South Asian Stability at the helm of Doctrinal Asymmetry

Since the overt nuclearization of 1998, South Asia’s strategic stability has been affected by recurring India-Pakistan crises. In the decade that followed, even as the two countries were waking up to the realities of mutual vulnerability, these crises helped shape their respective nuclear doctrines and force postures. No doubt, the 1999 Kargil conflict left unmitigated scars on the strategic thinking of Indian military planners. This generated a debate in India over operationalizing the concept of ‘limited war under nuclear umbrella’ as a means of achieving Indian strategic goals in a nuclearized environment.

Nonetheless, among several similarities between the Cold War and South Asian deterrence models are the repetitive episodes of crises, with a growing arms race, giving birth to technological advancement and military modernization. This in turn has served as a driver for the evolution of emerging doctrines and force postures such as triads and TNWs. In view of these developments, regional stability appears to have been jeopardized with bleak prospects of detente between India and Pakistan in the near future and emerging arms race and first strike instabilities.

Technological innovation in the region is a direct outcome of doctrinal asymmetry between the two states vying in the pursuit of offensive postures and escalation dominance during a crisis. Pakistan’s [unpublished] nuclear doctrine has been deliberately kept vague though it does broadly indicate its nuclear redlines in terms of territorial, economic, military and domestic stability thresholds. Believing in the dictum, ‘ambiguity strengthens deterrence,’ maximizes Pakistan’s response options on one hand, while on the other leads to the potential for uncontrolled escalation during a crisis.

With the introduction of tactical nuclear weapons, Pakistan has lowered the nuclear threshold, reiterating it as ‘full spectrum deterrence’ that includes counter-force and counter-value targets. The deployment of 60km Nasr against any ‘proactive operation’ suggests the possibility of its use against counter-force targets. Theoretically, it would be justified under the right of self-defense by a state vulnerable to external aggression – in case its nuclear threshold is triggered – but it (would) presumably invite Indian massive retaliation response (as per the Indian doctrine).

Therefore the quid pro quo in the technological advancement in order to offset the strategic advantage of one against the other would supplement the prerequisites of credible deterrence. But at the same time, it would drive the decision makers into a critical situation to call the shots under the auspices of their respective doctrinal commitments and the exigencies of the conflict. In such a situation, either the rationality or the credibility of the state to adhere to its doctrines and rhetorical positions is likely to be compromised.

The South Asian force posturing is in accordance with their doctrinal postulates, therefore, the inherent contradiction of the two doctrines leads to the inevitability of an arms race – the latter being fuelled by a massive conventional military buildup and deployment of a nuclear triad by India with Pakistan striving to maintain strategic stability though not seeking parity. Nevertheless, the worrisome aspect in the South Asian nuclear game of chicken is a steady erosion of stability at the cost of crises being potentially triggered by provocative doctrines, military modernization driven by the technological determinism, coupled with the elements of sub-conventional war and the lowering of nuclear thresholds.


Posted in , Deterrence, Doctrine, Escalation Control, India, India-Pakistan Relations, Nuclear, Nuclear Weapons, Pakistan, Policy, Security

Sannia Abdullah

Dr. Sannia Abdullah is a political scientist and Research Affiliate at the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) at Stanford University. Previously, she was a Stanton Nuclear Security Post-doctoral Fellow (2017-2018) at CISAC and has also worked with Cooperative Monitoring Center, Sandia National Labs (Albuquerque, NM). Previously, she had been teaching in the department of Defense and Strategic Studies, Pakistan. Since 2016, she presented her research in ISA 2018, Atlantic Council, ISAC-ISSS-Annual Conference, and University of Notre Dame. She was invited to deliver lectures at the USAFA on Pakistan’s deterrence stability and maturing force posture. She expressed her academic views at different forums including Pentagon, Lawrence Livermore National Labs, and Congressional Budget Office and in some Think Tanks in Washington D.C. She had been a Nonproliferation Fellow at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS), in Monterey and SWAMOS alumni of Columbia University (2011). Since 2010, Dr. Abdullah has been part of several Track-II dialogues and had an opportunity to learn decision-making trends through her regular participations in Table Top Exercises exploring escalation control and deterrence stability in South Asia. Her research recently published in The Washington Quarterly, Asia Europe Journal, War on the Rocks and South Asian Voices. She is working on her book manuscript focusing on the evolution of Pakistan's nuclear behavior and its deterrence logic. Her research interests include governance, Organizations and Institutions, Military and Nuclear Policy.

Read more

Continue Reading

Stay informed Sign up to our newsletter below

3 thoughts on “South Asian Stability at the helm of Doctrinal Asymmetry

  1. Deterrence and aggression cannot be bracketed together as they are opposites. Deterrence holds relevance for any country that is forced to take safety measures to foil the aggressive intent of another country, may be a neighbor.
    Nuclear weapons cannot provide Insurance cover against acts of aggression by that country, those believing the mistaken belief will discover so. Neither can Nuclear weapons protect any country from State failure as seen with the former Soviet Union. Very few countries suffer from extremism, fundamentalism, militancy, terrorism and a proliferation of Guns and assorted weapons as does Pakistan. Add to this nuclear weapons and the mixture is so combustible it can reduce the country to ashes, in a flash.
    The country Pakistan needs to fear most is not India, but Afghanistan, where anti Pakistan feelings have reached epic proportions, for obvious reasons. That the strategic analysts have been blinded by their own propaganda, does not help. Strategic depth has been achieved but not in the manner designed and conceived by the Pakistani State. To save Pakistan the rulers must forget what other countries are doing or not doing but focus on how to tame the Wolf, now at the door.

  2. The change of perspectives widens the scope of understanding provided the two sides are on the same page. The deteriorating security situation on Pakistan’s eastern border (which will be more after the 2014 withdrawal) does not prevent Pakistani decision-makers to stop worrying about the aggressive posturing of its western neighbor. Despite, India’s rhetorical claims to justify its increasing defence budget and military modernization vis-a-vis China, India has deliberately kept its options open.

    Surprisingly, for Pakistan the issues of grave nature does not appear to be more challenging when it comes from Afghanistan. Perhaps because it was never Afghanistan but India with whom Pakistan witnessed three wars and multiple crises. It was not Northern Alliance, Afghan warlords or Talibans that led to the dismemberment of Pakistan in 1971 debacle !

    Being mindful of the regional security complexes, Pakistan’s internal security threats has linkages beyond its borders. Unfortunately, the lack of political will to call spade a spade and bring clarity to the issues that can be misconstrued is not a priority – one of the critical challenges that South Asian strategic stability is grappling with. What would be significant is to bring in the factor of state’s perceptions that has a memory of historical grievances which turns us blind to future.

    Whether or not the current Afghan government will be able to exercise control over the country in the post-withdrawal scenario leaves a big question mark. India appears to be actively engaged in creating a two front situation for Pakistan on its eastern border. This will no longer be possible in a post 2014 dispensation. Finally, nuclear deterrence has very effectively been able to prevent the outbreak of war between India and Pakistan and in doing so it has served its purpose very well.

  3. If it’s of any interest, I first heard the phrase ‘limited war under nuclear umbrella’ from a Pakistani officer in 1981 or 2, and put it in my book on the Pakistan Army–the Indians read that and then interrogated me on that phrase–of course I did not tell them who said it– but it was not until Kargil that they realized that what they were doing was not enough, and they began thinking about cold start, etc. !

Leave a Reply

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