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India in Transition

Institutional "Software": The Hidden Dimension of Nuclear Instability in South Asia

Gaurav Kampani
April 25, 2011

Since India and Pakistan claimed formal nuclear status in 1998, a debate has revived among nuclear optimists and pessimists on the consequences of nuclear proliferation. The original Sagan-Waltz debate has been followed up by Ganguly on the one hand, who optimistically argues that South Asia is stable, and Kapur on the other, who pessimistically maintains that there remain serious grounds for instability. The arguments these latter scholars make have an inherent structural focus: they zero in on the stability or instability-inducing effects of nuclear weapons on large-scale war. Missing from their arguments however is any discussion of the role “software” plays in managing nuclear stability; in essence meaning India and Pakistan’s institutional capacities and operational strategies to wield nuclear forces. Using data from the open-source domain and field research in India, it can be argued that India and Pakistan now substantially differ in their approaches to nuclear use. These differences are so glaring that they are likely to contribute to the risks of misperception and miscommunication; risks that could render nuclear use more likely in a future war.

Back in the 1970s, Pakistan believed that a nuclear arsenal would guarantee its existential security, however, from the 1980s on, nuclear weapons have assumed an offensive role.Since then, the Pakistani military has used the protection of the proverbial nuclear “umbrella,” first imagined and then real, to wage a sub-conventional war against India by supporting insurgencies in Indian Punjab and later Kashmir. The nuclear deterrent, the Pakistani military believes, has effectively immunized Pakistan from the threat of a punishing Indian conventional retaliatory attack. The Pakistani national security establishment has also mythologized the belief that nuclear weapons deterred Indian conventional attacks on four occasions: the 1986-87 Brasstacks Crisis; the 1990 Kashmir Crisis; the Kargil War in 1999; and most recently, the 2001-2002 military standoff when India unsuccessfully attempted coercive diplomacy.

South Asia was more stable in the late 1980s and early 1990s when compared to the last decade. Back then, India settled on a defensive strategy of dissuasion and denial to deal with Pakistani provocations. Dissuasion meant that India would use its considerable conventional power to deter the Pakistani army from directly intervening in the Punjab and Kashmir in open support of the insurgents that it was helping wage sub-conventional war. As a complement to that strategy, India also tried to deny the insurgents’ victory through a combination of political-economic inducements and paramilitary/police pressure.

However, in the late-1990s, India switched from dissuasionand denialto a strategy of denial and punishment. Pakistan’s unrelenting support for the Kashmiri insurgency through the decade was one cause for this switch, but its immediate trigger was the Kargil War.Although Pakistan lost that war, its implications were clear. India’s strategy of dissuasion had failed. In that aftermath, India decided that one way to possibly end the sub-conventional war was to punish the insurgents’ institutional sponsors – the Pakistan Army – through conventional means. The challenge however was to find middle ground that would enable the Indian military to unleash its conventional power without pushing Pakistan over the nuclear edge. In 2000, Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes signaled that in the future, India would find ways to prosecute limited conventional operations under nuclear conditions.

In 2001-2002, New Delhi tried this new strategy when it threatened Pakistan with conventional war in the wake of attacks on the Indian parliament. That attempt failed because despite the doctrinal shift in principle, the Indian military had not devised the logistical and operational means to swiftly prosecute limited conventional operations. The slow Indian mobilization allowed Pakistan sufficient warning time to counter mobilize, a move that forced the Indian military into planning for a much larger conventional war than it had originally anticipated. The dilemma facing Indian political leaders in that crisis was “all or nothing” and they wisely chose the latter.

In the aftermath of this failed attempt, the Indian military has gone about developing the logistical and operational means to make limited conventional war feasible. The new Indian strategy – Cold Start – has two components. The first is to improve India’s war mobilization times so that it can respond almost immediately to any future Pakistani provocations. The second is to restructure the army’s defense divisions along the western border into smaller, more mobile and integrated battle groups that will have the capability to launch conventional probes and hold Pakistani territory along the border without assistance from the offensive strike divisions that are based far away from the border and have longer mobilization times.

The Pakistan Army has made note of the changes in India’s new conventional war approach and adjusted its nuclear strategy accordingly by adopting what MIT professor Vipin Narang terms “asymmetric escalation.” What this essentially means is that Pakistan proposes to use nuclear weapons first and early to signal the seriousness of Islamabad’s resolve, induce ceasefire, and terminate any conventional war early. To be sure, the Pakistani military has not made its nuclear doctrine or operational plans public, but senior Pakistani military officers have hinted how this might happen. First, Pakistan would issue a nuclear threat. As a next step, it would demonstrate the seriousness of its resolve by detonating a nuclear weapon on its own soil. Invading Indian forces would be the target in the third phase. As a fourth step, Pakistan would consider nuclear attacks against military targets co-located with low-density population areas in India. This nuclear war fighting strategy, Pakistan hopes, would spare large population centers from nuclear attacks, and keep nuclear war limited.

In contrast, India has adamantly insisted that it will not use nuclear weapons first and that any Indian response to nuclear use, even limited use in Pakistani territory, will be punishment through massive retaliation. Nuclear weapons, India maintains, are not weapons of war; their sole purpose is to deter the use of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons by others. Furthermore, limited nuclear use and controlled escalation in warfare are paper strategies that will probably result in an uncontrolled nuclear exchange. Hence India maintains that it will alternate between two extremes: either do nothing or undertake massive attacks that will impose unacceptable losses on the enemy. India’s nuclear doctrine thus contradicts its conventional war strategy; whereas Cold Start envisages a war of limited aims with limited means, massive retaliation proposes a war with unlimited means for unlimited ends. The all or nothing approach enshrined in India’s declared doctrine thus makes it incredible. It actually undermines deterrence and creates room for the very outcome it hopes to prevent.

The source of the mismatch between Indian and Pakistani nuclear use philosophies is the civil-military institutional divide in the two countries. In Pakistan, the army has imposed its organizational logic on force structure and doctrine. This is why the Pakistani arsenal has systematically increased in size and sophistication in the past decade. The war fighting doctrine also dovetails with the sub-conventional and conventional war strategies. It is credible, not only because of the existing force structure on the ground, but also because the Pakistan Army is the single source and coordinator for both conventional and nuclear war strategies. Thus, both speak to one another. The idea of nuclear use by Pakistan may appear more sinister, but it also bolsters deterrence credibility.

India, on the other hand, has a civilian-military institutional divide that separates conventional and nuclear war planning. The military has devised conventional war strategy with little direction from their civilian overlords. Similarly, the civilians have developed nuclear doctrine with minimal inputs from the military. Many Indian military leaders at the highest levels grasp the doctrinal incongruities that characterize their conventional and nuclear war approaches, but they are powerless to resolve them. The civilians are paranoid that military intervention in nuclear decision-making will be a slippery slope that will lower the bar for nuclear use. They therefore keep the military at an arms length. To be sure, it is entirely possible that India’s operational nuclear plans may depart from declared doctrine, but there are no indicators for this so far. India’s Strategic Forces Command, the tri-service agency that will command nuclear forces during wartime, and the three services that will fight the conventional war, operate out of institutionally compartmentalized domains. Their roles in nuclear and conventional operational planning have been deliberately bifurcated. Neither has the Indian government created institutions equivalent to the British Chief of Defense Staff or the American Joint Chiefs of Staff to oversee the totality of India’s war efforts. The net result is that India’s conventional and nuclear war approaches don’t sync with one another.

The irony here is that Indian nuclear use aversion has only heightened the risk of actual nuclear use. In the Indian policy makers’ minds, an enduring belief has taken root that nuclear responsibility lies in ensuring that nuclear weapons never go off in anger. This is a noble undertaking. However, the absence of a significant institutional capacity and strategy to manage nuclear hardware has created doubts that this wish can remain a reality.

Gaurav Kampani is a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Center for International Security & Cooperation (CISAC), Stanford University and a Predoctoral Candidate at the Government Department, Cornell University. Email:


India in Transition (IiT) is published by the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) of the University of Pennsylvania. All viewpoints, positions, and conclusions expressed in IiT are solely those of the author(s) and not specifically those of CASI.

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