India’s Shifting Nuclear Doctrine: Impact on Strategic Stability

Strategic Stability is considered crucial for preventing war and conflict between nuclear adversaries. It is comprised of two essential factors: deterrence equilibrium and crisis stability. India and Pakistan’s military buildup and technological advancements are considered satisfactory to maintain the Balance of Power (BOP) and nuclear deterrence equilibrium. While on the military side, nuclear capability has played a vital role to ensure the strategic balance as no major war has taken place between India and Pakistan in post 1998 era. Therefore, it is pertinent to establish that the nuclear capability has restored strategic balance and maintained crisis stability in the region. Deterrence equilibrium is arduously maintained in the region but has played a vital role in maintaining peace between two nuclear neighbors. Nonetheless, according to nuclear analysts the strategic stability in South Asia is fragile as just the nuclear deterrence alone is not sufficient to maintain durable peace and stability in the region.  Challenges to strategic stability between India and Pakistan include domestic politics, cross border tension, risk of terrorism, induction of sophisticated technologies, India’s evolving nuclear doctrine and India-US strategic partnership. These challenges have enhanced the fragility of strategic stability and complexity of nuclear deterrence in South Asia.

Growing challenges in the South Asian landscape has forced the security strategists to analyze the potential threats of India’s ‘shifting strategic logics’. A recent debate on strategic landscape of South Asia revolves around India’s shifting nuclear policy and doctrine which can be studied under the twin pillars of ‘strategic ambiguity’ and ‘pre-emptive nuclear strike’. Nuclear doctrine of India is based on the principle of “Credible Minimum Deterrence” and Nuclear First Use. Statements by Indian scholars, former military officials and extensive military buildup of its forces are expression of emerging trends in India’s nuclear doctrine. On the bases of recent developments, it is anticipated that India is shifting its nuclear posture to Nuclear First Use (NFU). Secondly, it is moving from “Counter Value targets” to “Counterforce targets”. Another recent development is that India is deviating from Credible Minimum Deterrence and opting for credible deterrence. However, Indian disguise was revealed internationally when Vipin Narang at Carnegie International Conference in March 2017 hinted towards potential change in India’s nuclear doctrine.  For reference Vipin Narang used excerpts from the book of former Indian National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon. One might wonder if the shift in India’s No First Use policy or other nuclear policy developments should come as a surprise for Pakistan. The answer would be that these discoveries by International Community didn’t come out as a surprise to Pakistan for India’s stance on use of nuclear capability against the biological and chemical nuclear weapon has already questioned the status of “Nuclear First Use” posture.

It is also important to note that India’s history is full of contradictory remarks.  Such as the fact that initially India denied the existence of Cold Start Doctrine (CSD) but in 2017 Indian Chief of Army Staff Bipin Rawat accepted that India is working to operationalize its CSD.  More importantly, in article 2.3 of India’s Draft Nuclear Doctrine (DND) adherence to the principle of Credible Minimum Deterrence is claimed but Indian military build-up and technological developments e.g. Missile development and Proliferation (Prithvi, Agni, Brahmos, Nirbhay),  Ballistic Missile Defense System  (BMD), Space capabilities ( its Cartosat-2 Series for Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance) , Fleets of SSBN and SSN (Arihant class and Akula Class respectively) clearly negate the article 2.3 of its DND. India’s shifting logics and technological advancements demonstrate that India is constantly trying to achieve escalation-dominance in the region.

The above mentioned scenario demands to explore the impact of India’s shifting nuclear doctrine on the strategic stability of region. If India is to opt for counter force strategy instead of counter value strategy then it will have to achieve considerable quantitative and qualitative arms superiority over Pakistan. This would increase the defense production gap between nuclear rivals and instigate the arms race in the region. Secondly, nuclear CBMs and proposal of establishing Strategic Restraint Regime will face a serious blow if any such move of shifting nuclear strategy by India is to be made.  Lastly, if India is to go for a nuclear shift then it will have serious implications for the strategic stability within the South Asian region as it would lead the region towards crisis instability.

However, the ambiguous nuclear posture and claims from the Indian side regarding the shift in the nuclear doctrine need to be clarified to avoid the risk of miscalculation. Given the circumstances it is inevitable for Pakistan to take following security measures to ensure its security: First,  developing and maintaining a second strike capability; second, acquiring Ballistic Missile System; third, development of offensive as well as defensive cyber- warfare capabilities. Most importantly, South Asia demands a practical approach to prevent conflict escalation through initiating dialogue process and establishing Arms Control Regime. To conclude, it is vital that nuclear doctrines should not be based on ambiguous principles in order to avoid the risk of miscalculations. Thus, the pragmatic approach in South Asian strategic landscape would be the establishment of nuclear risk reduction measures.

Asma Khalid
Asma Khalid
Asma Khalid is a Senior Research Associate at the Center of Pakistan and International Relations (COPAIR), Islamabad. She was a South Asian Voices Visiting Fellow at The Stimson Center, Washington, D.C. United States. Her research interests include South Asian strategic issues, including nuclear nonproliferation, deterrence dynamics, nuclear politics and policies, and nuclear safety and security. Her analysis of these issues has featured in national and international publication platforms.