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21 years of nuclearization of South Asia: Current doctrinal trends

By Haris Bilal Malik 

Since the nuclearization of South-Asia in 1998, the region’s security dynamics have changed considerably. This has had a profound and irreversible impact on regional and extra-regional politics, the security architecture of South Asia and the international nuclear order. India had carried out its nuclear tests between  11-13 May in 1998. Consequently  Pakistan, due to the emerging scenario also had to carry out its nuclear tests on 28th May 1998. Hence this May marks the 21stanniversary of the nuclearization of South Asia. During this period the nuclear doctrines of both countries have gone through several phases of evolution.    

Since the evolution of doctrinal projection of nuclear program, India had emphasized on a ‘no first use policy’ (NFU) in its first ever official documentthe 1999 ‘Draft Nuclear Doctrine’ (DND). India has since however gone through gradual shifts in its doctrinal posture from its DND since the first amendment came in January 2003 this stated that if the Indian armed forces or its people are attacked with chemical and biological weapons, India reserves the right to respond with nuclear weapons anywhere, a clear termination of its NFU policy. Subsequently the notion of a preemptive ‘splendid first strike’ has emerged within the discourse surrounding the Indian and international strategic community.  According to this, if in India’s assessment, Pakistan is found deploying nuclear weapons, India as a contingency would resort to such a ‘splendid first strike’. 

The notions of limited war under India’s 2017 Joint Doctrine of the Indian Armed Forces (JDIAF) and the 2018 Land Warfare Doctrine (LWD) are all based upon a proactive strategy and indirect threats of preemptive strikes which unofficially abandons the NFU policy. Through considerable technological advancements India has shifted has shifted its approach from a counter-value to a counter-force posture, as it demonstrates its ambitions of achieving escalation-dominance throughout the region. 

India’s military expansion and its technological advancements include its missile development programs which include; super-sonic missiles, hyper-sonic missiles, ballistic missile defence system (BMD), space capabilities for intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance (ISR) and the induction of nuclear submarines. India’s recent anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon test is also indicative of this continuing trend. These technological advancements are clear indicators that India’s policies are aimed at destabilizing the existing nuclear deterrence equilibrium in South Asia. 

Pakistan due to the Indian desire to establish its regional hegemony, maintained a certain balance of power to preserve its security. Pakistan’s doctrinal trajectory on the other hand has shifted from strategic deterrence to ‘full spectrum deterrence’ (FSD) by adding tactical nuclear weapons which, it claims, falls within the threshold of ‘minimum credible deterrence’. In this regard Pakistan too has developed its missile technology based on; short, intermediate and long range ballistic missiles. Pakistan’s ‘Nasr’ missile for instance was recently introduced essentially in response to India’s Cold Start Doctrine (CSD) as a ‘weapon of deterrence’ aimed at denying space for a limited war. The induction of ‘multiple independently reentry vehicle’ (MIRV), the development of land, air and sea launched cruise missiles and the provision of a naval based second-strike capability 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. 

In the contemporary complex security environment of South Asia, Pakistan’s ‘full spectrum deterrence’ (FSD) has recently been put to test. After the 26th February 2019air space violation by the Indian Air Force (IAF) following the Pulwama incident, Indian analysts have questioned the credibility of Pakistan’s FSD. Negative nuclear signalingwas also evident in the statements of the Indian political leadership including Prime Minister Modiand several high-level government and military officials that have been trying to undermine the credibility of Pakistan’s FSD. Within this scenario however India’s conventional strikes was responded to via conventional means, that was widely perceived as an ‘appropriate response’. Furthermore, the situation did not escalate further because of Pakistan’s FSD remaining as one of the primary factors that remained applicable throughout the situation thus preventing the use of nuclear weapons by India. 

As has been long evident India has held long term strategic ambitions to become a great power. For this purpose, India is continuously advancing its nuclear doctrines based on increasing the range and speed (supersonic and hypersonic) of its nuclear capable missiles. The current security architecture of South Asia revolves around this Indian behavior as a nuclear state. In contrast, Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine is based solely on assuring its security, preserving its sovereignty and deterring India either by ‘minimum credible deterrence’ or ‘full spectrum deterrence’. The possession of nuclear weapons by Pakistan has assured the perception of ‘massive retaliation’ in Indian politico-security hierarchy and thus prevented crisis situations from escalating further. Based on the undeniable threats from India to its existence, Pakistan must preserve this deterrence equilibrium vis-à-vis India and maintain the ‘balance of power’ in the South Asian region.

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

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