Strategic Stability: Grappling the Enigma of Sub-Continental Nuclear Politics


Vice Admiral (Retd.) Vijay Shankar 

Keywords: Strategic Stability, Nuclear Security in South Asia, Indo-Pak Diplomacy, China Nuclear Policy, Pakistan Nuclear Policy

Download full article here

This article is forthcoming in the “South Asia Defense and Strategic Year Book 2015” 


It can be no nation’s case to destroy the very purpose that polity sets out to attain and
therefore strategic empathy lies at the heart of nuclear stability

Cold War Mantra-Catastrophic Force as the Basis of Stability

In September 1950, responding to a directive from the President of the USA to reexamine objectives in peace and war with the emergence of nuclear weapons capability of the Soviet Union; the Secretaries of Defense and State tabled a report titled National Security Council – 68 (NSC-68).[i] This report was, in general terms, to become the mantra that guided world order till the end of the Cold War and in particular formed the source that defined and drove doctrines for use and proliferation of nuclear weapons. As a founding policy document of contemporary world order the memorandum contrasted the fundamental design of the Authoritarian State with that of the Free State. Briefly put the coming clash was seen in almost Biblical terms as a life and death struggle between the powers of ‘evil’ with that of ‘perfection’.

NSC-68 came at a time when the previous 35 years had witnessed some of the most cataclysmic events that history was subjected to; two devastating World Wars, two revolutions that mocked the global status quo, collapse of 5 empires and the decline and degeneration of two imperial powers. The dynamics that brought about these changes also wrought drastic transformation in power distribution. Key determinants of power were seen as a function of ideological influence, military prowess, economic muscle and the means of mass nuclear destruction. Comprehensive Power had decisively gravitated to the USA and the USSR. The belief that the USSR was motivated by a fanatic communist faith antithetical to that of the West and driven by ambitions of world domination provided the logic and a verdict that conflict and violence would become endemic. And thus was presented to the world a choice to either watch helplessly the incarceration of civilization or take sides in a “just cause” to confront the possibility. World order rested upon a division along ideological lines, and more importantly to our study, the formulation of a self fulfilling logic for the use of nuclear weapons. The 1950s naissance of a nuclear theology was consequently cast in the mould of armed rivalry; its nature was characterized by friction and thwarting the spread of influence. The scheme that carved the world was Containment versus burgeoning Communism. In turn rationality gave way to the threat of catastrophic force as the basis of stability.

The Quest for a New Paradigm

Crumbling of the Soviet Union in the last decade of the twentieth century and the end of the Cold War brought down the curtains on the distinctive basis of global stability that NSC 68 had spawned. In its wake scholarly works suggested the emergence of one world and an end to the turbulent history of man’s ideological evolution. Some saw the emergence of a multi polar order and the arrival of China. Yet others saw in the First Iraq War, the continuing war in the Levant, the admission of former Soviet satellite nations into NATO and the splintering of Yugoslavia an emerging clash of civilizations marked by violent discord shaped by cultural and civilizational similitude.

However, these illusions were dispelled within a decade and found little use in understanding and coming to grips with the realities of the post Cold War world as each of them represented a candour of its own. The paradigm of the day (if there is one) is the tensions of the multi polar; the tyranny of economics; the anarchy of expectations; and polarization of peoples along religio-cultural lines all compacted in the cauldron of globalization in a state of continuous technology agitation. An uncertain geo-political brew, as the world had never seen before, has come to pass under the looming shadow of the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

The Problem

The problem with nuclear weapons in an uncertain world is the complexity of convincing decision makers that no conceivable advantage can be achieved from a nuclear exchange. For, as long as one side believes that there is some value to be had through the deployment and use of nuclear weapons, indeterminate fears creep in that sets into motion a chain reaction which in turn provokes and raises the degree of calamitous risk.

Military planners are familiar with the fact that risk assessment is an imperative in the development of a strategic plan. The process is marked by persistent motivation to not only eliminate uncertainties and bring about balance between political objectives and resources, but also to ensure that probability of success of a strategy and benefits that accrue outweigh the hazards of failure. In the nuclear arena we note that strategic imbalance is intrinsic to the relationship. From start, the equation is irrevocably in a state of unstable equilibrium caused by the fact that when nuclear resources are used the impact will invariably be to obliterate the political objectives that were sought to be achieved. This is the reality of nuclear weapons. Its value lies in non usage; its aim is, nuclear war avoidance; its futility is, in attempting to use it to attain political goals.

Strategic collaboration with a potential enemy is not a concept that comes naturally to leadership. Tradition is against it and the very idea of sovereignty rejects the thought of it. Nonetheless it can be no nation’s case to destroy the very purpose that polity sets out to attain and therefore strategic empathy lies at the heart of nuclear stability.

A nuclear deterrent relationship is founded entirely on rationality. On the part of the ‘deterree’ there is rationality in the conviction of disproportionate risks of hostile action; and on the part of the deterrer rationality of purpose and transparency in confirming the reality of the risks involved in a manner that strategic miscalculations are avoided . The exceptional feature of this transaction is that the roles are reversible provided it is in the common interest to maintain stability in relationship.

The test of a durable deterrent relationship is its ability to withstand three dynamics that are common to contemporary politics, significantly so in the sub-continent. First: the deterrent itself must be stable; by which is implied its command, control and doctrinaire underpinnings must be unwavering and transparent. Inconsistencies increase the temptation to take pre-emptive action. Second: in a crisis, either conventional or sub-conventional, the propensity to ‘reach-for-the-nuclear-trigger’ must be restrained. Third: the predicament that intrusion of technology into the nuclear calculus causes, for it invites covertness but its impact demands transparency.

The Tri-Polar Tangle

Unique to the deterrent relationship in the region is the tri-polar nature of the playing field, with China and Pakistan at ‘the collusive base’ and India on the vertex. Ever since the 1960’s it was amply clear and comprehensively demonstrated that China would use all means at its disposal to not just embarrass India in the international arena but also to ensure that it never posed a challenge of any nature to its larger designs. Continued nuclear and missile technology proliferation in-region remains an abiding symptom. What is striking is that despite several incidents over the last decade and a half that could have escalated to the nuclear level, security establishments in China, India and Pakistan have not set themselves to the task of preparing concrete perspectives on the issue of nuclear stability barring endorsing the idea. China’s proliferation policy may have been driven by balance power logic but in today’s geo political circumstance it only serves to diminish its global standing and in time may rebound on its ambitions. With Pakistan the only meaningful measure in place is mutual notification of ballistic missile flight tests. On the perilous side is induction of tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) by way of Chinese collaboration with the consequences of devolution of control and ever increasing ambiguities.

The Blight of Ambiguity

The policy of nuclear ambiguity was brought to prominence when Prime Minister Eshkol in 1966 stated that ‘Israel would not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the region’. Three red lines were linked to its use. These included successful Arab military penetration; destruction of Israeli Air Force; cities attacked by weapons of mass destruction. It served as Israel’s ultimate guarantor of security.

The worth of ambiguity and its corollary, opacity of policy only serves to accentuate hazards of the unintended. Indistinctness in policy, when TNWs are in the arsenal, immediately suggests that conventional principles of war apply. This provides the incentive for use of nuclear weapons and a reactionary development of a first strike capability on the one hand, while the adversary strives to generate a counter force potential.

Ambiguity has been used as an offset for conventional inferiority with the belief that control over escalation is possible. This is so obviously a fallacy due to the nature of the weapon. Also its effect in disrupting stability is apparent. Covert technology intrusions coupled with ambiguity of intent increases the hazard geometrically, making the demand for transparency more urgent.

Paradox of Indo-Pak Diplomacy

Bi lateral diplomacy between India and Pakistan is a paradox particularly when considered against the framework of conservative diplomacy. Conventional wisdom would suggest that the two parties sit across the table and deliberate with political leadership views, power balance and national perspectives forming the basis. The rub when dealing with Pakistan is that political leadership is a charade that masks the real manipulators of power. The unfeigned decision makers are those represented by the military establishment who as a rule do not expose themselves to diplomatic parleys and appear to thrive in an ambience of imprecision. While this policy has served the military well, it makes for an awkward situation when diplomatic deliberations invariably end in a void. Diplomacy in the classical sense implies the practice and art of conducting international parleys between states with the purpose of (in addition to others) defusing starkly competitive behavior. This orthodox structure comes a cropper when dealing with a situation where the real national leadership absents itself from the tedium of negotiations.

When dealing with Indo Pak parleys there is a certain Chamberlainesque tragedy to its progress that is squarely on account of the refusal to recognize the reality of who tenants the seat of power in Pakistan. On the Indian side a rejection of this reality ironically leads to an untiring conciliatory policy that is marked by appeasement. Such policy as characterized by the inability to fully exploit the 1971 liberation of East Pakistan, The “Gujral Doctrine” of appeasement, the stalemate during ‘Operation Parakram’ (the one year military stand-off after the failed terror attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001), the self imposed restraints during Kargil and lastly the reliance on means that had little relevance to the nature of the 26/11 assault on Mumbai; all these are more symptomatic of India’s unreal appraisal of the adversary. Chamberlain, between 1938 and 1939, it will be recalled pursued a peacemaking course, which had a contradictory and inadvertent effect of revealing true Nazi policy. Despite the breakdown of the Versailles treaty and the brazen Czech invasion he refused to reconcile to the dangerous face of Nazi power.[ii]

The fundamental dilemma that States must master in peace and diplomacy and more so to in developing a nuclear strategy is an appraisal of the other’s intentions. In an environment of control ambiguity, a military strategy that embraces Jihadists compounded by nuclear opacity (as is the case in Pakistan) the complexity of this estimation shows up often in the skewed and poor quality of strategic decision making. The current implosive situation in Pakistan and its strategic links with China has not made matters any simpler for planners to generate responsive counter strategies.

China’s Janus Faced Nuclear Policy

When dealing with nuclear issues uncertainties rise from the multilateral nature of nuclear relationships, discriminatory regimes that exist and importantly the competing strategic groups that the multipolar has precipitated. It has blurred the lines between conventional and nuclear weapons at the same time it provides a warped incentive in asymmetric situations for the lesser State to habitually provoke incidents and then threaten to reach for the nuclear trigger.

The current situation has not left the Indian strategic dilemma unimpaired. The two faced nature of the Sino-Pak nuclear relationship has put pressure on the No First Use (NFU) doctrine that has shaped India’s policy and indeed its arsenal. China’s stated NFU policy hides the First Use intent of Pakistan that the former has so assiduously nurtured from development of the Pakistan nuclear weapons programme to the supply of TNWs. China would appear to have forgotten the actuality of an enfeebled Pakistan civilian leadership incapable of action to remove the military finger from the nuclear trigger, the active involvement of non-state actors in military strategy and an alarming posture of an intention-to-use. Indeed the Pak proxy gives to China doctrinal flexibility, it unfortunately also makes the severance of the Nuclear from the Conventional a thorny proposition that even China must know can boomerang on its aspirations.


The Nuclear Nightmare

We have thus far noted the effect of the external environment introducing nuclear multilateralism; an enfeebled civilian leadership in Pakistan that is incapable of action to remove the military finger from the nuclear trigger; the active attendance and involvement of non state actors in military strategy; internal environment that without rationale finds solace in TNWs, larger and more varied arsenals; security anxieties shoving arsenals down the slippery slope of developing nuclear war fighting capabilities; absence or at best ambiguity in doctrinal underpinnings that mould nuclear posture and the alarming reality of ‘intention-to-use’. The larger consequence of the considerations discussed so far makes the status quo untenable.

The nuclear nightmare, when articulated, is a hair trigger, opaque deterrent leaning towards conventionalizing under single military control steered by a doctrine seeped in ambiguity and guided by a military strategy that carouses and finds unity with non state actors. It does not take a great deal of intellectual exertions to declare that this nightmare is upon us.

Strategic Non Nuclear Forces

Given the state of relations with Pakistan and their persistence of employing terror organizations as a part of military strategy, there is every probability that conventional forces will have to be employed on both sides of the border by the Indian state. This naturally runs the risk of escalation. Theoretically, under these circumstances it is important that both sides do not reach for the nuclear trigger. Obviously the best way of averting such a situation is to ensure that such a conflictual possibility does not arise at all, through transparency and unrelenting diplomacy.

In practice, history has shown, this is often not workable and therefore conventional forces should have the mobility and firepower to achieve limited aims rapidly without allowing escalation beyond the conventional threshold, the ‘Cold Start’ doctrine is an expression of just such intent. This would mean maintaining nuclear forces that inhibit the adversary from even contemplating a nuclear exchange in addition its strategic forces must also equip itself with select non nuclear conventional hardware that tracks and targets nuclear forces (all under political control). This would provide the pre-emptive teeth to a deterrent relationship that leans so heavily on NFU.

Bringing about strategic stability is therefore the key to manage Pakistan’s nuclear forces and holding it in a state in which deterrence does not break down. Against the reality of a conventional war with its limited goals and moderated ends and the unlikelihood of it being outlawed in the foreseeable future; the first step is separation of the conventional from the nuclear. Where this severance is not articulated the No First Use arsenal must be of a nature that credibly deters. As mentioned earlier given the politics of the region, historical animosities and the emasculated nature of civilian leadership in Pakistan, the dangers of adding nuclear violence to military perfidy is a reality that demands a high level of preparedness.


The challenge before us is clear. To put the nuclear genie back into the bottle is neither realistic nor a proposition that merits consideration. The key lies in bringing about an ambience conducive to strategic stability. Areas that could be addressed begin with weakening the Sino-Pak nuclear collusion (as discussed earlier); mutually dispelling the veil of opacity that surrounds the nuclear deterrent; technology intrusions that have put the arsenal on a hair trigger must be subjected to a safety catch through the instruments of transparency and the removal of ambiguities in strategic underpinnings; Institutional verification measures must evaluate and exchange risks and alert status. It is only such devices that will enable strategic restraint and in turn a stable deterrent relationship to be realized on the sub continent.

Download full article here


End Notes

[i] US Department of State Office of The Historian. <;

[ii] Murray Williamson. The Change in the European Balance of Power 1938-1939.Princeton University Press 1984 pp. 193-215


2 thoughts on “Strategic Stability: Grappling the Enigma of Sub-Continental Nuclear Politics

  1. “The key lies in bringing about an ambiance conducive to strategic stability.” Indeed. But our current stated doctrine of massive retaliation — which must mean counter-value nuclear attacks, otherwise it cannot be ‘massive’– is not credible to Pakistan: Which is why it has bought into the Chinese-tutored posture of uncertainty/ambiguity on NFU as the basis of deterring Indian conventional land attack. A reminder that our low-yield N-tests of 1998 were of deliverable weapons, not of just ‘devices’, together with a de-novo reconsideration of our doctrine is the route to ‘bringing about an ambience conducive to strategic stability’.

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