By testing an anti-ballistic missile defence system, India has raised the stakes of South Asia’s strategic paradigm, as it did in May 1998, argues Tom Hussain
Tactical arms race between India and Pakistan raises the prospect of a nuclear dispute
This month marks the 16th anniversary of the tit-for-tat nuclear weapons tests conducted by India and Pakistan, which ended any pretence that the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council could prevent the proliferation of the ultimate weapons of mass destruction.
Viewed from that historical perspective, it was perhaps appropriate for India to mark that anniversary by successfully testing an anti-ballistic missile defence system on April 27, adding its name to a shortlist of countries with similar capabilities, including the United States, Russia and Israel. This might lead one to conclude that India has once again raised the stakes of South Asia’s strategic paradigm, as it did in May 1998.
India’s latest move could also be viewed as a reaction to Pakistan’s announcement – first made in 2000 – that it retains the right to launch a nuclear strike first in the event of an overwhelming Indian conventional military attack.
Indian military strategists responded by unveiling in 2004 the so-called “Cold Start” doctrine, under which the conventional forces would, in the event of a conflict, seize a pocket of Pakistani territory, supposedly large enough to leverage in any subsequent negotiations, but not so large as to trigger a Pakistani nuclear response.
Despite subsequent Indian declarations that it lacks the resources to turn that doctrine into reality, Pakistan has since made it a centrepiece of its defence planning. Last year, it tested a short-range nuclear-capable ballistic missile meant for use against Indian forces if they occupy any Pakistani territory. Thus, Pakistan has adopted the tactical position that it would be prepared to detonate a nuclear weapon on its own territory to halt any conventional Indian military advance.
However terrifying that strategy sounds, it is hardly original. It merely echoes Nato’s Cold War nuclear doctrine for Western Europe, drawn up in response to the overwhelming superiority of Soviet-led Warsaw Pact conventional forces.
There are several key differences, however. Nato’s “red lines” were clearly defined. A massive Soviet armoured push into erstwhile West Germany, for example, would have triggered a tactical nuclear response. Pakistan, on the other hand, has never defined its criteria for a tactical nuclear strike on its own territory, and pointedly so.
As such, strategic planners can only theorise on the basis of past wars with India what Pakistan’s red lines might be – if, indeed, they’ve been predetermined.
Another key difference is the propaganda associated with the nuclear programmes of both countries. India and Pakistan continue to glorify their nuclear-weapons capabilities. Neither country has built any infrastructure to protect civilians in case of a nuclear attack, such as fallout shelters, nor has there been any effort to educate people on what to do in the event of an attack.
Meanwhile, India and Pakistan have been developing their capabilities as fast as their limited resources allow. According to recent estimates, Pakistan possesses up to 120 nuclear warheads, while India has about 20 fewer. But the size of arsenals would be meaningless unless backed up by delivery systems, and that’s where the real race has been taking place in South Asia, with the covert collaboration of others countries, including P-5 members.
Since the 1990s, Pakistan has taken the lead in developing the ballistic-missile technology, mainly because of its command of solid-fuel propulsion systems.
The country has generally sought to maintain its India-specific strategy by refraining from testing liquid-propelled missiles, with a range of more than 1,300 kilometres. It is this variety, which might be used by China as well, that India is seeking to protect itself against with the recently tested defence system.
It would be all too easy to paint China as the only “irresponsible” P-5 power in South Asia, but that’s not the case. India’s ballistic missile technology was originally sourced from Russia, but recent breakthroughs have coincided with transfers of technology from the United States, ostensibly for India’s space programme. Britain and France may well be involved, too, considering their rush to sell weaponry to India, which last year became the world’s largest importer. Like the US, they see China as an emerging threat in Asia, and want to contain that threat by empowering India.
Now that India has obtained an anti-ballistic missile defence system, China will do the same, and through it Pakistan. The May 1998 nuclear tests may be a fading memory for most, but the subsequent developments are a reminder that rising tensions and escalating tests may yet simmer over.
Tom Hussain is an Islamabad-based freelance journalist