Nuclear strategy and deterrence stability in Asia

Two new papers on South Asian nuclear weapons, both part of a Stimson series.


Michael Krepon’s Pakistan’s Nuclear Strategy and Deterrence Stability is a stock-take of Pakistan’s nuclear forces:

The pacing and output of these programs suggest that it will be increasingly difficult for Pakistani (and Indian) spokespersons to assert that they will not engage in an arms race. The Pakistan-India dynamic is certainly the most pronounced nuclear competition since the Cold War ended, made even more complicated because New Delhi must factor in China’s nuclear weapon-related capabilities. Since Beijing’s nuclear posture can be affected by US ballistic missile defense programs, the interactive nature of the nuclear competition in southern Asia is even more complex and difficult to dampen than during the Cold War (p.15) […] If reports are true that Pakistan is leading India in warhead numbers and operationally-ready missiles, and if the stewards of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal continue along current programming trajectories, New Delhi is likely to accelerate stockpile growth and hasten the transfer of missile programs from the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) to the military services (p.5)

On Pakistan’s red-lines:

[T]he most likely threshold for first use relates to significant losses of Pakistani combat aircraft in the event of hostilities. There are several reasons for this conjecture. The disparity in purchasing power between the Indian and Pakistani Air Forces is particularly evident, and the timelines for growing disparity in this sector are shorter than with respect to ground forces. Moreover, Indian leaders may be more inclined to use airpower than ground forces if faced with another highly provocative mass-casualty attack by members of a group with a history of connectivity to Pakistan’s intelligence services (p.12)

On Pakistani tactical nuclear weapons:

[H]owever one calculates the lay-down of tactical nuclear weapons against tanks in the field, requirements appear to be expansive, as well as a poor allocation of plutonium, even for Pakistan’s expanded production capacity. Moreover, Pakistan lacks the real-time surveillance capabilities to destroy armored columns, except where they are funneling into bridge crossings of water barriers (p.20)

On Pakistan’s higher nuclear management:

Pakistan’s nuclear requirements are set by very few military officers and one retired officer, Gen. Kidwai, with very little civilian oversight or ability to question military requirements. This absence of checks and balances is reminiscent of the Pentagon’s nuclear planning until the arrival of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Alain Enthoven, and the “whiz kids” in 1961. The civilian whiz kids have yet to arrive in Pakistan. (p.25)

On crisis management:

The probability of Indian military ripostes and Pakistan’s first use of nuclear weapons would be reduced considerably if Pakistan’s military and intelligence services undertook greater efforts to prevent triggering events. (p.12) […] While Pakistani leaders no longer trust the United States as an intermediary with India, no substitute to Washington is in clear view. Crisis management could therefore become even more challenging in the event of more spectacular attacks on Indian targets by individuals based and trained in Pakistan. (p. 30)


The second paper, The Non-Unitary Model and Deterrence Stability in South Asia by George Perkovich, historian of India’s nuclear weapons, picks up on the question of nuclear crises induced by terrorist attacks:

If in fact Pakistani authorities do exert influence or control over organizations that have conducted terrorist operations in India (and elsewhere) and are merely denying it for tactical reasons, Pakistani authorities can fairly be treated as the authors of the signals that are sent by these actors. India can then seek to manage pre-conflict and intra-conflict deterrence according to the traditional model, while still facing severe challenges of escalation control […] The graver problem arises if and when Pakistani leaders are not in control of the perpetrators of violence emanating from Pakistani territory. In that case, when faced with an attack, India would conclude that deterrence had failed or was inapplicable, but that if India did not retaliate, it would encourage further attacks and do nothing to compel Pakistani leaders to assert control over violent actors. But if India did retaliate, Pakistani leaders, feeling that they had not authorized aggression against India, would feel that India was initiating war. It is widely recognized that victims of aggression – defenders – are more highly motivated to retaliate because they have suffered an injustice. Knowing this, Pakistani defenders would feel that their threats to escalate in response to an Indian attack would be more credible than if they had been the initiators of the conflict. Indians, of course, would feel that this logic rewards Pakistani authorities for not exercising a monopoly on the legitimate use of force emanating from their territory, precisely the situation they want Pakistan to correct. (pp.13-14) […] “because leaders of adversarial states must put any immediate conflict in the context of longer-term relations, they must think how their action or inaction today could raise or lower the risk of inviting more violence from the adversary in the future. Thus, forbearing counter-attack in one crisis, can be seen to weaken deterrence of future violence” (p.8)

On state unity and rationality:

The rationality requirement in deterrence is obviously challenged if and when terrorists, nihilists, or ecstatically violent actors are the opponent. A core assumption of rationality in nuclear deterrence is that actors seek self-preservation. Terrorists do not generally fit this model. Nor do state leaders who are unwilling or unable to control terrorists or who are willing to “bring down their own house” if in the process they can destroy their enemies (pp.6-7)

The most important part of Perkovich’s paper is the question of how Pakistan could limit what Krepon called “triggering events”, and how Pakistani steps might in the future be verified:

Moreover, if they decided to do so [crack down on jihadists] without careful preparations and public education, they would prompt attacks against the security establishment itself, as happened after the operation against the Red Mosque in Islamabad in 2007. Fortunately, Indian (and American) officials recognize the latter problem. What they most want is for Pakistani leaders to demonstrate not only in words but also in constant deeds a determination to delegitimize violence against India and arrest and prosecute actors who violate the law. Perfection in accomplishing this objective would not be expected, but clear and uncompromising effort would be. (p.15)

On verification:

Even if Pakistan were prepared to commit itself genuinely to make all feasible efforts to curtail the actions of groups that seek to export violence, what are reasonable ways to verify this commitment? This is extremely important insofar as it is possible that even in the midst of concerted state efforts to “disarm” militant actors some may persist and carry out attacks. To maintain stability, the recipient of such attacks (and the international community) would need some basis for judging that the attacks did not reflect the intention of the state whence the attackers originated (p.22)

And, finally, on the scale of the threat:

The challenge is enormous, obviously, but it is not impossible due to the vital fact that India does not harbor offensive intentions toward Pakistan. India does not covet territory that Pakistan controls. India does not wish for Pakistan to be dismembered. Indian leaders recognize that it is in their country’s interest for Pakistan to develop economically, to democratize politically, and to live in peace. India does not want Pakistan’s problems to spill over into its territory or restive Muslim populations. The two countries diverge in their visions for an ideal political outcome in Afghanistan, but could settle for an Afghan state that does not allow itself to be a base for hostile actions against Pakistan and India. The fundamental point is that India will not be a military or security threat to Pakistan if Pakistan will cease pursuing offensive strategies (albeit of a low-intensity nature) against it. (p.19)

All in all, a thoughtful paper. But I cant help but feel that one of the clauses – “if in fact Pakistani authorities do exert influence or control over organizations that have conducted terrorist operations in India” – is a little redundant, and that the underlying premise of “non-unitariness” is therefore a dubious one.

I can’t imagine any serious scholar or analyst who would suggest that Pakistani authorities do not, at the least, “exert influence” over the relevant groups. The more interesting discussion pertains to, first, the cost of changing that relationship (I can’t think of an academic paper on this subject) and, second, the scale of policy shift that would be necessary to persuade the US and India that a “de-coupling” had in fact taken place (i.e., that this really was a non-unitary state). As of now, we’re a long way off.



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