One Year of Pulwama: Mapping the Nuclear Rhetoric

Untitled 11On 27th February 2019, India and Pakistan came close to the brink of a major war for the fifth time in history. Pakistan’s ‘Quid Pro Quo Plus’ policy against a limited Indian attack was manifested in the form of an unprecedented measured and successful action to communicate its ability to deal with any sort of aggression from the Indian side. This also helped Pakistan manifest its resolve and commitment to defend its territorial sovereignty and rebuff the enemy’s belligerence. Fortunately, the crisis de-escalated short of witnessing nuclear escalation despite Indian deployment of SSBNs. The crisis, however, presented India and Pakistan with the peculiar challenges associated with de-escalation.

Following the crisis, the signalling from both sides reflected particular crisis-time behaviours. The statements from Pakistani leadership indicated a desire to calm the tensions and particularly mentioned the imperatives of avoiding a nuclear war; whereas, Indian statements and actions were aimed at creating war hysteria and flaunting its nuclear muscle vis-à-vis Pakistan. Careless statements made by PM Modi (nuclear weapons are not meant for Diwali) portrayed India as an irresponsible nuclear weapon state headed by an irrational leader. India had adopted a similar threatening approach in the aftermath of Pathankot and Uri attacks in 2016. The international community’s reluctance to openly criticize India’s attempt at creating a new normal in the form of surgical strikes, has given more credence to the destabilizing Indian actions. The world has always put the onus of de-escalation on Pakistan through exercising various pressure tactics. Such biased crisis management roles have refrained India from mending its ways and behaviour and prevents it from realizing the actual cost of escalation. The US exceptionalism vis-à-vis India has emboldened it to take a more aggressive stance towards other regional actors, particularly Pakistan. Furthermore, the strategic discrimination meant for other US priorities, has led to an intensification of the nuclear and conventional arms race in South Asia.

Pakistan’s inaction following the so-called surgical strike in 2016 made India believe that Pakistan would not use its nuclear or conventional capabilities in the face of Indian aggression and that there was still space for conventional war with Pakistan. This particular belief was seriously challenged through Pakistan’s response in the form of Operation Swift Retort. However, India apparently did not learn any lessons and continued to downplay the role of nuclear deterrence. While discussing the role of nuclear weapons in crisis de-escalation in a recently held workshop, Lt. Gen (retd) Khalid Kidwai asserted that it was precisely the presence of nuclear weapons that deterred, and in that specific case [Pulwama], deterred India from expanding operations beyond a single unsuccessful air strike. The new Indian Army Chief’s statements, threatening pre-emptive strikes inside Pakistan and Army’s readiness to conduct larger-scale operations in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, reflect India’s discomfort with the idea of deterrence stability in the region.

Besides belligerent leadership, India is also developing and acquiring systems and technologies which will enable India to adopt a more aggressive doctrine against Pakistan. For instance, the Indian Air Force (IAF) Chief claimed that “had India procured Rafale jets during Balakot airstrikes, things would have been different in the aftermath when Pakistan launched a counter-attack on India’s military installation.” Similar assertions were also made about the S-400 Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) system. IAF chief said, “S-400 is a game-changer in terms of the surface to air systems. Once deployed, there would be a total scenario change in terms of how the air battle will be conducted.”

India is seeking missile systems that complement its pursuit of counter-force targeting, particularly when it has already signalled the desire to launch a comprehensive strike. The development and deployment of shorter-range missiles Prahaar and BrahMos is very crucial in this regard. The chances of the success of conventional counter-force strike are debatable, therefore, it is likely that Prahaar and BrahMos will be equipped with nuclear warheads.  Hence, a counter-force strike can very well be a nuclear first strike given the cannisterization of Prahaar and it being a replacement for the nuclear-capable Prithvi missiles.

Counterforce capabilities complement a doctrine based on the flexible use of nuclear weapons, which is clearly not in line with Indian NFU pledge that requires a state not to pursue the weapons or technologies that could be used to carry out a first strike. In an attempt to pursue counter-force targeting capability, India will not only have nuclear forces to develop means for a   successful first strike, but will also force Pakistan to increase its nuclear forces in order to ensure the survivability of its forces in such an eventuality.

In a region where crises between two nuclear neighbours are frequent and there is no formal dialogue mechanism, such developments will only keep South Asia in a perpetual state of strategic instability. For decades, Pakistan has been fulfilling the responsibility of maintaining strategic stability in the region, despite India’s repeated efforts to destabilize it. The situation is becoming even worse with extremist and religious fanatics of the RSS and BJP – characterized by strategic recklessness and irresponsibility – in firm control of India’s nuclear weapons. Pakistan has continued to propose the Strategic Restraint Regime (SRR) to India for the establishment of durable peace, avoidance of an arms race, to reduce the risk of conflict, and to enhance regional stability. However, India has manifested in every possible way that it does not want peaceful settlement of outstanding disputes with Pakistan and has chosen to remain disengaged.

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About Tanzeela Khalil 7 Articles
Tanzeela Khalil is a Visiting Fellow at Atlantic Council, Washington DC. The views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect the policy of her organization in any way.

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