Nuclear South Asia and Challenges to Strategic Stability


As he builds a theoretical explanation of Pakistan’s pursuance and acquisition of Nuclear Weapons, Feroz Hassan Khan in his seminal work on Pakistan’s Nuclear Weapons Program, among others, refers to the work of realist (neorealist) scholars, who reason that faced with an adversarial security environment, states either resort to external balancing (a commonplace occurrence before the advent of the nuclear age) or internal balancing, which has turned out to be a more viable strategy after the advent of the nuclear age.

Faced with a mammoth adversary next door threatening its survival, Pakistan did try to externally balance the threat from India by entering into the US-sponsored SEATO and CENTO treaties, but given the alliances did not defend Pakistan against the military threats and aggression from India, specifically in 1971 resulting into the disintegration of the country, Pakistan’s leadership was essentially left with no other choice except to resort to internal balancing by pursuing a clandestine nuclear program, which, given the highly oppositional international environment of the time, did accompany costly risks but was the most viable lifeline to country’s territorial integrity.

Predictably, given the centrality of the nuclear weapons program to Pakistan’s defense, the program turned out to be a rare venture that remained unaffected by the customarily frequent change of governments in Islamabad and even before it was formally announced and acknowledged in May 1998, helped diffuse two crises between Pakistan and India, essentially setting the stage for strategic stability in South Asia enabled by nuclear deterrence.

Despite the plethora of literature on the subject, there is little consensus on what led India to detonate its nuclear devices to upgrade to weaponized capability in May 1998. Some rationalize India’s nuclear detonations citing the threat from China, which (it is pertinent to mention) was almost dormant back then while the critical voices blame India’s long-held aspirations of international prestige to secure a distinguished position at the “global high table”. Additionally, the role of domestic politics was also cited as one of the most credible reasons given the ruling BJP’s jingoistic credentials.

Whatever the actual reason or combination of reasons might be, the Indian detonations did create a rightful pretext for Pakistan to go overtly nuclear, which it did only 17 days later on May 28th, 1998. Resultantly, the conventional asymmetry between India and Pakistan was offset by nuclear weapons, and India, as opposed to the initial expectation of realizing its regional hegemonic and global prestige-centric ambitions owing to nuclear detonations, was left disadvantaged and its motivations thwarted.

The policymakers in New Delhi, however, did not correspond with the new reality of the nuclear equalizer rendering their edge counterbalanced, and soon started contemplating options to fight a limited war below the nuclear threshold as evinced by the planning and final admission of the Cold Start Doctrine (CSD). Pakistan’s response was swift and apposite as it developed the short-range Nasr missile, essentially to plug the gap that policymakers in New Delhi were aiming to exploit via CSD. Though with even minimum space left to unshackle their below nuclear threshold warfighting aspirations, Indians have not given up as demonstrated by the botched delivery of ordinance by the Indian Air Force (IAF) in Balakot in early 2019. As the aerial raids into each other’s controlled territories spread over two days finally saw an end, the Modi regime was left red-faced after IAF was outgunned and outmaneuvered in the aerial skirmish, which led Modi to escalate one more rung up the escalation ladder, only to be deterred by the threat of an even punitive response. Dangerous escalation with potentially catastrophic consequences was indubitably minutes away but the crisis stability ultimately prevailed.

Despite moving to the brink on numerous occasions, crisis stability has finally been prevailing between India and Pakistan. However, it is the other facet of strategic stability i.e. arms race stability that is consistently under stress thereby imperiling broader strategic stability in South Asia. Motivated by security considerations and international prestige aspirations, India features among the world’s top arms importers and has recently embarked upon a massive military modernization and expansion drive. While the Indo-US nuclear deal has enabled India to vertically proliferate its nuclear weapons program, the acquisition of modern military systems by India being supplied by both the USA and Russia strains the overall balance of arms in South Asia with Pakistan compelled to take countermeasures, which, however, do not illustrate a classic parity-driven arms race but by making qualitative and quantitative changes in its weapon systems, Pakistan’s objective is to maintain deterrence capability enough to deter “full-spectrum” of threats emanating from India.

Pakistan, however, with a smaller economy compared to the size of the Indian economy is always in a disadvantageous position concerning qualitatively modernizing and expanding its weaponry, and the latter’s interminable thirst for the state of the art weaponry continues to imperil strategic stability in South Asia.

Hamdan Khan
Hamdan Khan
Hamdan Khan is currently working as Research Officer at Strategic Vision Institute Islamabad. He is an alumnus of the National Defence University Islamabad and has previously worked for the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad (ISSI) and the Pakistan Council on China (PCC). Hamdan studies Global Affairs with a focus on Great-Power Politics, Programs and Policies of Nuclear Weapons States, and Emerging Military Technologies.


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