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Dynamics of Escalation in South Asia and Pakistan’s Nuclear Threshold

Haris Bilal Malik

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The South Asian region has always been regarded vulnerable to military escalation based on its ever-changing complex security dynamics and volatile relations between India and Pakistan. Since the year 2019, the prevalent security environment of the South Asian region has once again become a dominant regional and global concern. The world witnessed India’s continued brutalities in Kashmir and a prospective fear of a nuclear confrontation between India and Pakistan against the backdrop of the Balakot crisis. Moreover, in August 2019 India changed the special constitutional status of the Kashmir region by revoking Article 370 and 35A thus further adding to the volatility of the region. Despite the international criticism, India imposed a lockdown in the disputed region which is still reportedly continuing. This demonstrates India’s motives for dominating the escalation in the region with its provocative strategies. All these factors would likely provoke Pakistan revisiting its nuclear threshold level vis-à-vis India’s aggressive and provocative policies to dominate the region. 

Based on India’s provocative strategies, there remains a continuous fear of escalation in the South Asian region which is adversely impacting regional security, stability, and strategic equilibrium. In recent years, India has continuously enhanced its counter-force offensive posture vis-à-vis Pakistan with the notion of ‘Surgical Strikes’ and its proactive war doctrines which include the 2017 Joint Doctrine of the Indian Armed Forces (JDIAF) and the 2018 Land Warfare Doctrine (LWD). All of them are based on proactive strategies and indirect threats of preemptive strikes against Pakistan aimed at challenging Pakistan’s nuclear threshold.

Furthermore, the recent technological advancements which form the very basis of India’s military expansion include its supersonic and hypersonic missile development programs, provision of an enhanced air defence shield, space capabilities for intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance (ISR), and its nuclear-capable submarines fleet. India’s anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons test back in March 2019 is also indicative of this continuing trend. These technological advancements are clear indicators that India’s policies seem to deliberately dominate the escalation in South Asia and ultimately destabilize the deterrence equilibrium in the region.

India’s approach to challenging Pakistan’s nuclear threshold is also evident in the February 2019 short-lived military engagement between India and Pakistan. India, under its notion of limited war and proactive strategy, threatened Pakistan with a ‘preemptive splendid first strike’ and had reportedly entered Pakistan’s air space with fighter jets; this led to a dangerous escalation of hostilities at the political and military levels between both countries. The whole episode has also questioned the existence of Pakistan’s nuclear deterrence and, ever since there has been an ongoing debate at the domestic and international levels about nuclear deterrence and its applicability to such a critical situation. India’s sub-conventional aggression was appropriately met by Pakistan at the same level the very next day. Still, Pakistan’s nuclear threshold remained relevant during the whole episode because of the widely regarded perception that if both countries escalate further, the situation might turn into an all-out nuclear war.

Pakistan’s threat perception has, over the years, become even more inclined towards India primarily based on its conventional asymmetry vis-à-vis India. Furthermore, India’s quests for limited conventional or sub-conventional aggression (which it expects would remain below Pakistan’s nuclear threshold) would likely provoke Pakistan to further intensify its nuclear threshold. This would further strengthen Pakistan’s resort to neutralize the Indian challenge of breach of sovereignty in the form of low-intensity conflict in a much better position. In the same vein, Pakistan’s nuclear deterrence approach which over the years has evolved from ‘minimum credible deterrence’ to ‘full spectrum deterrence’ would likely remain a key component of the overall security apparatus. This posture provides deterrence against all forms of aggression from India with the combination of conventional forces and nuclear capabilities.

It is worth mentioning here that, Pakistan’s timely and calculated responses have all played a significant role in the preservation of minimum credible deterrence and the assurance of full-spectrum deterrence at the strategic, operational and tactical levels. The responses such as the development of intermediate-range ballistic missiles (Shaheen III), short-range ballistic missiles (Nasr), multiple independently reentry targetable vehicle (MIRV-Ababeel), air and sea-launched cruise missile (Ra’ad and Babur) and the speculated development of a naval second-strike capability all have played their role. Moreover, Pakistan’s induction of the tactical nuclear-capable ‘Nasr’ missile is also perceived as battlefield nuclear weapons in response to India’s aggressive and proactive strategies. It has further enhanced the deterrent value of Pakistan’s nuclear threshold and would likely serve as a ‘weapon of deterrence’, which aims to deny space for conventional or sub-conventional aggression and avoid any escalation-domination from India.

Hence, at present, Pakistan has been threatened by India’s conventional and unconventional military modernization and its proactive strategies, which India hopes would likely stay below Pakistan’s nuclear threshold. At the same time, Pakistan has been in an asymmetric equation of conventional forces vis-à-vis India, an equation that has led the former to preserve its security with the assurance of credible nuclear deterrence. However, time and again India has tested Pakistan’s nuclear threshold notably at the sub-conventional level as evident from the recent examples. Pakistan, which has been relying on its nuclear program to overcome both conventional and unconventional threats from India, needs to further enhance its deterrence posture at the sub-conventional level as well. This would likely remain a plausible determinant of the nuclear threshold in the years to come. 

Haris Bilal Malik is working as a Research Associate at Strategic Vision Institute (SVI) Islamabad.

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Defense

Measures taken by the Baltic States are insufficient

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The Ministers of Foreign Affairs of NATO met on April, 2 in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic. Though they expressed the deepest sympathies with all the victims of the Coronavirus disease, NATO continues to do its part.

The organization tries to kill two birds with one stone. On the one hand, Commander, U.S. European Command, Gen Tod D. Wolters commented that linked exercises to Defender-Europe 20 in the Baltic States, along with a number of other planned events, were cancelled. On the other hand, NATO’s enhanced Forward Presence Battlegroups in Latvia and Lithuania continue training together with national troops putting military at risk of COVID 19 infection.

Thus, NATO’s enhanced Forward Presence Battlegroup in Latvia in March completed two exercises, CRYSTAL ARROW and IRON SPEAR, demonstrating its ability to effectively work together on the battlefield. It is difficult to imagine how soldiers practiced social distancing while being in tanks. It looks as if NATO and local military authorities try to reassure the population and the military and convince them of the absence of threat.

The more so, it was reported that NATO eFP units from Norway (the Telemark Battalion) together with US JTAC’s and M-1 Abrams tanks (1-9 CAV) conducted on March 25 Combined Arms Live Fire Exercise (CALFEX) on the Pabrade training grounds. The focus was to maintain combat readiness and perform complex training as part of the NATO mission to Lithuania. At the same time the battalion confirmed last week that 24 troops had tested positive for the coronavirus. NATO conducts exercises in the Baltic States despite COVID 19 spread among troops.

In spite of this fact, NATO remains active openly demonstrating its ability of collective defence against threats. Though the nature of threats has changed drastically, NATO showed flexibility only in words. Apparently, NATO and the U.S. in particular is not going to give up its policy in the region. The U.S. cannot allow NATO to give up the idea of making Europe a battlefield in case of conflict with Russia.

As for the Baltic States’ authorities, they should realize that the presence and ongoing activity of NATO Battlegroups on their territory poses a real threat to the region, though today it is not military.

NATO enhanced Forward Presence keeps its promise to the Baltic States. And what about the promises Baltic authorities gave to their own people?

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Pakistan’s Strategic Preparedness and Critical Decision-Making One Year after Balakot

M Waqas Jan

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With numerous heads of state gradually coming to terms with the realities of an entire world under lockdown, India’s new domicile laws for the disputed territories of Jammu and Kashmir mark a return to business as usual for India-Pakistan tensions. Particularly following Pakistan’s official condemnation of what has been termed as the ‘Jammu and Kashmir Reorganization Order 2020’, the threats which this seven decades old dispute still pose to regional peace and stability remain ever-present even amidst a prevailing global pandemic. Especially considering how just a year ago, both countries were brought dangerously close to the brink of total and perhaps even nuclear war, it is worth highlighting how India’s sustained and single-minded approach to altering the status-quo across the LoC, by any means necessary, risks yet another global catastrophe. The kind of catastrophe which may render the ongoing COVID-19 crisis as wholly insignificant compared to the near irreversible effects of a devastating nuclear war between both countries.

These dangers are clearly evident in how with even more than a year having passed since the Balakot air strikes, there has not yet been a clear acknowledgment of how India’s new-found penchant for nuclear brinkmanship and reckless flirtation with the escalation ladder has affected Pakistan’s strategic preparedness and crisis decision making. For instance, Prime Minister Modi’s now infamous reference to his planned qatal ki raat (Night of Murder)and Prime Minister Khan’s purported warning of responding to any such provocation ‘three times over’ presented startling insights into how both countries’ politico-military leaders envisioned the escalation ladder. Whereas, the above references are reported to have alluded to ballistic missiles armed with conventional payloads, the irreversible step towards a nuclear strike – be it a tactical demonstration or a pre-emptive decapitation – remained unnervingly close. The risks of which are likely to have then weighed heavily on decision makers on both sides of the border.

Considering how both sides’ missile delivery systems are inherently designed for dual-use purposes, this comingling of strategic and conventional assets presents a disquieting reaffirmation of the immense difficulties faced when accurately ascertaining the other’s intentions and risk assessments with reference to a ‘mutually acceptable’ escalation ladder. Whereas many analysts on both sides of the border have evinced confidence that both India and Pakistan understand each other’s strategic signals and postures, the deliberate change being brought about within India’s strategic doctrine and military thinking is aimed at radically altering this understanding. A development that is further adding to the difficulty of ensuring deterrence stability within an increasingly complex and technologically advanced world.

This impact of comingling strategic and conventional capabilities on critical decision-making and overall situational awareness has been discussed at length in a recent report released by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C.Titled ‘Under the Nuclear Shadow’ the nearly two year study is aimed at assessing the impact of some of the latest ISR capabilities on the strategic calculus and situational awareness of nuclear weapons states. It identifies a broad range of developments which key policymakers in charge of today’s nuclear arsenals need to take into account whilst recognizing ‘the complex interplay between technology, escalation, and decision making.’ Within this framework, the risks of what the report identifies as ‘Entanglement’ or decision makers’ inability to delineate between nuclear and conventional risks, represents a highly significant potential pathway for escalation.

The simple truth that these risks were in full play during last year’s confrontation between nuclear armed India and Pakistan throughout the post-Pulwama environment has since been grossly underrated by Indian policymakers. In fact, this has been evident throughout India’s search for a limited engagement with Pakistan, just below its nuclear thresholds as enshrined in its now institutionalized concepts of ‘Cold Start’ and ‘Surgical Strikes’.

As a result, the onus has been placed solely on Pakistan to disentangle such risks. What’s more, Pakistan has to now base its risk assessments of India’s intentions mostly from the missions being conducted against it, as opposed to the fast expanding, dual-use capabilities of the Indian military. These include India’s Brahmos cruise missiles and its S-400 missile defense batteries both of which can respectively deploy and detect both conventional and nuclear assets. Thus, making it extremely difficult for Pakistani decision makers to distinguish a potential conventional mission from a nuclear one.

Taking into account Pakistan’s self-avowed doctrine of Full Spectrum Deterrence, what such provocations may and have probably already led to is a significantly reduced nuclear threshold. While much has already been written on how Pakistan’s Tactical Nuclear Weapons (TNWs) such as its Nasr missile batteries have significantly reduced this threshold, a perhaps highly understudied aspect is how India’s aggressive posturing and increasing ambiguity with regards to its NFU (No First Use)policy has since played psychologically on the minds of Pakistani strategists and decision makers.

As pointed out in the above referenced report, the prevalence of cognitive biases in the form of confirmation bias and availability heuristics within an increasingly complex nuclear environment in themselves present a dangerous path towards escalation. Amidst the deliberate jingoism and incessant allusions to nuclear war-fighting from key leaders within India’s national security apparatus, there is a genuine risk that India’s institutionalized brinkmanship -by willfully bringing about first-strike instability – may lead to all-out disaster under the reckless garb of calling Pakistan’s nuclear bluff. This holds especially true when considering that the dominant discourse surrounding an irrational Indian security junta, imbibed in the RSS’s fanaticism, may be directly driving certain aspects of confirmation bias and availability heuristics within Pakistani decision-making circles. A factor that has already perhaps multiplied exponentially since India’s decision to engage in a cross-border air-strike against Pakistan just 14 months ago.

Hence, with the entire world reeling from an unseen pandemic that has already changed day to day life as we know it, the risks of something even graver still loom large when considering the precarious strategic balance in South Asia. Risks that are all seriously worth re-considering as both countries simultaneously attempt to secure the well-being and future of their respective populations as part of a joint global effort. Ironically pointing towards yet another common goal which both countries can find some common ground over to help de-escalate such prevailing tensions.

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China manoeuvres to protect its interests while keeping its hands clean

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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The question is not if, but when the long-standing American defence umbrella in the Gulf, the world’s most militarised and volatile region, will be replaced by a multilateral security arrangement that would have to include China as well as Russia.

The United States’ perceived diminishing commitment to the Gulf and the broader Middle East and mounting doubts about the deterrence value of its defence umbrella leave the Gulf stuck between a rock and a hard place. The American umbrella is shrinking, but neither China nor Russia, despite their obvious interests, are capable or willing simply to shoulder the responsibility, political risk and cost of replacing it.

On balance, China’s interests seem self-evident. It needs to secure its mushrooming political and economic interests in the Gulf, which includes ensuring the flow of oil and gas and protecting its infrastructure investment and the expanding Chinese diaspora in the region. Nonetheless, China has so far refrained from putting its might where its money is, free-riding instead (in the words of US officials) on America’s regional military presence.

Indeed, for the longest time China has been able to outsource the protection of its interests to the United States at virtually no cost. For the US, guaranteeing security in the Gulf has been anchored in an American policy which accepted that maintaining security far beyond the borders of the United States was in America’s national interest, including the protection of Chinese assets. All China needed to do, therefore, was to make minimal gestures such as contributing to the multi-national effort in the Gulf and adjacent waters to counter Somali pirates.

In the meantime, China could pursue a long-term strategy to bolster its capabilities. This included infrastructure projects related to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with dual-purpose potential (such as the strategic ports of Gwadar in Pakistan and Duqm in Oman as well as commercial investment in Dubai’s Jebel Ali), the creation of China’s first overseas military facility in Djibouti, and significant expenditure on upgrading the Chinese armed forces.

All that potentially changed with the rise of US President Donald J. Trump, who advocated an America First policy that attributed little value to past US commitments or to maintaining existing alliances. Hence Trump embarked on a trade war with China – viewed as a strategic competitor – and appeared to fuel rather than resolve regional stability by uncritically aligning American policy with that of Saudi Arabia and Israel and targeted Iran as the source of all evil.

This change has yet to translate into specific Chinese policy statements or actions. Nonetheless, the anticipated shift from a unipolar to a multilateral security architecture in the Gulf has cast a new light on the first-ever joint naval exercise involving Chinese, Russian and Iranian naval forces, as well as China’s seemingly lukewarm support for a Russian proposal for a multilateral security approach in the Gulf.

China was careful to signal that neither the joint exercise nor its closer military ties with a host of other Middle Eastern nations meant it was aspiring to a greater role in regional security any time soon. If anything, both the exercise and China’s notional support for Russia’s proposed restructuring of regional security suggest that China envisions a continued US lead in Gulf security, despite the mounting rivalry between the world’s two largest economies.

The Russian proposal in many ways fits China’s bill. Its calls for a multilateral structure involving Russia, China, the United States, Europe and India that would evolve out of a regional security conference along the lines of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). While backing Russia’s proposal in general terms, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang stopped short of specifically endorsing it. Geng welcomed ‘all proposals and diplomatic efforts conducive to de-escalating the situation in the Gulf region’.

China’s reluctance to endorse the Russian proposal more wholeheartedly is rooted in differing approaches towards multilateralism in general and alliances in particular. China shies away from alliances, with their emphasis on geo-economics rather than geopolitics, while Russia still operates in terms of alliances. Despite favouring a continued American lead, China sees a broadening of security arrangements that would embed rather than replace the US defence umbrella in the Gulf as a way to reduce regional tensions.

China also believes that a multilateral arrangement would allow it to continue to steer clear of being sucked into conflicts and disputes in the Middle East, particularly the Saudi-Iranian rivalry. A multilateral arrangement in which the US remained the key military player would further fit the pattern of China’s gradual projection of its growing military power beyond its borders.

With the exception of the facility in Djibouti, China’s projection becomes less hardcore the further one gets from the borders of the People’s Republic. More fundamentally, China’s approach is grounded in the belief that economics rather than geopolitics is the key to solving disputes, which so far has allowed it to remain detached from the Middle East’s multiple conflicts. It remains to be seen how sustainable this approach is in the long term.

Such an approach is unlikely to shield China forever from the Middle East’s penchant for ensuring it is at the heart of the major external parties’ concerns. And as Jiang Xudong, a Middle East scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, puts it: ‘Economic investment will not solve all other problems when there are religious and ethnic conflicts at play’.

Author’s note: first published in Asian Dialogue

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