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Thursday, February 15, 2024

Comparative analysis of the nuclear doctrines of India and Pakistan

The Credible Minimum Deterrence doctrine adopted by India dictates the minimum nuclear arsenal necessary only to meet security requirements. This doctrine, in essence, is defensive in nature and non-aggressive in nature, unlike the Strategic Deterrence doctrine.

The south Asian region is a nuclear flashpoint with India and Pakistan being nuclear-capable states along with their mutual neighbor China. India and Pakistan share a long history of distrust, grievances, and territorial conflict. The acquisition of nuclear weapons by both nations was driven by the desire to counter the other. During the Kargil War in 1999, the entire global community shuddered and played a role in easing tensions as there existed an understanding that even a minor conflict could evolve into a nuclear war.

Any military conflict brings stress for the global community as well as observers, as the chances for miscalculation in a military conflict between two nuclear-armed nations are rather strong. The nuclear response of nations is guided by their respective nuclear doctrines.

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A nuclear doctrine guides a country’s use and structure of nuclear weapons

New Delhi’s nuclear program is the older one of the two, and Islamabad began developing its own after India’s “Smiling Budha” test in 1974. China, along with Pakistan, served as a major inspiration for pursuing nuclear weapons technology. India’s Pokhran-II tests in May 1998 confirmed its status as a nuclear-capable state. Pakistan, in response, conducted its own nuclear weapons tests on May 28th, 1998. India adheres to the policy of “no first use” and “minimum credible nuclear deterrence” doctrine. This simply means that in a conflict with a nuclear or non-nuclear armed adversary New Delhi will not resort to a first nuclear strike. There is also adherence to the principle of no use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear countries.

This policy works in line with the country’s long terms standing position against nuclear armament. However, it is quite interesting to note that there exists ambiguity with regard to India’s no first use policy. In 2003 India officially unveiled its nuclear doctrine; prior to this, in 1999, the autonomous National Security Advisory Board released an unofficial nuclear doctrine declaring the no first use policy and the completely retaliatory nature of this capability in India’s strategic environment. The official 2003 document, however, underlined some subtle but key differences; first, it was declared that India might use nuclear weapons to strike back against chemical or biological attacks. Secondly, it suggested that India’s response to a nuclear attack would be “massive”.

Hence even though India has a no first use policy, in case of a chemical attack by a nuclear or a non-nuclear state, its leadership could consider a nuclear strike as retaliation. This modification allows India to bypass its no first use policy as well as the non-use of nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear state. The Credible Minimum Deterrence doctrine adopted by India dictates the minimum nuclear arsenal necessary only to meet security requirements. This doctrine, in essence, is defensive in nature and non-aggressive in nature, unlike the Strategic Deterrence doctrine.

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Pakistan’s nuclear program focuses mainly on security threats emerging from India

It not only seeks to counter an imminent nuclear attack by its adversary but also contains the superiority of India’s conventional force. It is due to an asymmetry between conventional Indian and Pakistani forces that Pakistan has adopted the first use principle. Meaning in a military conflict with India, Pakistan could use nuclear weapons to retaliate against Indian aggression. Even if the Indian attack is purely conventional, if deemed necessary, Islamabad would use its nuclear weapons to strike back.

The rationale behind the adoption of this policy lies in an understanding among the country’s strategic community that in case of a comprehensive attack by Indian conventional forces and the resultant breach of Pakistan’s defenses which could not be restored by conventional means, a nuclear strike on India would be the only option left to deter the attack. Hence Pakistan leverages Indian superiority in conventional warfare with a nuclear strike. The “option enhancing policy “is what perfectly encapsulates Pakistan’s strategic designs. Under this policy, the escalation ladder moves up in response to the adversary’s actions, and a step-by-step procedure exists for engagement.

First, Pakistan will issue a verbal warning to the adversary to cease its advance; if this fails to produce desired results, then the country will stage an explosion of a nuclear weapon on its own territory. If this does not work either, then Pakistan will use a nuclear weapon on the advancing forces on its own soil. The fourth and last resort would be to attack targets in the Indian territory. Pakistan has no official nuclear doctrine; the reason is to keep ambiguity and deny the adversary information about its nuclear threshold.

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The way forward

Pakistan also adheres to the “minimum credible deterrence” though, unlike India it has recently begun to use “full-spectrum deterrence” in juxtaposition with minimum credible deterrence (PressRelease No. PR280/2015-ISPR, 2015) confirms this doctrinal evolution. Pakistan’s policymakers consider the minimum credible deterrence as evolving rather than stationary. The strategic planners and policymakers are constantly monitoring the Indian capabilities and updating Pakistan’s own in order to maintain a balance and for making minimum deterrence viable.

This translates into Pakistan constantly enhancing and altering its nuclear arsenal whenever New Delhi modifies or alters its own. The full spectrum deterrence allows Pakistan to address the key operational and tactical flaws under the credible minimum deterrence.  Full-spectrum deterrence allows Pakistan to use smaller nuclear weapons at a tactical level rather than a strategic level. Moreover, Nasr missiles have reduced the nuclear threshold, and the country has exchanged its response from massive retaliation to flexible response. It is likely that in response to changes in the strategic environment of South Asia, the nuclear doctrines of both countries will continue to evolve.

However, owing to a lack of communication between the two neighbors a possibility of miscalculation exists, such as India’s accidental firing of an unarmed supersonic missile into Pakistani territory last month. Both neighbors need to open the channels of communication and ensure that the entire region is not plunged into a nuclear Armageddon.


The writer is a Political Scientist and Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science in Abdul Wali Khan University Mardan. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.