India and Pakistan have successfully developed and institutionalized the nuclear-triad but simultaneously manifested their unwillingness to adhere to any nuclear arms control. The unrestrained nuclear arms race between them and India’s nuclear undertaking in post-Pulwama incident is alarming and pessimistic for the South Asian strategic environment. India’s surgical strike mantra from September 29, 2016, and Balakot military adventurism on February 26, and Pakistan’s befitting-cum-restraint response on February 27, 2019, added a new dimension in the nuclear lexicon.
The dogfight between the two nuclear-armed states’ air forces, shooting down two Indian fighter-jets, and capturing of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman by Pakistan ground forces were unprecedented perilous developments in the nuclear era. Even during the peak of the cold war, the United States and former Soviet Union air forces avoided such incidences due to the fear of escalation of conflict into nuclear war. Islamabad released imprisoned Indian pilot on March 1, 2019.
Instead of responding positively to the goodwill gesture and de-escalating tension, India deployed nuclear-capable missiles and moved its submarine in Pakistani water. Pakistan Navy detected the enemy’s invading submarine but did not strike due to the fear of escalation of a conflict. The unprecedented Air Force dogfight between the nuclear-armed states, Naval brinkmanship, and deployment of nuclear-capable missiles during the crisis, necessitates a critical examination of India and Pakistan’s gradual doctrinal makeover and nuclear undertakings in February-March 2019.
Pakistan avoided an escalation in a nuclear-tinged crisis because its ruling elite believes in nuclear taboo, i.e., an all-out nuclear conflagration is unthinkable. Moreover, its armed forces are confident about their ability and capability to check India’s aggressive behavior.
This article is an attempt to spell out the nuclear-related undertakings by India and Pakistan in the post-Pulwama February 14, 2019, crisis and also deliberates the makeover in their nuclear thinking since both declared themselves nuclear in May 1998. It also draws attention towards both states’ rational/irrational response to a conflict in a nuclearized strategic environment.
The following discussion is structured to answer three interlinked questions, i.e., how were nuclear weapons employed in the post-Pulwama incident? Is there any shift in India and Pakistan nuclear thinking during the last two decades? Which is the trigger-happy nuclear state in South Asia? What are the consequences of both nuclear undertakings and doctrinal makeover on the regional strategic environment?
Who is the Nuclear Trigger-happy State in South Asia?
Prime Minister Narendra Modi systematically warmongered and escalated tensions, despite the punctured reputation of the Indian military during the post-Pulwama incident. On March 18, Indian Navy announced the deployment of the nuclear-propelled submarine—INS Arihant. Hitherto, only the Indian Army deployed nuclear-capable missiles. On April 14, Prime Minister Modi claimed that he had called Pakistan’s ‘nuclear bluff’ by carrying out air strikes within Pakistan. He said: “Pakistan has threatened us with nuclear, nuclear, nuclear” and then he asked rhetorically, “did we deflate their nuclear threat or not?” As a Prime Minister Modi playing with fire, his irresponsible behavior threatens the lives of two billion people in the region.
Realistically, at no time during the post-Pulwama crisis, did Pakistan intimate the use of nuclear weapons. Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor, ISPR spokesperson said, “Since we have gone overtly nuclear, as India also, in 1998, our stance is that this capability eliminates the possibility of conventional war between the two states. So that is to say, this is a weapon of deterrence and a political choice. No sane country having this capability would talk about using it.” Pakistan avoided an escalation in a nuclear-tinged crisis because its ruling elite believes in nuclear taboo, i.e., an all-out nuclear conflagration is unthinkable.
Moreover, its armed forces are confident about their ability and capability to check India’s aggressive behavior – due to visible tilt in the balance of power and defense budgetary in New Delhi’s favor – with its current capacity and professional training of the military personnel. Pakistan nuclear restraint policy in the post-Pulwama crisis confirms that it continues its nuclear deterrent policy without reciprocating in a tit-for-tat deployment of nuclear-capable delivery vehicles to India’s deployment.
The risks of accidental or inadvertent use of nuclear weapons in South Asia incalculably increased with the deployment of India’s nuclear-capable delivery vehicles during the post-Pulwama military-standoff between India and Pakistan.
However, Pakistan Air Force’s befitting-cum-restraint response to India’s February 26, aggression reconfirmed Islamabad’s capability and resolved to retaliate for its sovereign defense. It confirmed that in a conflict, Pakistan should not chicken out of using its military assets for the sake of defense, due to the fears of a conflict escalating into a total war – that has the probability of nuclear exchange. Indeed, it augments the credibility of Pakistan’s nuclear deterrence policy.
Change in the Nuclear Discourse
India’s deployment of nuclear assets and Pakistan’s refrain from reciprocating, falsify two western nuclear observer’s percepts, which have been dominating India-Pakistan nuclear discourse since the summer 1999 Kargil conflict. Despite, Pakistan’s official denial, many Western nuclear experts opined that Pakistan deployed nuclear weapons during the Kargil conflict.
Ironically, without empirical investigation, they pronounced that Pakistan would be the initiator of nuclear war in South Asia because India has no-first-use (NFU) nuclear policy. The deployment of nuclear assets proves that India can contemplate using nuclear weapons first in a conflict because of its policy of pre-emption and counterforce targeting dubbed as ‘Surgical Strike’ Stratagem. India incorporated strategy of exercising ‘surgical strike’ as a part of full spectrum response and formal military option in the 2017 Joint Doctrine Indian Armed Forces.
The doctrine stated: India has moved to a pro-active and practical philosophy to counter various conflict situations. The response to terror provocations could be in the form of ‘surgical strikes,’ and these would be subsumed in the sub-conventional portion of the spectrum of armed conflict. The possibility of sub-conventional escalating to a conventional level would be dependent on multiple influences, principally: politically-determined conflict aims; strategic conjuncture; operational circumstance; international pressures and military readiness.
Conflict will be determined or prevented through a process of credible deterrence, coercive diplomacy and conclusively by punitive destruction, disruption and constraint in a nuclear environment across the Spectrum of Conflict. Prime Minister Modi’s irresponsible statements against nuclear-armed Pakistan for mustering the support of Hindutva and nationalist forces in the 2019 Lok Sabha election is a significant concern for the regional and international security observers.
The risks of accidental or inadvertent use of nuclear weapons in South Asia incalculably increased with the deployment of India’s nuclear-capable delivery vehicles during the post-Pulwama military-standoff between India and Pakistan. Indeed, the current tension between them has further exacerbated the nuclearized South Asian strategic environment.
India’s ruling elites’ statements and strategic pundits writings manifest that it is detaching from its declared NFU policy. It is consciously pursuing more flexible options beyond counter value targeting—namely, counterforce options against Pakistan.
Notwithstanding, a few nuclear confidence-building measures, India and Pakistan are unable to negotiate and promulgate a bilateral arms control that thwarts the nuclear risks and encourage a Nuclear Weapon Free Zone in South Asia. Besides, New Delhi seems to be disinclined to negotiate a bilateral agreement with Pakistan to avoid the accidental, unauthorized and inadvertent nuclear war.
Nevertheless, the critical examination of both states military doctrines reveals that nuclear weapons occupy an essential position in their defense planning. Though they reject the possibility of nuclear warfighting, yet both are developing nuclear capabilities that appear inconsistent with their professed strategy of minimum deterrence premise for strategic stability between them. India’s ruling elites’ statements and strategic pundits writings manifest that it is detaching from its declared NFU policy.
It is consciously pursuing more flexible options beyond counter value targeting—namely, counterforce options against Pakistan. Pakistan announced ‘full spectrum nuclear doctrine’ after the development of battlefield nuclear weapons. Strategic analysts widely interpreted that Pakistan would use its battlefield nuclear weapons against Indian conventional forces if they cross certain red lines.
Indeed, it would place enormous pressure on both India’s command and control systems and Pakistan’s National Command Authority. The above discussion reveals that the Indian ruling elite is deliberately ignoring or underestimating the repercussions of a military conflict between nuclear-armed states. Indeed, it was an unthinkable factor during the cold war, but now a ‘surgical strike’ is a significant feature of India’s military doctrine. The nuclear weapons led strategic stability; a system-wide condition constitutes a particular kind of structural change in the strategic environment.
In such a strategic environment nuclear deterrence has had visible and traceable consequences for the behavior of states towards a conflict. It moderates the nuclear-capable rivals’ relations. For instance, from the 1960s onward, it had allowed the United States and the former Soviet Union to acquire a new function—joint custodianship of the international system—which implies a new organizing principle for the system and also encouraged detente between them. The superpowers concluded agreements that limited some of their most critical military operations, notably long-range ballistic missiles and strategic defenses.
Ironically, Prime Minister Modi instead of exercising caution to prevent mistakes and misunderstandings during a conflict has adopted risky warfighting or a trigger-happy nuclear strategy. He said: “India’s nuclear weapons had not been saved for Diwali.”
Steve Weber argued: “The simplest explanation for détente is that the threat of a nuclear Armageddon creates powerful shared incentives for the superpowers to cooperate in preventing nuclear war.” Bernard Brodi expressed similar views, “Thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on its main purpose must be to avert them. It can have almost no other useful purpose.” Ironically, the Indian leadership is disinclined to respond constructively to the demands of the nuclearized strategic environment and therefore, Modi government is determined to use its military prowess to coerce a nuclear-armed neighbor to win the support of the Hindu nationalists in the 2019 Lok Sabha election.
India’s Cold Start Doctrine/Proactive Military Operation Strategy and ‘Surgical Strike’ Stratagem underscore that the nuclear deterrence situation between India and Pakistan has failed to encourage the growth of shared norms between them. These developments underscore that the nuclear deterrence situation between India and Pakistan has failed to encourage the growth of shared norms between them. Which would have regulated and contained their political and military rivalry through efforts to exercise mutual restraint, to negotiate and settle differences by peaceful means, and to prevent the development of situations capable of causing a dangerous exacerbation of their differences.
Hence, current India’s strategic percepts and the possible strategic responses of Pakistan increase the risk of a minor crisis escalating into a total war. Ironically, Prime Minister Modi instead of exercising caution to prevent mistakes and misunderstandings during a conflict has adopted risky warfighting or a trigger-happy nuclear strategy. He said: “India’s nuclear weapons had not been saved for Diwali.”
While commenting on Modi’s nuclear bellicose statement, Shyam Saran, former India’s Foreign Secretary “Many norms have been transgressed and several thresholds crossed in the ongoing Lok Sabha election campaign, whether in the communal and sectarian polarisation of Indians or the politicization of the armed forces. Now another threshold has been crossed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his most recent remarks on India’s nuclear weapons delivered in a threatening tone.”
In summary, Pakistan’s mature-cum-effective political and military response to Prime Minister Modi’s war hysteria and Indian armed forces aggression in post-Pulwama crisis expose the futility of India’s sham ‘Surgical Strike Stratagem.’ Besides, it confirms that unlike India, Pakistan is not a trigger-happy nuclear armed-state.