THE GRANDMASTER’S PAWN*: An Analysis of the China-Pakistan Nuclear Arsenals


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

Keywords: China Nuclear Doctrine and Strategy, Pakistan Nuclear Doctrine and Strategy, Indian Nuclear Force Planning, “How Much is Enough?” Deterrent Stability

Download complete article here: Shankar, The Grandmaster’s Pawn


The Chinese Arsenal                                                                                                         A keen observer of international relations in the South and East Asian region soon comes to the conclusion that no endeavor to achieve deterrent stability, or to bring objectivity in an analysis of the Sino-Pak nuclear arsenals and their strategic underpinnings, is intelligible without perceiving them first as one; and then as separate. This virtual dichotomy challenges leadership at every step in bringing about equilibrium in strategic relationships. Unique to this tri-polar tangle is the collusive nature of the Sino-Pak liaison.

Ever since the 1950s it was amply clear and comprehensively demonstrated that China would use all stratagem at its disposal to not just embarrass but also to nip any perceived challenge that may emerge from India. The exasperation that they have caused on issues ranging from Tibet to the festering territorial differences in the North and North East; the irksome opposition to any opportunity that the international system may concede to India; their reaction to the recent Nuclear Suppliers Group waiver and their persistent rejoinder to Indo-Russian relations are cases in point. All this is despite the galloping trade links between the two.

Philosophical and Strategic underpinnings of Chinese Policy                            Search for reasons for this antagonism may be found in the philosophical and strategic underpinnings of Chinese policy. The first consideration is our understanding of China’s Grand Strategy. Chinese strategists define Grand Strategy as “the overall strategy of a nation or an alliance of nations in which they use their combined national strengths for political goals, particularly those related to security and development.”[1] What stands out in this definition is the importance of the alliance in achieving goals related to both security and development.

The complicity with Pakistan, whether it be for ends of economic growth or energy security (development of the deep water port at Gwadar at a precarious moment in the history of that nation when investment there is plunging southward is noteworthy) or, to realize their national goals by promoting a nuclear adversary to India; is all really an execution of their larger Grand Strategy to exploit an alliance in their favour, notwithstanding  norms of the international system or the proliferation that this enterprise would entail. The single minded ruthlessness to implement this policy has been the abiding leitmotif.

China’s strategic culture that has evolved over the years is the second lynchpin upon which their policies hinge. Central to it is the continuous friction between their civilizational heritage and the upheavals that moulded the communist state. Therefore, on the one face, we note that there is a stated aversion to conflict, while on the obverse, is an unyielding belief in realpolitik.

Their No First Use (NFU) pledge coupled with a persistent sponsoring of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program with its unabashed first strike connotations is a manifestation of this same dualism that pervades their doctrine and, when viewed in the larger perspective, a part of their ‘active defense.’ Then again, shades of Mao’s conviction that nuclear weapons were paper tigers and that strategic matters would be decided on mass and weight of the human element[2], has influenced the size of their arsenal. All this is symptomatic of their grasp of contemporary realities, the value of ambiguities and deception and their subscription to minimalism. Their ‘Assassin’s Mace’ strategy fits into this scheme of things well, where a superior force is vanquished by an inferior through stratagem that seeks to paralyze.

History will recall that the Sino-Pak alliance owes its parentage to an unlikely set of circumstances. The Cold War was at its height; then, in 1961 comes an ideological fissure between the two main communist actors over Soviet revisionist tendencies, causing an unbridgeable rift. Close on its heels comes the Sino-Indian War of 1962, the reasons for this conflict remain debatable, yet there can be no denying its impact on the over all balance of sub-continental power and the emergence of China as a cognizable player, independent of the Cold Warriors. Pakistan, which till then had been the southern containment link of CENTO, saw an opportunity in the larger fracas and wooed China through transfer of territories in the Karakoram tract (5800 sq. kms. of disputed territory) giving China access to their troubled Xinjiang Province through the Aksai Chin in 1963. This relationship over the years has concretized into firm economic, military and political ties, notwithstanding the vagaries of international public opinion. So much so, that in the nuclear field there is considerable evidence to suggest doctrinal symbiosis. An analogy in some respects may be drawn with the special relationship that existed during the Cold War between the USA and the UK.  Their doctrines were intertwined to an extent that they share a common nuclear arsenal (warheads for the Trident D4 and D5 class of submarine launched missiles is a case in point).

In a departure from the Western model for making strategic evaluations of first identifying ends, then conceptualizing methods and finally, generating means to achieve ends; China follow the Comprehensive National Power (CNP) route, where it sees impact of strategic events on its own endowment as primary. Therefore, in articulating its strategic objectives, in order of precedence, it has unambiguously identified three canons. The first is internal and external stability to its own gauge; the second is to sustain the current levels of economic growth at close to the double digit level; and lastly, to achieve regional pre-eminence. If there is a conflict of interest in the execution of the three then the superior canon prevails.[3]

The Doctrine                                                                                                                 China’s nuclear doctrine owes its soul to a book that was ordered by Chairman Mao in 1958 which appeared before the Communist Party of China in 1959 titled Guidelines for the Development of Nuclear Weapons.[4] There were seven crucial tenets to the doctrine stemming from Mao’s ‘paper tiger’ and minimalist appraisal of the nuclear question:

a) No First Use
b) Minimal Forces without Compromising Credibility
c) Centralized Command and Control
d) Assured Retaliation
e) Modernization and Survivability
f) The Value of Demonstration
g) Doctrinal Dynamism

In all but two of these precepts there does not appear to be great divergence from the Indian Nuclear Doctrine. Where there is a tangential move away is on the subject of ‘the demonstration’ and ‘doctrinal dynamism.’ The former suggests, in the abstract, that nuclear weapons would be used, if the credibility factor is ever questioned. This usage may not be against vital targets and yet will leave no doubts of their looming intentions. The latter implies a vast area of subjectivity and opens up the nature of their alliances. In this frame of reference, the scripting of the Pak nuclear capability and transfer of nuclear technologies, setting up of the Khushab I, II, III and IV reactors and the moulding of an emerging first-strike capability makes strategic sense. An alliance of this nature gives their doctrine unmatchable vigour and flexibility.


The Future

China has taken steps to put in place a very deliberate strategic orientation which is marked by a small but credible and survivable No First Use nuclear arsenal comprising of about 200 operationalized warheads. The structures it has created to adapt technology and infuse it into the arsenal are there to be seen in their nuclear academic institutions and the human resources that they have developed over the years (It is reported that during the devastating Central Chinese earthquake of 2008, over 160 Ph.D. academics and close to 7000 other technicians, all devoted to the physics package, were among the first to be evacuated from their complex at Mianyang).

Modernization of the arsenal is a continuum. China is focusing on increased ranges, rapid mobility and precision in control and targeting, the induction of MIRV’D warheads and operationalization of the JL2 SLBM is imminent. Efforts to reduce vulnerability of arsenal without compromising central control would be key to future developments. There is the matter of how American BMD would impact on the arsenal. Clearly there would be qualitative and quantitative changes to the arsenal, both for which, China already holds the potential as demonstrated by their ASAT capability. Their ‘Assassins Mace’ strategy will remain an abiding approach.[5]

As mentioned earlier, the issue of Taiwan and the future of the South China Sea imbroglio are significant to the larger arsenal development. If these are resolved with finesse, then China’s aspiration-capability gap will reduce. If not, this gap will increase. Their nurturing of a first strike capability in the arsenal of their alliance partner, Pakistan, will progress with rapidity and precision.

These prognostications may be summarized as under:

  • China’s arsenal will remain small but credible and survivable, numbers operationalized are likely to be less than 200 warheads (author’s estimate).
  • The US decision to deploy BMD in the South and East China Sea littorals may have two possible effects: If deployed it will bring qualitative and quantitative changes to China’s arsenal. Warheads are likely to be MIRV’d and the arsenal is likely to show a bulge; If not deployed, stability of deterrence would remain.
  • The third possibility is that US policy envisages deployment BMD as a part of the extended deterrence that targets rogue states; this would, from China’s point of view  amount to destabilising the existing deterrent relationship with the same impact on China’s arsenal as noted above.
  • If the Taiwan and the South and East China Sea Islands imbroglio is resolved with finesse then the aspirations – capabilities gap will reduce, if not the gap will increase with consequent instability in the region.
  • Technology intrusions into the arsenal affecting range, mobility, precision, C4ISR  and penetration will continue to be invited.
  • Reduced vulnerability of arsenal.
  • No arms race (dangers of the Soviet Model).
  • Internal economic, social development and global image will remain a priority.
  • Nurturing a first disarming nuclear strike capability in Pakistan providing doctrinal dynamism will remain a policy focus.

The Pakistan Arsenal

Pakistan’s quest for strategic parity with India is a part of the larger protracted conflict that has been integral to relations between the two nations since independence in 1947. Till the 1960s, her close alliance with the West as a part of CENTO, as mentioned in an earlier section, placed her in a situation that provided ready military assistance up to a conventional point. It was the Sino-Indian war of 1962 that provided an opportunity to up the ante. This opening began with territorial concessions and in this the-other’s- enemy-is-my-friend state of affairs, graduated to a close nuclear relationship. In time Pakistan’s nuclear program was practically scripted, tested and delivered by Beijing (in his book, If I am Assassinated, the late Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, whilst on death row, stated poignantly that if he was to be remembered for any act, it would be for the alliance that he had built with China) [6].

Strategic and Doctrinal Foundations     

Post the 1971 War which created Bangladesh, the Sino-Pak relationship took a new and decisive turn as far as nuclear cooperation went. In a paper presented at the Ottawa Dialogue, a Track 2 forum that brings together representatives from both India and Pakistan to discuss nuclear strategic and doctrinal issues, a Pakistani representative emphasized that “with the disparity of size and resource (sic) now established, and national salvation and pride deeply dented, there was only one way to go—the nuclear way.”[7]

Pakistan does not have a declared doctrine and there has been no clear articulation of its guiding principles. As early as 2001, Lt. General Khalid Kidwai, in a statement that was widely reported underscored Pakistan’s thresholds for the use of nuclear weapons. These he identified as military, economic, political and survival.[8] While these verges were some indication of Pakistan’s tolerance levels, the statement was quickly revoked and officially there remained no policy declaration on the grounds that any stated doctrine would create space for the conventional conflict, albeit under a nuclear overhang. In another statement, former Army Chief, General Aslam Beg, stated, “An attack by any nation on our nuclear arsenal will automatically trigger a nuclear strike on India”.[9] However bizarre this may sound it is apparent that Pakistan retains a certain irrational ambiguity in their policy to use nuclear weapons.[10]

In the 2010 Ottawa Dialogue report, Pakistani planners suggest that there is a possibility of nuclear weapons having an “inalienable” place in military strategy and therefore, to adopt an operational strategy of flexible response is a natural graduation from the conventional to the nuclear.  The second suggestion is that nuclear weapons are weapons to be used as devices of last resort. The third is that nuclear weapons are political weapons and “on the matrix of a larger power smaller power equation, such a capability provides to the smaller an unreserved strategic equivalence.” The fourth is a combination of the previous three which sees the nuclear weapon as a means to avoid conflict of any nature. Through ambiguities and a threat of first use, the absence of a declaratory policy is justified. In all this, it is the war fighting abilities of the Pakistani nuclear arsenal that remains the central theme of the various possibilities listed in the report. There is a persistent interplay between the conventional and the nuclear without any discriminating walls between their development or their usage.

The Pakistan establishment rejects the No First Use doctrine of India on the grounds of lack of belief in what has been declared.[11] Pakistan’s stated India-centricity and its integration of nuclear weapons in the larger military strategy are items of faith—this poses certain aberrations in the equation. If Pakistan does not subscribe or believe in India’s No First Use arsenal then it must logically be that First Use is what will drive their doctrine and secondly, a First Use nuclear weapon changes the paradigm from war avoidance to war fighting. This in itself brings about certain imbalances in a deterrent structure. The other issue is nation-centricity of an arsenal. Can a weapon be tailored for one nation? This is a moot question since a nuclear vector’s target is defined by the control authority. If one were to deduce from the various written material and spoken word emanating from the Pakistan establishment then their nuclear doctrine may be summarized as follows:

  • Pakistan has not abjured First Use of nuclear weapons. Their usage forms an integral part of military strategy.
  • Ambiguity in intentions and specificity in targeting governs force structuring and deployment.
  • Robust and sensitive command and control with the military playing both controller and custodian and an emphasis on survivability and preparedness. The current political internals and the significant presence of non-state actors make for a fragile nuclear establishment.
  • The acquisitory route (ex China) provides Pakistan with the ability to rapidly bring about technological transformations in their arsenal.
  • There is high probability of doctrinal linkages with China as indicated by the nature of cooperation, the transfers of vectors and the periodic  technological infusions that occur (again, the induction of the Nasr, Raad and Babur cruise missile are cases in point).
  • Ambiguity being central to the unstated doctrine brings with it certain elements of irrationality in their apparent nuclear policies. This obviously can result in confusion of intent causing speculative bulges in the arsenal of potential adversaries.

Impact on Indian Nuclear Force Planning: The Commonalities in the China India Doctrine

There are several areas of commonality in the declared doctrine of China when faced with the Indian nuclear doctrine. However, the significance of the doctrinal linkage between the Sino-Pak nuclear establishments cannot be ignored primarily because it provides China with a dual face to their nuclear posture and to their larger global image. At the same time, as China’s role in global affairs increases on the march to becoming a dominant player, this alliance may well impede progress. For the present, the doctrinal dynamism that collusion offers represents a very efficient straitjacket to India’s macro exertions.

To force planners, there is a need to understand, while sculpting responses, the critical impact of the alliance and how best the emerging global scenario can be leveraged to advantage. An examination of the areas of commonality in the doctrines may well provide some answers. These may be identified as follows:

  • The declared policy of No First Use
  • The long-held subscription to credible minimalism
  • The firm demarcation between controller and custodian of nuclear weapons and the rigid centralization of command authority
  • The hitherto rejection of conventionalizing the arsenal
  • The nature of the arsenal in terms of achieving credibility and denying vulnerability while assuring high survivability are all indicators towards emphasis on the submarine vector.

While the areas of commonality are clear to see and their potential for emphasizing mutuality are apparent, there are certain critical variations which cannot be lost sight of and must be factored into any equation that seeks to bring about equilibrium to nuclear forces. The first of these is, under what conditions would China be willing to forego the doctrinal vigour and flexibility that the Sino-Pak alliance gives? Secondly, China has always believed in the concept of comprehensive national power. In this calculus while there are many factors which play a role, nuclear forces in themselves are of a lesser priority than economic growth.[12] Can this factor and its manipulation play a role in bringing about stability in the three cornered nuclear tangle? Weakening of the Sino-Pak alliance is clearly an issue that would provide a plus to deterrence solidity. This last remains a pressure point that could be worked on.

The impact of the United States BMD program on the nuclear settings is suggestive of the larger multilateral nature of the nuclear equations of the day.  If the United States persists in going ahead with a global BMD program it would set into motion a chain reaction of China modernizing its forces both in quantity and in quality which in turn would have an impact on the capability of the Indian arsenal placing demands on technology intrusion setting off an acquisitory spike in the Pakistan arsenal. At the same time, the idea of the US BMD program targeting rogue states only is not a convincing enough argument. A BMD system can shift target almost at will, thereby, affecting the stability of the nuclear equilibrium and impacting force planning.

Ambiguity, which is such an essential part of the Pakistan doctrine and its arsenal, is a dangerous state of affairs from the Indian point of view. It encourages the speculative bulge in order to address the conundrum which is posed by the probability of the failure of the deterrent strategy. The game-changer in such circumstances is increased and more invasive transparency on all sides.

There is a larger consideration that cannot be easily overlooked and that is of the explosive cocktail that is the current internal and external situation of Pakistan and its exasperation as the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan in 2014 nears.  The American War on Terror is being waged on both sides of the Durand Line. The Pakistan military’s involvement and its lack of conviction are now a reasonably well established fact.[13] There are growing apprehensions that elements in the military either lack the will to side with the US led forces or, in a worst case situation, may actively abet the transfer of not just technology but nuclear hardware to the Jihadists. The recent strikes on nuclear establishments, as mentioned earlier, and the inexplicable disappearances of key nuclear scientists, not to mention those who had recorded liaisons with the Al Qaeda, [14] remain seriously alarming episodes that do not inspire any confidence in the existing control that the Pakistan government claims to exercise over its arsenal. The hazards of nuclear weapons in extremist hands are apparent. This places serious demands on Indian force planners to develop a capability to pre-empt and to preclude such an occurrence. Given the imminent acquisition of the nuclear-tipped Babur, and the disarming strike capability that it endows, there is a pressing need to develop survivable and rapid-response mobile land vectors and compress the program for operationalizing the third leg of the triad—the submarine launch ballistic missile. In addition conventional measures to put in place surveillance facilities to detect preparation of a disarming strike and to preempt and neutralize it with precision guided munitions must form an essential part of the conventional counter-strike capability.


Examination of the Chinese and Pakistan nuclear arsenals have made apparent the deliberate strategic acquisitory links and, more importantly, the symbiotic relationship between the two nuclear doctrines. On the one hand China’s dualistic approach permits her to chisel a Janus-faced policy—the one that she presents to the world at large is that of the No-First-Use, minimalistic, rigid, controlled nuclear power while the other is to retain the First Use alternative through the Pakistan arsenal. This policy has placed nuclear force planners in a quandary; not to respond is to open India to a possible failure of their second strike. The second predicament that planners in the quest for stability are confronted with is that technology intrusions into the arsenal through the acquisitory route invites covertness, but the consequent lethality and time compression that it brings about demands transparency; however, with the Pakistan apparent policy of ambiguity and deception, the methods of bringing about transparency remains trapped between the dangers of stepping closer to the abyss and the demands of policy. Yet, the future for China may force her to deny this past if her role as a global player is ever to attain integrity.

In chess, the Grandmaster understands the versatility of the pawn whether it is to defend, to protect on the offense, to transmute into the most powerful piece on the 64-squared chequered board or significantly, to sacrifice, with an eye on the larger objective of a checkmate. China must see that her global economic objective is cause enough to let go of the pawn.

Download complete article here: Shankar, The Grandmaster’s Pawn

[*] In chess the eight unassuming pawns in the hands of a skilled player present a formidable force. Their value lies in their sacrificial worth in trade-offs, the incentive—to be the Queen. Theoretically this could occur in 5 moves, a virtue that is not shared by any of the other pieces. In groups, they protect even as they counter attack. In medieval times each pawn had a distinctive character by nomenclature. Significantly, the King pawn was called the “money changer” while the Queen pawn the “doctor.”

[1] Cleary, Christine A. “Culture, Srategy and Security” p. 15, in Bolt P. and Willner A. (Eds.) China’s Nuclear Future, (Viva Books: New Delhi) 2008, pp. 13-38 and United States Department of Defence (issued by the Office of the Secretary of Defense,) “The Annual Report on the Military Power of the People’s Republic of China,” 2008, p.8-12.

[2] Shu Guang Zhang “China’s Strategic Culture and the Cold War Confrontations” p. 271 in Reviewing the Cold War: Approaches, Interpretations and Theory, Westadd, OA (Ed.) (Frank Cass Publishers: London) 2000, pp. 258-280.

[3] Cleary, Christine A. “Culture, Srategy and Security” p. 16, in Bolt P. and Willner A. (Eds.) China’s Nuclear Future, (Viva Books: New Delhi) 2008.

[4] Chongpin Lin, China’s Nuclear Weapons Strategy: Tradition within Evolution, (Lexington: Lexington Books) 1988, p. 144.

[5] Ma, Cheng Kun, PLA News Analysis, Institute of PLA Research, FHK College, NDU, Taiwan, 2009, pp. 145-147.

[6] Bhutto, Z.A. If I am Assassinated, (Vikas: New Delhi) 1979.

[7] Chaudhary, Shahzad, “The Matter of Nuclear Doctrine,” presented at The Ottawa Dialogue, 19 Jun 2010, Copenhagen. See report on proceedings.

[8] Iqbal, Nadeem “Economic Threat may push Pakistan to go Nuclear” Asia Times Online, 6 Feb 2002, Accessed 2 Jul 2010, <> In quoting General Kidwai, Nadeem Iqbal cites a report on Pakistan’s nuclear policy, released in January 2002, prepared by nuclear physicists Paolo Cotta-Ramusino and Maurizio Martellini of Landau Network, Italy, an arms-control institution regularly consulted by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

[9] General Aslam Beg in an interview to Cathy Gannon of the Associated Press, 14 May 2006. Quoted in “Pak Nukes Meant Only for India,” Times of India, 14 May 2006. Accessed 1 Jul 2010. <> The article states: “It doesn’t matter who attempts to take out Pakistan’s nuclear assets the US, Israel or any other country Pakistan will attack India in retaliation. This bizarre, hair-trigger nuclear stance is central to Pakistan’s deterrence theory and was conveyed to New Delhi by Islamabad when it suspected India and Israel of collaborating to take out its nuclear assets, a top retired Pakistani general has revealed.”

[10] Chaudhary, Shahzad, “The Matter of Nuclear Doctrine,” presented at The Ottawa Dialogue. 19 Jun 2010, Copenhagen. See report on proceedings.

[11] Ibid

[12] Cleary, Christine A. “Culture, Srategy and Security” p. 16, in Bolt P. and Willner A. (Eds.) China’s Nuclear Future, (Viva Books: New Delhi) 2008.

[13] is replete with reported episodes of a breakdown of confidence in the Pakistan military’s will to fight the war on terror.

[14] The International Institute for Strategic Studies, Nuclear Blackmarkets: Pakistan, AQ Khan and the Rise of Proliferation Networks (Arundel House: London) 2007, p.99.

Staring Down an Abyss(*): Prospects of Nuclear Deterrent Stability in the Sino-South Asian Region


Vice Admiral (Retd.) Vijay Shankar 

Keywords: Nuclear deterrent stability, China, “How Much is Enough?” India’s Nuclear Doctrine

Download full article here: Shankar, Staring Down an Abyss


The Nuclear Motive

Nuclearisation of the South Asian region was driven by forces that were vastly different from that which resulted in the apocalyptical human tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The first four nuclear weapon states built their arsenal with a war-fighting logic which led to strategies that not only propagated the first use but also conventionalized the weapon, with the perverse belief that control of escalation was within their means. The uninhibited intrusion of technologies gave to them the power to obliterate the world many times over in a  ‘Strangelovesque[i]’ parody that mocked life.

Motivation for the Sino-Indo-Pak arsenals was more by the need for an impermeable defensive shield that took inspiration from Brodie’s aphorism that nuclear weapons had changed the very character of warfare with war avoidance rather than waging being the political objective. India’s nuclear doctrine evolved from four guiding norms. The first was that the nation would not be the first to use nuclear weapons. The second, a nuclear first strike would invite an assured massive retaliation. There was a third equally critical unwritten faith and that was, under no circumstance would the weapon be conventionalized. The final canon, it is significant to note, developed in the time of the Cold War and yet remained uniquely divorced from the one norm that characterized that war, that is, the illogical faith that a nuclear war was not only wageable but also winnable. This last principle matured into an iron cast division between the Controller of the weapon and its Custodian.

The decision not to conventionalize, was based on circumstances unique to the Indian State. India’s nuclear program was conceived and executed through a techno-political decision made in 1948, which resulted in the establishment of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission. From then onwards through the 1974 euphemistic peaceful nuclear explosion and the near quarter century of dithering till India declared herself a nuclear weapon state in 1998, the agenda was driven by a techno-politico-bureaucratic nexus. The paradox was the absence of formal military involvement in the nuclear establishment till after 1998. Significantly, no other nuclear weapon state has embarked on a weapons program without the direct and persistent involvement of the military. All this was a direct consequence of the post partition aberration in higher defence management which suffered from a misplaced trepidation of military control of the state and the flawed belief that civilian control of the military not only implied superior dual control by the politico-bureaucratic alliance but also a self fashioned conviction that military matters were essentially of execution and had little to do with policy making or strategic planning. It was not till 1999 when the Kargil review committee and the consequent group of ministers reviewed national security in its entirety, that substantial changes to higher defence management in India were put in place. The institution of the Strategic Forces Command and its Commander in Chief along with a doctrine to operationalise the deterrent were amongst the salient reforms.

Of the techno-politico-bureaucratic nexus it must be said that even before the articulation of the nuclear doctrine it never sought a conventional role for nuclear weapons. Whether this strategic orientation was by instinct, design, by tradition or an innate fear of the power of the military is really not germaine to our study; what it did do was to create a distinctive approach to the entire process of operationalising the deterrent, for it played a decisive role in separating Controller from the Custodian. Viewed from a different perspective this last feature expressed the conviction that, between nuclear armed antagonists, the use of nuclear weapons sets into motion an uncontrollable chain of mass destruction that not only defies manipulation but also obliterates the very purpose of polity.


India’s Nuclear Doctrine

India’s nuclear doctrine was made public on 4th January 2003. The doctrine presents two perspectives. The first part deals with ‘Form’ with nuclear exchange avoidance and minimality as governing considerations. Sensitivity to the multilateral nature of settings and yet not show a diffidence to the existential nuclear challenges that marked the regional scenario; was intrinsic to policy. Credibility as a function of surveillance, effectiveness, readiness and survivability completed the structure. The doctrine provided for alternatives and a guarantee that the second strike would cause unacceptable damage. Also included are certain philosophical goals that underscored belief in the ultimate humanity of things.

The second part of the doctrine deals with substance, with operationalising the deterrent and Command and Control as the main themes. Development of the ‘triad’ is so structured that credibility was neither compromised nor readiness undermined. As mentioned earlier a clear division is made between the Controller and Custodian with multiple redundancy and dual release authorization at every level. Command of the arsenal under all circumstances remains under a political prerogative with comprehensive alternatives provided for the nuclear command authority. To recapitulate the salient features of the Indian nuclear doctrine are listed below:-

  • Nuclear weapons are political tools,
  • The nuclear policy follows a ‘Punishment Strategy’. Its governing principle would be No First Use.
  • Retaliation to a first strike would be massive and would cause unacceptable damage.
  • The use of chemical, biological or other WMD may invite nuclear option.
  • Nuclear weapons will not be used against non nuclear weapon states.
  • A unilateral moratorium against nuclear testing and continued stringent controls over proliferation.
  • The goal of global nuclear disarmament remains.

As mentioned earlier, a deterrent relationship is founded entirely on rationality. On the part of the deteree there is rationality in the conviction of disproportionate risks and on the side of the deterrer rationality of purpose and transparency in confirming the reality of risks. The exceptional feature of this cognitive transaction is that the roles are reversible with the crucial proviso that it is in the common interest to maintain equilibrium in the relationship. The determinants of a durable deterrent co-relation are for the association to withstand three pressures that are an abiding feature of contemporary politics in the region:

  • The deterrent must be stable by which is implied the doctrinaire underpinnings; command, control and arsenal stewardship must be unwavering and transparent. Inconsistencies and opacity promotes unpredictability, a speculative bulge in the arsenal or the temptation for pre-emptive action.
  • Crisis stability entails the abhorrence of a predilection to reach for the nuclear trigger at first provocation. In this context decision time must give adequate leeway for recognition of having arrived at a ‘redline’ through transparency and unambiguous signaling.
  •  Technological intrusions place the planner on the horns of a dilemma. As a rule technology’s impact on the arsenal and command and control systems serves to compress time and increase overall effectiveness. This intrusion is inevitable. What is undesirable is that it also invites covertness whereas its impact demands transparency.

The three dynamics above have a common thread which could be exploited to enhance stability. This common thread is the need for transparency. During the cold war the two protagonists managed these dynamics through the brute power of the arsenal, dangerous tripwire readiness and incessant provocative deployment. Any solution on these lines is neither exceptional nor tenable and from a contemporary point of view ludicrous. If stability is the aim then clarity and precision in mutual dealings provide the opportunity to develop and solidify the deterrent relationship.

Stresses on Deterrent Stability

There is an entire range of factors that influence stability of a deterrent relationship but those that disproportionately prevail are what will be discussed in the ensuing paragraphs. We begin with the strategic environment and its external dimension. A single hyper power marks the global situation in the wake of the curtains coming down on the Cold War. In addition, the trends of globalization which technology and the mushrooming of democracies has ushered in, makes for the very concept of nation states in terms of their absolute sovereignty a shaky proposition. Three very obvious inconsistencies remain an abiding source of friction for a sovereign nation within the international system. In fact it makes a mockery of the individual nature of a state’s power and its interests. These three maybe summarized as follows:

  • The internal dimension of sovereignty encourages centralism at a point in history when more plurality and democracy is demanded.
  • Sovereignty in its external avatar makes inconceivable international laws and universal regulations yet it is precisely the opposite that globalization requires.
  • Given the vast differentials in military and economic power, sovereignty in terms of supremacy of state remains a chimerical concept. This is vitiated by the networked and globalized nature of the contemporary situation.

Centralism, the absence of plurality and the vast disparity in economic and military power are all symptomatic of the situation in the region. Add to the equation a defacto military center of power that has persisted in the use of non-state actors in pursuit of its ‘national interests’[ii] and the portents of instability become more than apparent. The impact of these contradictory forces taken together not only makes for an unstable relationship, but also brings in a measure of nuclear multilateralism on account of the chain reaction that is set into motion in an action-reaction situation. While the lone hyper power would seek to control the action-reaction predicament, the other poles in the global scenario would seek advantage in it. The fact of the Sino-Pak collusion in the nuclear field is one such manifestation while the NPG waiver is another symptom of the same. The necessity is to cause strategic equilibrium in a manner in which the realities of the regional situation interplays with the external environment. The one virtue that would serve to bring about balance is transparency.

The next consideration is internal pulls and pressures that the protagonists are subject to. These often defy rationality and tend to serve an agenda that loses sight of purpose of the nuclear deterrent, that is, nuclear war avoidance and, as has been stated by the governments, a repugnance for a nuclear arms race in the cold war mode. Unfortunately, the effect of these internal dynamics is not just to enlarge the arsenal but to drive it in a direction that is neither predictable nor over which controls exist.

The impending mounting of nuclear warheads on the Babur cruise missiles, the work in progress of arming conventional submarines with nuclear tipped missiles are cases in point which do not in anyway uphold stability of a deterrent relationship. Additionally they do not conform to any strategic or doctrinal underpinnings (whose goal is nuclear war avoidance). Far more disturbing is Pakistan’s declared policy to employ non-state actors[iii] as an essential part of their military strategy. Given the fact that both control and custody of the nuclear arsenal is resident with the military and complicity with terrorist organizations such as the Lashkar-e-Tayyiba is an indispensable part of their gambit, the probability of a failure of orthodox command and control (as conventional wisdom understands it) is cataclysmically high. Such a state of affairs hardly engenders confidence in a deterrent relationship remaining stable. Add to this cauldron the impending operationalising of tactical nuclear weapons and you have the nightmare morph into reality.

“How Much is Enough?” and the Philosophy of Avoidance

Security anxieties that plague the region are fed on a staple of historical suspicions, absence of trust and a stultifying and obsessive paranoia. It places before the planner a lopsided and unbalanced ‘failure conundrum,’ having the potential to spur ‘speculative bulges’ in stockpile of fissile material and in the arsenal all in search of an answer to that open ended inscrutable question of ‘how much is enough?’ Logic for numbers may be found provided the strategic underpinnings that govern the development of the arsenal are kept verifiably transparent. One such logic to cap arsenals is graphically illustrated below:


Conclusion: Out Staring an Abyss

The challenge before us is clear. To put the genie back into the bottle is neither realistic nor a proposition that merits serious consideration. Areas that could be addressed begin with 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. NCA to NCA communications must be conditioned by institutional verification measures that evaluate and exchange risks and alert status. It is only such devices that will enable strategic restraint to be realized in the region. While these remain the broad objectives, the first series of steps on the road to stability maybe specifically identified as follows:

  • Transparency in strategic underpinnings (including collusion) through the declaration of doctrinal canons must be made unambiguously clear.
  • Command and Control of the deterrent must differentiate between the custodian and the controller as also between the conventional and the nuclear without entertaining the possibility of non-state actors being a part of the overall strategy.
  • Technological intrusions must be made transparent both with a rationale and the impact on arsenals particularly so when the dangers of conventionalizing of the nuclear weapon becomes manifest.
  • Alert status of the deterrent at all times must be communicated. Logic for stockpile or fissile material and numbers and nature of arsenal will serve to eliminate the dangers of speculative bulges.

Thus far nuclear relations in the region have been bedeviled by a persistent effort to combat the monsters that the shroud of covertness has cast; it has left us the unenviable task of out staring an abyss. Nietzche in the circumstance would have advised an assault  on the first causes – dispel opacity.

Download full article here: Shankar, Staring Down an Abyss


[*] Nietzche F. Beyond good and evil, Chapter IV: Apophthegms and Interludes. He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.

[i] Dr Strangelove was a Hollywood satire directed by Stanley Kubrick set in the nineteen sixties. The insanity of the tripwire readiness of the American nuclear establishment to initiate a process that sets of a chain reaction which culminates in a nuclear holocaust. The real tragedy in this spoof was the dangers of decentralization and pre delegation, so to the inabilities to control escalation. The irony was that there was no real provocation.

[ii] US Secretary of State cable-30 Nov. Wikileaks key issues

[iii]    General Kayani’s statements with respect to Pakistan’s army’s support to militants as quoted in The Hindu 02 Dec., 2010


Strategic Stability: The See Saw Margery Daw of Nuclear Politics


VAdm (retd.) Vijay Shankar 

Keywords: Nuclear Doctrinal Co-relation, Deterrence Stability, Strategic Equilibrium, Conventionalizing the Deterrent, “How much is enough?”

This paper draws from a presentation made by the author to members of the Ottawa Dialogue, a Track II initiative, on 12 December 2010 in Bangkok, Thailand.

All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except in the case of a reviewer, who may quote brief passages embodied in critical articles or in a review. Author’s email:

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Ours is an enigmatic, deficient, at times unfair, and for the most, an incompetent world. Its dynamics often engender paranoia and deep distrust between states particularly when amorphous national interests and intentions come into question. Unfortunately the alternative to this system is anarchy.

Marshall Ferdinand Foch, one of the lesser of the meat grinding generals of the First World War when faced with the bewildering nature of the larger strategic situation is said to have countered with a fundamental question, “De quoi s’agit-il”?[i] “What is it all about?” Indeed this poser, if understood and answered in the context of nuclear stability, would bring us to the complexities that face nations with the coming of a weapon that can obliterate the very purpose of warfare. Rarely in history have we seen the advent of a weapon that could in one flash achieve the grisly Clauswitzian goal of absolute war.

Against the reality of conventional war with its limited goals and 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. Given the politics of the South Asian region, the historical animosities and the emasculated nature of civilian leadership in Pakistan, the dangers of adding nuclear violence to military perfidy, as recent proliferatory history has shown, is more than just a reality. The collusive nature of the Sino-Pak nuclear weapons programme and the duality that it presents queers the field to an extent when nuclear doctrinal co-relation is suggested. Stability in this context would suggest stability of the deterrent relationship with avoidance of conflict provocation being the leitmotif.

The essence of stability is therefore to agree on certain foundational rules of conduct based on an understanding of realities. In defining these rules the intrusion of technology is unfortunately double edged for while it provides for modernization it invites covertness, which promotes, what I have termed as, a speculative bulge in the arsenal. The recent plutonium rush and the burgeoning of nuclear arsenals in the sub-continent is a manifestation of this bulge. Secondly, that the army in Pakistan is the true power centre, is that nation’s most open secret and therefore for India to engage an enfeebled and impotent civilian leadership is self defeating. Unless the army is brought into the dialogue, either directly or indirectly through an interlocutor, deliberations on deterrent stability will be destined for failure.

[i]Marshall Ferdinand Foch as quoted in the book ‘The Guns of August’ by Tuchman, Barbara published in 1962.

Read full article here: Shankar, Strategic Stabilty