Festering Strategic Deterrence in South Asia

The very crystal ball effect of nuclear weapons appears to be losing sight in the South Asian region. With constant modernization of their conventional as well as strategic weapons capacities, the threat matrix is rising whilst the security dilemma continues to fester. India is taking the lead in this context.

On the heels of negative mirror image-a concept by Robert Jervis that stipulates that the state builds up a pejorative perception of its adversary based on its very own fears and intentions, hence rising threat matrix vis a. vis its adversary-that it has imposed upon itself, India is making strides in acquiring offensive defense capabilities and that not only in conventional but strategic (nuclear) realms. In the hostile regional environment where the two nuclear-powered states have fought three wars (if we consider Kargil as a conflict and not an all-out war) and engaged in various military standoffs, such offensive overtures are highly troubling as lead by India, both states are logged into never-ending maze of zero-sum game festering already volatile security dilemma of the region and beyond.

India added a caveat in 2003 in its otherwise no-first-use (NFU) policy’ nuclear doctrine providing that India could also use nuclear forces to retaliate against attacks by non-nuclear weapons of mass destruction (WMD) as well. Taking in to account the highly skeptical nature of biological weapons, Covid-19 for instance, this nature of doctrine drastically recedes the threshold of using nuclear weapons even as a deterrence measure. To further the misery, a recent report by Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) envisaged with evidence that some parts of India’s nuclear arsenal are being kept at a much higher state of readiness. This has prompted a debate about whether India could be transitioning towards a counterforce nuclear posture that would mean making pre-emptive nuclear strike on adversary earlier in a crisis. This has brought the very nature of its NFU in question.

In order to manifest its nuclear ambitions, India is continuously extending outreaches of its ballistic and cruise missile program with development of Agni-6 underway. Agni 6 is an Intercontinental ballistic missile with an estimated range of 8, 000-10, 000 km suggesting that hubris syndrome in India is becoming chronic with ambitions for extending its otherwise arch-enemies Pakistan or China. Similarly, its under-development Agni-P medium range missile-that India describes as next generation ballistic missile with advanced navigation systems and canisterized launch system-can reportedly maneuver during re-entry, which could allow the missile to evade future missile defenses of states in the region.

In 2022 India also conducted numerous test launches of nuclear capable missiles from land-based Prithvi-II, Agni-III, Agni-IV, Agni-V to its second nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine- INS Arigath. However, with such drastic failures as that of Brahmos missile being misfired into Pakistan in March 2022, not only technological prowess and procedural efficacy of its strategic structure is brought into question but volatility of civilian safety and peace prospects of the region are also highly meddled with.

Instigated by such aggressive overtures, Pakistan has also been modernizing its own nuclear arsenal with 170 nuclear warheads behind reported within its security ambit. Antagonized by India’s Cold Start Doctrine, it is now making strides at gaining tactical strategic capabilities.

At the end of 2022, Pakistan had some 100 indigenously created JF-17 aircrafts among others, and 126 reported short and medium range missiles.

Just as the undeclared war at taking comparative advantage at the other becomes more strategic, the volatility of peace and prosperity of security infrastructure of the region is highly raised, and major world powers become complicit in that.

It is reported that India buys some 55-60% of its military equipment from USA while its military trade with USA has surpassed $ 10 billion. In order to sustain its own Military Industrial Complex, USA even raised waiver for India in 2005 to allow for nuclear technology related trade between the two states. India, as an exception was exempt from the clause of Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) that required its member states (USA is a member to which) to make any such nuclear-related trade only when the recipient country allows for application of IAEA’s Additional Protocol over its territory. Application of Additional Protocol would mean that not only India’s nuclear sites but all speculated sites come under surveillance of the former.

Such state powers must ensure the responsibility they adhere to by sitting at the helm of world affairs and ensure upon the states, taking aggressive posture specifically that they comply to the internationally revered laws and obligations of maintaining and sustaining peace and security of the world. Blindly stockpiling conventional or nuclear arsenal of any state in the region might bring consequences that would have broader implications for prosperity and sustainability of the entire world. No unilateral interests would be preserved in any case scenario.

Sana Hamid
Sana Hamid
Author is an IR scholar having experience working with two top notch think tanks, namely IPRI and SDPI. She has numerous articles in her credits. She tweets @sana_hamid_here