Michael KreponThe Myth of Deterrence Stability

This summer, I’ve been thinking and writing about the delusional, aspirational notion of deterrence stability between antagonistic nuclear-armed states. For the short form of my argument, see my essay in Dawn. The long form will be part of a second collection of essays on deterrence stability and escalation control to be published by the Stimson Center.

Deterrence stability between nuclear-armed states works just fine when they have nothing to fight about. When, on the other hand, states acquire nuclear weapons because of serious friction, the quest for deterrence stability is chimerical. Conceptualizers of deterrence stability predicated that the mutual acquisition of secure, second-strike capabilities would be the precondition of success. The United States and Soviet Union met this requirement early on – and kept going. The more they competed, the less secure they felt, regardless of overkill capabilities.

I think there’s still a reasonable chance that India and China will avoid repeating on a smaller scale the mistakes made by the United States and the Soviet Union. If, however, these two rising powers embrace MIRVs and counterforce targeting, negative ramifications will spread well beyond southern Asia. More on this in another post.

At present, the clearest manifestation of the chimerical pursuit of deterrence stability is between Pakistan and India. Both are in the process of achieving secure, second strike capabilities – if they haven’t already gotten there – but their competition isn’t winding down.

Writing projects are an occasion to let my fingers to do the walking through old 4X6 cards in shoeboxes to find quotes stashed away and long forgotten. Younger wonks: The reference here is to the “Yellow Pages” — a fat book of alphabetical business listings on flimsy yellow paper. Mad Men encouraged us to use this relic of the Analog Age with a long-running advertising campaign to let our fingers do the walking until we found the right page. We also let our fingers do the walking looking for books in card catalogues at the library.

Here’s a sampling of dusty quotes on 4×6 cards on the nuclear competition on the subcontinent:

“You can proclaim to the whole world without hesitation that I am beyond repair. I regard the employment of the atomic bomb for the wholesale destruction of men, women and children as the most diabolical use of science.” — Mahatma Gandhi in Harijan, July 7, 1946.

“We must protect our integrity, but our missiles must not be targeted against the people of India, with whom Pakistan has no enmity. Our culture and our traditions demand that we refrain from making cities and civil population as targets. We must only aim at nuclear installations and military installations, if at all that eventually is thrust on Pakistan.” – editorial in The Muslim (Pakistan), June 1, 1998.

“For India to initiate a nuclear attack in the subcontinent would be a betrayal of the human spirit.” — Raja Ramanna, a key figure in India’s nuclear weapons program, cited by K. Subrahmanyam in the Economic Times, May 26, 1993

“More is unnecessary if less is enough.” – General K. Sundarji, one of the founding fathers of India’s nuclear posture

“India will not engage in any arms race. We shall not, therefore, pursue an open-ended program.” – Jaswant Singh, then India’s Minister of External Affairs, December, 1999.

“If the safety and security of the nation require deployment of conventional and non-conventional weapons on the border, the Government will not hesitate to do so.” – Salman Khursheed, then India’s Minister of State for External Affairs, September, 1994.

“India may be a billion-plus nation with six times Pakistan’s GNP, but in the prevalent nuclear environment, such superiority is meaningless. Therefore, the Indian leadership should face reality and accept Pakistan as an equal.” — Lt. Gen. Javed Nasir, former Director General of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, in The News, September 7, 2000.

“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.” – Pervez Musharraf, then President and Chief of Army Staff, at the commissioning of an Agosta-class submarine, December, 2003.


  1. Khan Sahab (History)

    Pakistan’s policy has always been of credible minimum and proportionate response to Indian provocations. It was India that dragged Pakistan into nuclearisation and now feels frustrated by the latter’s effective responses. Unfortunately, India enjoys political support due to the geo-economic incentives it offers to the West. As George Perkovich of the Carnegie Endowment of International Peace states, while Pakistan’s nuclear programme is security-driven; the same cannot be said for India which has a prestige-driven problem.

    • krepon (History)

      Khan Sahab:
      You are misrepresenting George’s views — who is, by the way, the proud father of a new baby girl.
      Every state that decides to go down this path takes pride in being able to develop, test and produce nuclear weapons. But no state does this for reasons of prestige. States acquire the Bomb because they have serious security issues.
      In India’s case, this had to do with being situated next to not one, but two states with more advanced nuclear weapon programs in the 1980s and 1990s.
      If this were all about prestige, India would not have waited 24 years between testing nuclear devices.

  2. Arch Roberts (History)

    Whoa there, Michael. Both instances of Indian nuclear tests were accompanied by government chest-pounding about its nuclear and technological prowess. In 1974, maybe India was worried about China, but surely was not much concerned about Pakistan, having dismembered it in 1971. Hard to see what else drove the decision to test then. But it certainly provided Indira a big boost in the polls. It also provided India a certain technological isolation (NSG, etc.) that may have led over time to drive the program.

    I’m also not sure that pride didn’t play a major role in 1998. As I recall, there was a thermonuclear weapon in the mix of five, and there was similar braggadocio attached to that technological accomplishment. Pakistani pride made a counterpoint test a requirement.

    There was plenty of nasty rhetoric between India and Pakistan leading up to the 1998 tests, much of it rendered up from the whopping intelligence assets each side applied to the other’s weapons program. But I find it pretty hard to believe India’s pulling the trigger first was based on any hard-boiled, clear-eyed assessment of their security situation. It was a serious mistake that continues to cost a lot of money for both sides, as your post implies, and to me, as a person who’s been there a lot a long time ago but doesn’t live in the neighborhood, was based far more on prestige and politics on both sides than on a real security threat.

  3. Arch Roberts (History)

    Just wondering, what was the state of nuclear strategic studies and thinking in 1998? How much did the concept of deterrence stability figure in to government decisions to pop those babies off?

    • krepon (History)


      One characteristic of Indian strategic culture is to avoid making decisions. But a decision to test nuclear devices became necessary after the NPT was indefinitely extended and the CTBT was negotiated. The door was closing. Pakistan’s was further along with weaponizing its deterrent, thanks to help from China.

      A new Indian government decided to that it was time to walk through the door. Some deluded themselves that Pakistan wasn’t capable of following suit, but the quickness of Pakistan’s rejoinder clarified that it was fully ready and capable to go public, too.

      Were Indian decision makers and strategic analysts fully aware of the consequences for deterrence stability of going overtly nuclear? I think not. Most of the commentary afterward (in both countries) was about how relations would stabilize under the nuclear umbrella. But few had second thoughts in India: China and Pakistan had the Bomb and were in collusion. What choice did New Delhi have?


  4. Asad Khan (History)

    “When, on the other hand, states acquire nuclear weapons because of serious friction, the quest for deterrence stability is chimerical. Conceptualizers of deterrence stability predicated that the mutual acquisition of secure, second-strike capabilities would be the precondition of success.”

    Three major Wars, Two major conflicts (Siachen + Kargil) along Line of Control, land boundary dispute (Sialkot Sector), sea boundary dispute (Sir Creek), opposing national defense doctrines etc etc.

    No-brainer that each country striving to get second strike capability in whichever capacity.


  5. Arch Roberts (History)

    According to some accounts (http://nuclearweaponarchive.org/India/IndiaShakti.html), and I know it’s way, more complicated, the decision to test reflected Vajpayee’s preference for overt nuclear status of long standing, not to mention the BJP party manifesto. I imagine there was some healthy debate in party conferences before 1998, particularly given Desai’s antinuclear posture in the previous BJP government. Sure would love to have been a fly on the wall. Although their nuclear program was certainly going full-bore, no one can ever say what Pakistan might have done had India not tested. And I remain to be convinced that India’s strategic environment at the time required a test that changed their environment forever. They crossed a line in 1974, and did it again in 1998.

  6. Arch Roberts (History)

    I’ve written this I think here before, but in January 1989 I took a trip with Steve Solarz and others to visit a newly-elected Benazir Bhutto and Rajiv Gandhi, viewed at the time with great optimism as the potential ringers-in of a new age in India-Pakistan relations. In a separate meeting General Beg, newly-minted Army Chief of Staff, tossed out an outlandish trial balloon (it wasn’t put exactly this way): what if Pakistan were to sign the NPT and the CTBT prospectively, meaning they could keep the weapons-grade material they had already produced? I believe a good part of the argument was couched in terms of India’s response, no surprise. (And my notebook was disappeared in a house move some years later, so I can’t be sure – losing a steno pad is almost as bad as losing a shoebox.)

    But my surmise is that Pakistani thinking at the time was pretty sophisticated. They knew Pressler amendment sanctions were in the offing; there was a new Gandhi in Delhi who might be easier to deal with than his mother; they already had a design. courtesy of China. They knew very well the vagaries of the NPT. They were casting about for ideas.

    I had met many times in previous years with scholars from the acronymically-unfortunate Pakistan Institute for Strategic Studies, lots of academics, and senior military guys, and had a longstanding, often hilarious, relationship with Munir Khan. On each trip, the same in India.

    After Beg floated his idea, I had to pull an all-nighter for Solarz figuring out what the legislative implications might be. They were formidable, as you might imagine. And they were dashed when Steve meticulously described the idea to an Indian-Pakistani press gaggle upon his return to DC.

    So therein lies a small tale. But I have always thought that, for Pakistan, the nuke would always be a weapon of last resort as a defense against India, whom they could never match in a conventional military sense, perhaps not even requiring a test.

    On the other hand, many of those discussions in India long ago always carried an undertone of big-power aspirations, and status.

    I should belatedly hasten to say that I don’t choose sides here. Each argument for going nuclear can be argued round or square. But India hit the tipping point.

  7. George William Herbert (History)

    I have not adequately studied this, but my impression from (not too) afar is that the India/China relationship largely stabilized, whereas the India/Pakistan one got worse after the testing.

    • krepon (History)

      There’s still some friction on the Line of Actual Control — without the live fire that happens across the Kashmir divide. But on the whole, I’d agree with you. We’ll see if this is sustainable.

  8. Jonah Speaks (History)

    A problem with “nuclear deterrence” is that some of its purveyors try to make it do too much — in particular to “deter” conventional wars, not simply to deter nuclear attacks. How is this basic conflict in purpose to be squared? Presumably, this requires an arms race where only the side with the biggest and scariest nuclear stockpile “wins.”

    Nuclear deterrence “stability” with minimal nuclear firepower requires that both sides use nuclear weapons only to deter nuclear weapons use by the other side. In particular, no using or threatening nuclear weapons to deter or avoid losing a conventional conflict. That condition did not hold during the Cold War and does not currently hold for India and Pakistan.

    That condition may currently hold for India and China, because both have announced no-first-use (NFU) policies. Since one side may not trust the other side to adhere to NFU in a war or other crisis, an additional requirement for nuclear stability at minimal levels would be that each side somehow find a way to make its NFU policies credible to the other side.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      It is important to note that the “conventional conflict” which Pakistan may have deterred (from discussion, at least; not clear on warplanning or on openness to consider using) was a blitzkrieg type punishment attack option which was only a couple of steps short of directly threatening the existence of Pakistan.

      India has done that before; though the fault for starting it lies elsewhere, they did partition the country, invade East Pakistan, and separate it out as the new country now known as Bangladesh.

      India’s “Oh, we can just do this and it will stop there” has been clearly communicated by Pakistanis as being seen there as a threat to their national existence.

      I think that, as a rule, none of the other nuclear power mutual relationships exist in a situation where any of them *could* just use conventional force in a blitz to attempt to threaten the existence of another. An extended conventional war, perhaps, but nobody else is in a similar position.

      One could consider the apparently successful post-1973 deterrence by Israel of invasions of its territory as something akin to another example, but they’d roundly defeated their enemies conventionally so many times by then (49, 56, 67, 73) and 73 was more of a political move by both Sadat and Assad than an attempt at directly threatening Israel’s existence, once you look at the details.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      I think we can add Russia, North Korea, and probably USA (in its extended deterrence capacity) to the list of nations that rely on nuclear weapons to deter conventional attack. I don’t know which list Israel is on, because its opaque arsenal seems aimed at possible future threats, not yet materialized.

      Whether a conventional attack would last 6 days or 6 years is probably immaterial to these nations’ thinking, if they believe their conventional forces would lose.

      I think the bigger question is whether it is possible to gain acceptance of a political principle, definable within a treaty, that nuclear arsenals be limited to a minimal amount needed to deter unprovoked nuclear attack or nuclear blackmail. This minimal amount would not necessarily be enough to deter a conventional attack, nor necessarily enough to deter nuclear retaliation against a conventional attack.

  9. George William Herbert (History)

    Jonah, in a sense everyone with nukes is making that deterrent stance.

    However, the Pakistani response to Cold Start was specific and focused, and responding to a more immediate short term threat. It was not vague or long term.