CAN PAKISTAN AND INDIA STAY AWAY FROM NUCLEAR WAR?
On May 28, 25 years ago, Pakistan did five nuclear tests. On May 30, they did a sixth one. The tests were a reaction to India’s five nuclear tests on May 11 and 13. After the tests, both countries put a stop to any more testing. They have kept to the ban since May 1998, even though neither has signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).
South Asia getting nuclear weapons can be looked at from different points of view. For now, though, the main question is simple: Even though security experts and nuclear organizations in India and Pakistan agree that nuclear weapons are a deterrent, should we think of this as a fact for now and in the future?
After looking at these problems for a long time and supporting the deterrence framework, I’ve come to think that putting so much faith in deterrence might be wrong for a number of reasons. This is also true for other countries that have nuclear weapons. We shouldn’t be so sure that prevention will work in every case. In fact, there is more and more writing about how the world is “on the cusp of a Third Nuclear Age” where a number of things are likely to make the old belief in deterrence harder to believe, if not impossible to believe at all.
This piece is mostly about India and Pakistan, two nuclear countries that are at odds with each other. But some of these points also apply to other NWSs, including those whose nuclear weapons are “legalized” by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Today is the 25th anniversary of when Pakistan became a country with nuclear weapons. Most people believe that Pakistan’s nuclear parity with India has kept the two countries from getting into a serious war. However, given our strange past, geography, and the rise of new technologies, is this belief misplaced?
What comes next is not a full study or discussion of the new factors, but it is meant to bring them to the attention of a well-informed generalist. After I’ve listed these things, I want to talk about India and Pakistan.
HOW DO YOU DEFINE THE THIRD NUCLEAR AGE?
In a 2021 article for the European Journal of International Security called “Strategic non-nuclear weapons and the beginning of a Third Nuclear Age,” Andrew Future and Benjamin Zala define the Third Nuclear Age as the combination of Second Nuclear Age thinking — such as the deployment of Strategic Non-Nuclear Weapons (SNNWs) — “with the return of the kind of major power competition associated with the First Nuclear Age.” Experts have started to point out that this combination is very dangerous.
What are SNNWs, then? In general, they are weapons that can “engage targets at the strategic level of warfare, where the enemy’s sources of national power are located.” These weapons can be either physical or non-physical.
In the kinetic group are conventional precision-strike weapons like cruise and ballistic missiles, hypersonic glide vehicles, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which are getting more and more advanced. Anti-satellite weapons and rocket defenses are also in this group. By stopping strategic attacks, missile defenses can change the balance of deterrence and cause the enemy to use overwhelming preemptive force. These SNNWs are being used in the current war between Russia and Ukraine.
The second category, non-kinetic, includes cyber attacks, which can have strategic effects, and electronic-warfare capabilities. Controlling the electromagnetic spectrum can not only hurt or deny the enemy’s environment, but it can also have strategic effects for the side that controls the spectrum. Information warfare and tactics to influence people are another part.
Again, both Ukraine/NATO and Russia are using information warfare. Misinformation and disinformation campaigns, which are now well-known, hurt people’s trust in government and public organizations. They are also important tools for changing how people think.
The Kill Chain, Integration, and AI
| White Star | Nawaz Sharif at Pakistan’s nuclear test site in 1998
While SNNW technologies are making the battlefield more dangerous by getting more accurate and complex, cross-tech/cross-platform integration is concentrating and growing firepower in a way that is very dangerous.
Most people think that developments in artificial intelligence (AI) will also take people out of the decision-making process. This is not just a thought experiment, as multiple systems like this are being tried and prototypes are being made. The presence of SNNWs in a nuclear setting, like between a nuclear dyad, is also a problem.
Since they are “an employable and credible weapon system that can engage the sources of enemy power directly, skipping the tactical and operational levels of warfare,” nuclear adversaries can use them to try to keep the war from going nuclear. Also, there is no way to know if NWSs have conventional missiles or not.
Cross-platform interaction and the use of artificial intelligence, which we can call the “Internet of Military Things,” are changing how quickly decisions are made and what the military calls the “kill chain.” This also raises a lot of ethical questions. Up until now, the kill chain consisted of a number of steps that were done one after the other. With AI, we are now thinking about combining some of these steps and doing them at the same time to cut down on the time it takes for the chain to run.
In other words, the weapon is fired first, the find and fix processes happen at the same time as the flight, and the final target name is sent to the weapon while it is in flight through a SATCOM channel. When you add AI and hypersonic weapons to this, you can get an idea of how much time the kill chain will be shortened.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency of the United States did a virtual experiment in August of 2020. It put an AI fighter made by Heron against a top F-16 pilot. In a battle and maneuvers, the AI pilot beat the human pilot 5-0.
DARPA says that the trials were meant to reduce risks for its Air Combat Evolution (ACE) program by figuring out how human and machine pilots can share operational control of a fighter jet to improve its chances of completing a task. The main idea behind ACE is to let the pilot go from being a “single platform operator” to being a “mission commander.” This means that the pilot will not only be in charge of flying their own plane, but also of handling teams of drones that are tied to their fighter jet.
THE NEW RISKS
Pakistan and India have certain legal and moral duties because they have nuclear weapons but are not part of the NPT. | AFP
Some of these tools cost a lot of money, but others don’t. As more and more people use them, the cost of many things, like drones and computer and digital skills, will keep going down. There are almost no rules in place for a number of new devices at this point.
Integration and the digital world have brought other risks as well. In a study from January 2018, the Royal Institute of International Affairs said that cyberattacks are becoming more likely to happen against US, British, and other nuclear weapons systems. This is not a vague threat at all.
In 2010, the US Air Force lost contact with 50 Minuteman III Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) at Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming for an hour. This raised the terrifying possibility that an enemy could have taken control of the missiles and sent wrong information to the nuclear command-and-control networks.
In 2016, Andrew Futter wrote a study called “Cyber Threats and Nuclear Weapons: New Questions for Command and Control, Security, and Strategy” for the Royal United Services Institute.
Futter says, “This has two important effects on nuclear weapons management and nuclear strategy. First, increasing complexity, especially through computerization and digitization, raises the risk of normal accidents in the nuclear enterprise. Second, complex systems used to manage nuclear forces have inherent vulnerabilities, weaknesses, and bugs that hackers could use or manipulate in a variety of ways.”
Not everything. In a book called The Fragile Balance of Terror: Deterrence in the New Nuclear Age, which came out in January 2023 and was edited by professors Vipin Narang and Scott D. Sagan, they talk about “declining confidence in deterrence.”
In the book, some of the best experts in the world try to figure out what is going on with nuclear weapons in the modern world. They look at things like the rise of personalist dictatorships, incomplete or wrong information, states facing multiple nuclear adversaries (regional subsystems) and working in a new information environment where false information can be planted or spread quickly, and states with small nuclear arsenals that they fear may not be reliable.
“Each of these factors on its own, and especially when they come together, creates risks that our standard strategies for nuclear deterrence are not equipped to handle or deal with,” they said.
This is just a bird’s-eye view of a much larger and more complicated body of writing. This corpus is getting bigger, not to scare people, but to look at new, uncertain trends.
INDIA-PAKISTAN, A CONFLICT DYAD
Some people might say that it will take a long time for some of these new technologies to reach our land. They are mistaken.
UAVs, missile defenses, and long-range, accurate weaponry are all already in use. India is already working to improve its anti-ballistic and anti-cruise missile defenses by making MIRVs (multiple independently-targetable re-entry vehicles), hypersonic glide vehicles (which shorten the already very short flight times of missiles), and SSBNs (ship submersible ballistic nuclear), which are basically nuclear-powered submarines that can carry ballistic and cruise missiles with nuclear warheads.
These weapons can carry both tactical and strategic warheads, which means they can be non-nuclear or nuclear. When they are combined with non-kinetic strategic choices like cyber, electronic, and information warfare, they give India and Pakistan the same set of problems. In fact, because these two nuclear-armed conflicts are so close to each other, the chances of mistakes, accidents, and empty threats are even higher.
There are a number of other risk factors when it comes to India and Pakistan: they are stuck in a conflictual model; they have had multiple armed confrontations; they both have growing nuclear arsenals and capabilities; since 2014, but especially since 2016, there has been no dialogue framework between the two, even though there are covert channels; multiple military and non-military confidence-building measures (hotlines, etc.) are rarely used to stop a crisis, though.
This place is well-known. But it also adds to another set of problems that make it more likely that there will be a fight:
a: India’s policy of “limited conflict”;
b: India’s shift from a “declaratory” “no first use” policy in its 2003 philosophy to what can only be called a “non-stated” “first use” policy; and
c: India hasn’t done a good job of managing weapons systems and platforms in the past, which makes the chance of an accidental war higher.
A SLOW START AND A SHORT WAR
The parts of a missile that India fired and fell near Mian Channu on March 9, 2022, according to Reuters.
India’s policy of limited war is likely to spiral out of control. This story goes back to 2001-02, when India mobilized fully. The political and military leaders of India learned two things from this mobilization. First, they learned that they needed to have a forward-leaning posture. Second, they learned that they needed to come up with plans to punish Pakistan in small, non-escalating ways.
If India stayed within that range, the idea goes, Pakistan would have a hard time using nuclear weapons as a deterrent because it would be seen as too much and would get a bad reputation around the world.
India’s “Cold Start” philosophy started here. Cold Start is a limited war plan that aims to quickly take over Pakistani land without, in theory, risking a nuclear war.
A writer for The Economist explained that the plan was to have “nimbler, integrated units stationed closer to the border.” This would allow India to do a lot of damage before international powers called for a stop to the fighting. By focusing on small goals, it would also stop Pakistan from having a reason to start a nuclear attack.”
This way of thinking is wrong because it is based on the idea that India will get the upper hand in the first or second round, causing Pakistan to either step up the fight or back down. India thinks that if Pakistan does increase, the rest of the world will side with India and Pakistan will have to back down.
But things might not go as planned, as was clear in February 2019. India threatened missile strikes, which is a big no-no between two nuclear powers. The situation did not get worse because of international pressure, Pakistan’s promise to respond, and Islamabad’s choice to return the Indian pilot who was shot down.
But things could have gotten worse. What if India hadn’t missed the target in Balakot and killed children in a seminary? What if, under pressure, Pakistan had attacked and destroyed the Indian targets that India had chosen? What if India had carried out its threat to attack Pakistan with missiles, causing Pakistan to strike back with more missiles?
Many things could have gone wrong at every point along that path. The fact that they didn’t could have been because the Indian strike package missed its target by chance.
Relations between the two countries are still tense on a political and strategic level, and there hasn’t been much or any talk between them since August 5, 2019, when India illegally and independently took away Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy in violation of UN resolutions. From what we’ve seen in the past, when ties between two sides get worse, it’s more likely that they’ll fight.
India’s “no-first-use” policy is a fake.
India’s Nuclear Doctrine from 2003 says that India is committed to NFU, which means that India will not use nuclear weapons first unless it is struck with nuclear weapons. As many experts have said, the NFU declarations are political comments, not operational ones.
Christopher Clary and Vipin Narang wrote in a 2019 article for International Security that “Indian officials are [increasingly] advancing the logic of counterforce targeting, and they have begun to lay out exceptions to India’s long-standing no-first-use policy to potentially allow for the preemptive use of nuclear weapons.” There is also other evidence that India has come a long way since 2003 and is no longer operationally limited by NFU.
Also, as the debates about NFU have shown, it is very hard to check a state’s NFU statement. For example, Li Bin, a professor at China’s Tsinghua University and an expert in nuclear strategy, says that a declaration like this can’t be checked without knowing a state’s nuclear force size, composition, accuracy of weapons (for counterforce targeting), and conventional force strength.
What NATO officials found in the secret papers about Warsaw Pact war plans after the Berlin Wall fell also shows that NFU is not important for operations. Therese Delpech, a French diplomat and strategic expert, wrote that “military records of the Warsaw Pact that fell into German hands showed without a doubt that Russian operational plans called for the use of nuclear and chemical weapons in Germany at the start of hostilities, even if NATO forces were only using conventional weapons.”
Given how the Indian military is changing, Pakistan has no choice but to see India’s NFU from 2003 as just a policy statement with no real meaning.
ACCIDENTS, MORE ACCIDENTS
At 6:43 p.m. on March 9, 2022, the Air Defense Operations Center of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) picked up and started following a fast-moving flying object that, after flying for a while in Indian airspace, made a sharp turn and moved towards Pakistani land. It went into Pakistan’s air space and then crashed near Mian Channu in the Khanewal area of Pakistani Punjab.
The Director-General of Inter-Services Public Relations (DG-ISPR) told the reporters about what happened the next day. The DG-ISPR said, “It’s important to note that this object’s flight path put many international and domestic passenger flights, as well as people’s lives and property on the ground, in danger.” No matter what led this to happen, it shows that India is not very good at using technology or following procedures.
After the incident, the Indian government stayed quiet for two days before saying that one of its missiles had been launched by mistake while it was having “routine maintenance” and that it had gone into Pakistan.
Six days later, on March 15, the Indian defense minister, Rajnath Singh, told the Indian government that a missile had been released by accident while it was being checked and fixed.
He said, “It turned out later that the missile fell on Pakistani land. It’s too bad that this happened. But it’s great that no one got hurt. I’d like to tell the House that the Government has taken this issue very seriously and that a high-level investigation has been ordered.”
Singh’s comment brought up a number of technical and strategic questions, which is why Pakistan demanded that any investigation into the launch include a team of technical experts from Pakistan.
Pakistan’s statement also asked seven important questions: what kind of missile or projectile was accidentally fired; what was the missile’s programmed flight path; how and why it went off course, with an Indian analyst saying “justifiably” that “such an incident had the potential to start a crisis if Islamabad chose to react, since it had no idea that the missile was unarmed”; was the missile armed; and was it fired from Pakistan or India?
QUESTIONS AND CONCERNS
In addition to the technical questions, which need to be answered for reasons like strategic stability, safety, and security, the most important question is whether India told Pakistan that a missile was fired by accident.
Singh said that India “later learned” that the missile landed in Pakistani territory. This makes it clear that India did not tell Pakistan while the missile was in flight or after it went off course, either because it did not keep track of the missile’s flight or on purpose.
No matter how you look at it, whether the operators were incompetent or on purpose, the incident shows not only India’s inability to handle sensitive technology, but also the very worrying communication gaps between India and Pakistan, two nuclear countries that are next to each other and locked in a conflicting model.
Analysts inside and outside of India have asked important questions about the many accidents and events that have happened over the years while equipment and systems have been handled.
One Indian analyst said, “The Indian military services have seen a lot of high-profile tragedies and accidents in the last few years.” On February 27, 2019, during PAF’s Operation Swift Retort, while a dogfight was going on over the skies along the Line of Control, Indian ground air defense shot down one of its own Russian Mi-17V5 “Hip” medium-lift helicopters, killing six service officials and one civilian.
In two other cases, India’s Arihant nuclear submarine was taken out of service for a long time in 2018, and 18 crew members died when a fire and explosion broke out on an Indian Kilo-class submarine in 2013.
ELUSIVE COMMON GROUND
Pakistan and India have certain legal and moral duties because they have nuclear weapons but are not part of the NPT. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) keeps an eye on their peaceful nuclear programs.
India already belongs to the Missile Technology Control Regime and is trying to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group. It has a 123 Agreement with the United States. Pakistan, for its part, has always fought against non-proliferation and disarmament policies that favor one country over another. Pakistan still wants a standardized approach to the CTBT and the Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty (FMCT) at the Conference on Disarmament, even though it supports the work being done on these international agreements.
It has also said that new technologies, like supersonic missiles, weapons that can kill on their own, cyber security, military uses of artificial intelligence, and quantum computing, need to be regulated.
There are two kinds of problems that make it hard to find a middle ground. One is, of course, the way India and Pakistan get along and the problems that cause them. The other is that India thinks it is a regional power that needs a seat at the top table.
India’s bid for a permanent place on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) is one good example of this. This desire, along with India’s tense relationship with China, makes it unlikely that India will agree to a larger bilateral deal with Pakistan that could slow the development of India’s conventional and nuclear military powers in relation to China.
The second problem is that the US wants to work with India and see New Delhi as a source of internet security in this area. This strategy isn’t just about India’s market and economic prospects; it’s also about the US’s competition with China. As time goes on, these problems will only get worse.
New tools are making nuclear environments more dangerous. India and Pakistan have a lot more to lose because of the reasons above. There are a number of security measures in place between India and Pakistan that are meant to build trust, but at best, they have only been partly followed.
As things stand, it doesn’t look like India wants to talk to Pakistan very much. Pakistan, for its part, has shown that it wants to get back to normal, but only if India goes back on its choice from August 5, 2019, to take away Jammu and Kashmir’s special status.
In the near future, there doesn’t seem to be much room for a real conversation about how to reduce nuclear risks, even though those risks are still rising.