The perceived failure of deterrence, despite the possession of nuclear weapons by India, could lead to greater instability in Indo-Pak bilateral relations should there be another crisis with Pakistan  

India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) is scheduled to conduct a ballistic missile interceptor test later this month which forms part of a series of tests to develop and deploy a limited Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) shield in the country, a project that has been in steady development since the mid-1990s. BMD pessimists — I used to be one myself — have traditionally argued that notwithstanding the fact that BMD is neither foolproof nor cheap, induction of such systems can be deeply destabilising between nuclear-armed adversaries. However, the instability argument assumes the existence of a Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD)-induced textbook deterrence dyad such as the U.S.-USSR nuclear rivalry of the Cold War vintage. The deterrence stability of the Cold War years, premised on the existence of rational, unitary actors, does not exist in nuclear South Asia and hence to believe that mutual vulnerability increases stability is dangerous. No matter how many nuclear warheads India makes and how often it reviews its doctrinal postures, New Delhi’s deterrence dilemmas are likely to persist.
India can, to a great extent, address these dilemmas by mainstreaming and articulating the strategic objectives of its BMD programme which, at the moment, does not form part of the country’s politically articulated nuclear strategy.
India’s deterrence dilemmas
The deterrence effect of nuclear weapons is yet to mature in South Asia. More so, the South Asian nuclear contest is severely complicated by the presence of non-state actors and their ability to draw states into armed conflicts. These and other related issues have been posing multiple deterrence dilemmas for India.
First of all, there are fears in India about the potential implications of a situation wherein Pakistan-based non-state actors gain control of Pakistan’s nuclear assets. There is also speculation about the repercussions of rogue elements in the Pakistani armed forces engaging in unauthorised nuclear activities. It could be an unauthorised nuclear strike against India or similar to what the former American Ambassador to Pakistan, Anne Patterson argued: “Our major concern is not having an Islamic militant steal an entire weapon but rather the chance someone working in GoP [Government of Pakistan] facilities could gradually smuggle enough material out to eventually make a weapon.” Besides, there could also be genuinely accidental launches of nuclear weapons.
The political angle
India’s failure to respond to Pakistani aggression — state sponsored, non-state actor attack, non-state sponsored, non-state actor attack, or attack by rogue elements from within establishment — has domestic political costs as well. The Indian government is widely criticised for not responding to Pakistan adequately, not being able to see through Pakistan’s ploy of using non-state actors and not showing enough resolve, among other aspects. This perceived failure of deterrence, despite the possession of nuclear weapons by India, could lead to greater instability in India-Pakistan bilateral relations should there be another crisis with Pakistan, especially if New Delhi has a right-wing government in power.
Despite the animated debate in India on the desirability of withdrawing the no first use (NFU) pledge, any government in New Delhi is likely to think twice before doing so since its NFU pledge is key to its status of a “responsible nuclear power” which in turn has been aiding India’s ongoing integration into the global nuclear order. Any move from the Indian side to renege on the NFU pledge or conduct a thermonuclear test to showcase its deterrent capability will only alienate the international community. Hence, New Delhi finds itself in a self-imposed normative bind wherein it is unable to doctrinally or materially pursue strategies to respond to Pakistani acts or behaviour which it thinks has undermined its deterrence capability.
There have also been concerns about the robustness of the Indian nuclear deterrent for a variety of doctrinal and material reasons. As Admiral Raja Menon wrote in The Hindu (“A mismatch of nuclear doctrines,” January 22, 2014), there are a number of “structural and operational weaknesses in the Indian nuclear arsenal.” For one, experts have questioned the use of “massive retaliation” in the Indian doctrine which is not a credible enough threat to deter Pakistani conventional or sub-conventional aggression. The other argument about the credibility of India’s nuclear deterrence is the criticism that its command and control (C&C) structures are not yet sophisticated enough. Another related concern is regarding the credibility of India’s declared nuclear capability. For instance, India claimed after the 1998 tests that its thermonuclear test was a success. However, this claim has been authoritatively challenged making the country’s official claims concerning nuclear weapons look weaker. Then, there are also fears about the material performance failures of the Indian nuclear arsenal.
Doctrinal and material credibility about a state’s nuclear weapons lie at the heart of the deterrence effect that it seeks to derive from its weapons. If so, there are a number of credibility issues attached to India’s nuclear deterrent which it should address if it wishes to make its deterrent work. Merely doing away with NFU or conducting another round of tests cannot take care of these fundamental deterrence dilemmas that India faces today.
What, therefore, needs to be done urgently is a strategic review of the country’s nuclear doctrine to make it more credible. But even more importantly, most of the deterrence dilemmas (mentioned earlier) that the country faces can be resolved by introducing enhanced strategic depth, political commitment and a sense of purpose into India’s ongoing BMD programme.
Demonstrating that one can defend oneself strengthens deterrence. If Pakistan believes that it can take out New Delhi and with it a considerable amount of the latter’s C&C systems and political leadership in a first strike, such a belief will weaken the deterrence stability in the region. On the other hand, if the Indian political leadership and its nuclear C&C can be made reasonably invulnerable from a decapitation strike, then deterrence stability increases considerably.
In this context, a limited BMD system increases deterrence by denial. The deterrence effect of BMD is not only applicable between rational state actors but also when non-state (rational or irrational) actors target state actors. For instance, if Pakistan-based non-state actors or rogue elements from the Pakistani armed forces target India with nuclear weapons, New Delhi — considering that such an attack is most likely to be very limited — will be able to properly comprehend and analyse the situation before contemplating an appropriate response. This is only possible if the political decision-making mechanisms and nuclear C&C in New Delhi survive such an attack.
More importantly, a limited BMD can also deter a state with revisionist intentions that would want to carry out a bolt-from-the-blue-strike. In other words, if generating dissuasion in the mind of the aggressor is central to nuclear deterrence, a limited BMD shield could potentially achieve that in the South Asian context.
The demands from within Indian strategic/political circles to give up on NFU and conduct another round of thermonuclear tests have one thing in common: the desire to make the Indian deterrent more credible. While it may be a fair demand in itself, New Delhi may not be able to do that precisely due to various normative constraints. A limited BMD is perhaps one way of positively responding to these demands without crossing the normative redlines. Not only are BMD developments in the country unlikely to face any normative opposition from the international community such as the United States and its NATO allies, they may indeed be willing to collaborate with India on its BMD programme.
Managing reputational impact
A limited BMD capability aimed at providing area defence to the national capital and C&C structures could be showcased as demonstrating the country’s willingness and readiness to face any eventuality. The argument then would be that since the country is only going in for a limited BMD (as opposed to going in for a National Missile Defence system which would have given it invulnerability), if it ever becomes a success, it does not want to secure itself completely and then engage in a first strike. In other words, a limited BMD can reinforce India’s NFU posture as well as make it more credible. Those in India who critique the Indian NFU posture as an inadequate response to Pakistan can be assuaged by the argument that a limited BMD will provide the country with the necessary wherewithal to retaliate in all certainty thereby increasing its deterrence credibility.
Another potential implication of a limited BMD in India would be the continuation of the country’s de-mated and de-alerted nuclear posture. Even as New Delhi remains steadfast in its commitment to continuing its de-mated and de-alerted posture, critiques have questioned the wisdom behind it. Such concerns can also be addressed by a limited BMD which provides an assured capability for retaliation thereby strengthening deterrence.
Therefore, those demanding the withdrawal of NFU should consider the potential of a limited BMD system in strengthening India’s deterrence rather than advocating the adoption of offensive doctrines and technologies.
(Happymon Jacob teaches at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.)
View Comments (21)Post Comment

  •  Amrit Ruturaj  Delhi
    UN charter gives the nation state the right to self defence in case of existential threat to the former. ICJ non liquet on use of nuclear weapons also does not prevent nuclear weapons state to use WMD in case of adequate threat perception. Thus it's devoid of pragmatism to be bound by only ''retalliation'' option as we can introduce a revision in our nuclear doctrine to have the option of preemptive strike in case of apprehended existential threat. Because an unfortunate single strike can destroy India' political establishments in New Delhi.
    about 11 hours ago ·   (0) ·   (0) ·  reply (0)
    •  Viral  Fazal
      India’s pursuit of the BMD and the fact that Pakistan is not safe from the missile threats originating from India compels Pakistan to look for other security options. Is development of BMD a viable option to be considered by Pakistan? If economic challenges are set aside, pursuing a BMD shield appears perfectly legitimate security option. Pakistan has a policy of credible minimum deterrence and may not go in that direction unless it becomes a last option.
      about 14 hours ago ·   (0) ·   (0) ·  reply (0)
      •  shaurya  Bandra
        The writer brings out a moot topic. As far as Pakistan is conncerned, non state actors can only get the nuclear button if the state is conniving with them. Limited BMD plays a key role in deterrence but other non defence measures are also needed. Upcoming government should try to bind Pakistan in economic ties with India. Economic sanctions against Russia by the west exemplifies Indian approach with the notorious Pakistan.
        about 15 hours ago ·   (0) ·   (0) ·  reply (0)
        •  sbalaraman Balaraman  Ocala
          The political reality is that if China decides to annex Arunachal pradesh with it ,India has to respond with force . Given the military preparedness of China and its alley Pakistan acting in alliance ,Indian chances of fighting a winning war is less. If India has to loose the war and if we still say we will not first use the Nuclear force we will look like the most foolish nation . If we want the Nuclear deterrent to work we should be ready to use it for our own defense at least ,without any condition . India will never wage a war to acquire any other country and our Nuclear deterrent is for defense only .
          about 15 hours ago ·   (0) ·   (0) ·  reply (0)
          •  Rajiv  Fazal
            A fully operational BMD shield will give India a false sense of security and it may nudge it towards a first strike option. A first strike option would seriously destabilise deterrence in South Asia. It would be pragmatic to start from strengthening the silos – which is called point defence – and missile sites protection to the defence of corridors against possible attacks. DRDO have also claimed that in the next few years, India will have an indigenous ballistic missile defence system in place to intercept and destroy Intermediate-range (IRBM) and Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). This is hyperbole of the worst kind. Indian effort is concentrated only on the terminal phase because it is relatively simpler in definition and less demanding in technology. Except the United States which both for political reasons as well as confidence in its science continues to pay homage to comprehensive defence against Ballistic missiles.
            about 17 hours ago ·   (0) ·   (0) ·  reply (0)
            •  Santhosh  
              The article successfully helped most out there suspecting India's deterrence capability. But truce BMD capabilities of India can't be affirmed
              about 18 hours ago ·   (0) ·   (0) ·  reply (0)
              •  Basudeb Chaudhuri  Suri
                A No First Use pledge is a non starter in terms of deterrence capability. Deterrence worked during the Cold War precisely because there existed the threat of first use on both sides. It is not India that needs to demonstrate that it is a responsible country, it has demonstrated that time and again, to the point of being perceived as weak. There has to be a paradigm change. It is not only Pakistan that has to demonstrate with proof that it is reigning in non state ators and the rogue elements in its system, it is also the responsibility of the United States to demonstrate that it is not inimical towards Indian interests by explaining why it supplies weapons and aircraft systems to Pakistan that are certainly not needed against internal jihad or the Taliban, why it has consistently turned a blind eye to Pakistan's nuclear program, and why it provides a level of combined military and economic aid to Pakistan that enables the hardliners in the Pakistani establishment to bleed India.
                about 20 hours ago ·   (5) ·   (3) ·  reply (0)
                Santhosh  Down Voted
                •  Sameer Bhagat  New Delhi
                  The Idea of pursuing aggressive posture and sophisticated technology is not to go down the path of MAD. The Americans have constantly raised stakes and balanced the rhetoric and at the time were pursuing economic might to aid the game to rising stakes in the cold war era. Usually such a strategy works with me-too emotional countries better. Pakistan that way is similar to the soviet era in the "me too emotional" category. While India is not ready to play such game with China (where it has sensibly chosen the Malacca approach), with Pakistan, such a strategy is a great move. BJP manifesto talking of re-look at the nuclear doctrine needs to be viewed from this perspective rather than the MAD angle
                  about 21 hours ago ·   (0) ·   (0) ·  reply (0)
                  •  Ramaiya  Islamabad
                    India's quest for BMD system would actually put the strategic equilibrium at stake and will definitely make the already collapsed relations between Pakistan and India more bitter. After the introduction of BMD, China and Pakistan would not sit idly and watch the theater they would definitely work out for something more developing and will respond the threat with punitive measures. BJP is a aggressive party being presented by aggressive personality and negative traits.
                    about 21 hours ago ·   (1) ·   (16) ·  reply (0)
                    Ramaiya  Up Voted
                    Srinivas T · Suvojit · Mahesh Methari · Ishan Ishan · pandu T  Down Voted
                    •  Subodh  
                      India needs a strong central government who can take appropriate decision relating to BMD and Thermonuclear tests, and give fitting reply to Pakistan-based non-state actors or rogue elements from the Pakistani armed forces. Unless India shows its true worth in nuclear and deterrence capability, countries like Pakistan, China, America, and other developed countries will always take India for granted and try to undermine and threaten country's security, directly or indirectly. The weak central government has already made India a laughing stock and soft country worldwide by not acting against the terrorists and non state actors based in Pakistan.
                      about 22 hours ago ·   (3) ·   (0) ·  reply (0)
                      •  Vida  Romford
                        Pakistan cannot be trusted to promote peace and prosperity in the region. Pakistan has a Jihadi and aggressive agenda in the region. The Pak army has to justify its power bankrolled by the dollars from USA. India needs to be aggressive itself and teach Pakistan a lesson if terror is directed at it from Pak territory. The BMD will help in neutralising Pakistani aggression and carelessness in its Nuclear might.
                        about 22 hours ago ·   (1) ·   (4) ·  reply (0)
                        •  Ashish Kumar  
                          There is indeed a need to review and set our nuclear and 'no first strike policy'.With pakistan having a complex policy where in case of heading towards defeat they may strike somewhere around D 21.Although striking first would certainly be unhuman but since our safety comes first we need to to set new standards in which we either destroy their attack mid air or else strike at their base before they launch.Losing precious lives and then responding would certainly be a foolish decision !!
                          about 22 hours ago ·   (4) ·   (0) ·  reply (0)
                          Vida  Up Voted
                          •  monika  Fazal
                            South Asia consists with a complex nature after the introduction of nuclear weapons ultimately followed by deterrence. Both of the countries India and Pakistan have to protect their sovereignty and territorial integrity. The Ballistic Missile Defence Shield certainly compels Pakistan to follow the same suit. However, if India is thinking that BMD shield ease the tensions than it won’t be the case as such because Pakistan would move in the same direction to protect itself. But I got confused on the account of deterrence; we are not involved in major conflict due to nuclear weapons. One thing more is this that intensity of non-state actors are present on both sides. The predicted winner BJP followed strictly on Greater India with Hindutava concepts that complete destruction would bring a good day. One thing is obvious there is an arms race after every new expedition.
                            about 23 hours ago ·   (0) ·   (2) ·  reply (0)
                            Vida  Down Voted
                            •  sairama  Chennai
                              Not a well researched article. Please look into the nuances of the regional dynamics and politics. World does not need a nuclear weapon. Its the irresponsibility of the UNSC to legitimize the stockpile of nuclear weapons in the name of control. India is forced to have nuclear weapons because of the irresponsible neighbors and American intervention. But that does not legitimize India nuclear weapons program.
                              about 24 hours ago ·   (0) ·   (0) ·  reply (0)
                              •  Manjit Sahota  Birmingham
                                Agree with every word written here. India must develop a robust BMD and gradually expand it to cover main economic, scientific and population centres that will be the first target of an adversary. A deliberate strike from Pakistan will be claimed by them to have been carried out by non-state actors. In a situation like that NFU loses its meaning. If India deploys a reliable BMD, even then in its early days it could be provocatively tested by Pakistan again claiming it to be an accident. Knowing Pakistan's past behaviour, an accidental launch by any actor from their soil will in all probability be followed by a massive strike by their military thinking (fearing Indian massive retaliation) 'in for a penny in for a pound'. Pakistani defence planers are not known for their rationality. I am in no doubt that they have already decided on their course of action should such a scenario occur. DRDO, defence analysts and the government must come together and chart the course of action.
                                a day ago ·   (5) ·   (0) ·  reply (0)
                                •  Gul amar Student at Karachi University Fazal
                                  The deterrence concept in Indian politics is flawed. National arsenal is growing day by day under deterrence slogan. National defense budget is achieving its heights whereas poverty inside state is unimaginable. I don’t know when this arms accumulation process will end or is it going to swallow our economic boom?
                                  a day ago ·   (3) ·   (11) ·  reply (1)
                                  Vida  Down Voted
                                  •  Mahesh Methari  
                                    security is the sine qua non of political establishment for any country. There is no contradiction between security spending and poverty spending in our country, there is no zero sum game in this, unfortunately non state actors always taking this flawed argument and instigating the violence inside India recently JKLF chief also said the same. we have have our unique problems for poverty for being a largest democratic country.
                                    about 21 hours ago ·   (0) ·   (0) ·  reply (0)
                                  •  Subramanyam  
                                    Our Nuclear Doctrine needs a radical re-thinking, but not for the same reasons as the author says. As the previous NDA regime correctly articulated at that time, our nuclear weapons and their delivery systems are meant mostly for China. It was our incorrect policy of not appreciating the Chinese danger enough while letting ourselves being tied down by Pakistan, that has brought us to this stage of a very possible 'Two Front War' today. Pakistan cannot be treated as a rationally acting nation-state any longer. Whether a state actor or a non-state actor from Pakistan strikes us with nuclear weapons or even TNWs, the effect is the same for us and our response has to be disproportionately massive. We must carry this principle of massive retaliation to non-nuclear-weapon situations too. China, being a more rational player, needs a different response. Our Nuclear Doctrine must have two parts therefore, one for Pakistan and the other for the rest. We must withdraw the NFU against Pakistan.
                                    a day ago ·   (4) ·   (0) ·  reply (0)
                                    •  Pramod  Mumbai
                                      An excellent article, though I beg to differ in some respects. We must recognise that Pakistan has consistently refused to adopt the NFU doctrine. Furthermore, even a cursory look at Pakistan's Nuclear Command and Control system would convince us that the talk of nuclear pilferage is most unfounded . Pakistan has professional armed forces. Pakistan has adopted a seemingly asymmetric approach, thereby deliberately projecting an image of an irrational nuclear player. This is ,in fact, a very rational strategy to raise the bogey of nuclear warfare, so that India is unable to escalate its response to the proxy terrorism war game played by Pakistan. Thus, Pakistan continues to bleed and weaken India. This is the real threat, not imaginary nuclear war. We should, therefore, have some element of unpredictability in our strategy, though we continue to remain a responsible nuclear player. I agree, however, that the issue is so complex that there are no straightforward answers.
                                      a day ago ·   (2) ·   (0) ·  reply (0)
                                      •  Gopalan  Mission Viejo
                                        Whatever west has tried SDI in 1983, found practically not successful as for as hit rate is concerned, we talk now. It is not enough, to intercept one out of 10 it can be termed accidental . Instead of spending time on such white elephant projects, they should concentrate, on the ongoing unfinished projects, undertaken in the past 20 years and put the resources into viable, workable, feasible, projects. Every new Head are in a position to prove themselves in their short tenure - good ; but mere starting of projects, , alone cannot yield useful product. One of the main reasons for ISRO's success, is the approach of it's earlier Chairmen, Dr. Dhawan and UR Rao. Their approach nothing great, but the simple thing to review and give priority to workable important projects. Before SLV, there were numerous projects ; SLV given all priority, resources, flexible procedures. Kargil , Bombay blast infiltration, we could not find out. Known object, may be possible to hit in planned trials
                                        a day ago ·   (0) ·   (0) ·  reply (0)
                                        •  Suvojit  Los Angeles
                                          IMO, India needs to go for a limited BMD and a another round of tests to confirm its nuclear capabilities while reaffirming its NFU pledge. Even though nuclear tests would have sanctions consequences it may not be avoidable if country's survival hinges on having a credible deterrence capability.
                                          a day ago ·   (0) ·   (0) ·  reply (0)