Nuclear brinkmanship

Strengthening nuclear deterrence in South Asia post-Kargil

Nuclear brinkmanship

Even though India and Pakistan had fought wars before Kargil 1999, the episode was different. This time both had tested their nuclear capability in 1998 and were fighting a sub-conventional war under the nuclear shadow. Post Kargil, scholars and military experts drew comparisons between the episode and the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, wherein on both occasions the adversaries were on the verge of a nuclear brinkmanship.

However, what most experts failed to highlight was that only after the brinkmanship did both states realize the value of deterrence. Since Kargil, many developments have taken place in the South Asian nuclear context.

Post Kargil, India responsibly unveiled the Draft Nuclear Doctrine (DND) that stated in detail its nuclear doctrine, nuclear posture and strategy. It was clear in its belief that its nuclear weapons would not be used first, thereby adopting a “no-first use” doctrine. Pakistan, on the other hand, maintained a position of ambiguity and to date does not have a stated nuclear doctrine, although it is widely believed it has adopted a “first-use” policy. India has maintained a posture of “credible minimum deterrence” (CMD) while Pakistan gradually shifted from a posture of “minimum credible deterrence” to a posture of “full spectrum deterrence” (FSD).

Of course, what continued to remain a lingering issue was both India and Pakistan’s refusal to sign the NPT. However, with time, India proved its mettle in non-proliferation and was granted the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) waiver that allowed it to pursue nuclear cooperation with states party to the NPT.

Both India and Pakistan’s nuclear delivery systems have also since then undergone several technological improvisations. India’s no-first use doctrine coupled with a credible minimum deterrence  posture called for a shift from the obsolete liquid fueled Prithvi ballistic missiles to a more reliable solid fueled Agni category missile system. The enemy missile defense system called for the need to develop counter measures on the Agni systems. Agni IIs, for instance, were equipped with technologies that could enable them to maneuver during the terminal phase. This would help evade missile defense systems to intercept these missiles in the terminal phase. For instance, the older Agni II models used four moving control fins, while newer models use side thrust motors for terminal phase maneuverability.

Agnis were mobile missile systems that allowed them to escape enemy attacks during times of crisis. Mobility meant they could also be transported from one place to another, allowing greater flexibility in the choice of locations from where they could be launched.

Agni V, on the other hand, in future may be equipped with multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs). India is also reported to be developing maneuverable re-entry vehicles (MaRVs) that would enable a single warhead to maneuver in a way that could enable it to avoid interception by enemy missile interceptors. Being able to escape interception from enemy missile defense system enables the missile to not only enhance its offensive prowess but also ensures that the policy of CMD is strengthened. Credibility is a relative term and how much the weapon system is credible depends not only on the technological superiority of the weapon system, but also on the technological superiority or inferiority of the enemy defense systems to counter the weapon. That the offensive weapon can penetrate through the enemy defense system needs to hit the psyche of the adversary, and only then can CMD be ensured.

India has also developed submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) that can be fired from SSBNs in order to strengthen its counter-strike and second strike capability. The Mirage and Jaguar category fighters are allocated a nuclear role in the Air Force. All this will provide it with a three-legged nuclear capability strengthening nuclear deterrence. Although its BrahMos cruise missile is expected to have a conventional role, Nirbhay cruise missiles can be used for a nuclear role.

While India has adopted the credible minimum deterrence posture, its Cold Start Doctrine (CSD) resulted in Pakistan shifting from a posture of minimum credible deterrence to a posture of FSD. In FSD, Pakistan’s aim is to close all gaps that India wants to exploit with its conventional superiority. Pakistan has thus developed nuclear capable missiles ranging from 60km to 2,750km. Its introduction of Nasr tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) with a range of 60km is believed by Pakistan to be capable of closing the conventional gap that can also strengthen its conventional deterrence, despite the conventional capability being inferior to India.

Pakistan’s Shaheen category missiles form the backbone of its land based nuclear deterrence. They are solid propelled mobile ballistic missiles. The Shaheen III is reported to have the capability to reach India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands where India’s counter/second strike capability will likely be deployed. However, Pakistan also faces threats from Israel as in the past there were reports it planned to bomb its nuclear facility, just like it did with Iraq and Syria. Hence, a 2,750km range nuclear delivery system that can reach targets in Israel is a deterrent against Israel.

Pakistan has also developed nuclear capable cruise missiles Ra’ad and Babur that could make evasion of an enemy missile defense system easier. Just like India, Rawalpindi is also working on MIRV technology and has tested the Ababeel missile for the same. Pakistan’s air-launched nuclear delivery capability includes the F-16s and the Mirage category fighter. Pakistan’s JF-17 Thunder on the other hand is being designed to carry nuclear capable air launched cruise missiles.

Pakistan has also developed sea-based nuclear capable cruise missiles like the Babur. Although it is not developing SSBNs from where these cruise missiles can be fired, the diesel submarines are reported to be equipped with an independent air propulsion system that can enable them to remain in the sea for longer than an ordinary diesel submarine.

It must be noted that while both India and Pakistan are developing their nuclear capabilities, there is a concern these developments are fueling an arms race in the region, resulting in strategic destabilization. However, strategic stability in the region can only be maintained when there is parity in the nuclear capability of the two countries. Pakistan’s introduction of TNWs in the region to dispel its conventional inferiority, thereby lowering the nuclear threshold there, is testimony to the fact that lack of parity in arms build-up - whether conventional or nuclear - can lead a state to indulge in destabilizing activities.

Debalina Ghoshal is a Non Resident Fellow, Council on International Policy Asia Pacific, EastWest Institute.



Debalina Ghoshal is an independent consultant specializing in nuclear, missile and missile defense-related issues.

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