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5. The nuclear confrontation in South Asia



I. Introduction

II. Overview: 1998–2002

III. The crisis in 2002

IV. Doctrines

V. Nuclear force developments

VI. The role of nuclear weapons

VII. Conclusions


Read the full chapter [PDF].


Since the 1998 nuclear tests, India and Pakistan have been through a war and a major military crisis, both prominently featuring nuclear threats, making clear that the nuclearization of India and Pakistan has not made conventional war obsolete. Both states have pushed forward with establishing the institutions, doctrines and delivery systems required to deploy their nuclear arsenals.


Emboldened by the tests, in 1999 Pakistan’s army and political leaders sent Islamist militants and troops across the Line of Control near the town of Kargil in Indian-held Kashmir. After two months of bitter fighting, and intervention by the USA, the troops were withdrawn. Pakistani leaders believe that, while they failed to fulfil their anticipated military or political objectives in the Kargil war, Pakistan’s nuclear weapons prevented India from launching a massive military attack across either the Line of Control in Kashmir or the long international border.


For Indian leaders, Pakistan is clearly seen to have lost the Kargil war, especially politically. Nonetheless, the war inspired a search for ways to wage limited war against Pakistan that would not lead to the eventual use of nuclear weapons. At the same time, the Indian military has been conducting training exercises with scenarios involving the use of nuclear weapons.


The December 2001 militant attack on the Indian Parliament triggered a major crisis that stopped short of war, including a tense stand-off for several months involving over half a million troops. Indian politicians, media commentators and military personnel called for India to follow the USA’s lead in unilaterally bombing Afghanistan without a UN Security Council resolution and attack facilities in the part of Kashmir held by Pakistan.


Since India did not actually conduct any military attacks, Pakistan claimed this as further evidence of its nuclear deterrent at work. For Indian leaders, Pakistani President Musharraf’s promise in January 2002 to rein in the Islamic militant organizations that fight in Kashmir is seen as proof that India’s ‘coercive diplomacy’ worked. Indian leaders also emphasize that the military crisis forced the international community to recognize Pakistan’s support for terrorism.


The fact that the lessons taken from the Kargil war and the 2002 crisis by leaders in the two countries have been so very different has important implications for the future of South Asia. The USA may be a possible source of instability in a future crisis. Indian leaders may believe that the USA would intervene to prevent Pakistan’s use of nuclear weapons.


India and Pakistan have been taking steps towards gradually making their nuclear arsenals operational. In 2003 India set up a Nuclear Command Authority to manage a proposed nuclear triad. An official nuclear doctrine emphasizes the retaliatory capability of its nuclear weapons. It has also claimed the right to nuclear retaliation if India is attacked using chemical and biological weapons. Following the other nuclear weapon states, semi-official documents have suggested that India should develop: (a) sufficient, survivable and operationally prepared nuclear forces; (b) a robust command and control system; (c) effective intelligence and early-warning capabilities; (d) planning and training for nuclear operations; and (e) the will to employ nuclear weapons.


Pakistan set up a National Command Authority in February 2000. Statements by officials and retired officials suggest that Pakistan would try to match India in posture and that it would use its nuclear weapons if: (a) India attacks Pakistan and takes a large part of its territory; (b) India destroys a large part of Pakistan’s armed forces; (c) India imposes an economic blockade on Pakistan; or (d) India creates political destabilization or large-scale internal subversion in Pakistan.


Currently, neither country is believed to keep its nuclear weapons mounted on missiles and ready for launch. However, recurring crises and the growing familiarity of the military in both countries with nuclear weapons is likely to generate pressures for deployment of nuclear weapons with a launch-on-warning posture—with the attendant grave risk of accidental nuclear war.


Public opinion in the region is in flux. Hindu nationalist groups in India and Islamic fundamentalist groups in Pakistan have repeatedly called for the use of nuclear weapons. An active peace movement has emerged in both India and Pakistan, with national coalitions of civil society groups working for nuclear disarmament and peace.



Dr M. V. Ramana (India) is a physicist working at the Program on Science and Global Security at the Woodrow Wilson School for Public and International Affairs, Princeton University. He researches and writes on issues concerning nuclear weapons and nuclear energy in India and global disarmament. He is the co-editor (with C. Rammanohar Reddy) of Prisoners of the Nuclear Dream (Orient Longman, 2003).


Zia Mian (Pakistan) is a physicist with the Program on Science and Global Security at the Woodrow Wilson School for Public and International Affairs, Princeton University. He researches and writes on nuclear weapons and nuclear power issues in South Asia and global disarmament. Most recently, he co-edited (with Smitu Kothari) Out of The Nuclear Shadow (Zed Books, 2001).