India-Pakistan Nuclear Dynamics

Working Paper Presented at the Asia-Pacific Workshop sponsored by the

Asia Pacific Leadership Network (APLN) – Seoul, 1-4 December, 2020

The long-standing conflict between Indian and Pakistan took on a sharper edge with wider regional and even global implications when both countries announced their emergence as nuclear weapon states in 1998.  With continuing tensions that periodically erupted into crises, Western analysts were quick to attribute the India-Pakistan theatre as a ‘nuclear flashpoint’. Prescriptions for arms control drawing upon the US-USSR experience during the Cold War became a staple agenda for Western think tanks. Many Indian and Pakistani analysts too found it expedient to adopt the Cold War deterrence theology as it was familiar ground though the underlying politics bore no resemblance to the ideology driven Cold War world.

This paper seeks to unpack the India-Pakistan nuclear dynamics by taking an empirical look at the different crises beginning from the late 1980s. It is divided into five sections. Section I deals with the origins of the India-Pakistan conflict and how the changing internal political dynamics have impacted on the nuclear dynamic. Section II takes a look at the nuclear doctrines of both countries as well as the current nuclear capabilities and future plans for their nuclear arsenals. Since neither country has put out official figures about its arsenal, the estimates of capabilities are drawn from the Global Nuclear Database maintained by the US based Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. This helps provide for a ready comparison. The numerous crises since the late 1980s are covered in Section III with relevant references to domestic political drivers. Two of these pertain to pre-1998 and the rest to the post-1998 period. The role of external actors and how India and Pakistan drew different conclusions from the crises are covered in Section IV though with some overlap with Section III. The final Section V deals with what steps can be taken, unilaterally, bilaterally and globally to lengthen the nuclear fuse, in order to ensure that the nuclear threshold is not crossed.

Unilateral measures that India could take to restore normalcy in the state of Jammu and Kashmir or the civilian government in Pakistan could take to reduce the role of the military in policy making can certainly be visualised but these would be beyond the scope of this paper as these need a deep dive into domestic politics of both countries. suffice to add that in current times, prospects of this are about as likely as global elimination of nuclear weapons. This paper accordingly focuses on the more realistic scenario, assuming continued hostile relations between the two neighbours but assuming a shared convergence in seeking to prevent inadvertent escalation that may lead to unintended consequences.  

Section I

India and Pakistan have been locked into a conflictual relationship since the two countries emerged as independent nations in 1947, arising out of the partition of India. Using the concept of the ‘two nation theory’, the British rulers divided India, creating a separate homeland for the Muslims of the Indian sub-continent on the grounds that Hindus and Muslims constituted two separate nations. Within months, India and Pakistan were locked in a conflict over the state of Jammu and Kashmir which had legally acceded to India but Pakistan claimed it on the grounds that it was a Muslim majority state. After four inconclusive wars in 1947-48, 1965, 1971 and 1999, Jammu and Kashmir remains a divided state with India in possession of roughly two-thirds and the remaining with Pakistan. The 776-kilometre-long boundary in the state of Jammu and Kashmir is called the Line of Control while the remaining 2300 km long border between the two countries is the ‘international boundary’ and is not disputed.

Today, however, it is clear that Kashmir is not the only source of conflict. Nor can the conflict be explained in terms of a continuation of the ‘two nation theory’ because there are more than 170 million Muslims in India accounting for 14.2 percent of India’s population, up from less than 10 percent in 1951. In comparison, Pakistan’s population is 210 million; Hindus account for less than 2 percent down from 12 percent in 1951 because the Hindus finding themselves reduced to second class citizens, either converted or migrated. However, the glue of religion proved unable to hold East Pakistan and West Pakistan together, leading to its eastern wing emerging as Bangla Desh in 1971, after a brutal suppression widely described as ‘genocide’, putting paid to the ‘two nation theory’[i].

As a new state, Pakistan consciously turned its back on its sub-continental civilisational roots that it shared with India and sought to redefine its identity anew, in the name of Islam but found it difficult to reconcile the notion of a modern state with its founding ideology. The Muslim clergy represented by Jamaat e Islami led by Maulana Maudoodi had an uneasy relationship with the Muslim League, the political party led by Mohammed Ali Jinnah that had spearheaded the call for a separate homeland of the Muslims of the Indian sub-continent, suspecting the League of using religion for political ends but actually desiring a modern state rather than one based on Shariah. This became the first source of divergence with India whose leaders sought to create a secular, plural and democratic state.

The second source of divergence came with the decline of political parties in Pakistan leading to long bouts of military dictatorship. From 1958 to 1971, from 1977 to 1988 and from 1999 to 2008, Pakistan was under Army rule, taking its toll on political parties and weakening institutions like the judiciary and media. Even with the restoration of democracy in 2008, the military remains in the driver’s seat, especially where security, defence and foreign policies are concerned. Repeated involvement of the military in governance has led to a militarisation of the state and perpetuating a hostile relationship with India has become necessary for the military to retain its role in the country’s political life.  

Further, like authoritarian rulers in other countries, the military rulers often sought to legitimise their coups by presenting themselves as defenders of not just the frontiers of the state but also guardians of Pakistan’s Islamic ideology. For this, they relied on the street power of the Mullahs, a technique that was effectively used by Gen Zia ul Haq. It cast the hostility with India into a ‘jihad’, a fight between the Muslim and the infidel, deepening the divide. Defining an identity by negating its subcontinental civilisational roots and make it ‘non-Indian’ has remained Pakistan’s dilemma. The military-mosque nexus shifted it from non-Indian into ‘anti-Indian’, changing the historical narrative and locking not just the state but also the people into a relationship of hostility[ii]

Lt Gen (retd) Khalid Kidwai who headed the Strategic Plans Division (SPD) for from 2000 to 2013 and is an Adviser to Pakistan’s Nuclear Command Authority spoke at IISS (London) on 6 February 2020 on strategic stability. He identified four drivers of Indian policy as – Hindutva philosophy seeking to erase the “sense of humiliation of a Hindu nation of a thousand years of Muslim rule”; restoration of the perceived glory of Hindu India going back to 300 BC; a “quest for regional domination” particularly in relation to Pakistan; and finally, a “self-delusional one way competition with China” by aligning with the US as an Indo-Pacific power. Lt Gen (retd) Kidwai’s thinking, whether or not accurate, is not new but more importantly, is reflected in official military writings in their training institutions and has played a major role in defining Pakistan military’s strategic culture. It is therefore hardly surprising that the few attempts by elected civilian leaders to improve relations with India (PM Benazir Bhutto in 1989 and PM Nawaz Sharif in 1999) were seen as threatening moves by the army and quickly stymied.

A US analyst identifies four themes underlying the Pakistan military’s strategic culture, of which three directly impact on its relationship with India and the fourth indirectly. First, Pakistan army considers the partition to have been an unfair process and therefore it considers it ‘incomplete’. This explains the obsession with Kashmir as well as the role of the army as the “guardians of Pakistan’s ideological frontiers”. Linked to this is the conviction that India remains implacably opposed to the ‘two nation theory’, has never accepted partition and does not accept the existence of an independent, sovereign Pakistan. Proof of this is India’s role in the 1971 war that led to the break-up of Pakistan with East Pakistan seceding to declare itself an independent Bangla Desh. The third theme is that India is a hegemon and poses an existential threat to Pakistan because it seeks to impose a security and economic structure on the region converting the smaller neighbours into satellite states and therefore Indian ambitions have to be thwarted. The fourth theme has to do with Afghanistan which has never accepted the Durand Line as the border. In the past, it meant that Pakistan sought ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan and now it has become increasingly paranoid about Indian presence in Afghanistan and the possibility of collusion between India and Afghanistan to destabilise Pakistan’s Pashtun and Baloch borderlands[iii].

Pakistan has sought to compensate for its disparity with India in terms of size, population and economy by resorting to asymmetric warfare and also seeking alliances. Having been a frontline state in US’s covert war against Soviet Union in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989, Pakistan’s ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) successfully weaponised ‘jihad’ as the instrument to radicalise groups to undertake terrorist strikes and low intensity conflict. Pakistan was no stranger to asymmetric warfare having supported insurgencies in India earlier. It supported the Naga insurgency from East Pakistan in the 1960s, Sikh militancy in the 1980s and since 1990, has been waging a proxy war by training, equipping and infiltrating terrorists into Kashmir in the name of ‘jihad’.

During the Cold War, Pakistan was a member of two US led military alliances – SEATO and CENTO. After 9/11 as US and other countries have become more concerned with global implications of jihadi terrorism, Pakistan has strengthened its ties with China. In addition to the cooperation in conventional, nuclear and missile sectors, China has also emerged as by far the largest source of foreign investment in Pakistan. The strategic underpinning between the two is apparent since India and China have an unresolved boundary dispute and have fought a war in 1962. Earlier this year, the situation heated up leading to clashes in turn causing casualties for the first time after 45 years.

In May 1998, both India and Pakistan conducted a series of nuclear tests, declaring themselves nuclear weapon states and adding a new dimension to their hostile relationship. Many would argue that the nuclear shadow over the relationship existed even earlier. Some would go back to January 1972, when after the creation of Bangla Desh, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto convened Pakistan’s nuclear scientists exhorting them that the only guarantee for ensuring Pakistan’s territorial integrity was to develop nuclear weapons; or, even earlier after the unsuccessful 1965 war when he had famously declared “we will eat grass if we have to, we will make the nuclear bomb”. Others would link the nuclear shadow to India undertaking a Peaceful Nuclear Explosion in 1974, or the US attempt at coercive nuclear diplomacy by bringing in the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise into the Bay of Bengal during the 1971 war, or even earlier to 1964, when China, after having inflicted a humiliating defeat on India in the 1962 border conflict, announced its entry on the world nuclear stage.

It is therefore clear that the nuclear rivalry is just another dimension of the more deep-seated rivalries between the two countries. What this means is that resolving Kashmir does not normalise the relationship because Pakistan sees India as an existential threat and this perception is not going to change easily, certainly not as long as the military continues to dominate the security and foreign policy making and perhaps even beyond because a new historical narrative has taken root in Pakistan. Some of the recent Hindutva tinted rhetoric from the BJP quarters only serves to convince the Pakistan military that India’s secularism was always a sham and it is just a matter of time that the liberal-secular urban elite in India will be marginalised yielding to the majoritarian Hindu impulse.

Section II

The nature of warfare changed fundamentally seventy-five years ago when the US dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945, followed by a second on Nagasaki three days later. It was clear then that nuclear weapons were qualitatively different from any other weapon system in terms of its sheer destructive power and this remains true. Even today, the biggest conventional bomb is the GBU Massive Ordnance Air Blast with an explosive yield of 11 MT of TNT equivalent; in comparison, the Hiroshima bomb was 15 kT or 15000 MT! Today, nuclear arsenals of many states contain weapons with yields in the megaton range and even the tactical nuclear weapons have yields of the order of 500 MT. This realisation has contributed to the nuclear taboo though there were numerous instances during the Cold War when the taboo was close to being breached.

The only use of nuclear weapons had taken place when US was the sole country possessing nuclear weapons. By the time, USSR exploded its nuclear device in 1949, the Cold War had already come into being reflected in the division of Germany, and of Europe into an East Europe and a West Europe. NATO, a US led military alliance for defence of West Europe was created in 1949 and a Soviet led Warsaw Pact came into being in 1955 following West Germany’s induction into NATO in 1953. USA and the Soviet Union were soon locked into a nuclear arms race, both qualitative and quantitative. This political, economic and military rivalrous relationship between two nuclear superpowers has shaped the growth of nuclear theology.

Two schools of deterrence theory soon emerged in the US. One was led by Bernard Brodie, a political science professor who had served at the Department of Navy during World War II and later spent nearly two decades at Rand Corporation. Brodie was of the view that deterrence is automatic and ensured through retaliation because the one who initiates the nuclear attack cannot be certain that the adversary’s entire nuclear arsenal has been eliminated. To Brodie is attributed the idea – “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 almost no other purpose”.

The other school was led by Albert Wohlstetter, a Maths major with a strong focus on applying mathematical modelling to economics and business cycles who worked at the War Production Board during World War II and later moved to Rand too. While he too believed in massive retaliation, he felt that ensuring second strike capability needed larger arsenals and survivability to prevent the notion of a nuclear Pearl Harbour. He used modelling studies based on weapon yields, bomber ranges, accuracies and reliabilities of systems, blast resistance etc for the Basing studies. For Brodie, the risk of retaliation was an adequate deterrent while for Wohlstetter, it was the certainty of retaliation with large numbers that was necessary. Looking at the arms race that followed when both the US and USSR accumulated more than 65000 nuclear weapons between them, it is clear that Wohlstetter carried the day[iv].

This in turn gave rise to new concepts of flexible response, escalation dominance, countervalue and counterforce, survivability, compellence and prevailance. It is counterfactual to enquire whether this conceptual evolution contributed to a stable deterrence posture or not but it certainly ensured that the nuclear arms race continued because the two countries were engaged in an all-out rivalry, political, economic and military. The fact is that during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 that is also the best documented nuclear crisis, the US had an arsenal of 25540 bombs while the USSR had only 3346 but deterrence clearly worked. It established the ground rule of mutual vulnerability as the basis for deterrence and as the USSR achieved equivalence in its arsenal, it gave rise to the idea of managing the nuclear arms race by introducing equivalent strategic capabilities through arms control.

Deterrence stability was underwritten by ‘parity’ and ‘mutual vulnerability’; the latter was codified by the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Eventually, the US withdrew from it in 2002. Arms race stability was sought to be achieved through arms control agreements like SALT, START and INF during the Cold War, the last in the sequence being New START in 2010. Finally, crisis management stability was ensured through hot-lines, nuclear risk reduction centres and early warning systems. It is important to recall during the 1970s and 1980s, nuclear stability did not appear to be particularly reassuring and not many would have believed then that the Cold War would end without a shot being fired, or that the nuclear taboo would last as long as it has done. Declassified documents after the end of the Cold War also indicate that there were some pretty tense occasions, some inadvertent and some, a result of misperception arising out of system glitches. In these cases, it was luck that ensured that nuclear weapons were not launched and not the arms control measures that had been put in place. The three – deterrence stability, arms race stability and crisis management stability have formed the existing vocabulary of nuclear arms control.

Looking at the India-Pakistan nuclear doctrines and crises through the prism of US-Soviet bipolarity as many Western analysts are prone to do, is not particularly helpful. The key difference is that US and USSR reflected symmetry in terms of their arsenals and doctrinal approaches once the USSR had caught up with the US. Further, given their position as nuclear superpowers, it was possible to look at the US-Soviet equation as a standalone nuclear dyad. The India-Pakistan relationship is marked by asymmetry in terms of doctrinal approaches, as elaborated below. Secondly, India has maintained from 1998 when it declared itself a nuclear weapon state that its capability was intended as a deterrent against both Pakistan and China whereas Pakistan defines it capability as India specific. Given these differences, it is not possible to see the India-Pakistan equation in terms of a dyad.

The geopolitical shift from Euro-Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific also shows the presence of many more nuclear actors in an increasingly crowded geopolitical space. It brings in North Korea and the return of major power rivalry adds the US, Russia and China into the mix as well as US’s treaty allies – Japan and South Korea. The region therefore hosts multiple nuclear dyads but each dyad can be linked to other nuclear actors creating a loosely linked nuclear chain. This has made the search for nuclear stability in today’s world more elusive even as some of the old arms control agreements are being discarded as the political realities have changed.

India laid out the elements of its nuclear doctrine in a paper tabled by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee in parliament shortly after the 1998 nuclear tests. The paper “Evolution of India’s Nuclear Policy” made it clear that India saw nuclear weapons not as weapons of war fighting but in a more limited role, intended to address nuclear threats through deterrence. This was followed by a draft paper prepared by a newly constituted National Security Advisory Board and circulated in 1999 to elicit wider discussion. A more succinct and authoritative text was released in 2003 following a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security[v]. The key elements of the doctrine spelt out are:   

  1. Building and maintaining a credible minimum deterrent, based on a triad that includes land based, sea based and air borne delivery systems;                  
  2. A posture of nuclear no-first-use and non-use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states;   
  3. Nuclear retaliation in response to a nuclear attack on Indian territory or on Indian forces anywhere to be massive and inflict unacceptable damage;             
  4. Retaining option of nuclear retaliation in response to a chemical or biological weapons attack;  
  5. Continuation of the moratorium on nuclear explosive testing;                              
  6. Readiness to join in Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty negotiations;
  7. Ensuring strict export controls on nuclear and missile related materials and related materials and technologies;                                       
  8. Continued commitment to the goal of a nuclear weapon free world through global, verifiable and non-discriminatory nuclear disarmament.

Since India’s doctrine makes clear that its nuclear weapons are only to deter a nuclear threat or attack, India needs additional capabilities to deal with threats of sub-conventional and conventional conflicts. By eschewing a warfighting role for nuclear weapons, India is able to duck the temptations of an arms race with Pakistan or China. Given the short distances that compress time available for decision making, India believes that it is not possible to make a distinction between ‘tactical’ and ‘strategic’ nuclear weapons or their use. This reflects another departure from the US-USSR approaches that provided a 25-minute interval for a missile launched from the mainland to reach the target on the adversary’s mainland. In the US-USSR vocabulary, long-range vectors were considered ‘strategic’ and systems with ranges below 5500 kms were further divided into intermediate, medium and short-range systems. Extended deterrence assurances to allies in Europe and Asia also introduced political compulsions for forward deployment of US and Soviet weapons that were attributed tactical or battlefield roles. Such distinctions undoubtedly contributed to the arms race.

Pakistan has chosen to invest its nuclear weapons with a different role. It prefers to retain a degree of ambiguity claiming that it strengthens deterrence while maintaining that its nuclear capability is India specific, and consequently, its size will be guided by India’s arsenal. While Pakistan states that it maintains a minimum credible deterrent (sometimes also called a minimum defensive deterrent), its role is not just to deter nuclear use by India but also act as an equaliser against India’s conventional superiority. Pakistan therefore rejects the idea of a no-first-use policy. In 2015, it had declared “four red lines that could trigger a nuclear response – occupation of a large part of Pakistan territory by India; destruction of a large part of Pakistan’s military capacity; attempt to strangulate Pakistan’s economy; and creating political destabilisation”.

This has since evolved to ‘full spectrum deterrence’ as Pakistan has added short range systems for tactical use (60 km range Hatf IX or Nasr ballistic missile) and is also adding a number of cruise missile systems which have dual capability. The Nasr was flight tested in 2011 and according to a statement by the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) Directorate. “adds deterrence value to Pakistan’s Strategic Weapons Development programme at shorter ranges”. The Nasr could carry “nuclear warheads of appropriate yield with high accuracy” and is a quick response system with shoot and scoot capabilities. According to Lt Gen (retd) Kidwai, Pakistan’s range of nuclear weapons provide it with “full spectrum deterrence, including at strategic, operational and tactical levels”. By deliberately lowering the nuclear threshold, Pakistan believes it strengthens deterrence and as he explains “it is the Full Spectrum Deterrence capability of Pakistan that brings the international community rushing into South Asia to prevent a wider conflagration”[vi].

Neither India nor Pakistan have made any official statements regarding the sizes of their nuclear arsenals. Analysts are therefore left to derive estimates based on fissile material production capacities, occasional press releases about missile launches and other indicators about likely inductions of new delivery systems. In order to maintain uniformity, the numbers regarding the arsenals of both countries in the following paragraphs have been taken from the same source – Nuclear Notebook, a database maintained by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and pertain to 2018. India is estimated to have produced 130-140 warheads, currently distributed over seven delivery platforms and increasing at the rate of about 10 warheads every year. The deliver platforms  include two aircraft (Mirage 2000 and Jaguar, both originally deployed in the 1980s), four land based ballistic missiles (Prithvi II, Agni I, Agni II and Agni III, each capable of carrying a single warhead and with ranges from 350 kms to 3000 kms) and one submarine launched ballistic missile (K-15 Sagarika with a range of 700 kms) for its nuclear powered submarines (SSBN); given these ranges, the triad is still an exercise in the making.

India’s stockpile of weapons grade plutonium (its arsenal is entirely plutonium based) is considered adequate for 200 warheads and plutonium production could go up depending on how the Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor project develops. Construction of the first two breeder reactors is expected to begin in 2021 and would last a decade. It is assumed that the Jaguars would be retired once the Rafale aircraft are inducted. The Indian land based missile programme was launched in the mid-1980s but the Prithvi II was only inducted in 2003. The land-based missiles are solid fuelled systems and road or rail mobile. Two more land-based systems Agni IV and Agni V are under development with ranges of 4000 and 5000 kms respectively. There is speculation that Agni V may carry MIRVs but it would mean reducing range and unless China develops a missile defence system, there would be little military need for MIRVs on Agni V. This may become more likely once India develops missiles with ranges over 8000 kms. The indigenous SSBN programme has suffered long delays and only one SSBN has completed sea trials. Another is expected to be commissioned next year and India is likely to build three or four SSBNs. The K-15 has a limited range of 700 kms and such a short range only enables India to target southern Pakistan and the submarine would need to get to South China Sea to target coastal China. Another SLBM K-4 with a range of 3500 kms is being tested and will eventually replace the K-15. India is also developing a ground launched cruise missile that was finally flight tested up to 700 kms in 2017 after numerous failures. There are rumours that this may be dual capable (in both conventional and nuclear role) though there are no statements to indicate this.

Pakistan’s nuclear stockpile is estimated at 140-150 warheads and estimated to grow to 220-250 warheads by 2025 in view of an ambitious expansion of both its uranium enrichment and plutonium production capacities. In addition to Kahuta enrichment plant, another has come up at Gadwal and three plutonium production reactors have been added at the Khushab complex during the last decade. In 1998, Pakistan reportedly tested both types of devices, based on highly enriched uranium and also plutonium. It is estimated that Pakistan’s fissile material inventory of 3400 kg of highly enriched (90%) uranium and about 280 kg of plutonium is enough to produce between 236 and 283 warheads.

Pakistan’s delivery platforms include Mirage III/V and F-16 aircraft and there are reports that with US withholding additional aircraft supplies and France emerging as a key Indian strategic partner, Pakistan would in future rely on the jointly developed JF-17 with China for a nuclear role, possibly using Ra’ad, an air launched cruise missile. It has six operational land based ballistic missile systems Abdali (Hatf-2) range of 200 kms, Ghaznavi (Hatf-3) range of 300 kms, Shaheen 1 (Hatf-4) range of 750 kms, Ghauri (Hatf-5) range of 1250 kms, Shaheen 2 (Hatf-6) range of 1500 kms and the most recent Nasr (Hatf-9) with a range of 60 kms. All are solid fuelled except for Ghauri which is liquid fuelled and is a variant of North Korean Nodong that Pakistan acquired in 1990s in exchange for sharing nuclear enrichment technology. Shaheen 1 is based on the Chinese M-9 missile supplied in the 1990s. Pakistan has also tested Shaheen 3 with a range of 2750 kms and in 2017 also tested Ababeel, a new missile with multiple warhead (MIRV) capability. Hatf 2,3,4 and 9 are dual capable, in keeping with Pakistan’s policy of ambiguity and are deployed in garrisons close to the Indian border.

Pakistan has also developed a ground launched Babur (Hatf-7) and the air launched Ra’ad (Hatf-8), both nuclear capable cruise missiles and currently, efforts are under way to improve their ranges. Babur was originally tested at 350 kms and more recent tests indicate that the range has been nearly doubled. Ra’ad was also deployed with a range of 350 kms but its newer versions indicate a range of 550 kms. A sea launched version of Babur with a range of 450 kms has been tested both from surface and underwater launch platforms and would eventually be deployed on the diesel-electric Agosta submarines or the newer Yuan class Type 041 submarines being acquired from China[vii].

Pakistan’s development of battlefield and dual capable systems has generated widespread concerns. In the 2018 Threat Assessment, US Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats said, “Pakistan continues to produce nuclear weapons and develop new types of nuclear weapons, including short range tactical weapons, sea-based cruise missile, air launched cruise missiles, and longer-range ballistic missiles. These new types of nuclear weapons will introduce new risks for escalation dynamics and security in the region”. In the 2017 South Asia Strategy issued by the White House, the Trump administration had urged Pakistan to stop sheltering terrorist organisations and emphasised the need “to prevent nuclear weapons and materials from coming into the hands of terrorists”. Pakistani officials have rejected these concerns indicating that Pakistani missiles are in dis-assembled form and are only put together at the eleventh hour.

Section III

Given the sources of insecurity and the doctrinal asymmetry, it is hardly surprising that India and Pakistan draw have very different interpretations of the crises that have raised concerns about escalation. The first case of nuclear signalling can be dated to 1987, the Operation Brasstacks crisis. India had undertaken a large scale military exercise on the Pakistan border leading to apprehensions in Pakistan that India was preparing to launch a major attack. In late January, Dr A Q Khan, widely considered the father of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb, gave a surprise interview to a visiting Indian journalist Kuldip Nayar during which he admitted that Pakistan possessed a nuclear bomb and would not hesitate to use it in case of war with India. It is believed that given Dr Khan’s high level security clearance, the interview had been cleared by the Pakistani military authorities. There is widespread conviction in Pakistan that the nuclear threat worked and India backed down though Indian observers maintain that the crisis had peaked days earlier and de-escalation was under way.

The second crisis occurred in May 1990 when there was an uprising in Kashmir and India stepped up its security forces presence amid rumours that Pakistan military may try to take advantage of the situation. On the basis of satellite imagery, US concluded that Pakistan was preparing to move its nuclear weapons and Dy NSA Robert Gates visited Delhi and Islamabad in a bid to defuse the situation. The crisis was defused and Foreign Secretary level talks resumed the following month. Both these incidents took place before Pakistan acknowledged possession of nuclear weapons and consequently the signalling was indirect.

The situation changed after the 1998 nuclear tests and nuclear signalling became more explicit in the crises thereafter. If there was any expectation that the overt nuclear situation might bring about some stability by introducing an element of restraint, it was soon dispelled. Barely had the ink dried on the forward looking Lahore Declaration and the MOU on nuclear confidence building measures, signed during Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s historic visit to Lahore in February 1999 – when the Kargil conflict erupted. In a pre-emptive move, Pakistan intruded across the LoC to occupy certain heights that threatened Indian access into the Ladakh region. It was a brazen attempt to alter the territorial status quo. India mounted an uphill assault and deployed the air force but in a restrained manner as the aircraft were directed not to cross the LoC. Widespread international concern at this reckless behaviour and the heavy toll eventually forced Pakistan to withdraw and retreat across the LoC. It later emerged that Pakistani political leadership had not been fully briefed about the pre-emptive move by the army generals and growing internal differences eventually contributed to the ouster of the civilian government in a military coup in October 1999; the military rule lasted nearly a decade. Clearly, Pakistan saw its nuclear capability as a shield under which it could seek to alter territorial status quo, confident in its assessment that Indian retaliation would be deterred as it believed had happened in the earlier crises.  

The next crisis was provoked by an attack on the Indian parliament in December 2001 by a group of terrorists belonging to Lashkar e Taiba (LeT) and Jaish e Mohammed (JeM), two internationally proscribed terrorist groups based in Pakistan. India responded by mobilising its army along the border in early 2002. In an address to the nation on 12 January 2002, Gen Pervez Musharraf sought to defuse the situation by condemning the “terrorist attack” and announced a ban on five jihadi organisations including LeT and JeM. He declared that no organisation would be allowed to carry out terrorist strikes, within Pakistan or anywhere else. Before matters could stabilise, tensions escalated again in May when three Pakistani fedayeen attacked an army camp at Kaluchak killing 34 soldiers and their family members. As Indian rhetoric sharpened, in June, Gen Musharraf announced that if India attacked, Pakistan retained the option of first-use of nuclear weapons. US, Russia, France, Japan and UK engaged in active diplomacy. US needed Pakistani military cooperation on the Pak-Afghan border in its war against Al Qaeda and Taliban, and eventually tensions eased when Pakistan began to dismantle the terrorist training camps and the launch pads close to the LoC leading to de-escalation. Finally, a ceasefire across the LoC was announced in November 2003 that lasted for five years. However, according to Lt Gen (retd) Kidwai, India’s coercive exercise had failed as the Indian military had “lost the advantage of relative asymmetry in conventional forces because of Pakistan’s nuclear equaliser”.

The five year ceasefire laid the grounds for a backchannel dialogue that was promising. The peace was broken in November 2008 by an audacious strike by LeT terrorists who came by boat and simultaneously attacked a number of targets in Mumbai. There was credible evidence that the ISI was involved in attack. The newly elected democratic government in Pakistan initially promised to cooperate in the investigation including by sending the ISI chief to India though the offer was subsequently withdrawn. However, it sparked a debate in India about the utility of the no-first-use doctrine that was somewhat misguided because nuclear weapons were never intended to deter terrorists. That requires a different set of capabilities which India did not possess and therefore relied on international pressure on Pakistan since the Mumbai attack was widely seen as India’s 9/11 moment. However, it also exposed the lack of kinetic options available with India. Since citizens of other countries had also been killed in the attack, there was strong universal condemnation of the attack and India’s strategic restraint was appreciated. Nuclear strategic analysts, already unfamiliar with asymmetric nuclear dyads, were now saddled with the additional challenge of thinking through nuclear deterrence with respect to non-state actors that enjoyed covert state support.

In 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power and promised a more muscular policy against terrorism, both domestically and against Pakistani aided cross border infiltration. The first incident was a terrorist attack in September 2016 by four JeM fedayeen against an army brigade headquarter in Uri (in Kashmir) in which seventeen Indian soldiers were killed. Later in the month India announced that it had carried out retaliatory surgical strikes destroying the launch pads across the LoC and killing the terrorists who were present there waiting to be sent across, normally done under covering fire by Pakistani forces. Pakistan denied that there were any surgical strikes and the situation did not escalate. PM Modi successfully projected the surgical strikes as a sign of newfound Indian determination that it would not be deterred by Pakistan’s first use threat or tactical nuclear weapons. In the official briefings, it was described as “target specific, limited calibre, counter-terrorist operations across the LoC”. Clearly, the Modi government wanted to show that it was not averse to raising the coercive rhetorical pitch. The time for “strategic restraint” that had characterised Indian approach after the Mumbai attack was over. At the diplomatic level, the SAARC summit was postponed and SAARC has been in limbo since.

In February 2019, an Indian Kashmiri militant drove an explosive laden SUV into a convoy transporting para-military forces, killing 46 troops. JeM claimed responsibility for the Pulwama (Kashmir) strike. With general elections less than two months away, the Modi government vowed retaliation. Before end-February, Indian aircraft bombed a JeM training camp at Balakot in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. Pakistan undertook an air attack the following day and as Indian fighters scrambled, in the ensuing dogfight, an Indian pilot ejected from his damaged aircraft landing in Pakistan territory. He was returned within 48 hours with US, Saudi Arabia and UAE claiming to have intervened to ensure safe and early return of the captured pilot. Pakistan maintained that there was no training camp at Balakot and Indian aircraft had dropped their ordnance on a hillside. Its counterattack the following day showed its resolve to defend its sovereignty and the prompt return of the captured pilot its responsible behaviour. A few weeks later, both sides withdrew their High Commissioners and these have not been restored since.

In the official briefing the day following the Indian air strike, the focus was on downplaying the escalation, by pointing out that it was a non-military terrorist target and a pre-emptive strike as India had advance intelligence and the operation was now terminated. However, the public rhetoric was that India had called Pakistan’s nuclear bluff and created a new normal, in sharp contrast to the official briefing. Lt Gen (retd) Kidwai maintains that this was yet another attempt by India to “induce strategic instability” and Pakistan’s calibrated response had “restored strategic stability and no new normal was allowed to prevail”. He suggests that “Pakistan has ensured seamless integration between nuclear strategy and conventional military strategy, in order to achieve the desired outcomes in the realms of peacetime deterrence, pre-war deterrence as also in intra-war deterrence”.

Section IV

In the preceding section, seven instances have been examined, two relating to the pre-1998 period and the rest after both countries had declared themselves as nuclear weapon states. The pre-1998 cases can be described as reflecting a situation of ‘recessed deterrence’; this was overtaken in 1998 and it would be more productive to see what lessons, if any can be drawn from the five instances after 1998 and the role of the major powers, particularly USA and China. Has anything changed over the last two decades and if so what? 

It is now possible to discern five distinct levels of conflict between India and Pakistan:

  1. Sub-conventional conflict or attacks by terrorist groups that are based in Pakistan and have an established modus vivendi with the Pakistani authorities as in the attack on Indian parliament in 2001 or Mumbai in 2008;
  2. Hybrid sub-conventional conflict employing both militant groups and regular troops but trying to deny the role of latter as in the case of Kargil in 1999;
  3. Conventional conflict below the nuclear threshold;
  4. Conventional conflict escalated to the use of tactical or battlefield nuclear weapons;
  5. Full scale conflict with large scale use of nuclear weapons.

The five instances under examination fall in the first two categories. The unmistakable message to India is that possession of nuclear weapons will not deter such attacks. In each instance, India faced the challenge of finding appropriate retaliation that could combine both deterrence by denial and deterrence by punishment while keeping it below the nuclear threshold in keeping with its nuclear doctrine of no-first-use.  

Since the Kargil crisis involved Pakistan changing the territorial status quo, the Indian objective was modest but clear – restoration of status quo ante. In this, it had the support of the entire international community as Pakistan’s action was seen as provocative. High level Pakistani visits by PM Nawaz Sharif and by COAS Gen Musharraf to Beijing to seek Chinese support elicited quiet rebuffs providing space for US to play the key diplomatic role in the resolution of the crisis.

The attacks in 2001 and 2008 by Pakistan based terrorist groups also witnessed US playing a diplomatic role. In the first instance, Indian army had mobilised on the border and both armies were face to face. However, US needed Pakistan to redeploy its forces to the Pakistan-Afghan border as it had just embarked on its operations in Afghanistan after 9/11. The crisis took time to defuse till India was satisfied with Pakistani assurances that it would take action against groups like LeT and JeM. The 2008 attack in Mumbai created a dilemma for Indian decision makers. The confessions by one of the terrorists who had been captured alive and mobile telephone intercepts of conversations between the terrorists and their handlers made it evident that Pakistani authorities had been involved. The attack exposed weaknesses in India’s coastal security and was a rude reminder that it lacked appropriate kinetic options but since the victims included nationals of other countries, India had to be content with international condemnation and pressure.

Pakistan came to the conclusion that it was nuclear deterrence that stymied Indian kinetic retaliation. It began to develop tactical nuclear weapons so that the space for third category of conflict, namely conventional war below the nuclear threshold could be constricted and that Indian kinetic retaliation would rapidly escalate matters to level four involving tactical nuclear weapons.

The Modi government that came to power in 2014 and was re-elected in 2019 sought to dispel the notion that the threat of tactical nuclear weapons would deter it from kinetic retaliation in response to a cross-border terrorist attack. According to retired military officers, earlier too, India had undertaken retaliatory cross-border operations in response to certain attacks but without much fanfare. This policy of ‘restraint’ was discarded in 2017 when the Modi government declaredthat it had conducted ‘surgical strikes’ across the LoC. Pakistan denied that any such attempt had been made and claimed that India had merely indulged in artillery firing across the LoC. These conflicting assertions enabled both countries to satisfy domestic constituencies while providing an avenue for de-escalation, without the involvement of any external actor.

The 2019 Pulwama terrorist attack followed by the Balakot air strike introduced the element of unintended consequences. Elections in India were due in two months creating a more febrile political environment and limiting response to non-kinetic retaliation was not an option. India mounted an air strike against a JeM terrorist training camp at Balakot. Aircraft crossed over into Pakistan for the first time since 1971. Further, Balakot was in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and not in the contested part of Kashmir under Pakistani control. Both markers were a step up from the 2017 surgical strikes. Indian media was quick to claim that Pakistan’s nuclear bluff had been called. The unexpected happened the following day when in an aerial dogfight between the two, an Indian plane was shot down, the pilot ejected and landed in Pakistani territory. Amidst rising rhetoric, external actors stepped in. President Trump claimed credit for defusing the situation as did Saudi Arabia and UAE. Pakistan claimed ‘air-superiority’ and then took credit for ‘responsible behaviour’ by promptly announcing the return of the captured Indian pilot.

Notwithstanding shrill political rhetoric, the military authorities were cautious and measured in their statements during 2017 and 2019, taking care not to cross each other’s red lines. On both occasions, the Indian side emphasised that the limited objective of the retaliation had been met, the target was non-military and the action was pre-emptive as there was reasonable intelligence about an imminent attack by terrorists gathering at the targeted location. This is because notwithstanding the chest thumping that is the staple of TV talk shows and the loose rhetoric employed by politicians, the military on both sides is conscious that military options available on both sides are limited, given current capabilities.

If Pakistan had developed a comfort zone that India would be deterred from kinetic retaliation in response to a cross-border terrorist strike, the Modi government’s actions were a signal that this would not be so. The age of paralysing restraint was over and that India would seek to expand the envelope for stage three conflict. Naturally, Indian response would depend on the scale of terrorist attack and the visibility of ISI involvement as well as Pakistan’s response, in terms of either cooperating or engaging in denial. Significantly, the Modi government’s action has ensured that in future, any Indian government will be now be pushed to undertake some form of kinetic action in response to a cross-border terrorist strike, however limited or modest.

Any objective analysis would indicate that the Indian action is not enough to change Pakistani behaviour and the ‘deterrence by punishment’ under current capabilities is merely intended to assuage domestic audiences. This is what brings in the external actors with an off-ramps escalation initiatives. In the past, it has been US that has played the key role with others (notably China) playing more of a supportive role. In 2019, for the first time, Saudi Arabia and UAE indicated that they too had played a role. Traditionally, Saudi Arabia has been a significant partner for Pakistan, providing oil at concessional rates and financial support to tide over a balance of payments crisis but the Modi government has been active in wooing the Gulf Arab countries. With US withdrawal from Afghanistan moving forward, how far will US remain engaged in India-Pakistan matters is open to question. Meanwhile, China can be expected to play a more prominent role given its growing investments in Pakistan’s infrastructure but India is unlikely to find a Chinese role acceptable given the progressive downturn in India-China relations. Growing US-China differences may also make China less willing to countenance a leading US role as it seeks to assert its influence in the region. In short, external actors may not be able to provide an off-ramps outcome in future as readily as in the past.

Another takeaway is the different approaches that India and Pakistan adopt towards involvement of external actors and the ‘nuclear flashpoint’ hypothesis that is a favourite for western analysts and media. Pakistan uses it to highlight the centrality of the long-standing Kashmir dispute, hoping to catalyse some international involvement in the UN Security Council that would push for its resolution. The idea of international involvement is anathema to India as it highlights its commitment to bilateralism enshrine in the 1972 Shimla Agreement. Further, it responds to the ‘nuclear flashpoint’ by highlighting Pakistan’s irresponsible behaviour of nuclear sabre rattling (though Indian media and politicians have also been prone to it in recent years), Dr A Q Khan’s well documented proliferation activities that earned Pakistan the sobriquet of a ‘nuclear Walmart’, and linkages of the Pakistani ‘deep state’ with internationally proscribed terrorist outfits.

The Western analysts’ playbook was developed to deal with a stand-alone nuclear dyad, separated by an ocean, with notions of arms control, non-proliferation and crisis management. It is difficult to apply this to asymmetric nuclear situations with the additional complexity of two neighbouring states locked in a long-standing boundary dispute, one of whom is not averse to using proxy war, forcing the other to search for appropriate retaliation. The situation is rendered more complex on account of an ever closer strategic relationship between Pakistan and China, a country with which India has had a difficult relationship since the 1962 border conflict and one that is becoming increasingly adversarial and contentious.

Section V

Virtually all India-Pakistan nuclear escalation scenarios begin with a terrorist strike on Indian territory, limited kinetic action by India using ground and/or airpower, Pakistani retaliation and matters getting into an escalatory spiral. It is worth reflecting as to whether this implies a tacit acceptance all around that Pakistan army will continue to host and use such terrorist groups in a proxy war against India. Since this factor was absent in the US-USSR deterrence theories, it marks the first point of departure leaving India with the dilemma of discovering the scope and limits of kinetic action below the nuclear threshold even as Pakistan seeks to diminish this space with its full spectrum deterrence policy.

Unless the international community is able to prevail upon Pakistan to discard this policy which has been part of Pakistani tool kit for long, the risk of inadvertent escalation will remain. The only measure India can take is to strengthen its coastal and border surveillance and intelligence capabilities to thwart such efforts by restoring deterrence by denial and enhance its conventional kinetic capabilities thereby strengthening punitive deterrence. The drawback is that this will be a costly because the exercise of periodically ‘mowing the grass’ is unlikely to bring about a change in Pakistani policy.

However, as India seeks to enhance its space for kinetic action without crossing Pakistan’s redlines, Pakistan will seek to blur these in order to flash the nuclear card at the earliest even as it seeks to draw in international attention and external actors. Given that India and China too have had periods of tensions on their border, at Doklam in in 2017 resulting in a stand-off that lasted 73 days and in 2020 in eastern Ladakh where the stand-off is ongoing (at the time of writing), the nuclear card has been absent, even in the political rhetoric. There are two reasons for this and are worth examining. First is that both countries, despite the asymmetry in capabilities, have adopted a no-first-use policy as a key element of their nuclear doctrine. Second is that while India and China often allege incursions by the forces of the other side across the Line of Actual Control, there is no attempt by either side to pass this off as actions by non-state militants. These differences are instructive and explain why the nuclear factor does not cast a shadow on India-China boundary tensions even when these escalate. The reason lies in the asymmetry as Pakistan seeks to lower the nuclear threshold in order to hype up the ‘nuclear flashpoint’ thesis necessary to bring in external involvement. The risks of escalation would certainly diminish if both sides had a no-first-use policy.

External involvement has often helped in defusing tensions in the past but with the changing geopolitical environment, whether this will be as likely in future is an open question. In the past, China was willing to let US take the lead in the region but growing tensions between the two, coupled with US withdrawal from Afghanistan may change this, leaving the field open for Chinese diplomacy. This is hardly likely to be acceptable to India which is now increasingly voicing its threat perceptions in terms of a two-front-war. Therefore, erstwhile external actors may not be able to play the same kind of role as in the past. This means that some kind of dialogue between India and Pakistan becomes essential for crisis management. India’s blanket rejection on the grounds that terror and talks don’t go together implies a dependence on external actors for an off-ramps outcome.

In the US-USSR case, the idea that deterrence was automatic was blown away during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 when the two came face to face resulting in a full-blown showdown which brough the world closer to the brink of nuclear war that it had ever been. It also marked the beginning of a shared realisation of the risks of unintended escalation that laid the foundations of bilateral nuclear arms control. Therefore, while doctrinal asymmetry in the India-Pakistan case imposes its own constraints, the lesson that crisis management requires a minimal level of communication is one that still holds. It is unlikely to resolve Kashmir or other fundamental differences; therefore, expectations need to be modest because any undue expectations will overload the process ensuring its collapse. If it proves its utility, then perhaps some confidence building measures can be visualised but that will be further down the road.

At a regional level, a nuclear dialogue between India and China would help particularly if Pakistan could also be drawn into a trilateral no-first-use understanding given that both India and China adhere to it. The prospects for this though seem remote because China has shied away from any nuclear talks with India as its policy remains on tying India into a South Asian construct and the growing tensions in the relationship during 2020 have deepened mistrust. Similarly, a global no-first-use would put pressure on Pakistan to follow suit but again, this is unlikely given the direction in which US and Russian nuclear doctrines are evolving.

It is worth noting that while nuclear weapons remain the most destructive weapons designed to date, the science at its core is nevertheless 75 years old. A host of new disruptive technologies are emerging that add new complexity to the old deterrence equations. Foremost among these are missile defence capabilities, hypersonics particularly as a dual capable system, vastly improved surveillance and early warning systems that permit development of ‘left of launch’ postures, and finally, offensive cyber activities that can hack into nuclear command and control networks. While Pakistan is developing dual use cruise systems and MIRV technologies, India is focusing on hypersonics and missile defences. Any or all of these bring in new instability factors. If the development and deployment of these technologies is to be subjected to any restraints, it will need dialogue and understanding. This could be at bilateral level or even at global level. Similarly, the need to refrain from interfering with nuclear command and control systems using offensive cyber capabilities is a realisation that many analysts have highlighted though with relations between major nuclear weapon states locked in a downward spiral, no talks have been possible. Yet, it is clear that these technological developments could impact the deterrence equations rendering them more fragile in future.



[i] The census figures are drawn from the first census in both countries conducted in 1951 and the 2017 census in Pakistan and the census estimations just before the 2019 elections in India where the new census is due in 2021. A recent report in the New York Times also highlights the demographic trend in Pakistan (

[ii] The Pakistani search for identity has been written about extensively by many authors but I have relied on the writings of eminent Pakistani-American historian Dr Ayesha Jalal, who has also received one of Pakistan’s  highest civilian awards Sitara – e- Imtiaz for her work. Her works include The sole spokesman: Jinnah, the Muslim League, and the demand for Pakistan. Cambridge Cambridgeshire New York: Cambridge University Press. (1985); The state of martial rule: the origins of Pakistan’s political economy of defence. Cambridge England New York: Cambridge University Press. (1990); and The struggle for Pakistan: a Muslim homeland and global politics. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press (2014).

[iii] For the role of Pakistani army in shaping the politics of Pakistan, I have relied on Hussain Haqqani, a former Pakistani journalist who also served as the Ambassador to Sri Lanka and USA and wrote among others, Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military, published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (2005) and Dr C Christine Fair, a US academic, Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War (Oxford University Press, 2014).

[iv] The US debate on deterrence has been captured by Dr Bernard Brodie in his writings, the first being The Absolute Weapon: Atomic Power and World Order. Harcourt, 1946 and Dr Albert Wohlstetter P-1472: The Delicate Balance of Terror (The Rand Corporation 1958).

[v] India’s nuclear doctrine was first spelt out in the Paper tabled in Parliament on 27 May 1998, Evolution of India’s Nuclear Policy, two weeks after the series of tests when India declared itself a nuclear weapon state ( and the Press Release following the meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security meeting on 4 January 2003 on operationalising the Indian nuclear doctrine elaborated it further (

[vi] The history of Pakistan’s nuclear programme has been documented by Brig (retd) Feroz Khan in Eating Grass: The Making of the Pakistani Bomb (Stanford University Press, 2012) while the Pakistani nuclear doctrine quotations also draw upon two lectures by Lt Gen (retd) Khalid Kidwai at the Carnegie Nuclear Policy Conference on 23 May 2015 (transcript – and a subsequent one at the IISS on 6 February 2020 (

[vii] The Indian data is from Indian Nuclear Forces 2018 ( and the Pakistani data from Pakistani Nuclear Forces 2018 ( from the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists database.

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