Evaluating India and Pakistan’s Strategic Narratives

In a recent series for South Asian Voices, two scholars each from India and Pakistan shared their thoughts on India and Pakistan’s military doctrines, postures, and strategies in a series titled “Post-26/11: Strategic Direction or Drift?” One scholar from each country took on the nuclear doctrine and posture side of the topic and the other discussed conventional doctrine and posture. Not surprisingly, they differed widely in their analysis, the Indian scholars seeing their country in the “drift” mode and the Pakistani scholars seeing their country moving in a positive “strategic direction.”

Ali Ahmed argues that India’s doctrine ignores the implications of Pakistan’s introduction of tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) into the region, noting that the 2003 doctrine of massively retaliating against any Pakistani first use is obsolete because of enlarged arsenals and the resulting environmental damage. He implies that India should match Pakistan’s TNW arsenal and adopt a counterforce strategy to limit the adverse impact of any future nuclear exchange. Joy Mitra likewise believes New Delhi has failed to keep up with the changing strategic landscape, but his criticism is about the conventional sphere. Chinese military might and Sino-Pakistani collaboration presents the prospect of a two-front war for which India’s armed forces are unprepared to fight and win. Citing the absence of an empowered Chief of Defense Staff, service turf battles, lack of jointness, and the failure of a recently promulgated Joint Doctrine for the Indian Armed Forces (JDIAF) to fully address the growing Chinese threat in cyber and information warfare, he suggests “a written national security strategy document that would help to outline the primary tenets of a comprehensive defence strategy.”

The two Pakistani scholars see a more positive evolution on both fronts. Sannia Abdullah describes a steady progression of nuclear doctrine and force structure from “minimum credible deterrence to credible minimum deterrence in line with the dictates of full spectrum deterrence (FSD)” that allows Pakistani decisionmakers to choose from a wide range of countervalue, battlefield, and counterforce targets. The next evolution will need to take into account the burgeoning U.S.-India strategic relationship and address scenarios in which India or the United States acting on India’s behalf attempts to preemptively neutralize Pakistan’s deterrent forces, the latter perhaps providing justification for a future Pakistani intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).  Maimuna Ashraf posits that a credible deterrent requires advanced conventional weapons to ensure strategic stability. Pakistan’s FSD has thus far deterred a full-scale Indian attack, but the adverse conventional military imbalance and aggressive Indian ground forces doctrine are pushing Pakistan to acquire advanced conventional weaponry to raise the nuclear threshold in any future conflict.  This will provide Pakistan better response options to a future limited conventional incursion by India than rapidly going nuclear.

Whether on the nuclear or conventional side of the topic, all four scholars eschew strategy and focus on doctrine. Strategy is a set of ideas about synchronizing the four elements of national power—diplomacy, information, military, and economic—to attain national objectives; doctrine is the component of strategy that drives force posture. It is the set of core principles about how to wage war in order to achieve the desired end state. British military historian Sir Michael Howard once said, “I am tempted indeed to declare dogmatically that whatever the doctrine the armed forces are working on now, they have got it wrong. I am also tempted to declare that it does not matter that they have got it wrong. What does matter is their capacity to get it right quickly when the moment arrives.” What are the chances that India and Pakistan will get it right in the next crisis?  They do not look promising.

I disagree with both Pakistani scholars that Pakistan’s doctrinal evolution increases strategic stability in the subcontinent.  It has done precisely the opposite. During a 2006 meeting in Islamabad, Strategic Plans Division (SPD) chief Khalid Kidwai explained what “credible minimum deterrence” actually meant. He said that Pakistan had examined India’s nuclear capabilities and sized its arsenal on two objectives: deterring Indian aggression and establishing a second-strike capability. Pakistan, he continued, would not engage in a nuclear arms race with India, but only improve the quality of its deterrent by future upgrades to existing weapons and delivery systems. Conventionally, Pakistan would maintain a rapid mobilization capability and military readiness near the border, but Indian conventional doctrines would not affect Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine. FSD turns this logic completely on its head. TNW development is explicitly linked to India’s “Cold Start” doctrine, and far from avoiding an arms race, Pakistan is fully embarked on races in both the nuclear and conventional domains.  Pakistan’s fragile economy and the robustness of India’s makes this a recipe for disaster as the former Soviet Union learned bitterly. 

Ashraf points out that Pakistan plans to use its nuclear arsenal to deter an Indian attack across the international border and fight conventionally if deterrence fails.  Only if the situation cannot be stabilized conventionally would TNWs be used at the “tactical” and “operational” levels of warfare. This was precisely NATO’s original plan to deal with Soviet conventional military superiority in Europe during the Cold War.  But NATO eventually concluded that a Soviet conventional attack would eventually trigger a wider nuclear response that would destroy the Soviet Union.  It was this fear, not TNWs or other conventional improvements by NATO, that deterred the Soviet Union. This lesson has been ignored by SPD and many Pakistan Army officers apparently believe that TNWs can be employed against Indian troops without triggering an Indian nuclear response if they are used on Pakistani territory.

I also disagree with Ahmed’s suggestion that continuity in Indian nuclear doctrine is a bad thing.  Doctrine is not an inflexible prescription for action, merely a general guide that can be modified to fit existing conditions.  In contrast to Pakistan, Indian decisionmakers possibly have learned the right lessons from NATO’s experience. Doctrinal stasis is not a bad thing when the alternative is to match an opponent’s mistake.

On the other hand, Mitra is correct about the Indian armed forces’ organizational incoherence, although it will take far more than a new national strategy document to break through the silos in which the three services currently operate and prepare for war. Interestingly, the same criticisms can be leveled at the Pakistan armed forces.  Pakistan’s armed forces are no more joint than India’s and virtually all of Mitra’s complaints apply to them as well. In any future conflict, both sides are likely to fight without inter-service cooperation or synergy. 

Finally, in nearly four decades of working on South Asia issues, I have noticed an appalling absence of public debate on nuclear issues and little discussion of them at professional military education institutions. The strategic narratives in both countries seem fixed and stagnant with government officials enforcing the status quo by controlling research funding, academic appointments, and government-sponsored foreign travel and study. Therefore, I applaud these four scholars for their boldness and candor in moving forward what I hope is a continuing dialogue on this vital topic. 

Editor’s Note: South Asian Voices (SAV) endeavors to ensure its contributors are influencing policy debates in India, Pakistan, and the United States. To this end, our feature Experts Ki Rai periodically has experienced South Asia specialists weigh-in on contributors’ analysis, in the hope of continuing to advance meaningful dialogue on the subcontinent and beyond. In this edition of Experts Ki Rai, Col. David Smith responds to SAV’s series “Strategic Direction or Drift?” Read the series  here


Image 1: Wikimedia Commons

Image 2: Rob Schleiffert via Flickr

Posted in , Defence, Deterrence, Experts ki Rai, India, India-Pakistan Relations, Military, Pakistan, Strategic Culture, Strategic Direction or Drift

David Smith

David Smith

David O. Smith is a Distinguished Fellow with the South Asia program at the Stimson Center. Smith is an independent consultant to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Science Applications International Corporation on issues related to South Asia and regularly participates in three series of quasi-official (Track 2) engagements with senior Pakistan and India officials sponsored by Livermore, the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California and the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington D.C. He retired from government service in May 2012 after serving in a senior executive position in the Defense Intelligence Agency. Prior to that, he was Senior Country Director for Pakistan in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Policy) in the Department of Defense. During thirty-one years of active duty service in the U.S. Army, he spent twenty-two years dealing with politico-military issues in the Near East and South Asia, retiring as a colonel, including six years as the U.S. Army Attaché in Islamabad, Pakistan.

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10 thoughts on “Evaluating India and Pakistan’s Strategic Narratives

  1. David,
    Thank you for writing this piece.
    “TNW development is explicitly linked to India’s “Cold Start” doctrine” Indeed, the very doctrine New Delhi denied of its existence for several years and many scholars in DC believed in Indian position. That came to an end as CSD now resonates among policy circles in DC. Pakistan was criticized repeatedly in past over its counter measures to CSD
    Regarding doctrinal shift, India’s policy of NFU , albeit with caveats, projected India’s “responsible” image to the global community. NFU helped India back then, should it be abandoned now because it has served the purpose or India doesn’t need the image of responsible nuclear power? Besides that, India’s doctrinal shift can have ripple effects in Asia, pushing other states including China to revisit its nuclear no first use commitment.
    What would be the US response if China revisits its NFU policy ?

    Thank you
    Yasir

    P.S. Agree that there must be a greater mass awareness on critical issues and narratives on strategic issues need to move beyond traditional approaches to facilitate confidence building measures.

  2. “But NATO eventually concluded that a Soviet conventional attack would eventually trigger a wider nuclear response that would destroy the Soviet Union. It was this fear, not TNWs or other conventional improvements by NATO, that deterred the Soviet Union.” So deterrence seems to have worked in NATO’s case and prevented the Soviets from exploiting their conventional military superiority in Europe. If it could work with NATO why can’t it work in South Asia?
    Unfortunately regional dynamics have changed significantly since 2006, the last time you had the opportunity to meet a senior SPD official.

  3. The only lesson to draw here is to check sources and not believe everything written on a webpage. It is easier said than done. Pakistan reluctantly entered the nuclear fray due to repeated Indian provocations. Likewise, its decision to develop short-range-low yield (SRLY) nuclear weapons is not an initiative, rather a measured reaction to the Indian adoption of a dangerous nuclear doctrine to fight a limited war under Pakistan’s nuclear threshold. Islamabad looks at these SRLY weapons as deterrence stabilisers.

  4. There is a constant debate within India to depart from the strict nuclear NFU policy and to adopt a doctrine that comprises the obvious threat of first use, especially to address the asymmetry with China and for countering Pakistani TNWs. If India reconsiders its nuclear posture then this will not be the first time that a state altered its nuclear doctrine. For instance, two nuclear states Russia (in the 1990s) and India (in 2003), have already changed their NFU doctrinal proposal as compared to their initial policy position regarding nuclear weapons.

    In the near future, it is highly possible that India vacates its pledge of NFU against Pakistan and China. In spite of India’s pledge of NFU, Indian domestic politics and changing strategic dynamics are contemplating an alarming change in the strategic thinking of India to shift its approach towards NFU. Whereas, Pakistan’s nuclear weapons policy will remain intricately associated with India’s strategic thinking. Therefore, any alteration in India military or nuclear posture will directly affect Pakistan’s security doctrine.

  5. Indian nuclear doctrine of No First Use and massive retaliations are bluff. It is kind of a state, which fabricates a terrorist attack on its own soil to justify forced occupation of Kashmir and hegemonic design in the region. It is quite possible it will preempt a nuclear strike on any of the regional state to pursuit its policy.

  6. Undoubtedly, doctrine is not an inflexible prescription but time to time and interest based changes in doctrine promote arms race. If, India is going to change its doctrine and increasing its capabilities and number of weapons. So, it would be an open invitation to Pakistan and also there would be left no any other option for Pakistan to follow the same route in order to make its defense comparable. Consequently, arms race will get air if India will go for doctrinal changes and stability of the region will definitely come at risk.

  7. When Pakistani academics accuse few US scholars of biasis, in my opinion, this write up of Col Smith would qualify for that criticism.
    I found three problems with this write-up.
    First he says that it was fear of nuclear weapons which prevented war between Soviet Union and NATO, not precisely the TNWs. But interestingly it would be impossible to prove that only high yield nuclear weapons deter and TNWs don’t.
    Second, one wonders that if TNWs don’t serve the purpose of deterrence, why the US needs these now? More so, Pakistan doesn’t have TNWs but low yield short range nuclear capable missiles as an integral part of strategic deterrence.
    Third, Col Smith considers change in Pakistani doctrine is destabilising (and bad) but it is a welcome sign for India (being good). That opinion is not based on merit because change in Pakistani doctrine (to FSD) has deterred the option of limited conventional war between India and Pakistan (according to rationalist tradition).
    Hoping for a more objective write up in future.
    Best

  8. TNWs and SRLY missiles have definite tactical value, but by themselves, insufficient deterrence value. The Indo-Pak war of 1965 started on a flawed assumption that India will not escalate the conflict after Pakistan’s cross LOC incursions in Kashmir. The Indian response was to swiftly internationalise the conflict, opting instantly for a full fledged war.
    The new muddle created by Indian CSD and Pakistan’s TNW-SRLY deterrence are likely to follow the trajectory of Indo-Pak War of 1965.The irony of the resultant full spectrum nuclear war is that the impact will be shared by both countries equally, across shared land and waterways and ecological contiguity. For South Asia to survive and flourish, war is not an option. It is time to evolve a common strategy for progress, in preference to existing MAD strategies.

  9. My question is who started nuclear race in sub continent. India was given a free hand by USA where Pakistan was punished. So the biase is there against Pakistan in western minds. I think Pakistan shud do all which is in it’s interest. Forget what people in west think and write.
    Issue is Pakistan’s tactical nukes are a bother to a few

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