ASHLEY Tellis's comprehensive assessment of India's nuclear weapon programmes, , was published 10 years ago. Tellis, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, predicted an “arms crawl” instead of a nuclear arms race on the subcontinent.

One major reason for his benign assessment was that Indian decision-makers “view their nuclear weapons primarily as political instruments intended to promote caution in the minds of their adversaries — while bolstering their own self-confidence — rather than as true weapons of war”.

Tellis was right about New Delhi's limited enthusiasm for nuclear weapons, but he was off the mark in assuming that Pakistan's nuclear requirements would be influenced by India's restraint and deep ambivalence about the bomb.

New Delhi has clearly decided that the bomb takes a back seat to economic growth, which is the key to its social cohesion and international standing. In contrast, Pakistan's economic prospects are diminishing while its nuclear stockpile is growing. By every account, Pakistan's military leadership appears to be outpacing India's nuclear capabilities.

China has also picked up the pace of its strategic modernisation programmes. New Delhi isn't standing still, however. Situated between two more serious regional nuclear competitors, it has done “the needful”. India, like Pakistan, has reportedly doubled the size of its nuclear arsenal over the past decade, while still lagging behind its neighbours.

India's nuclear decision-makers appear to be proceeding in a measured way with modernisation programmes for ballistic and cruise missiles that will, over time, support nuclear-capable delivery vehicles based on land, at sea and carried by aircraft.

Pakistan also remains on course to field ballistic and cruise missiles as key elements of its triad. Command and control arrangements will be greatly complicated when India and Pakistan deploy nuclear-capable missiles at sea. One hallmark of nuclear stability on the subcontinent has been the separation of warheads and launchers. This safety factor will not be very meaningful at sea.

Pakistan's most notable new nuclear weapon development may be the flight testing of short-range, nuclear-capable, ballistic missiles. Tactical nuclear weapons are hardest to maintain command and control over in the fog of war and most susceptible to loss on the battlefield.

The induction of these weapons in South Asia is not a stabilising development. Nonetheless, Pakistan's military high command apparently feels the need for more suasion to deter an Indian conventional attack. Indian defence technologists and military strategists see no good reason to cede this option to Pakistan. Thus, the tactical nuclear weapons that were once widely denigrated by South Asian strategic analysts now seem to be on the anvil.

Pakistan's more purposeful approach to nuclear weapons reflects its unease over the conventional balance with India and a military leadership that is able to find the necessary funds despite budgetary shortfalls elsewhere in society. Declarations of a modest need for credible, minimal deterrence have shifted. Now the custodians of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal talk about consolidating strategic deterrence capability at all levels of the threat spectrum. This translates into a larger nuclear stockpile with more war-fighting options.

Pakistan's ongoing nuclear programmes can be interpreted as a reflection of the old adage that the best defence is a good offence. As former president and chief of army staff Pervez Musharraf said while commissioning an Agosta-class submarine: “Our deterrence strategy is defensive. We have no design to go and attack the enemy. But if we are attacked we are going to be offensive in defending ourselves.”

Musharraf is gone, but this philosophy endures. Pakistan's nuclear modernisation programmes are hard to square with a doctrine of minimal nuclear deterrence. Instead, they are consistent with a commitment to seek nuclear and escalatory advantage to compensate for growing conventional disadvantages.

Pakistan and India are entering a less stable phase of offsetting, growing, and more diversified nuclear capabilities, one that is complicated by China's strategic modernisation programmes. This is par for the course after rivals with serious security concerns move from covert to overt nuclear weapon capabilities and, then later, when they build out their force structure. If one of the competitors in southern Asia seeks advantage, or worries about being disadvantaged, the result will look more like a nuclear arms competition than an arms crawl. n

Nuclear buildups have always resulted in added anxiety rather than deterrence stability. This cycle was checked during the Cold War by a political breakthrough engineered by courageous leaders followed by sustained, successful diplomatic engagement. Strategic analysts in Pakistan and India reject the application of the Cold War model to the subcontinent, but they seem to be following a familiar arms build-up on a far smaller scale. Despite the many differences between the US-Soviet and Pakistan-India rivalries, one parallel is of overriding importance: nuclear dangers will be reduced by a political thaw, not by nuclear build-ups.

The writer is co-founder of the Stimson Centre in Washington.

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