What is Strategic Stability?


Vice Admiral (retd.) Vijay Shankar

Strategic Stability: the Cold War Paradigm

There is no consensus on the definition of strategic stability nor is there common understanding of what it comprises; it is also reasonable to assume that there probably never will be. Yet, the awkward irony is that nations of every predilection individually clamour for strategic stability and therefore rises the need for determining its significance.

For the Cold Warriors strategic stability was a military rationale. It was all about surviving a first nuclear strike and then credibly being able to respond with a massive retaliatory nuclear strike. Moony mirrored rationality, mutually assured destruction and a willingness to fight limited nuclear wars (as if control over the escalatory ladder existed!) were of the essence. But as history so starkly illustrated such an approach catalysed great instability at the regional level and if the regional players were themselves nuclear weapon states then stability persistently teetered on the brink.

An Alternative Characterization

So, it is not in the Cold War paradigm—which sought strategic stability in parity of nuclear arsenals in terms of capabilities, numbers, conceptual permissiveness of limited nuclear war fighting and conformity of intent—that one can find understanding of strategic stability. Not either can pure military analysis of interstate relations provide comprehension of what makes for strategic stability. An alternative characterization perhaps lies in a holistic inquiry into the matter where the parts determine, and in varying degrees, influence the whole. Following this thread, ten determinants of strategic stability may be identified, these include: civilizational memory, recent history, geographical context, political proclivity, social structures, economic interests, religious orthodoxy, technological prowess, leadership and military power. The real question to now answer is what manner, proportion and to what intensity do these determinants influence interstate relations? A report in these terms would offer an insight into strategic stability; this conceivably provides a more sophisticated approach to the matter. Intuitively, the absence of strategic stability is perceived as a proneness to friction and conflict between states.

The South Asian Stability See-Saw

Before applying the determinants to the South Asian region we must first consider that there are dynamics involved that prompt the need to view Indo-Pak and Sino-Indian relations separately, and then discern them together for there exists a collusive orientation that bears on bilateral correlation. Taking Pakistan first, of the ten determinants, other than civilizational narrative (and even there, some suggest that they are in denial), technological stimulus, and an imaginable economic potential; the remaining seven, present an appositeness marred by friction. Assigning the determinants to the Sino-Indian situation we cannot fail to note a sense of accord in eight of ten determinants; other than geography in terms of the un-demarcated border in the north and north-east and military power, where there is undeniable competition, yet relations are not quite “uncongenial.”

A singular feature of the deterrent relationship in the region is its tri-polar character. As is well known today, it is the collusive nature of the Sino-Pak military and nuclear relationship which created and sustains its weapons programme. Therefore it is logical to conclude that there exists doctrinal links between the two which permits a duality in China’s nuclear policy; a declared No First Use can readily fall back on Pakistan’s developing First Use capability as far as India is concerned. Such links have made China blind to the dangers of nuclear proliferation as exemplified by the AQ Khan affair. Also, as was reported, the July 2007 army assault of the “Lal Masjid” was at the behest of China (or was it on orders from Beijing? The then Chinese ambassador’s almost imperial declaration after the abduction of seven PRC citizens in June of the same year that Pakistan must do its utmost to capture the culprits and protect Chinese citizens would suggest who was behind the decision to storm the masjid). It becomes amply clear that the key to GHQ Rawalpindi’s compliance with rational norms of strategic behaviour lies in Beijing. And the direction in which Sino-Pak collusion is headed will, to a large extent, also influence nuclear stability in the region. If the alliance was intended (as it now appears) to nurture a first-use capability in order to keep sub-continental nuclear stability on the boil, then the scope for achieving lasting stability is that much weakened. However, the current political situation in Pakistan represents a very dangerous condition since its Establishment nurtures fundamentalist and terrorist organizations as instruments of their misshapen policies in Afghanistan and Kashmir. The essence of Pakistan’s rogue links will, unmistakably, seduce the Islamic State (IS) into the sub-continent underscoring the distressing probability of the IS extending its reach into a nuclear arsenal. At a time when the politico-ethnic situation in western China remains fragile and the fanatical outburst of xenophobia advanced by the IS has stretched south and eastward to influence the fertile Jihadist breeding grounds of Afghanistan and Pakistan, a nuclear armed Islamic State, is an alarming prospect which China cannot be blind to nor can it be in China’s interest to persist with the promotion of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme.

Nuclear Malfeasance

Against the reality of conventional war with its limited goals, moderated ends, and the unlikelihood of it being outlawed in the foreseeable future, the separation of the conventional from the nuclear is a logical severance. Nuclear weapons are to deter and not for use; intent is the key; coherence and transparency are its basis. These remain the foundational principles that a nuclear weapon state must adhere to. However, given the politics of the region, historical animosities, rising influence of Islamic radicals and the persisting dominance of the military in Pakistan, the dangers of adding nuclear malfeasance to military perfidy is more than just a possibility. The nuclear relationship with Pakistan has catalysed a perverse logic that links sub- conventional warfare with nuclear escalation. This bizarre correlation, Pakistan will have the world believe, comes to play if and when India chooses to respond with conventional forces. Stability in this context would then suggest the importance of not only reinforcing the determinants that foster amity but at the same time for Indian leadership to bring about a consensus among both China and the USA to compel Pakistan to harmonize and at the same time bring about a re-orientation in the Sino-Pak nuclear collusion.

End of the Deep State

The challenge before us is clear. To roll back the Deep State in Pakistan is to wish for Pakistan’s own “Islamic Spring”, this unfortunately, in the short term, remains an anaemic possibility. We noted earlier the discord that existed between the determinants of strategic stability and the impact that Pakistan collusion with China (particularly in the nuclear weapons field) has had on the wobbly condition of interstate relations in the region. What remains is to convince international opinion that it is the Islamists that continue to pose the existential threat to not just Pakistan but rather to the world. Rapprochement with India is anathema to the ‘Deep State’. Therefore, the removal of the Pakistan Deep State is the first step towards Strategic Stability in the sub-continent.

‘Jihadi Aggression’ and Nuclear Deterrence


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

This article was first published on the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies Website in September 2015

Pakistan’s use of terror organizations as a tool of state policy to wage unconventional war against India [1] has perverse consequences that link sub-conventional warfare with nuclear escalation. This bizarre correlation, Pakistan will have the world believe, comes to play if and when India chooses to respond with conventional forces to a terror strike puppeteered by their “Deep State.”[2]

Notwithstanding the reality of interstate relations that finds expression in a byzantine system of the larger un-codified international relations, common ground exists in the challenges that threaten the very existence of the State. Military power, economics, politics, religion and the dynamics of change provide very convincing provinces within which to fix challenges, yet it is the hazard of mass destruction that, without debate, presents itself as the “emperor-of-challenges.” Willingness of the Deep State in Pakistan to catalyze such a scenario, keeping that country always “on the brink” in order to preserve the position of the army, the ISI and the jihadis as upholders of the State, is the peril of our times. And yet if this be the substance then it must equally be true that willfully enabling a nuclear exchange carries the immanence that will finish the Deep State. Keeping the nation persistently on the edge has left Pakistan’s internals in a state of violent turmoil, as several interest networks such as the elites that drive military autonomy, the security apparatus, enfeebled political groups and the fractured jihadis battle for supremacy. The circumstances are fraught since the fallout is demise of (already impoverished) democratic institutions and the wasted idea of a unified Pakistan. In this milieu the cracks in control of nuclear weapons are apparent. After all, the internals may, in the extreme, catalyze the use of nuclear weapons in a plot that begins with a terror strike on India.

The question of motivating Pakistan to demobilize anti-India terrorist groups and thus defuse the reason for escalation of conflict is the most pressing strategic imperative. China, in this frame of reference, though cognate, is a more distant strategic intimidation. Relations between India and China have been stable and improving, save for occasional flares on account of a border that has denied definition. There have not been sustained hostilities since 1962 nor has there been a predilection to reach, even in rhetoric, for nuclear weapons. Deterrence between the two large states has also been relatively stable, since the Chinese nuclear doctrine founded on NFU and minimality finds accord with India’s doctrine and neither country is seeking to change the status quo by exploring space below the nuclear threshold. India’s nuclear deterrent is not country specific; its credibility will remain an abstraction in the mind of the potential adversary, while minimality is magnitude in the mind of the Deterrer (India in this case). On the other hand, Pakistan and India have experienced four wars, two of which were initiated and waged in concert with non-state actors. The two states have also confronted two major crises initiated by terror attacks in India. To strategic planners in India, Pakistani use of jihadi groups as an instrument of state policy is a factor that is always considered when mapping a conventional riposte. Despite successes in recent history, it is equally clear that that sub-conventional warfare can only be beaten by state policy on both sides coupled with conventional forces. The clamping down on terror activities from Pakistan post operation “Parakram” (the military standoff between India and Pakistan between December 2001 and October 2002 following jihadi assault on the Indian Parliament on 13 December 2001) that resulted in the massing of troops on either side of the border and along the Line of Control in Kashmir. One of the positive outcomes of the mobilization and coercive threat of military action was President Musharraf’s policy statement of 12 January 2002 not to permit Pakistan soil to be used for launch of terror activities. Significantly, on ground, the declaration held till 2008. This aftermath stands in testimony as to what works.

Evolving Nuclear Context

The link between sub-conventional warfare and nuclear war fighting is at best a tenuous one. Conceptually, no amount of tinkering or reconstitution of nuclear policy can deter terror attacks. Such a notion would appear far fetched because of the very nature of the weapon involved. Clearly it is the policy that harbours terror groups as instruments of state policy that has to be targeted. Pakistan has today inducted tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) into its arsenal with the stated purpose of countering an Indian response to a terror strike. Almost as if to suggest that they control the levers of nuclear escalation. This an odd proposition since India does not differentiate between tactical and strategic nuclear weapons, (this is not only stated by most scholars in the know, but is also the bed rock of a nuclear deterrent relationship). Also, TNWs involve decentralization and dispersal, both of which dilute command and control and multiply the risk of the weapon falling into wrong hands. In the end analysis, the use of nuclear weapons introduces a new and uncontrollable dimension. Logically, if a Pak sponsored terror attack is the triggering event of a sequence of reactions, then it must equally be clear that their nuclear red lines give space for a conventional response. After all, the premise that a terror attack is seamlessly backed by nuclear weapons is not only ludicrous but is not even the Pak case. For, when dealing with the threat of use of nuclear weapons, to suggest that ambiguity and first use provide options, is to suggest that nuclear war fighting almost in conventional terms is an option. This, by most, is denial of the nature of nuclear weapons, characterized by mass destruction and uncontrollability.

There is a suggestion in some scholarly quarters, that there was little or no Pakistan sponsored terror activity before nuclear umbrellas were raised in the sub-continent. This is repudiation of history (whether at partition in 1947-48, in 1965 or in the 1980s to 90s). Unfortunately this mistaken assumption has led the narrative on a quest to seek answers to sub-conventional warfare in nuclear weapons and their deterrent effect, increasing in turn the dangers of early use. This does not serve the interest of deterrent stability. Yet, as with the conventional military options, some experts and former military officials in India, echoed by western analysts, have begun to question whether India should alter its approach to nuclear deterrence in ways that would affect Pakistan’s calculus. The relationship between nuclear deterrence and sub conventional aggression—what has been colorfully described as “jihad under the nuclear umbrella”—is not a new phenomenon in South Asia. But since 2008, and especially after Pakistan tested a new short-range missile in 2011 and declared it part of a policy of “full spectrum” deterrence, Indian strategists have begun to question more vocally whether New Delhi’s approach to nuclear deterrence should more directly confront this challenge through the induction of TNWs. Nuclear weapons in any nuclear weapon state, barring Pakistan, are today a political tool. So why there is a contrary belief is, least to say, inexplicable. To advocate that deterrence success has been achieved by Pakistan because it was able to indulge in terror activities since 2008 is also to suggest that India’s nuclear weapons were made to deter jihadist-this is quaint! Analogous would be that Pakistan achieved deterrence success over the US since it harboured Osama bin Laden till 2011 or Mullah Omar till 2013!

Pakistan has suggested that the induction of TNWs into its nuclear arsenal is in response to India’s Cold Start doctrine. It must be noted that the Cold Start is a conventional war fighting strategy that aims at overcoming the ponderous mobilization process. Remember, it is a reactive conventional artifice that clutches in, should the need arise to take rapid military action across the border. Its pre-emption does not lie in a nuclear response but in reining in terror activities. For Pakistan to turn to TNWs and varyingly call them “Full spectrum deterrence” or “shoot and scoot” options, one wonders if the lessons of the cold war have sunk home or, where they intend to scoot.

Some scholars question India’s nuclear doctrine as an emerging contest between “policy and strategy”, presumably that is to imply military control over a slice of the nuclear arsenal limited by yield, vector and purpose; that is, provide the military with a limited nuclear war fighting alternative (LNWA). This option, for reasons that have been laboured upon earlier is characterised by the absence of escalatory control, a denial of political oversight and ambiguity between Controller and Custodian of the nuclear arsenal. To the Indian strategic planner there is no such thing as LNWA since the absence of escalatory control negates any notional gains that it may bestow. Retaliation that is either punitive or proportional implies a nuclear war fighting strategy; this is anathema to Indian strategic thought. As far as the correlation of Policy and Strategy is concerned, it remains the influence of policy on military strategy with a clear demarcation between conventional military resources and control over all nuclear forces.

The Perverse Nuclear Chain of Events and Capabilities

The nuclear scenario and the chain of events that currently finds articulation may in essence be outlined as follows: Pakistan promotes a militant strike and in order to counter conventional retaliation uses TNWs and then in order to degrade a massive retaliatory second strike launches a full blown counter force/counter value strike. This is perverse for by this logic even a bolt from the blue strike is in the realm of possibilities and for Pakistan to launch a nuclear strike it does not even need a nuclear adversary at all! The use of nuclear weapons releases restraints on retaliation. It is compelling to note that the Kargil conflict of 1999 was brought to closure because both military and economic pressures were becoming intolerable for Pakistan. Of equal significance is that it did not reach for the nuclear trigger but capitulated.

Western sources have in recent times has been quick to point out that India has either fallen behind in quality, technology or quantity of nuclear weapons. It need hardly be underscored that the 4th and 5th of the 1998 tests were low-yield warheads. India’s nuclear doctrine, NFU policy, minimalistic approach to its arsenal size and the current quest for strategic nuclear stability is more swayed by China than Pakistan. Doubts that have also been cast on the technical capabilities and yields of the nuclear weapon programme based on the words of one disengaged member of the Indian scientific community, these are misplaced.Yields that have been operationalised are far in excess of 25kt, they include thermonuclear devices. Numbers are adequate. The ability to reconstitute to low yield weapons also exists.[3]

Seeking Escalation Dominance

For India to emulate Pakistan’s nuclear policies i.e. FU and TNWs, runs counter to every logic that has so far been propounded. To promote that the solution to nuclear deterrence asymmetry is escalation dominance is not to state the entire theorem, which is, that the corollary is nuclear war fighting, which most scholars agree is a rather flaky concept. LNWA and proportionality of nuclear response are all sub-texts to the same. To transpose conventional strategy on nuclear policy can prove disastrous more so when dealing with a state controlled by its military and intelligence apparatus. Once again the logic of orderly nuclear escalation is fallacious. Deterrence in essence is a mind game that does not brook any logic other than total escalation when confronted by a nuclear strike. The three options before India in response to a TNW strike are LNWA, punitive nuclear strike or doctrinal massive retaliation. The former two may sound reasonable on paper but notions of counter force strikes, flexible response, LNWA etc. do not make sense in the face of total escalation.

A Conclusion: One Answer to Jihadist Aggression

Conventional forces are different by nature from nuclear forces. The former is susceptible to control, escalation, geographic spread, and indeed to economic pressures. The latter is not. Tolerance to conventional forces is the rub; where their limits lie is the question that planners must answer. India’s incentive to keep below the nuclear threshold is as pressing as it is for Pakistan. This is deterrence at play. The conclusion that nuclear weapons do not deter sub-conventional warfare is appropriate. At the same time conventional forces can and do suppress the use of jihadists and if this policy is brought to bear in concert with anti terror polity answers may be found to jihadist violence.



[1] Fair Christine, Fighting to the End, pg 226

[2] Tariq Khosa’s admission of the complicity of organs of the state in launching acts of terrorism in neighbouring countries. It is said that there was an entire rogue ISI and that Gen. Gul, hardliner among hardliners — he said 9/11 was a Jewish conspiracy — was its head. For many people he continued being a spymaster. If the regular ISI is a “state within the state”, then the rogue ISI was/is a state within that “state within the state”; a “deeper” state. Nonetheless, after Gen. Gul died on 15 August 2015, there was a spontaneous outpour of praise for him in Pakistan. The Urdu press was unanimous in praising him as a nationalist and patriot; even liberals in the Urdu media, like Nazir Naji of Roznama Dunya, who is unapologetically anti-Taliban, called Gen. Gul a patriot. His funeral was attended by former Army Chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani as well as current Army Chief Gen. Raheel Sharif — who is supposedly against terrorism. It would appear they were mourning the passing of the man who was, more than Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the ideologue of modern Pakistan, led by its Deep State.

[3] http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/1998-nuclear-tests-were-perfect-says-kakodkar/article64687.ece