nuclear pakistan and india

Written by Ch M Arsalan Tariq 10:49 am Current Affairs, International Relations, Pakistan, Published Content, Research Papers

Understanding the Nuclear Dynamics of India and Pakistan

The remote possibility of a nuclear war is what drives both Pakistan and India to expand their nuclear arsenal and augment their respective strategies.
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Mr. Ch M Arsalan Tariq is an M.Phil researcher at Quaid-e-Azam University Islamabad with a specialization in defense and strategic studies. He has two Bachelor's degrees, one in International Relations and and the other in Sociology and Journalism.

Nuclear Strategy

“Nuclear strategy has resulted in a major upheaval in the entire concept of the use of force, whether for the conduct of war or maintenance of peace.” Atomic weapons are extremely powerful, with an average size thermo-nuclear bomb (one megaton) being equivalent to a salvo from two hundred million field guns. Additionally, with very high-altitude explosions, the area affected may be in hundreds of square miles.

Radiation fallout augments the catastrophic effect over a larger area. Similarly, nuclear weapons have pushed the range of warfighting capabilities to the extreme by bringing in to “targetable influence” all that is on earth and in the outer atmosphere. Due to these characteristics of range and power, there is now no relationship between the numerical size and power of nuclear forces. This vast destructive power is mobile and can reach any point of a nation’s territory.

Conventional armed forces have limited capability of protecting a country against both physical destruction and nuclear contamination. The “unbottling of this genie” caused a revolution in the strategic studies discipline. It was an era where the professional close-range combat of the preceding centuries lost much of its significance.

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According to Bernard Brodie, “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 useful purpose.”1 Initially, the best method appeared to be that of preventive destruction that was aimed at targeting enemy production and launch bases.

This relied on four principles: surveillance and intelligence, locating and pinpointing, demonstrated capability of an offensive strike, and complete destruction of enemy nuclear capabilities.

Nuclear Acquisition by India and Pakistan

Pakistan was ready to test its nuclear capability several years before the 1998 tests. Former Chief of the Army Staff, General Aslam Beg, has referred to 1987 as the year when Pakistan acquired its nuclear capability.2 Pakistani leaders often suspected the United States, Israel, or India of planning pre-emptive strikes on their nuclear sites. However, the 1998 nuclear tests led to the establishment of strategic deterrence between Pakistan and India.

“The January 2003 Indian press release established the No-First-Use (NFU) policy and the pursuit and maintenance of a credible minimum deterrent. “ “However, it qualified the NFU by adding that India retains the right to use the nuclear “in the event of a major attack against India, or Indian forces anywhere, by biological or chemical weapons.“3

Thus, India resorted to a retaliatory (Indirect Offensive Method) with a shift in focus towards enhanced survivability and physical defense. However, due to the conventional imbalance with India and a history of wars, Pakistan could not commit to a “No-First-Use Policy”. According to Lieutenant General Kidwai, “Pakistani nuclear weapons will be used if the very existence of Pakistan as a state is at stake”.

This has been detailed by Lieutenant General Kidwai as follows: “Nuclear weapons are aimed solely at India. In case that deterrence fails, they will be used if:

  1. India attacks Pakistan and conquers a large part of its territory (space threshold);
  2. India destroys a large part either of its land or air forces (military threshold);
  3. India proceeds to the economic strangling of Pakistan (economic strangling); or
  4. India pushes Pakistan into political destabilization or creates a large-scale internal subversion in Pakistan (domestic destabilization).

A Remote Possibility

According to PUGWASH, It is believed that there will be no risk of nuclear conflict, assuming “rational decision making” by the interested parties. Lieutenant General Kidwai, too, reemphasized few times that a nuclear war will not happen since both India and Pakistan will avoid the nuclear threshold.4

Following parliament attacks, Operation Parakram led to a mobilization of 500,000 Indian troops along the Line of Control (LoC) and the International Border (IB) between India and Pakistan from December 2001 to October 2002. Former Army Chief, Shankar Roy Choudhry, described Operation Parakram as a “pointless gesture” which compromised Indian credibility greatly.5

Following the failed gesture, the Indian Army unveiled its new doctrine in April 2004. The doctrine was popularly termed as the “Cold Start”, given its attempt to reduce the mobilization times. The operationalization of the doctrine entailed a move away from three massive strike corps to eight division-sized integrated battle groups (IBGs).

The integrated battle groups would launch offensive operations to a shallow depth (30-40 miles), “to capture a long swathe of territory almost all along the international boundary” with close air and naval support within 72-96 hours.6 The captured strip of land was to be used as a “bargaining chip” to pressurize Pakistan.7

Nuclear Deterrent Strategy

The first and simplest form of the strategy of “threat of retaliation”, or deterrent strategy, outlines that nuclear power must maintain a striking force (or better, an offensive force) sufficiently powerful to deter the enemy from employing his own striking force. The objective was to exert a direct effect upon the willpower of the enemy without having to proceed to a trial of strength.

The understanding was that the deterrent effect depends not upon the capacity of the striking force, but upon its residual capacity after it has absorbed the first strike, in other words, its survival capacity. There are two widely accepted tactical doctrines in the event of a nuclear retaliatory strike: counter-force and counter-city.

Tactical Doctrines

The counter-force doctrine is successful only if there is a 100% chance of destroying the adversary’s nuclear capability through a pre-emptive or counter-force posture, thereby disarming the adversary from launching a counter-battery action. However, counter-force postures are extremely expensive to maintain and have to constantly take into account improvement’s in the adversary survival tactics.

Meanwhile, counter-city tactics are less expensive and easier to launch and maintain. They are also referred to as the “strategy of credible minimum deterrence.” There is a wide difference in the beliefs and presuppositions of the states employing these tactics. Counter-force posture exposes certain doubts about the validity of the state’s deterrence and therefore the state is forced to rectify the situation by admitting that there is a possibility of nuclear war, involving more or less full employment of strategic forces. This is aimed at reestablishing deterrence.

The counter-city tactics reveal an absolute belief in the validity of deterrent. However, in the case of the failure of deterrence, there is nothing but total mutual destruction. In the case of opposing tactical postures and differences in destructive capacity, the deterrent balance is established by the belief that the weak state may nevertheless put its retaliatory force into action as a means of last resort.

Stability-Instability Paradox

Similarly, in the case of deterrents of equal capability, the presence of nuclear deterrence on both sides reduces its effectiveness. This creates the possibility for minor adventures, actions on the periphery, and even limited war, often referred to as the stability-instability paradox whereby balance at the strategic level does not necessarily translate into a balance at the lower levels of conflict.

The criterion for such limited maneuvers is that the stakes must be too low to justify nuclear retaliation. In such a scenario, states turn to other methods to roundoff the deterrent effect of the threat of nuclear weapons and the objective is to reduce and, if possible, eliminate the enemy’s freedom of action.

General Pervez Musharraf stated that conventional war would still remain the mode of conflict in any future conflagration with the traditional enemy.8 Similarly, the Indian Cold Start was aimed at exploiting the space for limited conflict under a nuclear overhang. Cold Start posed a challenge to Pakistan by doing away with the rationale of the threat of escalation from the conventional to the nuclear threshold.

The Indian designs of engaging in limited war well below Pakistan’s nuclear red lines and avoiding an all-out conventional war, had a destabilizing effect on the strategic stability in the region. Pakistan felt it necessary to restore the earlier strategic deterrence by lowering the nuclear threshold. The development and operationalization of HATF-IX/NASR were aimed at not only thwarting Indian designs but also providing the Pakistani decision-makers with an intermediate response between either an all-out conventional or a nuclear war.

NASR, as viewed in Pakistan, fits in a much desired “graded and proportional punitive retaliation option.”9 Many in Pakistan believe that tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) provide the country with a “value-added deterrence”, a notion reiterated by Rabia Akhtar, who affirms that “a weapon that is small and usable possesses more deterrent value than a weapon which is big and has strategic value.”10

India and Pakistan’s Race

Similarly, in response to the Indian ballistic missile defense system, Pakistan developed and flight-tested a platform carrying Multiple Independently Targetable Re-entry Vehicles (MIRV), Ababeel and the submarine-launched cruise missile Babur-3. According to the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) press release, Babur-3 is aimed towards providing Pakistan with second-strike capability.11

It is evident that Pakistan aims for a credible second-strike capability. As early as 2015, Lieutenant General Khalid Kidwai, in an event organized by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, stated that “assured second-strike capability comes from being sea-based”.12 The issue of nuclear stability in the Indian subcontinent is not confined to only India and Pakistan but four players including the U.S. and China.

It is important to include the U.S. in this dynamic because first, U.S. actions influence the thinking in the other three countries about nuclear weapons and their decisions to acquire certain capabilities; and secondly, the U.S. has historically played an important role in the nuclear crisis stability between India and Pakistan.

The existence of a triangular relationship between India, China, and Pakistan with the U.S. has an important influence on the several bilateral relationships and trilateral relationships, especially nuclear stability. The three countries have gone to war over contested borders and continue to expand, incrementally modernizing their nuclear stockpile and delivery systems.

The U.S. efforts to contain rising China, India’s efforts to counter China, and Pakistan’s efforts to counter India are logical actions arising from the current situation. Each of these states is pursuing a national strategy that includes a major role for nuclear and other advanced weaponry. These national strategies are based on an assessment of each nation state’s vulnerabilities vis-à-vis their perceived adversaries.

The aspirations of the countries and border problems remain the principal sources of friction and conflict. Issues related to these problems drive the political and military strategies of these countries.13 The Chinese thinking with regard to the Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile (ASBM), and its strategies of addressing its vulnerabilities vis-à-vis American involvement in a future Taiwan crisis, and the Pakistani thinking behind the NASR directed towards an Indian land-based response are similar.

Both the responses are rational especially when pursued by the weaker player in an asymmetric relationship. The strategies adopted by both countries seek to ship the onus onto the more powerful actor and throw the very difficult challenge as to whether they would like to risk escalating the conflict to the nuclear threshold.

India and Pakistan’s Security and Sovereignty

As Michael Krepon has pointed out, “No offer of normalcy can succeed unless it addresses the underlying reasons for Pakistan’s nuclear build-up. Pakistan doesn’t compete with India in this domain to gain status, and acquiring the status of a ‘normal’ nuclear state won’t lessen requirements until Pakistan feels safe and secure.”14

A decision by India to drop its threat to launch a limited conventional war will provide the Pakistani military with the best possible incentives to scale down and eventually phase out its deployments of TNWs.15 There is an urgent need to explore the specific pathways of achieving stability in the complex relationships that govern the strategies of these powers in the Asia-Pacific region.

Similarly, it is very important that a principled dialogue and conflict-resolution mechanism be put in place to address the various border disputes and escalation contingencies. A nuclear conflict or escalation is a common danger to the shared heritage of mankind.

In the spirit of the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, it is of utmost urgency and paramount importance that world leaders, international organizations, and states come up with mutually beneficial ways of addressing conflicts and upholding the universal values of justice. Mankind must be able to contain antagonisms, and hopefully, avoid conflicts, especially nuclear conflicts.


1 “Bernard Brodie, The Absolute Weapon, New York: Harcourt, 1946, pg. 76. “

2 “Zafar Iqbal Cheema, “Pakistan,” in Hans Born, Bates Gill and Heiner Hanggi, Eds., Governing the Bomb: Civilian Control and Democratic Accountability of Nuclear Weapons, Oxford University Press, 2010, pg 202.

3 P. Cotta-Ramusino and M. Martellini, “Report on Nuclear safety, nuclear stability and nuclear strategy in Pakistan,” (report presented at Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, January 14, 2002), https://pugwash.org/2002/01/14/report-on-nuclear-safety-nuclear-stability-and-nuclear-strategy-in-pakistan/.

4 S. Paul Kapur, Dangerous Deterrent: Nuclear Weapons Proliferation and Conflict in South Asia, (Oxford University Press, 2008), 136.

5 Gurmeet Kanwal, “India’s Cold Start Doctrine and Strategic Stability,” last modified June 1, 2010, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.

6 Walter C. Ladwig III, “A Cold Start for Hot Wars? The Indian Army’s New Limited War Doctrine,” International Security 32, no. 3, (2007/08): 164, https://www.jstor.org/stable/30130521

7 Scott D. Sagan, “The Evolution of Pakistani and Indian Nuclear Doctrine,” in Inside Nuclear South Asia, ed. Scott D. Sagan, (Stanford University Press, 2011), 229-230.

8 Zafar Nawaz Jaspal, “Tactical Nuclear Weapon: Deterrence Stability between India and Pakistan,” US-Pakistan Strategic Partnership: A Track II Dialogue, last modified September 2011, https://www.hsdl.org/?abstract&did=709853.

9 Rabia Akhtar, “NASR And Pakistan’s Nuclear Deterrence–Analysis,” last modified May 2, 2011, https://www.eurasiareview.com/02052011-nasr-and-pakistans-nuclear-deterrence-analysis/.

10 Rajaram Nagappa, Avinash P, and Riffat Khaji, “BABUR-3—PAKISTAN’S SLCM: CAPABILITY AND LIMITATIONS,” Journal of Air Power and Space Studies 13, no. 3 (July-September 2018): 41-58, https://web.archive.org/web/20200712152302/https://capsindia.org/files/documents/c58eee92-5221-4e74-a182-b222d1a1a904.pdf.

11 Khalid Kidwai and Peter Lavoy, “A Conversation with Gen. Khalid Kidwai,” (speech, March 23, 2015, Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference 2015), Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, https://carnegieendowment.org/files/03-230315carnegieKIDWAI.pdf.

12 Arun Vishwanathan,”Nuclear Deterrence and South Asia,“ Journal of the United Service Institution of India CXLVI, no. 605 (July-September 2016): 336-343, accessed December 30, 2020, .

13 Michael Krepon, “Nuclear Normalcy,” DAWN, Apr. 24, 2014, https://www.dawn.com/news/1101853/nuclear-normalcy.

14 Gaurav Kampani and Bharath Gopalaswamy, “How to Normalize Pakistan’s Nuclear Program,” Foreign Affairs, June 16, 2017, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/south-asia/2017-06-16/how-normalize-pakistans-nuclear-program.

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