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The blurry nuclear doctrines of India and Pakistan

By Rameez Raja

It is generally believed that if terrorists get hold of nukes, they will intentionally annihilate the bulk of human population within a short span of time. However, the experts question the experience and ability of terrorists to develop nukes or to assemble nuclear warheads, if they get access to some of those in future. Nuclear Terrorism is a new subject for nuke experts to spread panic among the peace-loving people who do not have enough knowledge about the dichotomy between the authorized and unauthorized use of nuclear weapons. Many experts have argued that the chances of a nuclear exchange is more likely to involve the nuclear states rather than terrorists using nukes to eliminate their enemies. There are no confirmed reports or evidence of theft of nuclear weapons by non-state actors or terrorists. Despite knowing about the lethality of nukes, irrationality from head of states and military officers, nuclear mafia, and poor governance of nuclear weapons in some nuclear states, theorists have largely supported nuclear weapons for deterrence. Hans Morgenthau, Bernard Brodie, Herman Kahn, Kenneth Waltz, Sumit Ganguly, and John Mearsheimer have endorsed nuclear weapons for deterrence or for avoiding major wars between the belligerent states. However, Vipin Narang opines that these theorists have undermined the nuclear postures/doctrines of respective states. For instance, India and Pakistan’s nuclear doctrines are challenged by numerous experts on the ground that both nuclear states have unclear and provocative nuclear postures that can easily culminate in a nuclear winter between the two enemy states.

India and Pakistan have crossed the nuclear threshold in May 1998 when they detonated 11 nuclear devices. Subsequently, both states have provided clarifications about their nuclear tests and claimed to be responsible nuclear weapon states. Optimists argue that nukes will stabilize the tensions between the two states. However, Timothy Hoyt writes that South Asia still remains a dangerous place contrary to the arguments put forward by certain analysts who claim that nuclear weapons would induce stability. He further argues that the divide between India and Pakistan has created a distrust owing to non-resolution of the Kashmir dispute. The studies on India-Pakistan nuclear doctrines present a negative message for world peace because of several loopholes highlighted by the experts in the nuclear policies of the two countries. In the context of Indo-Pak nuclear relationship, Scott Sagan presents a worrisome picture about the organizational biases. He argues that both the states have exchanged nuclear threats during crisis situations such as the Kargil War of 1999 and cannot be trusted to behave rationally in future. Sagan explicitly states that there are “imperfect humans inside imperfect organizations” in India-Pakistan nuclear relationship, which might lead to a failure in nuclear deterrence in the future. Similarly, Vipin Narang writes about the posturing of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) to prove India’s nuclear superiority over Pakistan and to counter China. The nuclear arms race might result in the mismanagement of nuclear warheads due to organizational biases. From Narang’s statement it is quite apparent that minimum deterrence pledge taken by both states will not be implemented because of the intense rivalry and trust deficit between the two states.

There is no official nuclear doctrine of Pakistan. However, Lt. General Khalid Kidwai identifies four thresholds for Pakistan’s use of nukes. First, Space Threshold: If India occupies a large portion of Pakistani territory. Second, Military Threshold: If India destroys a large part of Pakistan’s land or air forces. Third, Economic Threshold: If India tries to strangle Pakistan’s economy. And fourth, Political Threshold: If India destabilizes Pakistan’s domestic political system. As nuclear warheads of Pakistan are Indo-centric, it declares that it will use its nuclear weapons on its first strike against conventional attack from India.

India disclosed its nuclear doctrine with no-first use pledge and minimum deterrence posture in 1999. However, the 2003 revision of India’s nuclear doctrine diluted the no-first use clause by countenancing nuclear first use against a ‘major attack’ using the other two weapons of mass destruction – chemical and biological weapons. The other changes in 2003 revision included a shift from minimum deterrent to credible minimum deterrent posture and posture of no-first use of nukes. Nukes will be used in retaliation against a nuclear attack on Indian territory or on Indian forces anywhere. The word ‘anywhere’ was added to the 2003 doctrine, which underscores the possibility that Indian soldiers could be fighting a conventional war inside Pakistan. One can easily understand why India has added the word ‘anywhere’ to the 2003 doctrine and has disclosed the Cold Start Doctrine as a limited war option under the nuclear umbrella after the 2001-2002 stalemate between India and Pakistan. India’s nukes have failed to deter Pakistan during Kargil War and other sub-conventional conflicts. That is why a limited war doctrine was disclosed by India to warn Pakistan to halt cross-border infiltration. However, Pakistan explicitly stated that it would use its Nasr Missile, a tactical nuclear weapon on its own soil against Indian troops. The Indian leaders have warned Pakistan several times of massive retaliation if it fails to destroy its nuclear missile capability. Sumit Ganguly and Devin Hagerty claim that India’s no-first use pledge is nothing but a ‘rhetorical device’. Raja Menon argues that there is inter-service rivalry in India as Indian Air Force (IAF) might not wait for Pakistan’s first strike. As per IAF planning study, Vision 2020, IAF plans for first strike capability in future. Sagan also points out that the Indian Nuclear Air Command is working towards having a first strike capability. Similarly, Vipin Narang argues that India will not allow Pakistan to nuke it first. The pre-emptive strike option is always on the minds of Indian decision makers during the crisis situations.

The most alarming source of tension in South Asia is a never-ending nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan. The minimum deterrent posture is no longer a valid option for both states. According to the 2017 worldwide nuclear report by Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris, there are nearly fifteen thousand nuclear weapons in the world. Among these, 1800 are on high alert and ready for use at a short notice. The report also mentions that both India and Pakistan are qualitatively and quantitatively increasing their nuclear arsenal. The nukes have been increased to provide a boost to nuclear deterrence. John Mearsheimer opines that nuclear deterrence might not succeed in those belligerent states which share close borders. For instance, India and Pakistan do not have enough time to decide whether an attack is deliberate or accidental; the response will be catastrophic as a retaliation. Due to an advantage of missile defence systems, the belligerent states might opt for a nuclear war. Harmen Kahn has explicitly stated that nuclear war can be won because of missile defence systems, evacuations, shelters, and shells. Similarly, the missile defence system might not function well in the context of India and Pakistan because massive first strike of missiles will break down the defence system easily. The missiles will travel in a few minutes. There are also chances of failure of alarming system to judge the incoming missile. Rajesh Rajagopalan interestingly argues that Pakistan possesses missiles which are superior to that of India because of assistance from China and North Korea.

The other source of concern is the poor accountability of nuclear mafia that is operating in both states. During the Kargil War, Bill Clinton sounded out the then Prime Minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, about the deployment of nukes by Pakistan military, which Sharif seemed to be unaware of. The head of the Strategic Plans Division is responsible for nuclear planning, command and control system in Pakistan. It is true that political leaders have been making provocative public statements about using nukes against India. Samina Ahmed, however, points out that these provocative statements are a symptom of Pakistan’s desire to stand with India as an equal. The nuclear threats were exchanged sometimes for domestic determinism and prestige, which Sagan calls a normative factor. Pakistan military perceives India as a potential enemy; that is why nuclear weapons are seen as an object rather than a means for national security, as argued by Sagan.

India too had alerted its nuclear capable missiles during the Kargil war. The Chief of Indian Army Staff, General V.P. Malik has confirmed that missiles were positioned at high trigger alert during the Kargil war to annihilate Pakistan. Raj Chengappa claims, “India [then] activated all its three types of nuclear delivery vehicles and kept at what is known as Readiness state 3, meaning that some nuclear bombs would be ready to be mated with the delivery vehicles at short notice.” He further states, “at least four of them (Prithvi ballistic missiles) were readied for a possible strike. Even an Agni missile capable of launching a nuclear warhead was moved to the Western Indian states and kept in a state of readiness.”

It is clearly understood that both India and Pakistan cannot be trusted to behave sensibly in future. However, several reports from the experts upset us with the blurry nuclear postures and irrationality of India and Pakistan that might trigger an authorized use of nukes. India rejects Pakistan’s offer to explore a nuclear free-zone area in South Asia. This is reflected in Vajpayee statement about Pakistan: “We have to keep in mind developments in other neighbouring countries as well.” He further stated, “Though we believe in a minimum credible deterrent, the size of the deterrent must be deterred from time to time on the basis of our own threat perception. This is a judgement which cannot be surrendered to anyone else.”

Pakistan is also not in a mood to roll back its nuclear programme. Pervez Musharraf said, “Only a traitor would think of rolling back.” Similarly, Abdul Sattar stated, “…in order to ensure the survivability and credibility of the deterrent, Pakistan will have to maintain, preserve and upgrade its capability.”

Due to the poor management of nuclear weapons, the international community is concerned about the Jihadi networks in Pakistan which might steal the nukes for their own purposes. Stephen Cohen writes that Pakistani military always encourages the Jihadis’ zeal against unbelievers to target India. Cohen argues that the nuclear attack on non-combatants in urban areas in India is one of the aims of Jihadi organizations in Pakistan. Similarly, India’s nuclear doctrine also talks about ‘unacceptable damage’ which implies a nuclear attack on civilian areas. Surprisingly, an Indian army officer suggested to George Fernandes, former Defence Minister of India, to denote a nuclear device in Siachen to drown Pakistan completely to settle the Kashmir dispute once and for all. The Indian Chief of Army Staff, General S. Padmanabhan’s statement on January 11, 2002 to nuke Pakistan was a surprising statement that created an uproar at the Indian Prime Minister’s Office. Nobody can deny the fact that there is a possibility of irrational behaviour (nuclear exchange) between the two belligerent states.

As several studies on India-Pakistan nuclear brinkmanship suggest, there is a possibility of nuclear omnicide in South Asia. The organizational biases, blurry nuclear doctrines of no-first use and first-use of nukes, poor accountability of nukes, advantage of missile defence systems, intense rivalry, unresolved Kashmir dispute, and close borders might become the reasons for the failure of nuclear deterrence in South Asia. 

Rameez Raja, an ICSSR fellow, is pursuing Ph. D. at the Department of Political Science, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, India. He specializes in India’s nuclear policy. His writings have previously appeared in Rising Kashmir, Café Dissensus Everyday, Kafila, South Asia Journal, Foreign Policy News, Modern Diplomacy, Pakistan Observer, Kashmir Observer, and Kashmir Monitor. Email ID:


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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