Lowering Nuclear Threshold in South Asia

by Moneeb Mir

In 1998, India and Pakistan both emerged as nuclear-armed states, significantly altering the regional power dynamics. This development mitigated India’s conventional military superiority, as Pakistan’s acquisition of nuclear capabilities counterbalanced its previous disadvantage of conventional assymeriy vis-à-vis India, thereby deterring potential Indian aggression or domination.

The conventional wisdom posits that when two nations possess secure nuclear arsenals capable of surviving an attack and retaliating, they enter a state of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). In such a scenario, even the losing side can inflict catastrophic damage on the adversary, rendering military victory and relative military power effectively meaningless.

Moderenization of India Arsenal

India has systematically modernized its nuclear arsenal over the past two decades, prompting Pakistan to do the same to maintain parity at lower levels of escalation. However, this is incessantly lowering the nuclear threshold in South Asia. These technological advancements have heightened the risk at different levels of escalation, ranging from deploying low-yield nuclear weapons on the battlefield to executing large-scale strategic countervalue strikes.

Pakistan has implemented a strategy of “full spectrum deterrence,” enabling the use of nuclear weapons in response to low-scale conventional conflicts, even those significantly below the nuclear threshold. As part of this strategy, Islamabad has developed tactical nuclear weapons with short ranges, such as the Hatf IX Nasr missile, which has a 60-kilometer range. Additionally, Pakistan has produced a range of ground- and air-launched nuclear-capable cruise missiles, with ranges between 350 and 700 kilometers. In 2017, following India’s commissioning of a nuclear submarine, Pakistan introduced its Babur-3 nuclear-capable sea-based cruise missile.

Counterforce Nuclear Systems

India, also, is reportedly developing flexible preemptive counterforce nuclear systems. These include more precise short-range nuclear delivery systems, multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) systems on ballistic missiles, and an expanding arsenal of cruise missiles. India is constructing a new series of surface-to-surface ballistic missiles, known as Pralay, with a range of 150 to 500 kilometers, complementing its existing land- and sea-based cruise missiles, which have a range of 1,000 kilometers.

 To enhance the survivability of its nuclear forces, New Delhi has established a “triad” of delivery systems, capable of launching nuclear weapons from air, land, and sea-based platforms. Strengthening this triad, India plans to build three additional nuclear submarines, supplementing the INS Arihant already in service. This move aims to achieve a “continuous-at-sea-deterrence” patrol capability, akin to the naval forces of the United Kingdom, Russia, the United States, and France.

India’s New Integrated Rocket Force

India is also restructuring its ballistic missile forces with the creation of an Integrated Rocket Force (IRF). This new entity will manage both nuclear-capable and conventional ballistic and cruise missiles. Inspired by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force, which oversees similar capabilities, India’s IRF aims to address threats from China. The IRF is expected to enhance India’s strategic options for “non-contact warfare” by utilizing conventional missiles for stand-off strikes.

India’s creation of the Integrated Rocket Force (IRF) is a strategic misstep. The IRF will likely consolidate nuclear-capable and conventional ballistic missiles under a single command, altering India’s current policy of reserving ballistic missiles exclusively for nuclear weapons. This dual-role approach raises the risk of inadvertent escalation, as adversaries will be unable to distinguish whether an incoming missile carries a nuclear or conventional payload. This ambiguity could prompt a preemptive nuclear retaliation, significantly heightening the risk of a nuclear conflict.

The risk of an inadvertent missile launch is not hypothetical. In March 2022, India accidentally fired a BrahMos cruise missile into Pakistan. The missile was not armed, and Pakistan did not respond. However, given the flight time of about six minutes—in which Pakistan had to decide whether the incoming missile was armed or not—there was a high risk of a Pakistani retaliation, even before the incoming BrahMos struck land. Importantly, India has a declared conventional role for the BrahMos missile (which it co-developed with Russia), which might have had a calming influence on the Pakistani response. In a wartime environment, the response might have been different.

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