Home Columnists Pakistan and India Again Sit on a Nuclear Powder Keg
Pakistan and India Again Sit on a Nuclear Powder Keg

Pakistan and India Again Sit on a Nuclear Powder Keg


By William Tucker
Columnist, In Homeland Security

Pakistan and India are once again locked in a military standoff. This standoff was triggered on February 14 when militants belonging to Jaish-e-Mohammed launched a suicide attack against Indian paramilitary forces in Gundipora that killed 44 Indians. It was the deadliest attacked suffered by Indian forces in Kashmir in nearly 30 years.

India retaliated by bombing a terrorist training camp across the border in Pakistan. However, the Pakistani government claims the bombing raid hit only a vacant area.

Days later, Pakistan and India traded artillery fire across their shared border, which escalated into both sides conducting air operations. Pakistani aircraft bombed an empty field in India. When India attempted to retaliate, one of its fighters was shot down.

In the past few days the situation has calmed down somewhat when Pakistan returned the Indian pilot from the downed aircraft.

Pakistan and India Are Long-Time Adversaries

The situation between these two nuclear powers, however, puts the world on edge again due to fears of Pakistani political stability and India’s need to respond to such provocations. Although Pakistan might not have ordered the attack in India-controlled Kashmir, the historical militancy in Pakistan allows India to blame Islamabad for the violence.

For Pakistan, its much larger neighbor and adversary prompts Islamabad to seek parity in some methods of conventional warfare. But it also forces this small nation to rely on unconventional warfare.

The pitfall of the Pakistani approach is that militant organizations have their own interests and often launch attacks that draw the two nations into a violent standoff. Consequently, the frequent bloodletting between the two nations — coupled with disputed territory — makes for a deadly combination. Their nuclear weapons, unfortunately, both fosters and defuses this dynamic.

India’s Nuclear Doctrine

The 1962 border war with China and the subsequent Chinese nuclear tests in 1964 pushed India to acquire a nuclear arsenal of its own. India detonated its first nuclear device in 1974, but it did not research more powerful thermonuclear weapons or enter into full-scale production until much later.

When tensions with Pakistan arose again in 1990, both countries were on the verge of ramping up their nuclear research and beginning production, but international intervention stopped the warfare. Although a crisis was averted, it prompted both Pakistan and India to continue their respective nuclear research with the goal of obtaining deterrence.

In furtherance of this goal, both nations conducted full-scale nuclear tests in May 1998. It was after these tests that India created an interim nuclear doctrine in 1999 that focused on China, and New Delhi’s main rival, Pakistan. The doctrine was adopted in 2003 with a few revisions.

India is the only nuclear power to publicly publish its nuclear doctrine. While the Indian nuclear doctrine is several pages long, it contains only a few salient features that bear mentioning:

  • Prohibition of a first strike
  • Massive retaliation
  • Distinguishing between weapons of mass destruction

The third feature simply means that India reserves the right to retaliate with nuclear weapons if Indian forces or Indian territory are attacked by chemical or biological weapons. The design of these features works toward the goal of deterrence. Although the doctrine should support Indian strategy vis-à-vis China, Pakistan is another matter entirely.

Pakistan’s instability and the potential for a non-state entity to acquire nuclear weapons poses a unique challenge. This challenge, along with Pakistan’s approach to a nuclear doctrine, is what leads to these frequent standoffs.

Pakistan’s Nuclear Doctrine

Pakistan has never officially articulated a nuclear doctrine, nor has it come close to promulgating a statement on the how and when of nuclear escalation.

A statement by Dr. Shireen Mazari, former Director General at the Strategic Studies Institute – Islamabad, is telling in its explanation:

“Pakistan has chosen not to publicly enunciate a comprehensive nuclear doctrine partly because it does not see a political/status utility for the nuclear capability – rather, it envisages the nuclear capability as having a purely defensive, security-related purpose. Pakistan’s threat perceptions are seen as stemming primarily from India both at the level of all-out conventional war, limited war and low intensity conflict (LIC). Within the nuclear framework, Pakistan seeks to establish deterrence against all-out conventional war.”

Also by William Tucker: India and US Sign Major Defense Deal 10 Years in the Making

The last line is perhaps the most indicative of Pakistan’s view of nuclear force. A review of the available literature from the Pakistani defense establishment features a recurring theme – India’s military superiority would overwhelm Pakistan in a conventional war. If India were to invade Pakistan, Islamabad would resort to nuclear weapons.

This amounts to a first-strike doctrine, although the Pakistani military would prefer to employ tactical as opposed to strategic nuclear weapons in the hopes of halting the invasion and preventing strategic escalation. There is much riding on this philosophy because there is no guarantee that India would not respond to a tactical nuclear threat with a strategic strike. There is a deliberate ambiguity in this approach.

Weaving ambiguity into Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine is meant to give India pause in pursuing a punitive expedition using conventional means. Pakistan has a legitimate interest in the fate of Kashmir and uses non-state actors to keep India off balance in the disputed territory.

India, for its part, cannot simply absorb attacks on its soldiers or civilians without some sort of response. Pakistan’s need to rely on nuclear weapons in this context limits India’s options for retribution.

At some point, this stasis will fail. Either Pakistan or a non-state actor will go too far in pushing India and that will force Delhi to respond harshly. This is why the international community discusses the nuclear dynamics of the region so quickly after an attack.

The potential for escalation is difficult to understate and tensions will remain as long as disputes between Pakistan and India go unresolved. For now, we can expect more of the same situation and hope that neither side makes a fateful miscalculation.




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