Clary on South Asia’s Conventional Military Balance and Deterrence Stability

October 31, 2013

On December 13th, the Stimson Center will release our first volume of essays, Deterrence Stability and Escalation Control in South Asia, edited by Michael Krepon and Julia Thompson.  We are releasing a new essay today, "The Conventional Military Balance and Deterrence Stability in South Asia" by Christopher Clary, a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  Chris is also a Stanton Nuclear Security Predoctoral Fellow at the RAND Corporation in Washington. He previously served as country director for South Asian affairs in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2006 to 2009.

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India's near-term military options against Pakistan are risky and uncertain. They are risky because India's ability to keep a conflict limited is in doubt and because nuclear risk is present throughout the escalation process. They are uncertain because, while India enjoys conventional military advantages across all three services, these advantages are not as decisive as sometimes assumed.

These conclusions leave no room for complacency. The military expenditure asymmetry is simply too large and growing too rapidly for even a determined Pakistani effort to keep up with growing Indian military strength. India has gone from spending nearly four to five times as much as Pakistan in 1988 to nearly seven to eight times as much in 2012. Neither Pakistan's geographic advantages nor India's procurement lethargy can prevent a growing conventional mismatch from occurring. Nor can India's lethargy in military procurement be assumed indefinitely into the future.

India's economy is simply too large for Pakistan to compete. Even if India maintains defense spending at around or under two per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), over time it will outstrip Pakistan's ability to maintain a credible conventional defense, even though Pakistan spends many times more on defense as a percentage of GDP. As the Indian military expands its qualitative superiority, particularly in the air domain, it will become increasingly difficult for the Pakistani military to deny India victory in limited fights in the medium- to long-term.

Growing conventional asymmetries are likely to decrease the ability of outsiders, most notably the United States, to manage the risk of conflict on the subcontinent. Deterrence stability on the subcontinent depends in large measure on Pakistan's military leadership. In the 1990s, Rawalpindi responded to unfavorable strategic shifts by relying to a greater extent on violent non-state actors. This strategy forced New Delhi to "pay attention" to Pakistan, while tying down significant numbers of Indian security forces in counterinsurgency operations, most notably in Kashmir.  Put another way, support for militancy was considered to be a force multiplier for Pakistan and a force divider for India.

This strategy may have paid short-term dividends in the 1990s, but it now punishing Pakistan at least as much, if not more, than India. Pakistan pays reputational costs for increases in violence across the Kashmir Divide without improving its leverage to generate a favorable political settlement.  Nor has this strategy steered militancy away from Pakistan-indeed, the reverse is true.  Continued violence-by-proxy directed against India would not substantially reduce Indian conventional military capabilities arrayed against Pakistan, even if acts of terror are directed at Indian cities away from Jammu and Kashmir-a trend that has been evident since 2002. India's response to mass casualty acts of terror has been to strengthen law enforcement and paramilitary forces, drawing from abundant manpower, without reducing conventional military capabilities.

If non-state actors are not the solution to the growing conventional force mismatch, Rawalpindi can either rely increasingly on its nuclear arsenal for deterrence or can seek to normalize its relations with India. These paths are not necessarily incompatible. If there were a diminution of terrorist attacks on India, or demonstrably greater distance between non-state actors and Pakistan's military and intelligence establishment, Pakistan's conventional capabilities and growing nuclear arsenal could serve as an adequate deterrent.

Washington will have limited ability to fundamentally change defense trends that are tilting hard in India's direction. As such, providing weapons systems to Pakistan that are most suitable to a potential war with India would do little to alter basic trends, while postponing the choices facing Pakistan's military leadership. Historically, U.S. officials have supported arms sales in an effort to demonstrate an enduring U.S.-Pakistan partnership, to calm Rawalpindi's concerns about the Indian threat, and to reduce Pakistan's reliance on nuclear weapons.  In retrospect, the latter two objectives appear highly dubious. While U.S. conventional arms sales might continue to have modest symbolic value, over the medium- to long-term Rawalpindi's concerns about the Indian threat are unlikely to be diminished through this mechanism.  Even modest sales of high-end weapons systems to Pakistan could prompt blocking action in the U.S. Congress, unless Pakistan is viewed as an essential and more reliable partner in countering terrorism.

Continuing to subsidize Rawalpindi's anti-India policy is not a wise U.S. policy objective. Nor is it possible for the United States to undertake the task of minimizing a conventional arms imbalance in the subcontinent.  Pakistan will turn increasingly to China for this purpose. Neither is it wise for the United States to accentuate an arms imbalance in particularly sensitive areas. Restraints on U.S. arms sales to India might focus on military technologies that are most dangerous to deterrence stability, and over which U.S. suppliers presently exercise a monopoly.

The defense relationship between the United States and India will continue to grow, particularly with respect to concerns over Beijing's more assertive military posture around its periphery. But it would be unwise to include weapon systems in transactions to India that increase the likelihood that a crisis with Pakistan leads to war, especially weapon systems that make it more likely that a war leads to nuclear escalation.

Three types of weapon systems appear to meet the potentially destabilizing, potentially controllable, and Pakistan-centric standards. First, the Joint Standoff Weapon could facilitate precision-strike without requiring manned platforms to cross into Pakistani airspace. This weapon system modestly lowers the risks that Indian political decision makers might perceive from carrying out cross-border strikes. The fact that this weapon's range exposes many Pakistani cities and military installations to potential strikes, but can reach very few targets in China, further suggests the sale of this weapon system to India merits closer study.

Second, advanced cluster munitions are designed as an area weapon capable of defeating combat vehicles, including main battle tanks. Such munitions have the potential to dramatically improve the efficacy of a single sortie against ground targets, with the potential to quickly disrupt the balance in ground forces. Given the nature of the Himalayan border with China, this type of weapon would appear to be Pakistan-specific, and of limited utility in an India-China contingency.

Third, there are dubious strategic rationales for the U.S. release of missile defense technology to India. Any prospective Indian missile defense will have little utility against Chinese missiles, will incentivize the production of even greater fissile material by Pakistan, will incentivize greater production and use of cruise missiles, and could incentivize Pakistan to use nuclear weapons earlier and in greater numbers in a crisis. None of these developments appear to be salutary to regional stability, crisis and arms race stability, deterrence stability, or U.S. national interests.

Today, these weapon systems are primarily or entirely available from the United States. In other words, U.S. restrictions might delay Indian acquisition of the capability rather than merely divert the sale to the benefit of a third party.

For its part, New Delhi has self-interested reasons to be cautious about pursuing unconstrained weapon development or procurement in two areas. The first regards missile defenses. Indian civilian and military officials have yet to articulate a strategic vision or the requirements driving Indian missile defense research and development. At present, Indian missile defense developments are open ended and likely to encourage Pakistan to undertake a variety of countervailing actions that negate the potential benefits of missile defenses while generating other nuclear risks to India. At a minimum, Indian missile defense research and testing give Pakistan's strategic organizations a potent argument for more funding for delivery vehicle and warhead production.

Similarly, Indian political leaders have reason to be cautious about the development of increasingly precise ballistic missiles, which are likely to prompt Pakistani military planners to wonder whether India is considering counterforce missions for its ballistic missile force.  Probable Pakistani responses-more fissile material, more missiles, more warheads, and using nuclear weapons earlier in a crisis-are not prospective outcomes beneficial to Indian security.

The longer version of this essay questions the conventional wisdom that the Indian military could prevail quickly or easily in armed conflict with Pakistan. In the near term, the limited military options available to Indian political and military leaders in a deep crisis carry with them significant risk of escalation or are so limited that they are unlikely to achieve the Indian objectives of altering Pakistani support to militants through the punitive use of force. To the extent this assessment is accurate, and perceived as such by decision makers in New Delhi, deterrence stability is likely to obtain in South Asia-for the near term.

While the conventional balance in South Asia is conducive to deterrence stability over the next few years, ongoing trends will produce Indian conventional military dominance. Over this longer timeframe, New Delhi will gain much greater latitude and have more options to employ conventional force. Pakistan's military establishment may increase the peacetime readiness and wartime role of nuclear weapons to compensate for the growing conventional imbalance, dramatically enhancing nuclear risks in peacetime, crisis, and war.  The alternative to open ended competition is to normalize Pakistan's relations with India and to reorient military resources toward internal security threats. Unless and until national security managers actively seek more normal relations, this essay has suggested targeted areas of restraint that could minimize some foreseeable dangers.

For Washington, this essay suggests a substantial decrease in certain conventional military aid to Pakistan and a selective diminution of certain defense technology transfers to India. These measures constitute modest attempts to manage a very difficult transition in the South Asian security environment. Significant changes in the regional conventional balance will occur whether or not decision makers in New Delhi, Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Washington and Beijing are prudent and thoughtful.  The steps advocated here could help avert some of the risks inherent in the transformation of South Asia's military environment.

Stimson's programming on nuclear-related issues on the subcontinent is made possible by grant support from the MacArthur Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation and the National Nuclear Security Administration.