legged stool on which nuclear deterrence rests. The other two legs include the resolve to use this capability and the communication of both capability and resolve.
Resolve to use capability has a military and political dimension. Military resolve is to be found in the existence of requisite command and control structures, operational logistics, etc. These underpin the ability to handle deterrence breakdown by maintaining sufficient robustness for retaliation. Political resolve is more amorphous and may be gauged, among others, from the personality of the leadership and his/her ability to take hard, even unpopular decisions, across a diverse spectrum of issues.
India’s demonstration of resolve, traditionally seen as weak, is perceived to have become more evident over the last half a decade. Military responses to terrorist attacks supported by Pakistan since 2016, as well as a strong prime minister who has not shied away from decisions such as demonetisation or a nationwide lockdown to fight COVID-19, illustrate a strong political will.
Meanwhile, with a first use doctrine and a military-predominant system, Pakistani resolve is perceived in its projection of the use of ‘tactical nuclear weapons’ mounted on shoot and scoot systems to target the battlefield. The army is the prime driver of Pakistani nuclear decision-making, and the command chain signals integration of nuclear and conventional operations. This contrasts with the Indian system where the political leader is at the helm of nuclear command, and nuclear weapons are not integrated with conventional warfare. So, for India, demonstration of political resolve is perceived to be of greater consequence for deterrence, while for Pakistan, the military dimension is of greater significance.
The third leg of deterrence rests on communication or signalling. The experience in this domain is that Pakistan has chosen to maintain a far higher pitch regarding its nuclear dimension than India. This is not surprising since Pakistan uses its nuclear capability for purposes other than just deterring the adversary’s nuclear weapons. The objectives of its nuclear weapons also include deterring the possibility of an Indian conventional response to acts of terrorism that Rawalpindi sponsors; drawing international attention towards a possible regional nuclear conflagration and thus seeking constraints on an Indian response; and bargaining with the West for military and financial assistance.
Frequently drawing attention to nuclear weapons is, therefore, a significant hallmark of Pakistan’s nuclear strategy. Prime Minister Imran Khan demonstrated this well in the wake of the Pulwama terrorist attack on Indian paramilitary forces in February 2019. Before and after the Indian military response targeting terrorist infrastructure in Balakot, he consistently emphasised the presence of nuclear weapons in both countries, and the consequences of their use for the region and beyond.
In contrast to Pakistan maintaining the spotlight on nuclear weapons, statements from Indian officialdom drawing attention to India’s nuclear capability have traditionally been few. In fact, from 2003 to 2013, New Delhi hardly made any notable nuclear references. In April 2013, two years after the Pakistani announcement of tactical nuclear weapons, a speech was made by the then head of India’s National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) to reiterate India’s strategy of massive retaliation. There was another lull thereafter, punctuated only by a statement in November 2016 by then Defence Minister late Manohar Parrikar regarding no first use (NFU). The debate that followed is well-known. But, it was soon put to rest at the official level by clarifying that there was no change in India’s nuclear doctrine.
Some references to India’s nuclear weapons have been made more recently, one of them being by the prime minister himself during his election campaign. Another statement came along in August 2019 when the present Defence Minister Rajnath Singh made a reference to India’s nuclear doctrine. It is unclear whether such remarks are part of a considered government communication strategy or inadvertent statements made in a political context. In fact, one clear case of deliberate nuclear signalling that can be gleaned is the PM’s statement in October 2018 announcing INS Arihant’s first deterrent patrol.
Signalling is an important dimension of nuclear deterrence, and states must pick these out from the hubris of rhetoric and political chatter. India and Pakistan do appear to have settled into some sort of a pattern of signalling, which creates a sense of predictability and allows a semblance of understanding. However, neither side should ever forget that nuclear weapons are not ordinary weapons, and must be treated with respect, restraint, and responsibility.
At the age of 22, and with the natural swagger of early adulthood, these two nuclear states—with the fate of over one and a half billion of humanity upon their shoulders—can ill-afford rash misadventures.
Dr Manpreet Sethi
Distinguished Fellow with the Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS), New Delhi.