Why India and Pakistan Avoided Nuclear War
AP Photo/Muhammad Sajjad
Why India and Pakistan Avoided Nuclear War
AP Photo/Muhammad Sajjad
Story Stream
recent articles

Tensions have been high in South Asia, to say the least. India and Pakistan are nuclear powers, and any time one nuclear power attacks another it reminds us how easy it would be to trigger nuclear annihilation. All it takes is one miscalculation or mistaken intention for none of us to be here anymore. Though these concerns are valid, they are sometimes overblown. The laws of deterrence that have governed nuclear brinksmanship since the advent of nuclear weapons are still in place today. And since India and Pakistan are constrained by these laws too, they were always unlikely to nuke each other into oblivion.

Still, the fact that they do occasionally engage in skirmishes makes the situation in South Asia unique among all territorial disputes and nuclear war games. Because the stakes are so high, it’s important to understand how India and Pakistan got to this point and why nuclear weapons are likely to prevent a major conventional conflict, even if nuclear war can’t be ruled out altogether.

On Feb. 14, a suicide bomber attacked Pulwama, in India-controlled Kashmir, killing 40 people and injuring dozens, including Indian paramilitary personnel. Jaish-e-Mohammed, a Pakistan-based jihadist group with known ties to Pakistani state security institutions, claimed responsibility. On Feb. 26, India responded with airstrikes on a Jaish-e-Mohammed training camp in Balakot, Pakistan. India claimed the strikes caused 300 casualties, while Pakistan maintains that India merely struck dirt.

Pakistan responded with low-level retaliation, including a purported airstrike by F-16s against Indian army positions near the Line of Control – the de facto border between the countries’ respective portions of Kashmir – though Pakistan didn’t hit anything important, perhaps to avoid escalating things further. (A Pakistani major general said that the jets locked on to Indian targets to demonstrate capability, but then purposefully avoided causing damage.) The response appears to be a sort of minimum required reaction to demonstrate its resolve against the Indian military entering its territory without doing anything that would warrant a serious response.

(click to enlarge)

This is the first time since 1971 that India has struck a target within Pakistan proper, and the first time that any nuclear power has conducted airstrikes in the territory of another. Only twice before – the 1969 Sino-Soviet border conflict and the 1999 Kargil War between India and Pakistan – have two nuclear powers engaged in any direct violent conflict.

Partly that’s because the fear of nuclear war is a strong deterrent. But it’s not an ironclad deterrent. It’s true that no one has used nuclear weapons since World War II, but past behavior doesn’t always predict future behavior, and in any case, the sample size is small. Better to consider the nuclear doctrines of the countries involved.

The Best-Laid Plans

Nuclear doctrines are difficult to dissect because they’re mutable. Leaders may find comfort in their best-laid plans, but they will respond to the situation they are confronted with, regardless of whether it’s the one they actually prepared for. Yet similarities remain, and most doctrines are geopolitically relevant in three key ways. First, a doctrine will outline what types of weapons are needed to support it, and therefore which weapons are produced by and in the inventory of the nuclear country. Second, nuclear war happens fast. Leaders must quickly determine whether incoming missiles or artillery shells are armed with nuclear weapons – and therefore whether to launch a nuclear retaliation. That leaves little time for cooler heads to prevail. The third and closely related issue is how a country’s command and control is structured, and how decision-making autonomy is distributed within the chain of command ahead of time. For example, in the event of a nuclear exchange, does the commander of a nuclear-armed submarine have a direct line to the country’s senior leadership? If not, the commander may jump the gun and launch a nuclear weapon in response to a perceived nuclear first strike.

One of the most important concepts of nuclear deterrence theory is that of first use – the willingness to launch a first strike rather than in retaliation. During the Cold War, the concept of mutual assured destruction – the idea that any nuclear attack would be met with a massive nuclear counterattack – established some equilibrium between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The risk of a first strike was diminished, since neither side could reasonably expect to survive a nuclear exchange, regardless of who drew first.

Shortly after India’s second nuclear test in 1998, it developed a nuclear doctrine that called for no first use (though it did allow for first use of nuclear weapons in retaliation against a chemical or biological weapons attack). In the absence of MAD, India was trying to limit the risk of a Pakistani first strike against India’s nuclear installations – a doctrine called “credible minimum deterrence.” This doctrine worked for India; it kept open the opportunity to use its more powerful conventional force against Pakistan, while also minimizing the risk of nuclear escalation.

(click to enlarge)

Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine once included something like credible minimum deterrence. But then India developed the notion of a “cold start” – the idea that it could launch a non-nuclear, conventional ground offensive that wouldn’t meet Pakistan’s threshold for nuclear use. Pakistan promptly revised its doctrine to “full spectrum deterrence,” which does allow for first use. In a cold start, it’s possible that Pakistan’s weaker conventional forces wouldn’t repel the Indian invasion, and Pakistan could use low-yield tactical nuclear weapons (that is, nuclear weapons meant to be used on the battlefield in conjunction with tactical maneuvers, rather than against strategic targets like military installations or cities) to repel the attack.

The problem with a cold start is in knowing exactly where Pakistan’s nuclear retaliation threshold lies. With that uncertainty, some Indian leaders have cast doubt on India’s no-first-use policy in recent years. They concluded that if India launches an invasion and a Pakistani tactical nuclear strike becomes imminent, India would want to launch the first strike and eliminate Pakistan’s nuclear stockpile before it can be deployed against its invading ground forces. With India more willing to launch the first strike, Pakistan itself might be motivated to pre-empt with strategic strikes of its own on Indian military installations.

New Technology, New Thresholds

The problem with MAD – and the conundrum for India and Pakistan – is that it rests on the assumption that the country that struck first will, when the dust settles, still have a nuclear arsenal to retaliate with. To ensure second-strike capability, nuclear states typically seek to develop submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Nuclear-capable submarines, constantly moving in the oceans’ depths, all but guarantee a country can retaliate if it sustains a first strike on land. Widely dispersing land-based weapons helps in this regard too.

To develop a more credible second-strike capability, India and Pakistan have been investing in submarines. India is now believed to have a nuclear-armed submarine, the INS Arihant. It’s unclear whether the Arihant is fully functional, but it is clear that India is close to having SLBM capability. Pakistan is developing a nuclear submarine too, but it’s not as far along as India. An Indian nuclear-armed submarine guarantees a credible second strike against Pakistan, essentially ensuring Pakistan’s destruction if it strikes first. The rationale is that this decreases Pakistan’s willingness to use any nuclear weapons first, since doing so would be suicide.

With submarine-based second-strike capability comes the devolution of command. In war, there’s always a chance that submarines will be unable to communicate with leadership, so they tend to have some authority to make launch decisions on their own. There are usually checks to prevent a single person having decision-making authority, but uncertainty over what’s happening on the surface would still make it difficult for isolated commanders to make a fully informed decision. This also raises the risk that the country on the receiving end of an SLBM is unsure whether it is nuclear-armed. There are additional risks with Pakistan putting nukes on subs, given that its military has been infiltrated by jihadists in the past.

India’s more credible second-strike capability plays some part in the recent airstrikes against Pakistan. The government in New Delhi is testing Pakistan’s assumption that India, fearing Pakistan’s doctrine that allows first use of nuclear weapons, would not respond to terrorist attacks by targeting Pakistani territory – an assumption voiced last year by Indian Gen. Bipin Rawat, who said, “We will call their bluff. If given the task, we will not say we cannot cross the border because they have nuclear weapons.”

This makes some sense – terrorism is a low-cost way for Pakistan to hit India, especially if it knows retaliation will be limited to terrorist targets in Kashmir and not military targets in Pakistan. But it also raises the question of where, exactly, Pakistan’s threshold for a nuclear first strike lies. Since India knows that Pakistan is theoretically willing to use tactical nuclear weapons to repel a ground invasion, a limited airstrike against a single terrorist training camp, even inside Pakistan, is not that tripwire. Still, India is showing that it will be more assertive in establishing a conventional deterrent to Pakistani terror attacks, demonstrating how developments in technology can influence how a state pursues its security interests. If nothing else, the airstrikes show that India may not feel as constrained by Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine as it once was. India’s success with the Arihant only emboldens its decision. And while there is likely no intention to cross this line, knowing better where it lies helps India’s strategic planning.

There may be more to this attack than just nuclear gamesmanship – there are domestic political forces at play, too. 2019 is an election year in India, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party has had some poor performances in a number of recent local elections, casting doubt on its ability to hold onto power in the national elections in May. Just as Russia went to war in Syria to distract from its economic duress at home, Modi may find it politically useful to stir up Hindu nationalism and rally his country around the flag just a couple of months before the vote.

But in this case, technology is as geopolitically relevant to Modi’s decisions as political expedience. Technology can influence doctrines, and doctrines – even if they are aren’t universally applicable – can influence what types of actions states are willing and able to make with their conventional forces.

In the case of South Asia, the nuclear weapons possessed by India and Pakistan will continue to limit the risk of a major conventional war, and thus continue to allow Pakistan some room to provoke India without fear of major retaliation, especially a ground retaliation. However, that, along with Pakistan’s problems with militants infiltrating the military, means that the risk of an unintended escalation to nuclear exchange can’t be ignored altogether.

Reprinted with permission from Geopolitical Futures.