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Do Nuclear Weapons Keep India and Pakistan From Each Other's Throats?

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Is the possession of nuclear weapons by India and Pakistan the second big "successful" deterrence story after the Cold War?

There are those who believe that nuclear proliferation on the part of India and Pakistan has deterred not only nuclear, but conventional war between the two hostile states. Sumit Ganguly and S. Paul Kapur debate this in a new book, India, Pakistan, and the Bomb (Columbia University Press, 2010). Ganguly falls under the heading of "nuclear optimists," who, the authors write, "tend to stress the ultimately stable outcomes of past crises between nuclear powers." Meanwhile, "nuclear pessimists," such as Kapur, "focus on the potentially catastrophic processes by which the crises erupted and escalated." Of that flashpoint of a region, Kashmir, Ganguly writes:

By the end of the 1990s India had managed to restore a modicum of order, if not law in Kashmir. Indeed it can be argued that it was the very success of India's counterinsurgency strategy [in Kashmir] that promoted Pakistan's [presumably frustrated -- RW] decision makers to pursue a "limited probe" in the Kargil region of Kashmir in 1999. In this war the overt possession of nuclear weapons on both sides played a critical role in preventing an escalation or an expansion of the conflict.

Others, however, believe that it was Pakistan's possession of nuclear weapons that prompted it to pursue said "limited probe." On top of that, both sides received information, however flawed, that the other was moving nuclear missiles to the border. Further evidence of the tenuousness of nuclear peace between India and Pakistan is provided by Jason Fritz in his 2009 paper for the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament, "Hacking Nuclear Command and Control."

India's... command and control must be able to survive and continue functioning after absorbing a first (attempted decapitation) strike. To do so requires [among other things] frequent moves and relocation of these assets [which increases the] risk of a weapon being captured or misplaced. For example, falsifying the orders for transport and passing it off as a dummy warhead. [Also, launching] a nuclear retaliatory strike within a very short time... increases the risk of decisions being made on poor intelligence.


The close proximity of [India and Pakistan] significantly reduces the transit time of an incoming missile, making the rush to react even greater. Further, India's delivery systems can carry both nuclear and conventional warheads. Under heightened circumstances, a traditional missile launch could be mistaken for a nuclear strike.

Additionally, India has stated that it will retain the option of using nuclear weapons in response to biological or chemical attacks, thus providing another way for terrorists to provoke a nuclear response.

For the purposes of this argument, we've avoided the subject of Islamic extremists attempting to seize Pakistan's nukes or, the actual subject of Fritz's paper, terrorists hacking nuclear systems. Here's more from Ganguly, the Little Miss Sunshine of Indian subcontinent nuclear programs.

Multiple crises subsequently wreaked havoc in Indo-Pakistani relations since their mutual acquisition of nuclear weapons... But despite intense tensions, none of these crises have culminated in full-scale war. Decision makers in both countries have steadily and increasingly realized that the initiation of a major conventional conflict could... tempt one side to consider the use of nuclear weapons. Consequently, both sides have exhibited considerable restraint and have chosen to eschew horizontal escalation and not to violate certain tacit thresholds.

In the case of Kargil, it might be said that an optimist's positive outcome -- the avoidance of nuclear war -- was achieved via a pessimists' "process" -- nuclear brinkmanship. To believe, though, that nuclear brinkmanship will continue to produce positive outcomes is truly delusional.

First posted at Focal Points.