May 28, 1998 was a watershed moment in the South Asian regional political discourse when, Pakistan restored the strategic balance, by conducting six nuclear tests in response to India’s five nuclear tests, codenamed ‘Pokhran II’. It was expected by local and international observers that the overt ‘nuclearisation’ of India and Pakistan would introduce new dynamics in the India-Pakistan bilateral relations and conflict resolution, where nuclear restraint would have a prominent role to play in their future relations.
The existence of nuclear deterrence has since played a major role, among other factors, in the prevention of a full scale war. The hope of this nuclear dissuasion, preparing likely grounds, for further improvement of relations between the two new nuclear states, however did not materialise. There has been virtually no progress on important issues pertaining to existing CBM’s, doctrinal restraints, conflict resolution, arms control measures and a common vision for regional strategic stability has remained elusive. As we stand today looking back at 28th May, many developments have taken place on the nuclear front which was not envisaged 17 years earlier.
Before moving to assess the post 1998 nuclear developments in South Asia, it would be pertinent to mention two assumptions prevalent in the strategic thinking at the time of overt ‘nuclearisation’ of South Asia. Both proved to be false, resulting in the prevalence of the existing nuclear environment in the region.
The first assumption was that the strategic cultures of both Pakistan and India will absorb the Western notion of deterrence, which rejects the use of warfare as a foreign policy tool among the nuclear antagonists. What we have witnessed in the India-Pakistan context is the extensive use of deterrent signalling to avert conflict, but not the doctrinal preparations for fighting a supposed limited conflict under a nuclear overhang. As a response to India’s new doctrinal formulations variously termed Cold Start or Proactive Strategy, aimed at responding to perceived challenges from its western neighbour, Pakistan has come up with its own new war fighting concept that envisages rapid deployments of conventional forces, coupled with introducing short range tactical nuclear weapons to achieve strategic effects.
The second assumption was about the trajectory of global power politics in South Asia, in the post 1998 period, in particular the role of United States regarding its willingness and scope of intervention to prevent conflict between India and Pakistan. This assumption was more prevalent in Pakistan than India, as Islamabad did not predict two later developments at the time of its nuclear testing. One was the military presence of United States in Afghanistan, sharing a common border with the West. The second was the strategic shift of United States, towards India aimed at limiting the growing Chinese influence in the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions.
Concepts such as the possibility of achieving political ends through ‘limited war’ under the nuclear overhang and gradual up gradation of US-India strategic ties , thereby enhancing Indian position in the region as opposed to in 1998, played an important role in shaping existing nuclear policies of India and Pakistan.
From a Pakistani standpoint, it can be argued that some aspects of an existing deterrent equation have had a stabilising effect on strategic stability. Examples of this are the development of dual use cruise missiles, multiple delivery systems as opposed to the situation in May 1998 and developments of sea based deterrence capabilities. Other aspects are destabilising Indian efforts towards operationalising ballistic missile defense capabilities, lack of Indian interest in pursuing dialogue on nuclear and conventional issues and improving political relationships.
Pakistan should also critically evaluate the existing deterrent environment in the region, its responses and a restrictive environment it wants to prevent from emerging in future. Regarding this last formulation of preventing a negative environment, two scenarios can be envisaged. The first is regarding the depletion and stretching of Pakistan army as a result of continuing internal security challenges, as a result of proxy war conducted by both India and Extra-Regional Forces (ERF). The increasing imbalance of conventional forces vis a vis India, will increase Pakistan’s reliance on nuclear weapons which is not desirable as conventional deterrence forms a formidable leg of overall strategic deterrence. Thus, weakening of conventional deterrence should be a scenario that Pakistan must prevent from materialising by challenging the proxy war efforts at its source. The second scenario to prevent is the breakdown of nuclear command and control, for all the three land, sea and air nuclear forces, as result of disruptive attacks from both conventional and unconventional sources. In particular the areas of concern are cyber and cruise missile attacks, on command and control centers. Such, critical improvements in cyber defenses and surveillance capabilities are required to prevent such a scenario from emerging in future.
In conclusion, nuclear deterrence in the region will continue to face formidable technical and political challenges. Both politics and technical factors may erode an already fragile peace settlement in the region, as opposed to the situation in May 1998, where arms race rather than strategic restraint will shape the course of nuclear resistance in South Asia, in the coming years. Resumption of nuclear testing in the subcontinent in the future is a scenario that cannot be entirely ruled out.