Crisis Perception and Diplomacy Mismatch in South Asia

Taking inkling from Michael Krepon’s views in Arms Control Wonk, I wish to add the missile aspect to his assertion: “The dynamism of nuclear weapon [and missile]-related developments on the subcontinent contrasts markedly with somnambulant diplomacy to reduce nuclear [and missile] dangers”. While there is absence of any substantive talks to reduce the dangers emanating from new developments in the arena of nuclear weapons, there seems no realization also of the fact that nuclear capable cruise and short-range missiles in South Asia have exacerbated the challenges of deterrence stability. A Track-2 initiative – the Colombo Group led by two scholars, Gurmeet Kanwal from India and Feroz Hassan Khan from US – prescribes for a CBM on the basis of the idea that the first generation SRBMs like Prithvi-I and Hatf-I of India and Pakistan respectively, are obsolete and a verified phased approach to their retirement can be attempted.

Undoubtedly, any CBM proposal based on solid foundation and realistic assessment is worth attempting by India and Pakistan. However, the two candidates identified by the Colombo Group – Prithvi-I and Hatf-I – are not of the same taxonomy today. As per general understanding, while Prithvi-I is still in service, (most probably) Hatf-I is already withdrawn; a new version, Hatf-IA, has been inducted in the year 2000.

From the operational point of view, since Prithvi missiles are inducted in large numbers during the last few decades, they would remain the mainstay in India’s 150-km range category missiles till Brahmos and Prahar are inducted in large numbers. Of course, DRDO Chief Avinash Chander has reportedly said that “we are withdrawing the tactical 150 km-range Prithvi missiles and will replace them with the Prahar missiles, which are more capable and have more accuracy”. However, tested for the first time in 2011, Prahar will have to undergo a few more technology demonstration tests followed by user trials in the coming years; therefore, it will take some more time to really replace Prithvi, if at all it is obsolete.

Therefore, the merit of the proposal by the Colombo Group needs serious scrutiny. At the outset, one would wonder if the proposition is doable or realizable. Given the level of distrust and suspicion between India and Pakistan, an outright proposal to verify and withdraw inducted armaments from service is easier said than done. Also, there have been occasions when the exchanged list of nuclear facilities (as a provision of the non-attack of each other’s nuclear facilities agreement) has not been wholly accepted by the two sides – one side doubting the authenticity of the list of the other. Secondly, unlike Pakistan, whose security concerns are India-centric, India’s potential challenge also emanates in a big way from China. Therefore, any disarmament/arms control measure between India and Pakistan goes beyond bilateral terms. Thirdly, if the role of the so-called obsolete missiles is to be replaced by some other systems in both countries – as they have already embarked on this process – what purpose the proposed CBM is going to achieve?

Instead, two pressing issues that South Asia will grapple with in the foreseeable future – the spread of nuclear weapon capable cruise missiles; and (2) management of a nuclear weapons related accident, if arises – need urgent attention. The expanding cruise missile inventory in South Asia necessitates revisiting the contours of deterrence stability, and military-CBMs in vogue in South Asia. The threat of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons does indeed remain a great concern, but are not the only form of contingency that this region is currently experiencing. One perceived strategic implication of the (nuclear) cruise missiles, especially with Pakistan, is that it has “lowered the index of stability in the region”. Moreover, the changing calculus of nuclear deterrence caused by the improving accuracy and diversification of missile delivery systems in South Asia, and the increasingly blurred line between nuclear and conventional forces has made the regional security situation precarious. While there exists a CBM on reducing ballistic missiles threat, no substantive perception has evolved yet on the crisis escalation potential of the nuclear cruise missile in South Asia.

On the other hand, nuclear weapons inventories of both India and Pakistan are in an expansion mode. While India is in the process of establishing the third leg of its nuclear triad, Pakistan, in addition to acquiring Tactical Nuclear Weapons (TNWs), has constituted its Naval Strategic Force Command in 2012. A diversified nuclear and missile force is prone to accidents or inadvertent use. Though there is no precedent of a nuclear weapons related accident yet in either country, the chances of occurring of such an incident cannot be ruled out completely. Cognizant of the consequences of the risks involved, in 2007 India and Pakistan have signed the Agreement on Reducing Risk from Accidents Relating to Nuclear Weapons. However, except reaffirming the agreement for another five years in 2012, no initiative is undertaken yet to implement or put in place institutional arrangements for dealing with such a situation, if ever arises.

To that extent, for the last five years (after the Mumbai terror attack in 2008), New Delhi and Islamabad have not conducted any substantive, high-level, purpose-driven talks on these serious issues. Meanwhile, both countries have focused on military modernization and diversification of their respective force structure. This signifies the existence of a mismatch of crisis perception and setting the diplomatic agenda in South Asia; consequently, the Track-2 level initiatives have remained nonstarters.


Image: Prakash Singh-AFP, Getty

Posted in , India, India-Pakistan Relations, Missiles, Nuclear, Nuclear Weapons, Pakistan, Security, Track II

Sitakanta Mishra

Sitakanta Mishra

Dr Sitakanta Mishra is currently an Assistant Professor in the School of Liberal Studies at Pandit Deendayal Petroleum University. He has been a Visiting Scholar at the Cooperative Management Centre of the Sandia National Laboratory, Albuquerque. He was formerly a Research Fellow at the Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi and Associate Editor of the Indian Foreign Affairs Journal, New Delhi.

Read more

One thought on “Crisis Perception and Diplomacy Mismatch in South Asia

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *