Published: April 21, 2014
The perceived failure of deterrence, despite the possession of nuclear weapons by India, could lead to greater instability in Indo-Pak bilateral relations should there be another crisis with Pakistan
India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) is scheduled to conduct a ballistic missile interceptor test later this month which forms part of a series of tests to develop and deploy a limited Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) shield in the country, a project that has been in steady development since the mid-1990s. BMD pessimists — I used to be one myself — have traditionally argued that notwithstanding the fact that BMD is neither foolproof nor cheap, induction of such systems can be deeply destabilising between nuclear-armed adversaries. However, the instability argument assumes the existence of a Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD)-induced textbook deterrence dyad such as the U.S.-USSR nuclear rivalry of the Cold War vintage. The deterrence stability of the Cold War years, premised on the existence of rational, unitary actors, does not exist in nuclear South Asia and hence to believe that mutual vulnerability increases stability is dangerous. No matter how many nuclear warheads India makes and how often it reviews its doctrinal postures, New Delhi’s deterrence dilemmas are likely to persist.
India can, to a great extent, address these dilemmas by mainstreaming and articulating the strategic objectives of its BMD programme which, at the moment, does not form part of the country’s politically articulated nuclear strategy.
India’s deterrence dilemmas
The deterrence effect of nuclear weapons is yet to mature in South Asia. More so, the South Asian nuclear contest is severely complicated by the presence of non-state actors and their ability to draw states into armed conflicts. These and other related issues have been posing multiple deterrence dilemmas for India.
First of all, there are fears in India about the potential implications of a situation wherein Pakistan-based non-state actors gain control of Pakistan’s nuclear assets. There is also speculation about the repercussions of rogue elements in the Pakistani armed forces engaging in unauthorised nuclear activities. It could be an unauthorised nuclear strike against India or similar to what the former American Ambassador to Pakistan, Anne Patterson argued: “Our major concern is not having an Islamic militant steal an entire weapon but rather the chance someone working in GoP [Government of Pakistan] facilities could gradually smuggle enough material out to eventually make a weapon.” Besides, there could also be genuinely accidental launches of nuclear weapons.
The political angle
India’s failure to respond to Pakistani aggression — state sponsored, non-state actor attack, non-state sponsored, non-state actor attack, or attack by rogue elements from within establishment — has domestic political costs as well. The Indian government is widely criticised for not responding to Pakistan adequately, not being able to see through Pakistan’s ploy of using non-state actors and not showing enough resolve, among other aspects. This perceived failure of deterrence, despite the possession of nuclear weapons by India, could lead to greater instability in India-Pakistan bilateral relations should there be another crisis with Pakistan, especially if New Delhi has a right-wing government in power.