The strategic landscape of South Asia was shaken when it was nuclearized with India’s conducting of nuclear weapons tests from 11th to13th May, 1998. A region that had already been host to multiple armed conflicts, wars and skirmishes, witnessed a return to strategic instability when the strategic balance between India and Pakistan was disturbed, a factor that had contributed a substantial chunk to those conflicts. The balance of conventional forces even prior to this had been asymmetric, but sufficient for a strategic equilibrium of 1:3 (Pakistan: India).
The addition of nuclear weapons to the mix, however, skewed the equilibrium drastically in India’s favor. This necessitated a response from Pakistan, not just for its own security but also for regaining strategic stability in South Asia. It also speaks to the motivation behind Pakistan’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and subsequent nuclearization which is commemorated on 28th May, a day known as Youm-e-Takbeer (‘day of greatness’). Before discussing how strategic stability was restored in South Asia, the ‘why’ requires elaboration. For this, it is important to understand the motivation behind India’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, because that proactive pursuit (a norms and prestige model for the most part) fed the reactive pursuit (a security model) of Pakistan.
Indian Nuclear Ambitions
India’s pursuit of nuclear weapons development was well on its way by the late 1950s when its chief scientist, Homi Bhabha who dealt with nuclear technology at the time said that he and his team could provide a nuclear explosive device in about a year and a half if the political leadership gave the nod. That time in history and the statement itself must be understood within a broader context. At the time, there was no animosity between India and China and they enjoyed good state to state relations. This sets aside the reasoning behind a security-oriented pursuit which is reactive at its core. A proactive pursuit according to the norms or prestige model where a state works to acquire nuclear weapons because their position brings with it a status on the world stage and becomes an expression of its technological progress and identity, is most applicable in the case of India.
In a way, the pursuit of nuclear weapons became an end itself rather than the means to an end. Even after the Sino-Indian war of 1962, there was no nuclear test within an 18 months period, which might have lent credence to a security based reactive model. In the decade of the nuclear tests, Pakistan and India also enjoyed improved ties, since multiple agreements were signed on advance notification for military exercises, troop movements, and air space violations, among other things. A couple of years right before the Indian tests, there were state level talks underway, showing meaningful engagement. This points to the conclusion that there was no real security consideration that could have compelled India to conduct nuclear tests in 1998, but there did exist a norms and prestige based desire to be a nuclear state; this became possible when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was elected and gave the go ahead for tests in May of that year.
Pakistani Nuclear Response Requirements
Pakistan’s nuclear tests and their pursuit can only be understood and must be seen in light of India’s pursuit of the same. The Indian actions made it necessary for Pakistan to respond for its own sake and as well as for the sake of the strategic stability in South Asia. As per the model of nuclear weapons pursuit, a state chooses to embark on this journey and tests its capability when prompted by a foreign threat to its national security, most often from nuclear weapons. The 1965 war, the dismemberment of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) at the hands of India, and the so called ‘peaceful nuclear explosion’ or the ‘Smiling Buddha’ constituted a series of events that fully cemented India as an existential threat to Pakistan. Hence, after the Indian tests of May 1998, Pakistan’s own tests were simply a case of ‘logice fluxus rerum’ or the logical flow of events that were needed to restore strategic stability.
Strategic Stability and Nuclear Deterrence in Brief
In order to understand how exactly strategic stability was restored after Pakistan’s nuclear tests, it is important to understand the basics of the concept, along with how nuclear deterrence works. In the context of India and Pakistan and at its very core, strategic stability is the absence of armed conflict (in the conventional sense) between two nuclear armed states. This scenario occurs, when looked at more specifically, through the lack of incentives for one state to launch a nuclear strike on the other due to a variety of reasons. Through this strategic stability, the two nuclear armed states are not supposed to engage in war and especially not be the one to initiate nuclear use. This means that a nuclear first strike will not take place until strategic stability is restored and as long as it is maintained, and that it is achieved through the removal of incentives for said strike. This is where nuclear deterrence comes in.
The primary reason, and most often the only one behind disincentivizing nuclear first use, is that the other state will conduct a retaliatory nuclear strike, resulting in devastation for both. This logic of mutually assured destruction (MAD) is also what constitutes nuclear deterrence. There are variations of deterrence and deterrence models in practice but its essence posits that the declared possession of nuclear weapons by one state will prevent an aggressor state from using their nuclear weapons on the former. So, nuclear deterrence underpins strategic stability; this stability was undermined in South Asia when India chose to test its nuclear weapons officially.
A state in possession of nuclear weapons, driven by prestige and the related power projection, does not make for a stable region as the state can easily coerce and throw its weight around to strong-hand other states into acting according to its whims. This ability is expounded by the fact that no other state can match its relative strength because one possesses a weapon of unthinkable destruction and the other doesn’t. The primary way to match it and create an equilibrium; meaning the restoration of strategic stability via nuclear deterrence, is possible by countering with nuclear weapons.
This is what Pakistan achieved on 28th May 1998, and why the day is commemorated as Youm e Takbir.