Pakistan Calls India's Nuclear Bluff in a Subcontinent Standoff

6 MINS READApr 5, 2018 | 15:14 GMT
The Pakistani military displays some of its missiles at the Nur Khan air base on Sept. 6, 2017.

The Pakistani military displays some of its missiles at the Nur Khan air base on Sept. 6, 2017.

  • The nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan will escalate as both countries seek to introduce new technologies and strategies.
  • Pakistan's improved ability to retaliate to an Indian strategic nuclear strike will make it more difficult for India to deter Islamabad from using tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield.
  • If India acquires its own tactical nuclear weapons, New Delhi and Islamabad will be more likely to use nuclear weapons in the event of a major conflict between them.

In the subcontinent, the road to ruin is paved with seemingly sound calculations, if not always good intentions. Seeking to gain an advantage over the other, Pakistan and India find themselves on the edge of a new nuclear arms race, as Islamabad prepares to introduce new missiles capable of delivering several independent warheads and New Delhi debates whether to roll out its own tactical nuclear weapons. The escalating competition, however, risks igniting a conflict in which both sides reach for the nuclear button.

The Big Picture

India and Pakistan's acquisition of nuclear arms arguably made major conflict less likely due to the devastating consequences of using atomic weapons. But India's weakening ability to deter Pakistan from threatening the use of tactical nuclear weapons in a major conflict, as well as the destabilizing effects of an accelerated arms race, could precipitate the use of such arms.

The Failures of Deterrence

India's growing conventional military capability, coupled with its "Cold Start" doctrine that offers it flexibility to stage major conventional attacks, has prompted Pakistan to develop an asymmetric response strategy that relies on low-yield tactical nuclear weapons. New Delhi has, in turn, sought to undermine Islamabad's strategy by emphasizing its readiness to deploy larger, strategic nuclear arms against Pakistan if the latter resorts to atomic weapons — even in the event that Islamabad uses tactical nuclear weapons in a "limited" fashion on its own soil against advancing Indian troops. India has even explored the potential use of "surgical strikes" to circumvent the thorny problem altogether.

Pakistan's Nuclear Weapons: Tactical vs. Strategic

Despite India's repeated declarations in recent years that it will initiate nuclear retaliation against any Pakistani use of atomic weapons, New Delhi has failed to dissuade Islamabad from continuing to build up its tactical nuclear weapons. India has also found little success in deterring its neighbor by threatening punitive, surgical strikes. On the contrary, Pakistan has continued to support militants in Kashmir amid an increasing number of skirmishes over the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir over the past year.

In the face of Pakistan's stance, many in India are debating whether New Delhi should reevaluate its nuclear weapons strategy. Traditionalists have argued that India's threats to use strategic nuclear weapons to inflict massive damage through countervalue strikes, which would target population centers instead of mere military targets, will ultimately dissuade Pakistan from using tactical nuclear weapons. Others, however, have highlighted Islamabad's focus on tactical nuclear weapons as reason for New Delhi to develop a new doctrine that includes the usage of similar, low-yield nuclear weapons on the battlefield — particularly against its rival's nuclear forces.

India Goes Back to the Drawing Board

Amid the debate, New Delhi has sought to preserve the credibility of its strategy to threaten retaliation with nuclear attacks on nonmilitary targets through the development of missile defense capabilities. But India's hopes of dissuading Pakistan from deploying tactical nuclear weapons through the threat of larger retaliatory strikes on population centers suffers from one critical weakness — namely, that Islamabad may calculate that New Delhi would not launch such countervalue strikes, since they would only precipitate devastating retaliatory strikes on Indian cities. In effect, New Delhi fears that Pakistan may believe the Indian threat is a mere bluff.

India thus has turned toward missile defense to bolster its countervalue threat. The calculations proceed as follows: Pakistan first uses tactical nuclear weapons on invading Indian military formations, which leads to a massive Indian retaliatory strike that not only devastates Pakistani cities, but also knocks out much of Islamabad's nuclear arsenal. Although Pakistan launches its remaining nuclear missiles as part of its second-strike capability — a country's assured ability to respond to a nuclear attack with its own powerful nuclear strikes — India's mature missile defenses largely succeed in intercepting them. Although fallout from the intercepted nuclear missiles would still harm millions in India, the prospect that New Delhi could neuter Islamabad's second-strike nuclear missiles could make Pakistan think twice before first using tactical nuclear weapons.

Upping the Ante

But as evidenced from its recent weapons development, Pakistan has no intention of falling into such a dilemma. Before India could even develop a mature missile defense system, Pakistan would succeed in eliminating doubts regarding its second-strike capability. Beyond the drive to construct more nuclear weapons, Pakistan has also sought to enhance its second-strike capability through the development of a sea-based deterrent and the introduction of ballistic missiles bearing multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) nuclear payloads.

MIRV: Multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles

While India could hit Islamabad's land- and air-based nuclear forces with comparative ease in any initial strike, it would struggle to neutralize Pakistan's sea-based nuclear missiles because of the difficulty in locating and destroying the vessels transporting them. And because ballistic missile defense systems can effectively only counter incoming projectiles that fly a high, arching trajectory, a stronger Indian defense would offer little protection against Pakistan's sea-based cruise missiles, which would arrive low. Because of the advantages inherent in developing a sea-based deterrent, Islamabad has proceeded to test the Babur-3 submarine-launched cruise missile, conducting an initial trial in January 2017 and a subsequent one last month.

Nevertheless, Islamabad's pursuit of maritime capabilities is not without risk: Because Pakistan relies on diesel-electric submarines, India could unwittingly trigger a nuclear conflict by firing on vessels carrying atomic weapons as part of a conventional conflict. Additionally, because crews must prepare the nuclear-tipped cruise missiles on Pakistani submarines for launch before setting sail, commanders piloting the watercraft would have their finger on the trigger — meaning any breakdown in the chain of command could result in the unsanctioned use of nuclear weapons.

The other aspect of Pakistan's plans to counter India's missile defenses is to equip its Ababeel missiles with MIRV payloads. Such action would not only increase the effectiveness of Pakistan's hits on invading Indian units but also enhance Islamabad's second-strike capabilities by overwhelming India's strategic ballistic missile defense network.

As Islamabad develops a better second-strike capability, New Delhi has little chance of deterring the former from using tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield against invading Indian forces. In response, calls in India will grow for the development of the country's own tactical nuclear weaponry to take better aim at Pakistan's military targets. If India's military planners elect to go down that road, the consequences could be enormous, as the prioritization of such arms tends to pressure belligerents to strike while the iron is hot. Accordingly, nuclear conflict in South Asia could become inescapable if there's a major war between India and Pakistan.

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