Ashley Tellis’ important book, India’s Emerging Nuclear Posture (2001), predicted an “arms crawl” instead of a nuclear arms race on the subcontinent. One major reason for Ashley’s benign assessment was that Indian decision makers “view their nuclear weapons primarily as political instruments intended to promote caution in the minds of their adversaries – while bolstering their own self-confidence – rather than as true weapons of war.”
There is no keener outside observer of Indian nuclear propensities than Ashley Tellis. Ashley was right about New Delhi’s limited enthusiasm for nuclear weapons, but he was off the mark in assuming that Pakistan’s nuclear requirements would be influenced by India’s restraint and deep ambivalence about the Bomb. Instead, Pakistan’s military leadership appears intent to outpace India’s nuclear capabilities. China is also moving forward with strategic modernization programs. Situated between two more serious regional nuclear competitors, New Delhi has done “the needful.” India, like Pakistan, has reportedly doubled the size of its nuclear arsenal over the past decade, while still lagging behind its neighbors.
Pakistani commentators assert that New Delhi’s nuclear ambitions are all about status. Status-consciousness is certainly part of this equation, but if status were New Delhi’s foremost concern, India would not be lagging behind Pakistan’s nuclear numbers. Instead, Indian decision makers appear to be proceeding in a measured way with modernization programs for ballistic and cruise missiles that will, over time, support a triad of nuclear-capable delivery vehicles. Notable new developments include the flight testing of the Shourya, a 700km range, dual-capable land and sea-based missile, and the Prahaar, a road-mobile, dual-capable, 150km range missile.
Pakistan is also on course to field ballistic and cruise missiles as key elements of its triad, with the most notable new development being the flight testing of the Nasr, a 60km range, dual-capable, battlefield missile system that was unveiled in the presence of the Director-General of Pakistan’s Strategic Plans Division, Khalid Kidwai.
The induction of tactical nuclear weapons systems that are hardest to maintain command and control over and that are most susceptible to loss on the battlefield is not good news. Nonetheless, Pakistan’s military high command apparently feels the need for more suasion to deter an Indian conventional attack. Indian defense technologists and military strategists see no good reason to cede this option to Pakistan. Thus, the tactical nuclear weapons that were once widely denigrated by South Asia’s strategic thinkers now seem to be “on the anvil.”
Pakistan is more agile than India on nuclear matters because its requirements are set by a very small number of serving military officers plus one retired officer, General Kidwai. India’s key decision makers are civilians whose primary focus is maintaining economic growth and serving domestic constituencies. Decision making is cumbersome and messy. Implementation happens very slowly. India has big plans and big shortfalls. New Delhi could pick up the pace of its nuclear programs, but this may take a change in government that brings the Bharatiya Janata Party back in power.
Pakistan’s more purposeful approach to nuclear weapons reflects its unease over the conventional balance with India and a military leadership that is able to find the necessary funds despite budgetary shortfalls elsewhere in society. Pakistan’s politicians do not question and cannot override requirements set by the military custodians of their nuclear arsenal. Pakistan’s buildup therefore continues despite its economic woes.
It should come as no surprise that Pakistan’s military officers who decide nuclear requirements err on the side of excess. It took concerted and very contentious efforts in the Kennedy administration for Secretary of Defense McNamara and his civilian whiz kids to wrestle nuclear weapon requirements out of the exclusive hands of General Curtis LeMay and his fellow officers. The first notable “success” by civilians back then meant topping the requirement for deployed ICBM launchers at 1,000.
What makes Pakistan’s process of setting nuclear weapon requirements unusual at this juncture is not the exclusion of civilians, but how few military officers shape and make these calls. Among states with nuclear weapons, perhaps only North Korea has as few decision shapers. What makes India unique is how much military officers are excluded from decision shaping.
Rawalpindi’s nuclear requirements can be interpreted as a reflection of the old adage that the best defense is a good offense. As former President and Chief of Army Staff Pervez Musharraf said while commissioning an Agosta-class submarine: “Our deterrence strategy is defensive. We have no design to go and attack the enemy. But if we are attacked we are going to be offensive in defending ourselves.” Musharraf is gone, but this philosophy endures.
Pakistan’s nuclear modernization programs are hard to square with a doctrine of minimal nuclear deterrence. The press release issued at the flight test of the Nasr at which General Kidwai attended used the phraseology “consolidating Pakistan’s strategic deterrence capability at all levels of the threat spectrum.” Full-spectrum deterrence lends itself to a larger nuclear stockpile with more war-fighting options. The scope and pace of Pakistan’s nuclear modernization programs are consistent with a commitment to seek nuclear and escalatory advantage to compensate for growing conventional disadvantages. Peter Lavoy and Vipin Narang have reached this conclusion, as well.
Pakistan and India are entering a less stable phase of offsetting, growing, and more diversified nuclear capabilities, one that is complicated by China’s strategic modernization programs. This is par for the course after rivals with serious security concerns move from covert to overt nuclear weapon capabilities and, then later, when they build out their force structure. If one of the competitors in southern Asia seeks advantage, or worries about being disadvantaged, the result will look more like a nuclear arms competition than an arms crawl.
Nuclear buildups have always resulted in added anxiety rather than deterrence stability. This cycle was checked during the Cold War by a political breakthrough engineered by two courageous leaders followed by sustained, successful diplomatic engagement. Strategic analysts in Pakistan and India reject the application of the Cold War model to the subcontinent, but they seem to be following a familiar arms build-up on a far smaller scale. Despite the many differences between the US-Soviet and Pakistan-India rivalries, one parallel is of overriding importance: nuclear dangers will be reduced by a political thaw, not by nuclear build-ups.