In the last few years there has been a marked shift in the nuclear discourse in South Asia. Three issues have generated new debate about the level of strategic stability in the region: India’s Cold Start doctrine, Pakistan’s Nasr, and now India’s apparent shift from a primarily counter-value, to counterforce nuclear strategy. Regrettably, to varying degrees the two South Asian nuclear powers seem to be entering a phase of rapid evolution in their respective nuclear postures. And with few good reasons. For various political, geographic, logistic, and budgetary reasons, the South Asian states have little to benefit from emulating the experiences of the U.S. and USSR.
With India developing its indigenous defence industry, and acquiring technology from the West as well, it seems to be on a track to gain an edge over its South Asian neighbors, especially Pakistan. This includes the acquisition/development with other countries on technology such as cruise missiles, Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS), and strike aircraft. Of these, inciting concern is India’s growing air combat and ground strike capacity based on Su-30 MKI, Mirage-2000H, Jaguar strike aircraft, Tu-22M backfire bombers, and more recently, C-295 transport aircraft, and the French Rafale which augment its capacity to go after its counterforce targets.
Moreover, major arms sales to India in the last decade include U.S. F-16s and guided bombs for Jaguar aircraft. From France, the sales include 36 French-built Rafale planes, six Scorpene submarines, upgrades to 49 Mirage-2000-5, air-to air missiles for these planes and a huge sale of 126 multi-role medium combat aircraft. Similarly, Russia has exported combat aircraft such as 270 Su-30s, 45 naval Mig-29Ks, 150 Mi-17 transport helicopters and ten Ka-31 helicopters.
In 2006, the DRDO and a Russian venture jointly developed the BrahMos cruise missile — a supersonic missile that combines Russian propulsion technology and new Indian guidance technology. BrahMos cruise missile can reach supersonic speed and thus bypass surface-to-air missile defense systems. Israel has also transferred electronic warfare technology and precision-guided munitions. The Indian-Israeli arms trade amounts to more than $2 billion annually. In 2004, the British company BAE Systems won a deal to sell advanced jet trainers to the Indian Air Force. In 2007, India paid the United States $50 million for the amphibious USS Trenton, and in 2009, Boeing won a $2 billion order for eight P-8 maritime reconnaissance aircraft and Lockheed Martin won a $1 billion contract for six C-1301J transport aircraft. Together with former U.S. President Barack Obama also offered to sell C-17 and F-414 aircraft. More so, India’s inclusion into the Missile Technology Control Regime gives it access to technology that is normally restricted for non-members. By stark contrast, the Pakistan Air Force has been denied state of the art aircraft acquisitions for two decades, and has been limited to refurbishing older high-performance aircraft. India is also expanding its naval capabilities, including a sea-based strike force as the logical step in its quest for an assured retaliatory capability. In turn, Pakistan’s naval nuclear developments are fueled by nuclear developments on the Indian side, an understandable reaction but one which has drawn considerable criticism.
The drone technology which has been easily accessible to India is another controversial issue. Recently, the U.S. made a sales agreement with New Delhi for naval drones. It has been reported that Washington does not deem its sale of naval drones to India to be threatening for Pakistan, as it considers that these are not armed but are only intended for surveillance across the Indian Ocean. However, AWACS, drones, and other sophisticated surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities make India’s conventional strikes more effective, as well as enabling it to achieve air superiority more quickly. The accumulation of all this has increased threat to the survivability of Pakistani nuclear delivery systems. Indeed, it is capabilities like precision-guided munitions/guided bombs, in this particular strategic context, that make Pakistan more vulnerable to an Indian pre-emptive strike.
It is very important to address the question of not only what India plans on doing with its capabilities vis-à-vis Pakistan, but also the strategy which India is developing. An American scholar, Chris Clary, in this regard, notes four possible reasons as to why India is readying itself to conduct counterforce strikes as well as playing up the hype: The first one is based on adding credibility to India’s nuclear posture. The second is to afford India the option to conduct such a strike in the eventuality of a breakdown in deterrence; the third being the option to pre-empt an imminent attack, and lastly baiting Pakistan into an arms race in a bid to exhaust its resources. Experts from Pakistan, nonetheless, caution that expanding Indian capabilities could be moving towards a possible change in its nuclear posture from counter-value to counterforce targeting.
Such possible intentions and doctrine suggest a possible shift away from Delhi’s heretofore NFU pledge. As Shivshankar Menon writes, in his 2016 book, Choices, “India’s nuclear weapons are not meant to redress a military balance, or to compensate for some perceived inferiority in conventional military terms, or to serve some tactical or operational military need on the battlefield…,” but noting however that the impending use of Pakistani short-range weapons (Nasr) could necessitate and indeed justify a pre-emptive massive counterforce strike by India. Both Pakistani and American scholars evaluated the ability of India to do so, and taking into account the logistics of nuclear strikes against Pakistan’s airfields and bases hosting nuclear forces, and concluded that such an approach was largely impractical and ultimately, unreliable. Some Pakistani nuclear forces would still survive and be able to hit Indian territory in response. This then raises the question of why India should opt for such a policy shift: what does it ultimately achieve? Whatever the intended objectives, the result has been that of a vicious cycle. Attacks by non-state actors on Indian soil have led to India’s Cold Start doctrine, which has led to the development of Nasr, which has ultimately led to this new development. But the situation is not irreversible. In the short to medium term, one way forward would be serious dialogue, entente, and concrete arms control measures by both sides regarding both nuclear and conventional forces. This path for now seems barred because of various bilateral and regional factors, as well as India’s desire to become a great power of the twenty-first century.
Such an ambitious drive by India only serves to undermine deterrence and crisis stability; it needs to curtail remarks that lead to hullabaloo in the masses, in effect clouding the efforts by both sides to maintain stability. In the long-term, India will have to re-assess the impact and value that it seeks to gain from its potential progression towards a counter-force strategy.
A version of this article appeared in The Nation, newspaper.
Christine M. Leah is a visting fellow at the Centre for International Strategic Studies (CISS), working on conventional arms sales and conventional and nuclear arms control in South Asia. Muhammad Sarmad Zia is a Research Assistant at the Centre for International Strategic Studies (CISS).