Analysis & Opinions - The Diplomat

Shifting Nuclear Sands in South Asia: Understanding India’s Counterforce Temptations

  • Ankit Panda
| Apr. 23, 2019

Political scientist Christopher Clary discusses issues pertaining to strategic stability in South Asia.

Following a terror attack claimed by the Pakistan-based group Jaish-e-Mohammed in mid-February 2019, India and Pakistan were thrust into their most serious crisis since 2002. Since 2002 — and since the breakout of both countries as nuclear weapons possessors in 1998 — both India and Pakistan have calibrated their nuclear forces and strategies to meet the requirements of deterrence. Christopher Clary, an assistant professor of political science at the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy at the State University of New York’s University at Albany, and his co-author Vipin Narang, an associate professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, argued in a recent International Security article that India, in particular, has over the years developed a set of capabilities that suggest the temptation — if not a political decision — to move toward a nuclear strategy predicated on destroying Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. To discuss their article and other recent developments, including India’s test of an anti-satellite weapon, The Diplomat’s Senior Editor Ankit Panda spoke to Clary. 

The Diplomat: From Pakistan’s perspective, which new Indian capabilities do you think might be viewed as the most destabilizing? Which capabilities has Pakistan started investing in as a result?

Christopher Clary: The argument that Vipin and I try to make in our piece is that it is important to assess these capability acquisitions collectively. India’s ability to destroy Pakistani nuclear weapons is useless if it does not have the ability to find those weapons in crisis and conflict. India’s ability to locate weapons is useless if it cannot hit them. India’s nascent ballistic missile defense capability seems innocent unless you combine it with growing Indian potential to destroy a sizable portion of Pakistan’s long-range nuclear systems, substantially easing the requirements for successful defense.

Now, Pakistani analysts and government officials have been complaining about Indian strategic developments for decades. Very few of these developments were deeply classified only to have been revealed recently. The issue is that outside analysts typically assumed that Indian efforts to develop precision-strike, nuclear-capable missile systems as well as ballistic missile defense technology were just DRDO [Editor’s note: India’s Defense Research and Development Organization, the primary government agency charged with the development of indigenous weapons systems] science projects. All these systems, all these tests, all these DRDO press releases were explained away as an amalgam of technological determinism, status-seeking, and inadequate political oversight of defense R&D. That argument, which was never very reassuring from a strategic stability perspective, now looks much weaker as these costly Indian investments continue. And influential Indian interlocutors, such as former Strategic Forces Commander Balraj Nagal, are now on the record explicitly rejecting such an interpretation.

Pakistan, which was worst-casing Indian developments the whole time, now looks less paranoid than it once did. All of its fissile material production capacity, which seemed excessive, makes more sense as an insurance policy. And its developments of short-range systems designed to avoid Indian missile defenses as well as MIRVs seeking to overwhelm defenses also make sense in this context. Now eventually Pakistan might wreck its economy and be unable to compete, but its current ability to keep up in any arms race lead Vipin and I to conclude that India’s pursuit of counterforce options is likely harmful to Indian interests, even as we are sympathetic to the strategic circumstances that motivated New Delhi to consider such options.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Panda, Ankit.“Shifting Nuclear Sands in South Asia: Understanding India’s Counterforce Temptations.” The Diplomat, April 23, 2019.

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