The Colombo Confidence Building Process: New Missile CBMs for South Asia

By: Mansoor Ahmed and Abhijit Iyer-Mitra

Ever since India and Pakistan went nuclear in rapid succession in 1998, their paths to weaponisation and doctrine have differed considerably. Between the flexible response posture of Pakistan and the massive retaliation doctrine of India, the one thing that is common is that both have the power to completely and utterly destroy the other i.e. mutually assured destruction. While each has succeeded in creating an element of fear and terror in the others’ mind, deterrence can only work if the other is deterred. This involves a careful calibrating of the balance between fear on the one hand and reassurance on the other, because one without the other is a sure fire path to nuclear Armageddon. Sadly it is the “reassurance” aspect that is lacking in both their approaches.

Given the history of mistrust, recurrent crises and the prospect of rapid escalation even in case of limited conventional conflict the possibility of all out war therefore is real. So the best of intentions – seemingly logical, can generate panic alerts and responses in the other. In such cases the saying “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” is true.  Of the many sparks that are likely to trigger such a panic reaction, one of the most pressing and immediate concerns is one of the accidental detonation of a short-range ballistic missile system deployed during a crisis. Even If such a missile explodes without detonating its payload, it can still be perceived as a pre-emptive strike or an act of sabotage, both of which are impossible to confirm till lengthy and detailed investigations are conducted. Time is an unaffordable commodity in war, and a panic response may eventuate in the fog of war. What is worse is if such a missile were to detonate its payload it would likely greatly exacerbate the “fog of war”. Either way an accidental detonation – though seemingly manageable – could be the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.

This poses a dilemma – both countries need to talk and so as to be able to resolve such a situation but since they don’t trust each other to talk honestly and have limited exchange of information, given the deep sensitivities on both sides. This is why Brigadiers (retired) Gurmeet Kanwal (of India) and Feroz Khan (of Pakistan) came up with the idea of using the elimination of obsolete and retired missiles in a transparent manner purely as a confidence building measure. This way the contradictions of  “enlightened self interest” can be avoided and the focus can remain fixed purely on selfish goals – the need to make ones military leaner and meaner and to ensure the safety of one’s strategic missile forces.

It was precisely to rectify the balance between fear and reassurance that the two authors agreed to experimentally take part in simulations exercises – going through the process of real world inspection and verification following the dismantlement of obsolete and retired missiles.

We had no clue about all this when we initially joined about two years ago with other young scholars from India and Pakistan and we all shared a healthy scepticism of the process.  But one exercise led to another and we realised that practical expertise and practical demonstrations help a lot. We’ve had the opportunity of learning, not only the theoretical concepts, but applying them in near real world conditions. Understanding how to negotiate between two parties, how to actually carry out managed access without compromising each other’s sensitivities or securities, keeping in mind that each party would have its own expectations with a certain level of transparency.

When you come together and see the actual missiles, perceptions change drastically. We found this process to be a balanced one and there are steps you can take so that you know you cannot be deceived. We have learned what constitutes a dismantled missile, how these missiles look after they’ve been dismantled, and what portions of the missile were actually irreversibly dismantled. Most importantly we’ve learned to negotiate, and achieve results while being respectful of each other’s sensitivities. We concluded that it does not compromise in any way the strategic modernisation of weapon systems in both countries – a very significant aspect that the two countries cannot begin to realise till they sit down and talk to each other.

What we did, of course, was test the methodology India and Pakistan could use to systematically determine what issues might arise and how the two countries might go about resolving them.  It will be up to the governments involved to determine which missiles they deem obsolete and which transparency measures, if any, might be employed.  If they choose to make what we believe is a virtue—the increased confidence transparent dismantlement gives—out of the necessity of dismantling obsolete missiles, they can use these same methodologies to determine how to eliminate any security cost associated with that process.

Now, thanks to a documentary made of our efforts at a European military museum using actual missiles similar to the obsolete missiles in South Asia, other young people in India and Pakistan can experience the things we experienced and consider the same issues on their own.


Posted in , CBMs, India, India-Pakistan Relations, Pakistan, Track II

Mansoor Ahmed

Dr. Mansoor Ahmed is a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for International Strategic Studies (CISS) Islamabad, Pakistan. He is a former Stanton Nuclear Security Junior Faculty Fellow (2015-16) and Postdoctoral Research Fellow (2016-18) with the Managing the Atom Project/International Security Program at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center. He was also an MTA Associate for 2018-2019. Previously, he was a Visiting Research Scholar at the Cooperative Monitoring Center, Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M., USA in 2013. He has also served as a Lecturer in the Department of Defence and Strategic Studies (DSS), Quaid-i-Azam University (QAU), Islamabad from 2011 to 2015, and as Visiting Faculty in the Department of Strategic and Nuclear Studies, National Defence University, Islamabad from 2009-2011. Before joining the academia, he worked in the Pakistan Audit and Accounts Service from July 2003 to January 2011. Dr. Ahmed holds a PhD in International Relations from Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. His research interests include various aspects of Pakistani and Indian nuclear programs and policies; fissile materials, non-proliferation, arms control and strategic stability issues with special reference to South Asia. His research work has been published by the Belfer Center, the Stimson Center, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the US Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.

Read more

Abhijit Iyer Mitra

After his B.Com from the University of Madras he pursued a career in the corporate world before turning to academia. He holds a Masters Degree in International Relations from the School of Political & Social Inquiry at Monash University, and is pursuing his PhD. He served as research assistant on several projects all under the aegis of the Centre For Muslim Minorities & Islam Policy Studies at Monash (2007-2010). He is a Programme Coordinator at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi, and currently a Visiting Research Scholar at Sandia National Laboratories. The views expressed here are the author's own and do not represent any institutional or national position. His primary research is on limited wars and nuclear thresholds, but his interests include, military transformation, defence planning, procurement and offsets, infrastructure, governance and Historical Patterns of Conflict in Democracies. His spare time is spent traveling, cooking, flying microlight aircraft and scuba diving.

Read more

Continue Reading

Stay informed Sign up to our newsletter below

Leave a Reply

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