Agni-II missile

Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-proliferation and Disarmament Programme

The IISS Strategic Survey 2013, launched on 12 September, features a special essay on South Asia’s nuclear arms race and the lessons of the Cold War. Strategists in India and Pakistan may challenge both of these prongs, arguing that their credible minimum deterrence postures hardly amount to a race on the order of the superpowers and that South Asia has already taken to heart a principle lesson from the Cold War: that mutual deterrence works. Furthermore, India’s need to also defend against China makes the NATO–Soviet analogy somewhat problematic.

The fact is, however, that both India and Pakistan today give far more emphasis to the credibility of their nuclear deterrence than to minimalism. There is no denying that the arms competition has intensified. As noted in the Strategic Survey essay, ‘Pakistan’s prospective introduction of tactical nuclear weapons increases the chance that a nuclear exchange will occur if a conflict breaks out, perhaps sparked by an act of terrorism.’ India’s declaratory policy in response to any nuclear attack, even on its forces outside its territory, is massive nuclear retaliation. Both sides are also introducing dual-use systems, which make it difficult to discriminate between incoming nuclear and conventional attacks.

As an IISS delegation discussed in meetings in South Asia last March, NATO’s defence planners realised that crossing the nuclear threshold would be disastrous. The idea of a nuclear first use via tactical nuclear weapons lost credibility because it was likely to lead to uncontrollable escalation. It took many years for Cold-War defence planners and policymakers to learn this lesson. Since tactical nuclear weapons are only beginning to become important in South Asia, I hope the learning curve will be climbed before these weapons become fully entrenched. One encouraging sign is that Pakistan has decided against deploying tactical nuclear weapons in forward positions and delegating their use to field commanders.

The essay further notes that in recent years, India and Pakistan have lacked the political will to use diplomacy to alleviate an arms race. They have not engaged in significant nuclear risk-reduction talks since 2007. There is thus real relevance in the Cold-War experience about enhancing strategic stability by moving away from reliance on tactical nuclear weapons and towards agreements to reduce arsenals and increase transparency.

Battlefield-use nuclear weapons and dual-use delivery systems create the need for clearer ways of exchanging information and signalling intent in order to avoid catastrophic misinterpretation. Over the years, India and Pakistan have reached several arms-control agreements. And meetings between non-governmental Indian and Pakistani experts have produced several good suggestions to improve both strategic and crisis stability. But the two governments have not engaged in real discussion of the factors that contribute to growing nuclear risks. And they have not taken up Islamabad’s long-standing proposal to discuss elements of a ‘strategic restraint regime’. Such a regime is needed, inter alia, to address concerns about surprise attacks.

The means by which the West and the Soviet bloc developed processes to reduce nuclear risks are insufficiently known in South Asia. The lesson of the 1973 Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe, for example, is that strategic talks between rivals with militaries of varied strengths can succeed. I hope the essay in Strategic Survey will contribute to the policy debate in the subcontinent and beyond on how to mitigate nuclear risks and improve the strategic environment for all sides. 

Back to content list


IISS Voices

The IISS Voices blog features timely comment and analysis on international affairs and security from IISS experts and guest writers.

Latest Voices