An Arms Race in South Asia?

28 Jun, 1998    ·   118

Mallika Joseph & Jolie Wood report the second IPCS seminar series on "Implications of Nuclear Tests in South Asia

The topic of the June 12 meeting at IPCS was the possibility and consequences of a nuclear arms race in South Asia . Maj. Gen. Dipankar Banerjee made the initial presentation. This was followed by a two-hour-long exchange of views.



Gen. Banerjee began by noting that following Pakistan ’s nuclear tests, the Indian government has not articulated a coherent policy on how nuclear weapons fit into India ’s national security strategy. Pakistan and India have both asserted that weaponisation has taken place, but it is unclear to what extent they have weaponised. To adopt a strategy of minimum deterrence would also require unequivocal weaponisation.



There are several elements of a weaponisation program:



·                     Deployment of sufficient number of weapons, including an effective second-strike capability;


·                     Development of adequate delivery systems;


·                     Establishment of a force structure and command-and-control set-up


·                     Evolution of a deterrence doctrine. This should be made visible and transparent, so that expectations and consequences are clear.


He then touched on the cost of weaponisation. The deterrence concept is based on a whole range of imponderables and uncertainties. Every possible contingency has to be countered. Redundancy has to be built into force requirements. The spiral effect on expenditure cannot be contained or restricted according to one’s will.



In Banerjee’s opinion, the arms race began when Pakistan tested (or attempted to test) six devices, one-upping India ’s five. He also argued that Pakistan ’s weaponisation program may be more advanced than India ’s. One indication was that Pakistan claimed that it had deployed the Ghauri on 27th May to counter expected preemptive strikes by India . Pakistan has suggested that it has a nuclear warhead that can be matched with their delivery capabilities, which India may not have. The situation was thus not favourable to India .



He then addressed the role of China in a regional arms race. China already has a well-developed nuclear weapon program, but may feel compelled to expand or resume certain missile programs such as the DF-21 or 25 series with special attention to the contingencies raised by a potential conflict with India . It is also possible that China would assist Pakistan to maintain its advantage over India in the area of weaponisation. Banerjee maintained that India would definitely not have an effective deterrence capability against China for at least 3-5 years.



The discussion began with one participant questioning the theory that with nuclear weapons, a country can reduce conventional weapons in its arsenal. It was argued, in support, that this theory is totally wrong, as nuclear and conventional weapons are not interchangeable. Moreover, since the efficacy of the nuclear deterrent is arguable, such weapons cannot replace conventional weapons. It was suggested, therefore, that conventional and nuclear arms races could occur simultaneously.



What is the exact definition of an arms race? How is it to be analyzed or monitored? One view was that the concept of a "nuclear arms race" has been planted in the region by the West to scare people in the subcontinent. Until now there has been no analytical study that links up physical proximity of two adversarial nuclear states to nuclear instability in the region. The Western apprehension of a possible nuclear war in the region is exaggerated and blown out of all proportions.



One participant argued that India and Pakistan would draw lessons from the Cold War and thus avoid the mistakes that the United States and the Soviet Union made in the build-up of massive nuclear stockpiles. They made the mistake of believing that a "limited" nuclear war could be fought and won, and therefore acquired thousands of weapons intended to meet every possible contingency. At this time, India and Pakistan are not discussing anything more than a minimum nuclear deterrent, and a limited second-strike capability. Far more modest forces are sufficient for these purposes.



One participant maintained that it does not matter whether South Asia learned from the mistakes made in the Cold War; they are compelled to repeat them. The enormous destructive power of nuclear weapons compels adversaries to continually strive to meet and surpass any bomb or missile gap that exists between them. This "weapons imperative" is accompanied by an "economic imperative," the necessity to spend vast amounts of money to compete in the arms race, ensure a second strike capability, and so on. Another participant rejected the idea that India and Pakistan would repeat the mistakes of the Cold War. Their leaders could make sagacious decisions to avoid an arms race. It was also argued that a slight missile gap between India and Pakistan would not necessarily cause an arms race; for example, the Indian public would not be overly concerned if Pakistan has an advantage in missiles.



Pakistan has placed India in a favourable position by testing. If Pakistan had chosen not to test, it may have received arms aid from other countries making its armed forces conventionally superior to India ’s. This would have triggered a conventional arms race to the detriment of India . The person arguing this point believed that there would probably not be a conventional arms race with Pakistan at this point; the situation between India and China , on the other hand, was more perilous, and threatened to escalate into such an arms race.



The issue of weaponisation was then discussed. One participant argued that weaponisation could not remain the domain of scientists and engineers; militarisation was also necessary. The military would also have to be involved in the process of weaponisation, integrating nuclear weapons into military training and decision-making. Another maintained that whether India weaponises or not is unimportant; what matters is that it has declared its weaponisation, which creates fear and uncertainty needed to provide a credible deterrent.



Finally, there was a debate on deterrence. Several participants questioned the efficacy of deterrence. The concept can work only if the threat to use nuclear weapons is credible. Thus one cannot say that nuclear weapons are not meant to be used, if they are meant to deter. Another participant argued that the Indian government could hardly be expected to have a developed strategy of deterrence if it cannot even put forward a coherent reason for having tested its nuclear devices in the first place.



The discussion concluded with the focus on the question of "no first use". Would it be a non-starter? Probably, yes. China announced "no first use" in 1964 in regard to its nuclear weapons. With little regard for this, India has labeled China as the threat for testing. When India has not believed the Chinese "no first use" declaration, there seems no rationale why Pakistan should believe the Indian claim. What is pertinent also is the fact that the physical proximity of India and Pakistan would make it difficult to discern who violated the "no first use" pact, in case it is violated during a nuclear exchange.