As we pass another anniversary of our May 28, 1998 nuclear tests, it is an opportune time to assess the state of South Asian deterrence stability as it stands today. The overt nuclearisation of India and Pakistan in that fateful year led to a strategic parity that has prevented armed conflict over the 18 years that have elapsed. However, the precarious strategic balance which has prevailed till now seems to be threatened by growing risks and dangers, largely due to India’s enhanced conventional and nuclear capabilities.
For Pakistan, nuclear deterrence is there to prevent all conflict, including a conventional war from happening in its “neighbourhood”. India and Pakistan have a tortuous history of conflict. In this potentially explosive situation, India’s ambitious augmentation of its conventional and nuclear capabilities (aided by the West for commercial and geopolitical reasons), coupled with provocative military doctrines, continue to pose serious threats for Pakistan.
On its part, Pakistan only seeks to correct the balance of military capabilities by a combination of nuclear and conventional strategies. Moreover, there are credible indicators that India started to develop its own short-range nuclear strike capabilities some time ago. Thus, Pakistan is merely responding to the threat environment being constructed around it.
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) Fact Sheet released in February 2016 shows that India was the world’s largest importer of major conventional weapons between 2008 and 2015. India’s imports of major arms increased by 90 percent between 2010 and 2015. Its arms imports were 14 percent of the global total. Many of the assets India is acquiring are at the leading edge of technology.
During 2009-2013 India invested heavily in air-strike capabilities. It received 90 of 222 Su-30MKI combat aircraft ordered from Russia. It also received 27 of a total of 45 MiG-29K combat aircraft for use on aircraft carriers. India has 62 Russian MiG-29SMT, 49 French Mirage 2000-5 and 36 French Rafaele combat aircraft on order.
During the next fiscal year, it is reported to be planning to order 126 combat air-craft, 15 Apache attack helicopters, 22 CH-47F Chinook medium lift helicopters, 197 light helicopters,145 Ultra-light Howitzers and also include advanced Russian T-90 main battle tanks and state-of-the art information and communication systems. More than $42 billion in total defence expenditure was targeted by 2015, of which approximately $19.20 billion would be expected to be spent on capital equipment for defence and the armed forces.
India is currently believed to own an arsenal of around 100 nuclear weapons, although this estimate is not verifiable. The country is considered to have produced near 600kgs of weapons-grade plutonium, but it is unclear whether all this material has been used for warheads. Moreover, additional capabilities like nuclear submarines, aircraft carriers, and long-range military air transport aircraft are under procurement. Cyber and space programmes are receiving focused attention. An anti-ballistic missile (ABM) system is undergoing operational trials. India also aspires to achieving a potent space warfare capability by positioning its weapons and command and control centres in outer space.
The Modi-led BJP government in India has, amongst other things, also impacted the regional strategic discourse. The prospects of conflict between the two nuclear armed rivals have only increased due to the absence of an institutional dialogue process and deliberate escalation by India of both covert and overt instruments against Pakistan. Even as Pakistan continues to offer the resumption of bilateral engagement with India and collaboration to investigate the Pathankot incident, the prospects of normalisation remains fairly low.
Nuclear discourse in the Subcontinent and abroad remains disturbing. India’s acquisition of advanced weapons system, along with sophisticated missile-defence systems can only weaken Pakistan’s nuclear deterrence. The introduction of technologically advanced and sophisticated nuclear weapons, nuclear and conventional submarines, India’s effort to build a credible sea-based second strike capability as evident from recent missile testing from subsurface platforms, coupled with India’s possible entry into the exclusive cartels of nuclear technology and material would disturb the strategic balance in the region and may trigger a regional arms competition involving not only Pakistan and India but China as well. Furthermore, the more discriminatory the international nuclear order becomes, the less would be the effectiveness of deterrence.
The question that needs to be asked is where this strategic asymmetry, that will directly affect the long-standing deterrence between India and Pakistan, is likely to take us. India’s disingenuous argument that it is faced with permanent strategic vulnerability is no longer taken seriously by the world.
The Economist attributes it to a “lack of strategic culture” in India. As I once wrote, it is Pakistan’s misfortune that it is located next to a big blundering nuclear power that does not know what to do with its excessive strength and size, and brandishes its nuclear prowess for mere pride and prestige. Unfortunately, this would not have mattered greatly if it did not carry the imminent risk of a regional nuclear holocaust.
The anniversary of the 1998 nuclear tests is a grim reminder of the growing precariousness of the strategic balance that was established by Pakistan back in 1998 through much toil and tribulation.
The writer is the executive director of the Center for International Strategic Studies.