Michael KreponThe Tortoise and the Hare

Here’s a new development: some in India now worry in public about Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities. Indian influentials tend to match up to China and look down on Pakistan. Lately, New Delhi’s strategic calculations have become more complicated. Vice Admiral (ret.) Verghese Koithara’s book, Managing India’s Nuclear Forces (2012), details a lethargic Indian approach to operationalizing its deterrent, unlike Pakistan’s determined approach to the Bomb. In an opinion piece written for The Hindu, “Dealing with Pakistan’s Brinkmanship,” former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran warns his readers that “there have been notable shifts in Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine, away from minimum deterrence to second strike capability and towards expanding its nuclear weapons arsenal to include both strategic and tactical weapons.” Also worth reading is an essay by the former head of India’s Strategic Forces Command, Vice Admiral (ret.) Vijay Shankar, “The Grandmaster’s Pawn,” in Strategic Dialogues. All of these authors emphasize China’s role in Pakistan’s disturbing advances.

What to do? One of Shyam Saran’s conclusions is as follows:

Instead of urging India to respond to Pakistani nuclear escalation through offering mutual restraint, the U.S. should convince Islamabad that a limited nuclear war is a contradiction in terms and that it should abandon such reckless brinkmanship. The U.S. knows that India’s nuclear deterrence is not Pakistan-specific. Any misguided attempt to constrain Indian capabilities would undermine, for both, the value of Indo-U.S. strategic partnership in an increasingly uncertain and challenging regional and global security environment.

Put another way, because the United States and China haven’t leveraged Rawalpindi to exercise restraint, don’t be surprised and don’t bother interfering if New Delhi accelerates the pace of its strategic programs. Koithara, Saran, and Shankar seem to presume that Rawalpindi’s expanding nuclear requirements can be influenced by Washington and are still encouraged by Beijing. These assumptions, widely held in India, are suspect elsewhere.

The most likely — albeit brutally difficult — way to moderate a nuclear competition is through top-down, sustained diplomatic engagement. This condition remains unmet fifteen years after India and Pakistan tested nuclear devices. One reason: many in India’s Ministry of External Affairs assume that direct dialogue between India and Pakistan on nuclear risk reduction is unlikely to be useful. This assumption may well be right, but it would be more persuasive if New Delhi worked harder at it.

Since the 1998 tests, nuclear programs on the subcontinent have progressed in Aesopian fashion, with Pakistan being the hare to India’s tortoise. Pakistan is competing effectively on producing nuclear weapons and their means of delivery with a country with an economy that is nine times bigger. India, the tortoise in this instance, is moving ahead quite steadily, but not nearly as fast as its capacity to compete. If India were to move at a pace more commensurate with its size and capacity, Pakistan would be well behind in this competition.

One reason for India’s measured pace is a systemic underestimation of how serious Rawalpindi takes its nuclear requirements. Before the 1998 Pokhran tests, Indian political leaders, civil servants, and defense scientists were surprised by Pakistan’s flight-test of the Ghauri. After the Pokhran tests, they were surprised by Pakistan’s quick rejoinder. They are now surprised by Rawalpindi’s attachment to short-range delivery systems for nuclear weapons.

India’s nuclear program has always been constrained by duality, seeking the moral high ground while still attending to national security imperatives. George Perkovich describes this duality in India’s Nuclear Bomb (1999) as an odd combination of “defiant assertiveness” and “diffident timidity.” These countervailing patterns run so deep that, despite Pakistan’s nuclear exertions, New Delhi’s measured pace of attending to its deterrent might not change appreciably. Koithara, Saran, and Shankar constitute the public vanguard of efforts to rouse Indian decision-makers to quicken their pace and to take operational requirements more seriously.


  1. anon (History)

    The nuclear competition between India and Pakistan belies the usual image of India as the more competent of the two. India appears to be motivated more by status than security, as evidenced by its lackadaisical approach to building its deterrent and its doctrine. Pakistan, on the other hand, appears to be deadly serious.

    Up to now, both sides appear to be laboring under the delusion of India’s intrinsic superiority. India has a superiority complex, causing it to dismiss the seriousness of Pakistan’s actual and potential threat. Pakistan has an inferiority complex, causing it to overreact to Indian actions that it sees as threatening.

    This misalignment between self-perception and perception by others creates a heightened risk of miscalculation. India miscalculated in 1998 when it went from tacit to explicit nuclear armament, in effect giving Pakistan license go on a nuclear armament surge. Pakistan now appears to be miscalculating that it can establish and maintain a sub-strategic nuclear capability, allowing it to respond to a conventional attack with tactical tactical nuclear weapons and escape further escalation. And India appears to be on the verge of miscalculating that it can afford to escalate the nuclear arms race with Pakistan. The risk of miscalculation in a crisis is what makes many of us fear that South Asia is the most likely place where nuclear weapons could be used next.

    If there is a cure for this misperception it lies in better and more direct communication between India and Pakistan. It will be a hopeful sign if strategic thinkers on both sides begin to recognize that need.

  2. kme (History)

    Surely you mean that India is the hare (with a greater innate ability to move quickly, which it is not exploiting) and Pakistan the tortoise (with a lesser innate ability that it is exploiting more efficiently)?

  3. S. Batsanov (History)

    Looks rather familiar, although in a different geopolitical context – a typical actio-reaction cycle of a nuclear arms race between two relatively young nuclear armed states, leading to new threats to stability and to useless waste of resources. Rather than encouraging India to wake up to the challenge and start strengthening its nuclear deterrent (and this is by no means a criticism of Michael’s article, just a general warning) we should think of ways to convince both countries of the need to slow down and start discussing arms control – at least. And, no less importantly, to begin a serious dialogue over Kashmir, which continues to poison their relations and to fuel the arms race, including its nuclear dimension.