Michael KreponWhatever Happened to Minimum, Credible Deterrence?

This graphic of the nuclear competition on the subcontinent was compiled by my colleagues, Julia Thompson and Lita Ledesma, to illustrate the contents of Stimson’s new book, Deterrence Stability and Escalation Control in South Asia. It’s a sobering depiction of high-octane missile development programs and lethargic diplomacy. It still doesn’t begin to reflect the difficulties national leaders in India and Pakistan face in trying to stabilize their nuclear competition.

This graphic excludes strategic modernization programs in China. It makes no reference to ambitious changes in conventional military doctrines in China and India. It excludes developments in air and sea power that can bear on the nuclear competition. It doesn’t reflect the inherent instabilities of opposing nuclear doctrines that rely on threats of first use — including the use of tactical nuclear weapons — and threats of massive retaliation. Nor does this graphic reflect dysfunctional civil-military relations in Pakistan, India and perhaps China as well, that make it difficult to stabilize an extremely active triangular nuclear competition.

This graphic does, however, adequately demonstrate how empty Indian and Pakistani pledges were to pursue minimum, credible deterrence made by government leaders after testing nuclear devices in 1998. Leading strategic thinkers on the subcontinent expressed confident hopes back then that going public with nuclear capabilities would have stabilizing effects by relieving anxieties and facilitating diplomatic efforts to normalize relations. Here’s a sampler:

In some respects, India should be relieved Pakistan has gone ahead and tested its nuclear devices and declared itself a nuclear weapons state. Such a move has ensured greater transparency about Pakistan’s capabilities and intentions. It also removes complexes, suspicions, and uncertainties about each other’s nuclear capabilities. A certain parity in nuclear weapons and missile capabilities will put in place structured and mutual deterrents. These could persuade the Governments of India and Pakistan to discuss bilateral disputes in a more rational manner. – J.N. Dixit in Indo-Pakistan in War and Peace

A mutual minimum nuclear deterrent will act as a stabilizing factor. – K. Sundarji, in Weapons of Mass Destruction: New Perspectives on Counterproliferation

Deterrence will continue, but on a higher level. I don’t think we are going to see a slide toward instability. I don’t think anyone will allow it to happen. – Jasjit Singh, interviewed in Defense News

The nuclear option will promote regional peace and create stability. – K.M. Arif, in Pakistan’s Security and the Nuclear Option

Attainment of nuclear capabilities by Pakistan and India has helped promote stability and prevented dangers of war… Self-interest itself should persuade Pakistan and India to exercise due restraint. Continuance of responsible conduct is likely also because it could gain greater tolerance of their nuclear policies. – Abdul Sattar, in Pakistan’s Security and the Nuclear Option

These high hopes were based on false premises. Optimists discounted domestic political and institutional drivers pushing for more bombs and better ways to deliver them. The abstract notion of minimum, credible deterrence couldn’t compete with these drivers and with growing threat perceptions.

Another false premise was that a sense of normalcy could be midwifed by devices with horrific destructive powers. In every case where states have felt compelled by security concerns to cross the nuclear threshold, their sense of insecurity only grew when a nuclear competition predictably ensued.

A third false premise was that the Bomb would impart a sustainable boost to diplomacy. Prime Minister Vajpayee tried to do precisely this by traveling over the Partition’s blood-soaked ground to Lahore — the most symbolic act of reconciliation thus far in the subcontinent’s nuclear history. But the Bomb is utterly indifferent to its uses, whether for peace making or war fighting.

Peacemakers have thus far been easily trumped by others who have sought military advantage under the nuclear umbrella or the disruption of diplomatic initiatives. Vajpayee’s attempt at Lahore was torpedoed by the Kargil war. Far less ambitious attempts at reconciliation by subsequent Prime Ministers in India and Pakistan have been foiled by spectacular acts of terror on Indian soil.

Engineering missiles is easy compared to engineering diplomatic accords. Accolades are given to those who do the former; brickbats await those who try the latter. As this graphic shows, India and Pakistan have flight-tested a total of seventeen types of missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons since the 1998 tests. Not all of these missiles will actually carry nuclear warheads, and missile types will be consolidated over time. But by any reckoning, seventeen is a very large number.

In contrast, the number of tangible diplomatic accomplishments since 1998 has been paltry. In 2003, Pakistan and India agreed to a cease-fire along the Kashmir divide. This agreement has often been breached, but remains essential. In 2005, another agreement was reached to provide prior notification of ballistic missile flight tests, followed by another in 2007 to provide notification of nuclear accidents. Other efforts have been made to increase cross-border trade, but progress has been beset by the usual bickering over linkages and conditionalities. Little of substance has been accomplished since the 2008 Mumbai attacks, whose planners have succeeded in raising barriers for those who wish to improve India-Pakistan relations.

A new Indian coalition government, regardless of its composition, can be expected to try again to improve relations with Pakistan. Significantly increased direct trade and nuclear risk reduction will again become possible. The likelihood of new explosions in India that can be traced back to Pakistan will also grow. National leaders in India and Pakistan will once again be tested whether they have the resolve to stabilize their nuclear competition and overcome spoilers.

Note to readers: A shorter version of this essay appeared in the Express Tribune, a Pakistani paper, on December 27th.


  1. Anjaan (History)

    The chart refers to the Indian Agni-V missile, which is clearly not meant for Pakistan … then, is it China specific, or does it also include the seed of deterrence against other powers of the world, allied with their major non-NATO ally Pakistan … ? … and how about the MIRV being developed by India … ?

    As long as Pakistan continues to enjoy the massive military and economic support from its western backers, Pakistan’s policies towards India can not be seen in isolation … and any attempt to do so would be misleading and mischievous, to say the least …

  2. Arun Vishwanathan (History)

    A very useful exercise. However, not taking into account China and the US results in looking at only part of the picture esp as the dynamics of competition between the US and China acts as the trigger for many of the current happenings in Asia including South Asia…

    A longer take on this issue & Credible Minimum Deterrence




  3. paralysisofanalysis11 (History)

    basically deterrence has failed because india failed to demonstrate unambigous mga destructive capability in nuclear test.There were several doubts of whether we tested thermonukes and low body wave magnitude led to continous challenge of yields. in reality we tested 2 thermonukes-sloika and tellar ulam. Sloika worked but tellar ulam did not. unless we do not test 200KT high yield thermonuke, pakistan will not stop

    • Juuso (History)

      Where is the evidence that India has tested sloika type weapon? Most sites say that all Indian tests were typical fission weapons and one failed h-bomb test.

  4. Tobias Piechowiak (History)

    Well, history repeating I guess…
    that’s the Cold War in miniature format. It will probably only stop when both sides have demonstrated their potency to deploy a crazy amount of high-yield weapons.
    Let’s hope their leaders react as (more or less) rational as did those of the previous superpowers to realize the folly of such a race…

    PS: What software did you create the timeline with?

  5. StanislausBabalistic (History)

    Hasn’t disarmament and nonproliferation always been just about as important to New Delhi as has deterrence? E.g., how much of the Indian nuclear buildup can be attributed to international failures on FMCT, CTBT, etc.? Not much of that is due to Indian diplomatic intransigence.

    From what I’ve read, the Indian mindset is something like “nobody should have these weapons, and we’re working towards that end, but as long as others DO have them, so will we.”

  6. Cthippo (History)

    This is an interesting three-body problem, and looking at just two of the entities involved gives a false representation.

    India is concerned, and with good reason, about China, which is an economic and nuclear superpower. In the event of tensions between the two countries it’s not clear that India could count on help from the US or EU because neither of their putative allies could afford to really piss off China.

    On the other hand, Pakistan is a threat, but probably a more manageable one. I suspect that the perception of the Chinese threat is a greater driver of Indian strategic planning than Pakistani one.

    Pakistan, of course, perceives India as it’s largest strategic threat, the proverbial 2000 lb elephant in the room.

    Where this gets messy, and why the US-USSR cold war analogy becomes problematic, is the disparity in threat perceptions. The US and Soviet Union saw each other as relative equals and as each other’s primary enemy, leading to a certain amount of stability. Basically, you had only one major actor that you had to plan for. In the case of the subcontinent, such parity doesn’t exist. China is India’s biggest threat, but India is barely on China’s radar. India is Pakistan’s largest threat, but Pakistan is more an annoying neighbor to India. Pakistan has tried to reach out to China for some sort of strategic alliance against India, but the Chinese aren’t worried about the Indians and aren’t interested in upsetting the diplomatic and economic applecart elsewhere.

    The other factor that I think comes into play with Pakistan, and I talked about this in my article about “After global Zero”, is that to some extent I believe their national self-image is tied up in being the nemesis of India. India is a major economic and nuclear power, and I feel like there is a strain in Pakistan of “I’ve got nukes and I threaten this major power so much that they have to build nukes to deter me, so I must be important!”. By continuing to build up their arsenal, Pakistan forces India to do the same, and thereby reinforces the perception of their own importance on the world stage.

    The other question, of course, is “is it working?”. Is the nuclear buildup on the subcontinent increasing or decreasing security? I would tend to argue that for the moment it is working. The expanding arsenals on both sides seem to be making people think twice about starting wars, and that is a good thing.

    In the arms control community we tend to see a nuclear standoff with escalating arsenals as a bad outcome. Perhaps instead of thinking of it as a bipolar good / bad thing, we should consider it on a spectrum of outcomes. MAD is certainly worse than peaceful co-existence and economic inter-dependance, but on the other hand it’s better than ongoing conventional warfare. A cold war under the shadow of the bomb tends to kill a lot fewer people than a hot one with regular guns and bombs.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      “MAD is certainly… better than ongoing conventional warfare. A cold war under the shadow of the bomb tends to kill a lot fewer people than a hot one with regular guns and bombs.”

      This logic will be correct only if one is absolutely certain that the cold war will not turn into a nuclear war. If the US-Soviet cold war had turned nuclear, the results would have been an order of magnitude worse than World Wars I and II combined.

      Suppose between India and Pakistan, a conventional war would kill 1 million, but a nuclear war would kill 20 million. If the chance of conventional war (without nukes) is 5% a year (once per 20 years), the chance for nuclear war would have to be less than 0.25% a year (once per 400 years) for this to be a good bargain.

      If, as some claim, a nuclear war between India and Pakistan would cause global cooling for 10 years, leading to crop failures and over 1 billion deaths from famine, the success rate for nuclear deterrence would need to be absolutely phenomenal for this to be a good bargain. The chance for nuclear war would have to be less than 0.005% per year (once per 20,000 years).

  7. John Maurer (History)

    India and Pakistan’s move beyond minimal deterrence isn’t all that surprising, given the experience of the US and the USSR during the Cold War. Two nuclear-armed countries facing a serious risk of armed conflict are unlikely to remain satisfied with only a few weapons apiece.

    As for the diplomatic benefits of building nuclear weapons, both India and Pakistan could probably make a strong case that their possession of nuclear weapons has significantly improved their standing amongst the great powers. US-India rapprochement is the flagship of this diplomatic benefit, though Pakistan continues to enjoy some level of diplomatic and financial support from both the United States and China.