Policy Paper

The Stability-Instability Paradox in South Asia

in Program

The United States and the Soviet Union managed to avoid nuclear and conventional warfare during the Cold War, while jockeying for advantage in a myriad of ways, including proxy wars and a succession of crises that became surrogates for direct conflict. International relations and deterrence theorists aptly describe this tense standoff in which much blood and treasure was expended  –  but without direct conflict  –  as the “stability-instability paradox”.

The stability-instability paradox was embedded in the enormity of the stakes involved in crossing the nuclear threshold. As posited by western deterrence theorists, offsetting nuclear capabilities and secure, second-strike capabilities would induce special caution, providing the basis for war prevention and escalation control. Offsetting nuclear deterrents channeled the superpower competition into “safer” pursuits, one object of which would be to impose penalties on an adversary without inducing direct conflict.

The purpose of this essay is to briefly explore the extent to which the stability-instability paradox is applicable to the subcontinent. One central tenet of the stability-instability paradox  –  that offsetting nuclear capabilities will increase tensions between adversaries  –  has already been amply demonstrated in South Asia. Whether the second central tenet of the stability-instability paradox  –  that, despite increased tensions and severe crises, nuclear-armed adversaries will avoid a major conflict or a nuclear exchange  –  applies to the subcontinent cannot be answered with confidence at this juncture.

Deterrence Optimists and Pessimists

Two camps of deterrence theorists have formed over whether a nuclearized subcontinent will prevent a major conflict and foster escalation control. One camp might be called deterrence optimists. This camp naturally includes Indian and Pakistani strategists who chafed at western efforts to prevent new members from joining the nuclear club.

Those who hold diametrically opposed views might be called deterrence pessimists. This camp works from very different assumptions and arrives at deeply troubling conclusions. In this view, the situation in South Asia, like that during the Cold War, is far from stable and could lead to inadvertent escalation.

Instability and Risk

The concepts of escalation control and stable nuclear deterrence presume rational decisions by rational actors, even in the deepest crisis. There are, however, extremist groups in Pakistan and India that would view the advent of crisis as an opportunity rather than as a problem to be contained. Deterrence optimists also presume that “Murphy’s Law” does not apply to nuclear weapons – at least not to the extent that an accident or a chain reaction of miscalculation, error, chance, or misuse of authority would lead to a crossing of the nuclear threshold. These presumptions were rather generous during the Cold War, which was replete with accidents, close calls, faulty intelligence assessments and miscalculations that could have resulted in nuclear exchanges.

All of these factors also exist in South Asia. It is hard for India and Pakistani officials to predict with accuracy the holdings of the other side. Moreover, India and Pakistan rely primarily on human intelligence on nuclear matters, since national technical means are minimal. Human intelligence can be spotty and unreliable. The potential for misestimating an adversary’s intentions and maneuvers are therefore considerable.

Deterrence optimists presume that India’s nuclear arsenal is secure from attack, given its large landmass. While it is necessary for New Delhi’s nuclear assets to be secure from attack, it is also insufficient – India’s national command authority can also be subject to decapitation. Unfortunately, India appears not to have attached a high priority to addressing this vulnerability, though the Indian Nuclear Command Authority is belatedly taking steps to improve survivability.

India’s vulnerability can be fixed without resorting to destabilizing actions in a crisis. Pakistan’s primary vulnerability is quite different, and “fixing” it would appear to require potentially destabilizing steps. Pakistan’s means of delivery for its nuclear deterrent resides primarily at missile and air bases, which constitute a relatively small number of fixed aim points that could be reached quickly by Indian strike capabilities. Perhaps over time, Pakistan will acquire a more secure and stabilizing nuclear capability at sea, but for the foreseeable future, its national command authority’s options to reduce structural vulnerabilities in deep crisis appear limited to moving missiles and warheads away from bases and storage facilities, employing satellite basing of some kind, and increasing alert rates. All of these steps increase the possibility of unfortunate events and misreads by foreign observers.

Should New Delhi decide, for whatever reason, to move toward a ready arsenal, Islamabad must contemplate  –  and compensate for  –  its nightmare scenario of preemption. India’s current vulnerability associated with command and control, combined with Pakistan’s structural vulnerability, could be mutually and negatively reinforcing in the event of another severe crisis. In such circumstances, one side’s quest for protection is likely to feed the other’s concerns over preemption.

Nuclear stabilization also presumes adequate back-up from conventional forces. Conventional balances are not easy to calculate, because advantages in some categories might be offset in others. Moreover, it is easier to defend than to advance, particularly in the rugged terrain along much of the Kashmir divide.

In South Asia, the conventional military balance is shifting steadily in India’s favor. From 1995-1999, South Asian military expenditures grew more than for any region of the world, with India’s growth rate three times that of Pakistan. This disparity, which could enable the Indian military to employ new military tactics in future conflicts with Pakistan, has grown even more appreciably in recent years. As the Indian armed forces begin to absorb the necessity for combined arms operations, Pakistan’s armed forces remain plagued by poor coordination and limited joint planning. Critical deficiencies in Pakistan and growing conventional capabilities in India could increase nuclear risks  –  unless new peacemaking initiatives gain traction

New Delhi’s procurements of advanced combat aircraft, deep surveillance capabilities, and supersonic cruise missiles are sources of concern in Pakistan. These capabilities appear well suited to support new conventional and limited war-fighting options. Growing Indian air superiority has ramifications for escalation control and for the stability of nuclear deterrence on the subcontinent in at least two major respects. First, the attrition rate of the Pakistani Air Force in air-to-air combat in a limited war scenario could constitute a “red line” that cannot be predicted with assurance. Second, Pakistani military planners would view Indian air power as the quickest and most accurate means for deep strikes against nuclear, as well as conventional targets.

Temptations for Brinksmanship

Both governments have resorted to brinksmanship over Kashmir, India by mobilizing and threatening war, Pakistan by initiating the Kargil incursion and by its commitment to a Kashmir policy that has relied on militancy to punish India and to leverage favorable outcomes.  For most of the past fifteen years, brinksmanship in South Asia has taken the form of dangerous military practices along the Kashmir divide, including the overrunning of border posts and the “routine” use of small arms and mortars as well as artillery firing. In 1984 Indian forces preemptively occupied an un-demarcated glacial region, citing Pakistani intentions to get there first. Aerial incursions are also a frequent occurrence, notwithstanding signed confidence-building measures designed to end such activity.

For both tenets of the stability-instability paradox to be in place, thereby preventing unintended escalation, lines of communication need to be reliable, the messages conveyed over these channels need to be trustworthy, and they need to be interpreted properly. After the Kargil crisis, communication between India and Pakistan worsened, and then ceased altogether. Efforts to improve communication channels were the first item of business once official bilateral dialogue finally resumed in 2004.

Upgrades in hotlines and the establishment of nuclear risk-reduction centers are essential. Even more essential are changing destabilizing policies, avoiding brinksmanship, and reading of one’s nemesis properly. Intelligence assessments in South Asia have been badly wrong in the past, resulting in severe consequences. Most notably, the initiation or outcome of wars  –  and sometimes both  –  have come as a surprise to one side or the other. For example, the outbreak of the 1999 high-altitude conflict over Kargil came as a surprise to India; its outcome came as a surprise to Pakistan.

Escalation control requires a careful and correct reading of one’s adversary. Regrettably, problems of misperception on the subcontinent have grown as the wall of separation between India and Pakistan becomes higher and thicker. The Global War on Terrorism declared by Washington provides further grounds for misjudgment by Pakistan and India. As Mary Nayak has noted, “Each has misread its closer ties to the United States as evidence that Washington has embraced its perspective. Each has treated the intense engagement and military presence of the United States as insurance against escalation to war.”

Differing Lessons from 2002

The ten-month long dual mobilizations in 2002, during which the government of India demanded the cessation of acts of terrorism abetted by Pakistan and the hand-over of leading militants, ended without satisfaction on either count.

Within India and Paksitan, official post-mortems predictably put a positive spin on the crisis. President Musharraf declared that, “We have defeated an enemy without fighting a war.” He then added that if Indian troops “took even a step across the international border or LoC (Line of Control), we will not be in front of them, we will surround them. It will not remain a conventional war.” Prime Minister Vajpayee declared that the extended Indian troop mobilization “sent [a] ‘strong message’ to Pakistan to end cross-border terrorism. I can tell you that the message is working. We’ll make sure that it works.”

When both Indian and Pakistani leaders claim to have succeeded at brinkmanship, they may be inclined to continue such practices. Pakistan’s national security establishment continues to declare confidence in being able to call India’s bluff, while expressing concerns over the shifting military balance. At the same time, significant elements of the Indian national security establishment have expressed deep dissatisfaction with threats that are not backed up by the use of force and are developing new military doctrine and capabilities to enhance limited war options.

Renewed brinksmanship could come in the form of more extensive support for jihadi groups by Pakistan’s national security establishment, and more aggressive tactics to punish jihadis and their sponsors by Indian leaders. This juxtaposition could lead to misestimates and intelligence failures. In this sense, Kashmir can again become a “nuclear flashpoint,” if Pakistan’s national security establishment turns the heat up on Kashmir to punish India and to leverage a favorable outcome to this longstanding dispute.

Massive Retaliation

Nuclear doctrines that equate deterrence with massive punishment provide additional grounds for concern about escalation control in the subcontinent. The government of India has publicly declared that, “Nuclear retaliation to a first strike will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage.” The government of Pakistan has not released a draft or official nuclear doctrine for public consumption, but one might reasonably infer from the statements of senior military figures that they, too, endorse a massive response to Indian strikes against sensitive targets or the crossing of Pakistani “red lines.”

The public declarations of Indian and Pakistani leaders endorsing massive retaliation are reminiscent of the tense Cold War standoff in the 1950s. These threats are likely to be as ineffectual on the subcontinent as during the Eisenhower administration. Massive retaliation does not provide an answer to bloodletting in Jammu and Kashmir nor to acts of nuclear terrorism.
The threat of massive retaliation could have utility when the crossings of red lines that would result in the use of nuclear weapons are clear and bright, but such clarity is elusive in international relations. For example, Lieutenant General Khalid Kidwai, Director-General of the Strategic Plans Divison, offered the following red lines in an interview with two Italian researchers. Kidwai, a key overseer of Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent, is reported to have said that Pakistan would resort to nuclear weapons’ use in the event that:

  • India attacks Pakistan and conquers a large part of its territory;
  • India destroys a large part either of its land or air forces;
  • India proceeds to the economic strangling of Pakistan;
  • India pushes Pakistan into political destabilization or creates a large scale internal subversion.


These red lines represent unacceptable thresholds relating to losses of territory, military capability, economic viability, and political stability. How Indian authorities might translate these markers into war-fighting guidelines, however, is anything but obvious. For example, Pakistan’s vital lines of communication run perilously close to its international border. India does not need to capture a large part of Pakistani territory in order to deliver a humiliating blow. And what constitutes “large” losses of air power? The blockade of Karachi could take many weeks to have a severe impact on the Pakistani economy. When might this red line be crossed? The political stability threshold is the most difficult of all to calibrate, since Pakistan could be destabilized either in the absence of, or resulting from, a war with India.


Deterrence pessimists are correct in warning that nuclear risk-reduction measures are not in place. Much could go badly wrong on the subcontinent unless Pakistan’s national security establishment reassesses its Kashmir policy and unless New Delhi engages substantively on Islamabad’s concerns and with dissident Kashmiris. The way out of this morass is widely appreciated, but rarely acted upon.

This exit strategy points to placing a higher priority on the well being of Kashmiris – something both governments profess to hold dear, but rarely act upon. If the governments of Pakistan and India were to follow this fundamental guideline, firing would cease permanently along the LoC, the crossings of jihadis and human rights abuses would virtually cease, divided families would be free to meet, and trade and development projects would be encouraged across the Kashmir divide.

At the same time, we also know that, if Islamabad and New Delhi take concerted actions to change course, those opposed to reconciliation will attempt to blow up the process. The best chance of defusing nuclear danger and controlling escalation lies in political enagement. Nuclear risk reduction begins along the Kashmir divide.

This article was first published in SITREP, Vol. 65, No. 1 (Jan/Feb 2005), and is copyrighted by the Royal Canadian Military Institute and reproduced here with permission.

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