Michael KreponThe 2019 Nuclear Threat Assessment for South Asia

Quote of the week:

“India’s rapidly worsening air pollution is causing about 1.1 million people to die prematurely each year and is now surpassing China’s as the deadliest in the world, a new study of global air pollution shows… Deaths caused by air pollution grew to 4.2 million in 2015 from 3.5 million in 1990. — Geeta Anand, New York Times, February 14, 2017.

Here’s how Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats summarized the South Asian nuclear competition in the U.S. Intelligence Community’s 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment:

“The continued growth and development of Pakistan and India’s nuclear weapons programs increase the risk of a nuclear security incident in South Asia, and the new types of nuclear weapons will introduce new risks for escalation dynamics and security in the region.”

The DNI foresees strained India-Pakistan relations, at least until India’s national elections because the Modi government has other fish to fry and because of the Pakistan military’s “narrow approach to counterterrorism cooperation—using some groups as policy tools and confronting only the militant groups that directly threaten Pakistan.”

Nor are India-China ties likely to improve in 2019, according to the 2019 estimate. Indeed, the estimate suggests the possibility of greater friction between this pairing than between India and Pakistan: “Misperceptions of military movements or construction might result in tensions escalating into armed conflict.”

If you are interested in particulars, I recommend reading the new book by Yogesh Joshi and Frank O’Donnell, India and Nuclear Asia: Forces, Doctrine, and Dangers (Georgetown University Press). Their conclusions track closely with the DNI’s assessment.

I readily acknowledge bias here: Frank is a Nonresident Fellow at Stimson and I have known Yogesh since his studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. But it doesn’t take bias to recognize capability. Both are careful and highly competent researchers. They have pulled together the best summaries of interconnecting Indian, Pakistani and Chinese nuclear capabilities one can glean from public sources, and have derived thoughtful lines of analysis from them.

Their basic conclusion in both the India-Pakistan and India-China contexts is that nuclear dangers are growing. There are many reasons for this, starting with increased nuclear capabilities. On top of this, there is the “blurring” of conventional and nuclear means of delivery; the advent of MIRVs; doctrinal adjustments, ambiguities and tensions; the movement of nuclear capabilities to sea; and the absence of strategic dialogue.

Consequently, they conclude, like the DNI estimate, that conditions are growing that are “particularly conducive to accidental and inadvertent escalation.” With so many adverse trends, the co-authors are hard-pressed to suggest big changes for the better. They propose increased dialogue as a modest but useful antidote. Even this will be hard to do.

In these pages India comes across as having great ambitions but little money to spend on capitalization. India also remains hobbled by its inability to reform civil-military dysfunctions — the limited and expensive purchase of Rafales for its shrinking Air Force being the latest case in point.

In contrast, Pakistan’s nuclear enclave comes across as determined to compete; indeed, it doesn’t know how not to compete. Pakistani society can’t afford this competition, but Rawalpindi won’t be denied its very large share of the pie. And in areas where Pakistan can’t compete well with India,  as in sea- and space-based capabilities, Beijing seems willing to help. China is clearly on the rise, and is doing so smartly. New missiles, MIRVs, subs and reportedly, even a new bomber are in the works, but its pace of modernization remains modest, at least so far.

The co-authors’ discussion of India’s nuclear doctrine is quite good. They find India’s continuing embrace of No First Use and massive retaliation “perplexing.” Change comes hard, especially when it entails changing India’s image of itself as a restrained nuclear-armed state. (In other ways, India can change, as the co-authors note, particularly with regard to ballistic missile defense deployments.) They call for a new Indian Defense Review to confirm policies of restraint, and yet they acknowledge that changing strategic circumstances point in the direction of less restraint, if such a review — which would be the first in sixteen long years — is undertaken.

My two cents worth, prompted by this tightly argued book, follows: The combination of NFU and massive retaliation just doesn’t work — it’s too passive on the front end for being too active on the back end. India’s NFU pledge is important, however, and dropping it would compound the stabilization issues the co-authors have rightly identified. Besides, NFU reflects — and reflects well — on India’s strategic culture. A chorus of influential voices has added ambiguity to the NFU pledge, and this chorus is likely to grow in the future.  With this ambiguity, there is no need to ditch the NFU pledge. New Delhi can have its cake and eat it, too.

The massive retaliation construct poses a bigger problem in an environment where the conditions for unintended escalation are present. The threat of massive retaliation to very limited steps across the nuclear threshold, whether by accident or design, is not credible at the strategic level, but credible enough at the tactical level to prompt rapid escalation by Pakistan’s nuclear enclave that, by all appearances, takes counterforce and decapitation strikes more seriously than Delhi. But here’s the rub: The co-authors offer sound reasons why moving away from massive retaliation would have downside risks. For example, it would add momentum accumulating nuclear war-fighting capabilities while reinforcing Rawalpindi’s tendencies in this regard.

With the benefit of hindsight, India would have been better off sticking to the formula of “punitive” retaliation, rather than borrowing from western terminology. The United States embraced massive retaliation for a short time during the Eisenhower administration before recognizing the error of its ways. If Indian officials have similar second thoughts, they are unlikely to go off the deep end in embracing flexible response, unlike their American counterparts.

The portrait of India in this solid book is one of repeated false starts, of reforms advocated and then not acted upon, and of opportunities missed.  The civil-nuclear deal with the United States adds to this list. Its big projected payoffs have fizzled, victimized by domestic political constraints (the issue of liability insurance), the failing economics of power reactors, and the incoherence of the Trump administration’s policies. The stunted promise of strategic partnership is reflected in two recent data points — Trump’s declining to be the Chief Guest at the Republic Day parade — he loves a parade but hates to travel to Asia — and the SA-400 transaction with Russia.

While India continues to amble along, Pakistan’s military competes effectively and China reaches for its perceived destiny. Not a stabilizing combination. 


  1. Yasir Hussain (History)

    Dear MK,

    While exploring complexities of South Asia’s strategic dynamics, it’s equally important to reflect on US’ China containment policy where New Delhi has central role to play. From 123 agreement to defense partnership, US has long assisted India to project itself as counterweight to China. But much of the US largesse to India clearly contributes to Islamabad’s strategic anxieties. How much US cares about it? On NFU, is this right time for India to abandon as doctrine has already served the interest and India doesn’t need any certificate of mature nuclear power anymore ?
    Yes, there is absence of a meaningful strategic dialogue to prevent unintended escalation/ manage crisis before it gets out of control. But who will liesten when winning a nuclear war is neighbour’s favourite talk?
    Islamabad has long been signalling to resume dialogue process but BJP can’t afford to lose votes at this critical moment. Kartarpor corridor could have eased tensions, at least on LOC, had India reciprocated with same zeal. India

    But, above all, US defeated former Soviet Union with Pakistan’s help, would India help US succeed against China?


  2. Arvind Baba (History)

    During peace time, Indian air- and land-based nuclear weapons are believed to be kept in a disassembled state: the delivery systems are held with the defence forces, while nuclear warheads are kept by the Defence Research and Development Organisation. Now, however, Indian SSBNs on deterrent patrol will have to be deployed with ready-to-fire SLBMs, significantly heightening current alertness levels and compelling Pakistan to reassess the readiness of its own deterrence systems.