Comments on the IISS paper of May 2021 titled: “Nuclear Deterrence and Stability in South Asia: Perceptions and Realities”1
Amb Satish Chandra, Vice Chairman, VIF

The recent IISS paper titled “Nuclear Deterrence and Stability in South Asia: Perceptions and Realities” is something of a letdown. Though it contains some nuggets of value such as the assessment that, given the China factor, the conventional armed forces of India and Pakistan are evenly balanced, it disappoints as it displays a distinct bias against India, its research is often not upto par, and it trots out solutions for achieving stability in South Asia based upon stale ideas of yesteryear. The latter is, perhaps, the case as it looks for solutions only through the narrow prism of disarmament related measures. A more holistic approach based upon ground realities including, inter alia, the fact that India Pakistan tensions are rooted in the latter’s determination to undo the status quo through all possible means such as resort to terrorism would have been more productive.

The lack of scholarship in the paper is evident in the introduction itself when it refers to the Balakot attack triggered by the Pulwama terrorist action in February 2019 as the “worst security crisis” between India and Pakistan in a generation. This is factually incorrect as both the Kargil Conflict in 1999 and the border standoff in 2001-2002, following the Pakistani sponsored terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament, were certainly far more serious than the crisis of February 2019 as possibly were the terrorist attacks of November 2008 on Mumbai.

In describing the aforesaid developments in 2019 the Pakistani tilt in the paper is on open display as evident from the following:

  • It stops short of stating that the Jaish-e-Mohamed (JeM) which was responsible for the terrorist attack at Pulwama was aided and abetted by Pakistan;
  • It stops short of endorsing the fact that the Indian retaliatory strike was indeed at a major JeM camp;
  • While mentioning that India lost a fighter aircraft it makes no mention of the fact that Pakistan targeted Indian military facilities and in the process it too lost a fighter aircraft;
  • It makes out that India “possibly prepared” conventionally armed ballistic missiles to attack Pakistan but makes no reference to the countless occasions on which Pakistani has threatened the use of nuclear weapons against India. In the instant case India warned Pakistan directly and through third parties, most notably the USA that if the captured Indian pilot in their custody was not released unharmed forthwith it would have to bear the consequences. This was considered essential as Pakistan has a terrible record of torturing and mistreating Indian military personnel captured by it.
  • By suggesting that “chance played an ameliorative” role in this incident it only furthers Pakistan’s age old agenda of projecting tensions between it and India as a nuclear flashpoint as a means to promote third party intervention in the region. Promotion of this idea exacerbates India-Pakistan tensions by encouraging the latter’s obduracy. In the instant case clear signalling by India through multiple channels of its readiness to resort to punitive action led to a climb down by Pakistan and to defusing the situation. It also signalled that deterrence actually worked rather than the other way around.

The paper’s flagrant bias in favour of Pakistan and against India, as also its surprising lack of rigour is evident in its rather superficial analysis of the nuclear doctrines of the two countries. Since Pakistan lacks a thorough, clear and comprehensively set out nuclear doctrine the paper projects that India too does not have one. This is factually incorrect as the Cabinet Committee on Security on 4 January 2003 following a meeting on the subject put out detailed information on the subject. Most of these details, barring India’s commitment to maintaining a credible minimum deterrent, adoption of a No First Use (NFU) policy, and assertion that nuclear retaliation to a first strike on its territory or on its forces anywhere would be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage, find no mention. These elements, some of which are outlined below, have not even been referred to in the paper as they redound to India’s credit as a responsible nuclear armed state and are absent from Pakistan’s doctrine:

  • Nuclear retaliatory attacks only to be authorised by the civilian political leadership through the Nuclear Command Authority.
  • Non-use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states;
  • A continuance of strict controls on export of nuclear and missile related materials and technologies, participation in the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty negotiations, and continued observance of the moratorium on nuclear tests.
  • Continued commitment to the goal of a nuclear weapon free world, through global, verifiable and non-discriminatory nuclear disarmament.

The paper’s lack of rigour is also demonstrated when it suggests that under India’s nuclear doctrine it is committed to nuclear retaliation in the event of “large scale” chemical or biological weapons attacks on its territory or armed forces anywhere. The fact is that there is only such a commitment in the event of any nuclear attack. As for “major” chemical or biological weapon attacks (not “large scale” attacks as stated in the paper) India’s nuclear doctrine merely states that nuclear retaliation would be an “option”. In respect of such attacks it does not stipulate as in the case of a nuclear first strike that nuclear retaliation would be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage. Finally, the reference in the paper to the doctrine published in 1999 as a “draft doctrine” and to that published in 2003 as a “reviewed” doctrine is incorrect. It is true that the former has often been termed as a draft doctrine even by Indian leaders but the fact is that it was merely a doctrine drafted by the National Security Advisory Board at the request of the National Security Advisor. In addition to this draft there were other drafts as well that had been submitted to the Government for consideration. It is therefore; wrong to term the doctrine as published in 2003 as a “reviewed doctrine”.

While addressing Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine the paper is riddled with contradictions and bland assertions designed to present it in the best possible light. For instance, it boldly asserts that Pakistan’s first response would “probably” be conventional and that use of nuclear weapons would only be in the event of a “large scale attack”. Later in the same paragraph this is contradicted as it mentions that use of short range weapons is meant to deny India “space for limited conventional war.” The fact of the matter is that Pakistan has a lower threshold for use of nuclear weapons than any other nuclear armed country as evident from its nuclear doctrine as first enunciated in 2001 which lists the following circumstances in which it would use them and which has also been referred to in the paper:

  1. If India conquered a large part of Pakistan;
  2. If India destroyed a large part of Pakistan’s land or air force;
  3. If India proceeded to the economic strangling of Pakistan;
  4. If India pushed Pakistan into political destabilization or created large scale internal subversion.

From the foregoing it would appear that Pakistan would be prepared to use nuclear weapons against India even in the absence of any military attack.

The paper, however, glosses over this as also the fact that Pakistan enjoys the dubious distinction of being the only nuclear armed state to have a country specific nuclear doctrine as its nuclear weapons are solely aimed at India. This alone should have impelled the authors of the paper to have not been mechanistic in addressing strategic stability in South Asia and dealt with it in a much wider framework taking into account Pakistan’s deep rooted and pathological hostility towards India.

In another of the many contradictions contained within it the paper brazenly asserts that Pakistan acquired nuclear weapons in order to compensate for its inferior position vis a vis India in conventional weapons but later suggests that given the China factor there is no such disparity between the two.

The paper finds both the Pakistani and Indian doctrines equally wanting on the issue of disproportion in the circumstances in which they would use nuclear weapons. Pakistan is rightly criticized for its low threshold in the use of nuclear weapons including in the event of a mere punitive action against it. While this is as it should be it is surprising that the paper holds the Indian doctrine equally guilty for suggesting that even a limited first use of nuclear weapons against India would invite massive retaliation designed to inflict unacceptable damage. Forgotten in such self serving criticism is the fact that the Indian doctrine is anchored on the principle of NFU and sees nuclear weapons solely as a deterrent and not as a war fighting instrument. The authors of the paper also seem impervious to the fact that the Indian nuclear doctrine draws inspiration from a tenet, dear to the pundits of nuclear disarmament the world over, notably that the use of nuclear weapons is a taboo and only when that threshold is crossed should nuclear retaliation be invoked. Instead of lauding the Indian doctrine for such an enlightened approach the paper suggests that India ought to refrain from actions which cross Pakistan’s nuclear threshold! Clearly, the authors of the paper are still in the less than savory mode of the Britain of the past which instead of being satisfied by any concession made by India to Pakistan saw in it an opportunity to extract even more.

One wonders whether the authors of the paper would actually be happier if India were to abandon its nuclear doctrine inclusive of NFU and get into a nuclear war fighting mode in Pakistan’s image by developing tactical nuclear weapons. Would this not plunge the subcontinent into a nuclear confrontation which the authors of the paper purportedly wish to avert? The fact of the matter is, and the paper is terribly remiss in not recognizing it, that the Indian nuclear doctrine, which skillfully marries exemplary restraint with the threat of unacceptable inflicting unacceptable damage should the nuclear rubicon be crossed, is to no small extent responsible for having kept Pakistan from doing so and prevented a nuclear conflagration in the subcontinent.

The unkindest cut of all in the paper is that in comparing the nuclear doctrines of the two countries it argues that the principles of “credible” and “minimum” in both have become less coequal with both states placing greater emphasis on the former. This contention is intrinsically flawed on two counts. First, in so far as the Indian nuclear doctrine was concerned the aforesaid principles ab initio were not meant to be coequal and the placement of the term “credible” before the term “minimum” gave it greater weight. Second, the tenor of the paper’s contention would suggest that both India and Pakistan are now engaged in arms racing. While this is true of Pakistan it is certainly not true of India as it has a lower number of nuclear warheads as compared to the former. If it was involved in arms racing it would have made sure of having a much larger number of nuclear warheads than Pakistan. This is all the more so as India has also to contend with a much more serious threat from a China which happens to be Pakistan’s all weather friend and is in large measure responsible for the latter’s emergence as a nuclear armed state. Nuclear collusion between the two dates back to the inception of Pakistan’s nuclear weapon programme and continues to this day. Finally, it ill behoves the authors of this paper to make this point at a time when the UK which has 30% more nuclear warheads than India and is planning a further 30-40% increase! This is all the more so as while India is located in one of the roughest neighbourhoods the UK faces no such existential challenges on its periphery.

While acknowledging that “China is a major factor in India’s security calculations, both conventional and nuclear” and noting the growing concerns of many Indians of increasing Sino Pak collusion it still perversely concludes that the stability of India Pakistan nuclear deterrence is the exclusive preserve of their leaders. It blandly justifies this conclusion on the flimsy ground that China “has not offered any formal security guarantees” to Pakistan on nuclear weapon matters. Such naiveté does not add merit to the paper.

It is a pity that Annexure IV to the paper listing out CBM’s between the two countries is less than comprehensive. A complete list would not only have been invaluable for scholars but would also have revealed the extent to which India has gone over the years to seek to improve ties with Pakistan at great cost to itself. Some of the CBM’s not included and which should have found a place in Annexure IV are detailed below:

  1. Payment of Rs 75 crores to Pakistan on account of division of assets of undivided India: Rs20 crores were paid in August 1947 and the remaining Rs55 crores in January 1948 even as Pakistan was attacking India;
  2. Non pursuit of its claims vis a vis Pakistan for non payment of the latter’s partition debt of Rs300 crores;2
  3. Following the 1971 conflict India negotiated an agreement with Pakistan at Simla in 1972 for across the board normalization of relations without imposing any costs even though it was in a position to do so. The authors should note that India did not impose a Versailles on Pakistan but instead returned the 5386 square miles of Pakistani territory captured by it without exacting a quid pro quo;3
  4. India obtained “the concurrence of Bangladesh”4 or the return of the nearly 92000 Pakistani prisoners of war held in India under the joint India-Bangladesh Command without seeking anything in return;
  5. India facilitated Pakistan’s re entry into NAM in 1979 and into the Commonwealth in 1989;
  6. India unilaterally accorded Most Favoured Nation treatment to Pakistan in 1996 for import of the latter’s goods to India. Pakistan did not reciprocate this move; (The Modi government has since withdrawn this gesture)
  7. In 2011 India, by withdrawing its objections to the application of zero duty by the EU on textile exports from Pakistan, facilitated the same at the cost of its own textile exports. The annual loss to the Indian textile industry for this generosity is estimated at $1 billion.

Additionally, Annexure IV would have been greatly enriched had its authors, in mentioning the Indus Waters Treaty, pointed out that it constituted an unparalleled act of generosity on the part of India as under its provisions India agreed to accept a mere 20% of the flows of the Indus basin rivers though it had 40% of the catchment area. Furthermore, India paid Pakistan over 62 million pound sterling for building irrigation canals etc. as per Article V of the Indus Waters Treaty.

In terms of solutions for promoting stability in South Asia the paper offers nothing more as stated earlier than suggestions for dialogue between think tanks, at 1.5 diplomatic level and through back channels as well as several CBMs many of which build on those already concluded decades ago. Political realism, however, dictates that none of these measures which have been repeated over the decades will promote stability. No country has shown as much magnanimity to a neighbour than has India to Pakistan and if did not help nothing will. Stability can only come from a recognition by Pakistan that attempting to change the status quo in the region through resort to terrorism and indulging in nuclear blackmail is counterproductive. Such a recognition would come when the international community sheds its reluctance to call a spade a spade and instead of indulging Pakistan for its unacceptable and irresponsible conduct holds it to account. Buying into the Pakistani narrative and promoting it as done in the paper does not help.

  2. Taxindiaonline_com
  3. Pg 184 “Indira Gandhi, the ‘Emergency’, and Indian Democracy” by P.N.Dhar
  4. Pg 112 “Pakistan in Perspective 1947-1997” edited by Rafi Raza

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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