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Pakistan-India Arms Race Destabilizing Strategic Balance, Experts Say

By Rachel Oswald

Global Security Newswire

(Jul. 20) -An Indian Agni 3 ballistic missile, shown during a 2010 parade in New Delhi. India and Pakistan have pursued military strategies and acquired new nuclear capabilities that together increase the likelihood of the nuclear threshold being crossed should a new armed clash erupt between the longtime antagonists, experts said during a Monday panel discussion (Raveendran/Getty Images). (Jul. 20) -An Indian Agni 3 ballistic missile, shown during a 2010 parade in New Delhi. India and Pakistan have pursued military strategies and acquired new nuclear capabilities that together increase the likelihood of the nuclear threshold being crossed should a new armed clash erupt between the longtime antagonists, experts said during a Monday panel discussion (Raveendran/Getty Images).

WASHINGTON--Indian and Pakistani strategies for ramping up their armed might could increase the likelihood of a disastrous outcome in the event of another war between the longtime antagonists, experts said this week (see GSN, July 19).

The neighboring rivals have fought three wars since 1947. The introduction in the last two decades of nuclear weapons into the Pakistani-India military balance is seen to have provided a check on further armed hostilities, restricting them from escalating into full-scale war.

That military balance, though, is increasingly at risk, according to regional specialists who spoke at a Monday forum in Washington on the South Asian nuclear arms race.

"I think having a little pessimism about escalation is probably healthy. I don’t think we should assume that better sense will prevail" in the event of another crisis situation, Toby Dalton, deputy director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Nuclear Policy Program, said during the panel discussion.

While India has used recent massive economic growth to invest in new conventional force capabilities, the much smaller Pakistan has been bogged down for 10 years fighting domestic extremists and has lacked the financial wherewithal to compete with New Delhi in a traditional military sphere. For this reason, Islamabad is pursuing a significant nuclear arms buildup, according to Dalton’s co-panelist, retired Pakistani Air Vice Marshal Shahzad Chaudhry.

"Pakistan is in no position to catch up with India [on conventional weaponry] and we’re very clear about it," said the former commander of the Pakistani air force Strategic Command.

The mismatched arms buildup injects a new degree of uncertainty into the strategic relationship between Islamabad and New Delhi and makes it more important that the two sides have mutual clarity on how they each would respond in the event of another armed confrontation or Pakistani-based terrorist attack on India, Dalton said.

"I think it’s clear though that future crises will happen much faster, I think with a higher degree of uncertainty," said Dalton, a veteran Energy Department official who worked in the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan. "In that circumstance, signaling and communication becomes critical. Misperception is something that is a real risk and without clear channels for regular dialogue, mistakes could be made."

Pakistan is widely thought to be expanding its stocks of fissile material at a faster rate than any other nation. After historically possessing a smaller nuclear weapons stockpile than India, Islamabad’s arsenal in the last few years surged past New Delhi and is now thought to number between 90 and 110 warheads. India, comparatively, is estimated to hold 80 to 100 nuclear weapons (see GSN, June 8).

Following the 2008 assault on the city of Mumbai, India is believed to have formulated the so-called Cold Start doctrine, under which mechanized Indian military units would swiftly invade Pakistan in a limited punitive strike following an extremist strike. New Delhi, though, has never publicly confirmed this posture.

Islamabad, meanwhile, in April, announced the successful test-launch of a nuclear-capable missile that was widely seen as intended for use against an invading force (see GSN, June 1). The nation has not officially discussed the parameters under which the Hatf 9 tactical missile would be used.

In statements after the missile’s successful trial, anonymous Pakistani military insiders said the Hatf 9’s so-called 'shoot-and-scoot' capability to be fired and then quickly relocated during battle would ensure that "Indian planners will now be deterred from considering options of limited war."

Retired Indian Strategic Forces Command chief Vijay Shankar said during the discussion on Monday that such comments give India pause. "When we hear these kinds of phrases, it worries the [Indian military] planners: 'shoot-and-scoot, 'quick, rapid deployment.'"

Chaudhry said he questioned the wisdom of Pakistani officials touting the Hatf 9’s mobility, though he also accused Indian military planners of wanting to maintain the ability to engage in a "limited war" with his nation.

He insisted that Islamabad was engaged in a planned and deliberate nuclear arms buildup: "Pakistan has a very good measure as to what is the [nuclear arms] figure that Pakistan must have or will have and we’re not going to spend more money on [going beyond that] because we don’t have enough money to spend."

Chaudhry strongly rejected recent speculation that Pakistan could within two decades overtake France as the holder of the world’s fourth-largest nuclear arsenal. France possesses approximately 300 strategic warheads (see GSN, May 16).

India, meanwhile, is pursuing a nuclear triad that would enable it to wield nuclear weapons by air, land, and sea. The nation in December is expected to test its first ballistic missile with a range that is almost long enough to classify it as an ICBM (see GSN, June 20).

Shankar said India’s nuclear weapons development was premised on its no-first-use policy and therefore the nation’s nuclear arsenal, and its methods of delivery, must be robust enough to ensure it would survive a potential first disarming strike.

The ex-Indian officer, however, emphasized that his government’s guiding logic in constructing the framework of its nuclear deterrent was to ensure that it never had to be used. He also said India accepts that basic deterrence benefits achieved by a large arsenal begin to decrease past a certain level, when additional nuclear weapons do not bring with them added value. Shankar notably did not offer specifics on what that point was.

Hope For Detente

Islamabad and New Delhi agreed earlier this year to reinvigorate a multiyear peace process that was suspended following the 2008 militant assault on the Indian city of Mumbai. The two nations’ foreign policy chiefs are slated to meet in New Delhi next week for talks that could include new nuclear-confidence building measures.

Chaudhry and Shankar are both participants in informal dialogue between Pakistan and India in which academics and former officials exchange views and ideas on possible atomic trust-building measures. Any credible ideas developed from the dialogue are shared with New Delhi and Islamabad.

Under a 2005 agreement, India and Pakistan notify one another ahead of any ballistic missile test launches. The countries also once a year exchange lists of their respective atomic installations that are not to come under attack in the event of another war (see GSN, June 27).

Chaudhry indicated he saw little chance of the two sides agreeing to sit down in the near future for bilateral arms control talks.

"There is absolutely no situation like the … Soviet Union and the U.S. where the two countries after having achieved a certain level decided 'enough is enough'" and are ready to begin discussing arms reductions, Chaudhry said.

The strategic environment in South Asia must stabilize before that could occur, he said, noting that stability in the region today exists by "default" but that it needed to become "de jure" before further significant confidence-building steps could be taken.

Shankar said "the strategic underpinnings" of the two nations’ nuclear stockpiles "must be articulated and made transparent by the government and that becomes the basis for further discussions."

"Everything other than locations, deployments and perhaps one or two other features is on the table," he advised.

The former officer also recommended the two nations discuss retiring all of their tactical nuclear weapons.

Dalton said it was too early for the neighbors to be open about their military capabilities. It would make more sense, he argued, for New Delhi and Islamabad to increase transparency regarding their nuclear security and atomic safety programs as a means of gradually building trust to eventual nuclear arsenal talks.

NTI Analysis

  • Russia's Nuclear Rearmament: Policy Shift or Business as Usual?

    Dec. 18, 2013

    This paper provides an overview of the current and planned state of Russia's strategic triad. It also explores motivations for Russia's planned upgrades to its strategic nuclear arsenal, offers a forecast of the likelihood of success, and suggests some implications for the United States.

  • U.S. Nuclear Weapons Budget: An Overview

    Sept. 27, 2013

    A fact sheet on current and projected costs of maintaining the U.S. nuclear deterrent, produced by the Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

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