Michael KreponThe Arms Crawl that Wasn’t

Ashley Tellis’ important book, India’s Emerging Nuclear Posture (2001), predicted an “arms crawl” instead of a nuclear arms race on the subcontinent. One major reason for Ashley’s benign assessment was that Indian decision makers “view their nuclear weapons primarily as political instruments intended to promote caution in the minds of their adversaries – while bolstering their own self-confidence – rather than as true weapons of war.”

There is no keener outside observer of Indian nuclear propensities than Ashley Tellis. Ashley was right about New Delhi’s limited enthusiasm for nuclear weapons, but he was off the mark in assuming that Pakistan’s nuclear requirements would be influenced by India’s restraint and deep ambivalence about the Bomb. Instead, Pakistan’s military leadership appears intent to outpace India’s nuclear capabilities. China is also moving forward with strategic modernization programs. Situated between two more serious regional nuclear competitors, New Delhi has done “the needful.” India, like Pakistan, has reportedly doubled the size of its nuclear arsenal over the past decade, while still lagging behind its neighbors.

Pakistani commentators assert that New Delhi’s nuclear ambitions are all about status. Status-consciousness is certainly part of this equation, but if status were New Delhi’s foremost concern, India would not be lagging behind Pakistan’s nuclear numbers. Instead, Indian decision makers appear to be proceeding in a measured way with modernization programs for ballistic and cruise missiles that will, over time, support a triad of nuclear-capable delivery vehicles. Notable new developments include the flight testing of the Shourya, a 700km range, dual-capable land and sea-based missile, and the Prahaar, a road-mobile, dual-capable, 150km range missile.

Pakistan is also on course to field ballistic and cruise missiles as key elements of its triad, with the most notable new development being the flight testing of the Nasr, a 60km range, dual-capable, battlefield missile system that was unveiled in the presence of the Director-General of Pakistan’s Strategic Plans Division, Khalid Kidwai.

The induction of tactical nuclear weapons systems that are hardest to maintain command and control over and that are most susceptible to loss on the battlefield is not good news. Nonetheless, Pakistan’s military high command apparently feels the need for more suasion to deter an Indian conventional attack. Indian defense technologists and military strategists see no good reason to cede this option to Pakistan. Thus, the tactical nuclear weapons that were once widely denigrated by South Asia’s strategic thinkers now seem to be “on the anvil.”

Pakistan is more agile than India on nuclear matters because its requirements are set by a very small number of serving military officers plus one retired officer, General Kidwai. India’s key decision makers are civilians whose primary focus is maintaining economic growth and serving domestic constituencies. Decision making is cumbersome and messy. Implementation happens very slowly. India has big plans and big shortfalls. New Delhi could pick up the pace of its nuclear programs, but this may take a change in government that brings the Bharatiya Janata Party back in power.

Pakistan’s more purposeful approach to nuclear weapons reflects its unease over the conventional balance with India and a military leadership that is able to find the necessary funds despite budgetary shortfalls elsewhere in society. Pakistan’s politicians do not question and cannot override requirements set by the military custodians of their nuclear arsenal. Pakistan’s buildup therefore continues despite its economic woes.

It should come as no surprise that Pakistan’s military officers who decide nuclear requirements err on the side of excess. It took concerted and very contentious efforts in the Kennedy administration for Secretary of Defense McNamara and his civilian whiz kids to wrestle nuclear weapon requirements out of the exclusive hands of General Curtis LeMay and his fellow officers. The first notable “success” by civilians back then meant topping the requirement for deployed ICBM launchers at 1,000.

What makes Pakistan’s process of setting nuclear weapon requirements unusual at this juncture is not the exclusion of civilians, but how few military officers shape and make these calls. Among states with nuclear weapons, perhaps only North Korea has as few decision shapers. What makes India unique is how much military officers are excluded from decision shaping.

Rawalpindi’s nuclear requirements can be interpreted as a reflection of the old adage that the best defense is a good offense. As former President and Chief of Army Staff Pervez Musharraf said while commissioning an Agosta-class submarine: “Our deterrence strategy is defensive. We have no design to go and attack the enemy. But if we are attacked we are going to be offensive in defending ourselves.” Musharraf is gone, but this philosophy endures.

Pakistan’s nuclear modernization programs are hard to square with a doctrine of minimal nuclear deterrence. The press release issued at the flight test of the Nasr at which General Kidwai attended used the phraseology “consolidating Pakistan’s strategic deterrence capability at all levels of the threat spectrum.” Full-spectrum deterrence lends itself to a larger nuclear stockpile with more war-fighting options. The scope and pace of Pakistan’s nuclear modernization programs are consistent with a commitment to seek nuclear and escalatory advantage to compensate for growing conventional disadvantages. Peter Lavoy and Vipin Narang have reached this conclusion, as well.

Pakistan and India are entering a less stable phase of offsetting, growing, and more diversified nuclear capabilities, one that is complicated by China’s strategic modernization programs. This is par for the course after rivals with serious security concerns move from covert to overt nuclear weapon capabilities and, then later, when they build out their force structure. If one of the competitors in southern Asia seeks advantage, or worries about being disadvantaged, the result will look more like a nuclear arms competition than an arms crawl.

Nuclear buildups have always resulted in added anxiety rather than deterrence stability. This cycle was checked during the Cold War by a political breakthrough engineered by two courageous leaders followed by sustained, successful diplomatic engagement. Strategic analysts in Pakistan and India reject the application of the Cold War model to the subcontinent, but they seem to be following a familiar arms build-up on a far smaller scale. Despite the many differences between the US-Soviet and Pakistan-India rivalries, one parallel is of overriding importance: nuclear dangers will be reduced by a political thaw, not by nuclear build-ups.


  1. krepon (History)

    Note to readers: A shorter version of this essay appeared in Dawn, a Pakistani daily. If you are interested in reading what Peter Lavoy and Vipin Narang have written on this subject, go to http://www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pdffiles/pub832.pdf, and http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/ins/summary/v034/34.3.narang.html
    Chapters in the Stimson Center’s monograph, Escalation Control and the Nuclear Option in South Asia (2004) also remain relevant. You can access these essays at http://www.stimson.org/books-reports/escalation-control-and-the-nuclear-option-in-south-asia-/

  2. Zahir Kazmi (History)

    I was wondering why MK didn’t make a blogpost on ACW after the Dawn published the article on Nov. 2. It’s “latest” version is finally in now – the difference is of McNamara’s whiz kids and few more lines on command and control 🙂 Brace for an equally long response that I wrote on Nov. 3. I’ve reproduced it below and added few thoughts on the additions Krepon has made.
    It is challenging to disagree with Krepon, as I hold him in high esteem for the depth of his knowledge. An anecdote may mollify him. When Robert McNamara took over the Pentagon in 1961 and started axing weapons programmes, the uniformed military went berserk. McNamara brought in some arrogant young “whiz kids” from the RAND Corporation, Alain Enthoven, (29) was amongst them. He told the Air Force chief, who tried to lecture him on nuclear-war plans, “General, I have fought just as many nuclear wars as you have” (Fred Kaplan, 2004). I am no whiz kid, just attempting to set the record straight.
    His thesis demands further debate. Three facts belie his argument that India has “limited enthusiasm” for nuclear weapons. In a 1997 meeting with President Clinton, Indian Prime Minister Gujral said, “When his third eye looks at the door into the Security Council chamber it sees a little sign that reads, ‘only those with economic wealth or nuclear weapons allowed’.” He told Clinton that it was very difficult to achieve economic wealth—implying that nuclear weapons would do the trick. Likewise, New Delhi’s “lack of enthusiasm for the nukes” was reflected in the 1974 nuclear test that was ingeniously portrayed as “peaceful nuclear test,” mockingly named “Smiling Buddha”. India’s current pursuit of a nuclear triad, ICBMs and fissile materials production reflects similar ‘dislike’ for the nukes.
    The implied meaning in the assertion that “Pakistan is pursuing a nuclear weapons program despite diminishing economic prospects” is that nuclear weapons are justified if a State can pay its bills. Linking security imperatives to economy is correct but outstretching the idea is not. States don’t build nukes once they have money—Japan and Germany would be the first ones to do that if the argument was correct.
    The China-card used by India to justify a large and expanding nuclear weapons’ program raises a question. Why should India have more weapons to deter China? China has never threatened India with nuclear weapons use. Also how many weapons would be enough to deter Beijing? Can India outpace China in financially sustaining an arms race? If India freezes at the current force posture, it will encourage Pakistan to follow suit.
    Like India, Pakistan has done the ‘needful’ to deter the hostile amongst its neighbours. Krepon considers India’s nuclear program a ‘measured’ one. Is it balanced or tilted? Who will Agni-5 ICBM deter in future? China and Pakistan are already in its missile range.
    On the issue of tactical nuclear weapons, many analysts have gullibly termed the first flight test of Nasr – like India’s Prahaar – as a ‘tactical nuclear weapons capability.’ Wouldn’t it be fair to mention Prahaar? India was developing the short-range Prahaar for over two years before Pakistan tested Nasr. A point of analysis is that the Indians were developing the short-range missile anyway. I would tend to place onus of South Asian arms race on India more than China, as former is spending more in terms of percentage of GDP and in absolute terms.
    It’s true that the analysts in South Asia reject the Cold War model; but they don’t reject its lessons. First, till nuclear-armed states do not develop complete array of force-structure for an assured second-strike capability, the deterrence remains elusive. Second, till the political disputes underlying arms buildup are not simultaneously resolved, the arms control and disarmament remain a pipe dream. History shows that the U.S. and Russia only lower force postures in times of political alignment – standoff on ballistic missile defence and inventories of tactical nuclear weapons on European soil are two examples.
    Finally few words on the nuclear command and control in Pakistan. I am amazed why we fail to notice that Pakistan has a very elaborate command and control mechanism – the military in no way calls the shots. The PM directly controls the strategic forces, the CJCSC and other services chiefs are advisors. This mechanism has a legal status under an Act that was passed in 2010. There is no way one can reassure the “nay-believers” about the credibility of decision making in Pakistan. By the way – Pakistan should be dismissive about such aspersions, as a nuclear power needs no ISO or other certification 🙂 Pakistan has a credible system – end of story.
    India is all milk and honey – and I don’t mind it as there are strong economic incentives that its 1 billion population and $100 bn plus purse for military hardware offer.
    How are Indian civilian ‘hawks’ different from a military? Indra did the PNE, Vajpayee the 1998 and suave Singh $100 bn militarisation spree? Even if the military was in-charge, India’s direction would be less different I believe. The Grand Strategy – quoting from Friedman – is like DNA, deeply embedded in a nation’s psyche. The only valid argument would be that ‘civilians’ keep a lid on ‘military’s’ ambition. But what would you do if the civilians are more ambitious and hawkish?

    • krepon (History)

      Good rejoinder, Zahir, especially the last point. You are right: the history of nuclear programs does suggest that civil authority can be as much of a wild card on nuclear matters as the military brass.

      I note your argument about the mixture of civiliana and military on the NCA, now headed by Prime Minister Gilani. Can you offer an example where the Prime Minister has overruled the CoAS?

      Speaking of civil “authority,” here’s AQ Khan on the subject of nuclear requirements (“I Saved My Country From Nuclear Blackmail,’ Newsweek, May 16, 2011):

      “India doesn’t need more than five weapons to hurt us badly, and we wouldn’t need more than 10 to return the favor. A country needs sufficient weapons to be stored at different places in order to have a second-strike capability. But there is a limit to these requirements.”

      I suspect he has said the opposite, as well.

  3. Anjaan (History)

    As far as India is concerned, all it can do is to strengthen its forces along the borders with Pakistan, not succumb to any nuclear blackmail, while maintaining its diplomatic push for normalization of relations with Pakistan.

    Pakistani bomb is not just Pakistan’s bomb, it is also the bomb of the Sunni Muslims of the world. India no doubt has been check mated by these bombs, but eventually the western world would not remain safe from these bombs either.

    By virtue of laying its hands on the nukes, Pakistan has gained the unique status of “too nuclear to fail”. Now it is the sacred duty of the Americans to keep pouring in tens of billions of dollars in Pakistan to keep it from falling apart, and from eventual falling of those nukes into the hands of the Muslim terrorists.

  4. Tarun (History)

    Tactical weapons are overhyped instruments of war as technology has enabled armored cores to withstand nuclear radiation impact and the party that lacks NBC counter protection (pakistan in this case) will loose much more in a tactical cum conventional war than in a regular conventional war against a better equipped adversary. The real worth is of strategic nuclear weapons which is their ability to destroy large cities and population centeres to deter full scale occpation by superior adversary but those are unlikely to be used immediately in a war as the party even as unstable as pakistan will think ten times because of the retaliation. Will pakis accept destruction of karachi and lahore in return for destroying new delhi and mumbai-i dont think so. That said i dont think that India should shirk this arms race. Pakistan is too frenzied a nation to think about consequences of its actions. Better to be fully armed and prepared.In addition cold war and military investments like DARPA and Star Wars actually helped US become a tech superpower. We can do the same. Who knows our scientists can actually discover new and world beating techs in this competition.

  5. Tarun (History)

    And certainly we have the economic muscle to do the same unlike pakistan which is bankrupt much like soviet union was trying to compete with america.