WHILE diplomacy between Pakistan and India dawdles, nuclear capabilities are moving forward at a brisk pace. Since testing nuclear devices in 1998, both countries have flight-tested no fewer than 17 types of missiles that are capable of delivering nuclear weapons — a pace of more than one per year. New families of cruise missiles are joining expanded families of ballistic missiles. Nuclear weapon delivery systems are moving out to sea.
No other state possessing nuclear weapons has proceeded at a faster pace since 1998 than Pakistan and India.
In contrast, nuclear risk reduction agreements appear paltry by comparison. Efforts by New Delhi and Islamabad to seek more normal relations have proceeded at a snail’s pace. There have been modest overtures, such as the release of fishermen captured in contested waters, and promises to do more, but little has come of them.
Since 1998, Pakistan and India have agreed to a ceasefire along the Kashmir divide and two military-related confidence-building and nuclear risk-reduction measures — a 2005 accord to provide prior notification of ballistic missile flight-tests, and a 2007 agreement to provide notification of nuclear accidents.
The ambitious agenda to normalise relations and reduce nuclear dangers mapped out in the 1999 Lahore Memorandum of Understanding has been a dead letter since the 2008 Mumbai attacks.
One of the arguments in support of nuclear testing in 1998 was that it would stabilise deterrence and permit greater diplomatic progress on the subcontinent. In actuality, deterrence has become less stable and diplomacy has been pursued minimally.
Before the 1998 tests, Pakistan and India agreed to important steps to reduce dangers associated with misperceptions, including hotline agreements, advance notification of certain military exercises, and protocols regarding air space violations. They have accomplished less after 1998 than before. When one government wants to negotiate, the other is usually weak and on the defensive.
To their credit, the governments of India and Pakistan have taken steps to increase the security and command and control arrangements for their nuclear deterrents.
They have not, however, made a priority of negotiating bilateral measures to reduce nuclear risks. Instead, they view these measures as bargaining chips for negotiating outcomes that are deemed to be more important. It is a common conceit, regardless of nationality, to assume that more and better nuclear capabilities mean stronger deterrence. But a nuclear arms competition does not result in added security or stability. Instead, the more one side builds up its nuclear deterrent, the more uncomfortable the other feels.
Differing cycles of missile development and flight-testing add to difficulties in stabilising nuclear competition on the subcontinent. From 1998 to 2005, Pakistan tested twice as many nuclear weapon-capable delivery systems than India. Since then, India has tested three times more missile systems than Pakistan.
The most notable missile developments of late have been New Delhi’s achievement of an extended range ballistic missile to deter China, and Pakistan’s stated requirement for short-range nuclear weapon delivery capabilities to deter India. Evolving military doctrines have also raised new complications for deterrence stability and escalation control. Since the 1999 Kargil war, Indian military exercises have focused on faster and more flexible force deployments for limited war without triggering the use of nuclear weapons. Pakistan’s military exercises practise shorter timelines and new tactics for blocking action.
Nuclear doctrines complicate matters further. Pakistan adheres to a doctrine of first use to counter India’s conventional military advantages — including the possible first use of short-range weapons deployed near the forward edge of battle. India has adopted a nuclear doctrine of massive retaliation.
Opposing nuclear doctrines that rely on tactical nuclear weapons and massive retaliation are inherently unstable or lack credibility. When diplomacy lags far behind advancing nuclear capabilities and doctrinal change, deterrence naturally becomes less stable. Existing stabilisation measures between Pakistan and India are too weak to serve as a sufficient foundation for nuclear risk reduction.
Hotlines have been unreliable and sometimes not employed during periods of tension. They have not prevented or defused severe crises.
War broke out on the heights above Kargil only two months after the Lahore Declaration. The 2005 pre-notification and 2007 nuclear risk reduction agreements have not dampened the impact of spoilers. Indeed, signs of progress towards normalisation seem to embolden them to blow up the process.
Despite the professionalism of those responsible for nuclear stewardship on the subcontinent, nuclear dangers are rising. The greatest danger to deterrence stability is an absence of normal relations between nuclear-armed neighbours.
The unwillingness of national leaders to extend themselves to improve relations stands in sharp contrast to the willingness of spoilers to disrupt diplomacy and trigger crises that will be hard to defuse.
The writers are co-editors of a new book, Deterrence Stability and Escalation Control in South Asia, which can be found at