Issue Brief

Nuclear Risk Reduction Redux in South Asia

in Program

Although New Delhi and Islamabad are resuming official talks after the nineteen-month hiatus resulting from the Mumbai attacks, the impulse to promote bilateral nuclear risk-reduction measures (NRRMs) has largely dissipated.  India wants to focus on terrorism, while Pakistan wants to focus on water and Kashmir.  Other subjects once covered under the previously agreed “composite dialogue” format, including the agenda item on peace and security in which NRRMs were discussed, now appear to be of secondary interest. 

Delhi’s and Islamabad’s mutual disinterest in intensive diplomatic engagement is both understandable and unfortunate. Previous spurts of hopeful engagement have been ruptured by acts of mass casualty terrorism directed by Pakistani nationals against symbolic venues in India.  The perpetrators have usually had ties to extremist groups that have not been greatly disturbed by Pakistan’s security apparatus.  Delhi now expects little to come from resuscitating dialogue, and Islamabad refuses to want diplomatic success stories more than India.  All parties, including Washington, the subcontinent’s presumed crisis manager, await the next big explosion on Indian soil.  In the meantime and in the absence of high-level interventions, cautious Indian and Pakistani civil servants who have been entrusted with the stately process of re-engagement will continue to meet and issue polite press statements.

In December 2001, promising India-Pakistan ties were severed after an attack by Pakistani nationals against the Indian Parliament building, which led to the mobilization of both armies.  A subsequent mass casualty attack directed against the dependents of Indian soldiers in May 2002 raised fears of another conventional war on the subcontinent, but the Indian Prime Minister, A.B. Vajpayee, saw a war as doing more harm than good. 

At this point, the Carnegie Corporation and the Nuclear Threat Initiative enabled the Stimson Center to convene Track II workshops to lend impetus to NRRMs on the subcontinent.  Stimson convened workshops in 2002 and 2003 with well-connected Indians and Pakistanis, most of whom had previously served with distinction in government positions and military assignments.  Among the participants were future national security advisers M.K. Narayanan and Mahmud Durrani, as well as Salman Haidar, V.P. Malik, S.K. Mehra, V.R. Raghavan, Rahul Roy-Chaudhury, Raja Menon, Jehangir Karamat, Najmuddin Shaikh, Shaharyar Khan, and Feroz Khan.  A few U.S. nongovernment and academic experts – Peter Lavoy and Scott Sagan, among them – served as facilitators.  We met at quiet spots in the United Kingdom because it was easier than hassling with visas for cross-border venues and more conducive to pursuing problem-solving approaches.   

At our 2002 workshop, held in the shadow of the “Twin Peaks” crisis, participants discussed two worrisome scenarios – unconventional attacks leading to an escalatory spiral, and a conventional war leading to a nuclear exchange.  Back then, such discussions were unusual, even in Track II. But because we focused on the scenario of extremist groups acting beyond governmental control –  and perhaps because both governments could no longer be dismissive about this scenario –  New Delhi and Islamabad “green lighted” our unofficial discussions. 

At the conclusion of this workshop, participants endorsed an ambitious work agenda for their governments, including the following items:

1) Improving bilateral relations

  • Initiating bilateral dialogue
  • Establishing a solid bilateral relationship before a crisis occurs
  • Sharing knowledge of decision-making processes
  • Increasing transparency in nuclear doctrine and capabilities
  • Developing a common vocabulary regarding doctrines and red lines
  • Avoiding conventional war
  • Establishing a quiet LoC

• Increasing public awareness of nuclear dangers   2) Nuclear risk reduction and strategic restraint

  • Negotiating verifiable agreements on nuclear restraint
  • Negotiating an agreement not to launch missiles during periods of crisis
  • Ceasing bellicose nuclear rhetoric
  • Agreeing not to develop or deploy tactical nuclear weapons
  • Negotiating intrusive treaties relating to nuclear capabilities
  • Avoiding new, destabilizing, nuclear developments

• Giving consideration to provisions found in the Prevention of Dangerous Military Activities Agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union

  • Establishing nuclear risk reduction centers
  • Establishing symmetry in nuclear doctrines
  • Mutually declaring, akin to the Reagan-Gorbachev statement, that a nuclear war could not be won and must never be fought
  • Avoiding sensitive targets in the event of a conventional war-especially airfields
  • Refraining from giving pre-delegation of authority to use nuclear weapons

• Conducting similar, scenario-based discussions on the possible use of chemical or biological weapons   3) Safety and security measures

  • Establishing improved and comprehensive safety and security norms in both countries
  • Strengthening personnel reliability programs and systems
  • Conducting nuclear safety and security audits by units that might “check the checkers”
  • Enlisting third-party facilitation on nuclear security
  • Stronger understanding by national leaders of their own nuclear capabilities and procedures

• Greater public awareness of nuclear dangers   4) Improving intelligence

  • Acquiring technology to help provide prompt and accurate information concerning missile launches and nuclear detonations
  • Refining forensic and diagnostic tools for determining the source and circumstances surrounding nuclear accidents

• Greater utilization of commercial satellite imagery to prevent surprises   5) Communication

  • Hardening communication channels
  • Establishing nuclear risk reduction centers in both countries

• Establishing a multi-nodal and multi-level structure of bilateral communication, including a hotline between the employment control committee in Pakistan and its functional equivalent in India

  • Upgrading the existing DGMO hotline
  • Establishing a dedicated hotline between the air force chiefs

• Keeping lines of communication active. When they become inactive, it is harder to make proper use of them in a crisis. Hotlines have sometimes been used multiple times daily in previous crises
• Hotlines could have greater utility if they had conference calling capabilities

The 2003 workshop entered deeper uncharted waters by using the scenarios of a terrorist attack using a “dirty” bomb and an improvised nuclear device that produced a mushroom cloud.  The discussions that followed prompted a commonly agreed work agenda to reduce nuclear dangers.  Our participants agreed to focus on “practicable as well as desirable measures that could be implemented as soon as possible.”  These included


  • Establishment of National Risk Reduction Centers in order to: (a) serve as a focal point for the administration of CBMs that require notifications; (b) help revive existing CBMs; (c) provide a mechanism for notifications for new CBMs; and (d) provide a channel of communication that would be utilized regardless of the state of bilateral relations.
    Missile-related Measures, including: (a) formalizing and properly implementing the agreement concerning prior notification of missile launches, and formalizing the time line for such notifications; (b) agreeing not to flight test missiles in the direction of the other country; (c) agreeing to flight test missiles only from designated test ranges; and (d) providing advance notification of the movement of missiles for training purposes.
    Clarifying Terminology: Government and military officials could meet to discuss terms and definitions with a view toward the joint or separate publication of a glossary.
    Leadership Declarations Affirming Responsible Nuclear Stewardship: Participants agreed that joint statements at the highest level could help defuse nuclear dangers and facilitate an improvement in bilateral relations. Such declarations might focus on the obligation of national leaders to: (a) decrease or to end bellicose nuclear rhetoric; (b) negotiate and properly implement measures to reduce nuclear dangers, whether bilateral or unilateral; (c) implement improved safety and security measures; and (d) refrain from deploying “tactical” nuclear weapons.
    Increasing Awareness of Nuclear Dangers: Participants agreed that greater awareness of nuclear dangers, particularly with regard to the possible acquisition of nuclear materials by terrorist groups, would be advisable.

The 2003 workshop also proposed a work agenda for subsequent Track II meetings.  These topics included the impact of new military technologies (including ballistic missile defense) on strategic stability in southern Asia; intelligence, misperception and escalation control; tactical nuclear weapons; and measures to improve command, control, and communication. 

Bilateral relations between India and Pakistan subsequently improved.  The LoC in divided Kashmir quieted down considerably.  Both governments began to take NRRMs more seriously.  In 2005, they finalized an agreement on advance notifications of ballistic missile flight tests, and in 2007, they reached an agreement on protocols for nuclear accidents.  Helpful ideas were injected into discussions of a Kashmir settlement.  Foundation grant makers turned to more pressing problems.  And then came Mumbai.

This excursion down memory lane was triggered by a press release dated June 24, 2010, announcing that a University of Ottawa-led Track II program with former officials, retired military officers, and academics from India and Pakistan produced an action plan to help stabilize their nuclear relationship.  Their “to do” list is indistinguishable from the ones Stimson compiled eight years ago.
Unless India, Pakistan and the United States can summon greater urgency to take preventative measures, eight years hence, after more mass casualty acts of terrorism and more crises, another NGO may see fit to convene another Track II event that produces similar recommendations.  For now, Delhi seems convinced that NRRMs aren’t worth significant effort, as they do not fundamentally alter the behavior of Pakistan’s security apparatus and the outfits that provokes crises.  Pakistan’s military leadership sees little sense of urgency to pursue this agenda, focusing instead on more concrete manifestations of security, such as modernizing its nuclear deterrent and preparing to counter India’s Cold Start military doctrine.  Nor is the pursuit of NRRMs high on Washington’s list of talking points, which are dominated by Afghanistan, al-Qaeda, and Pakistan’s selective military campaigns against extremist groups.

These well rehearsed arguments leave little room for traction on the diplomatic front.  One central irony here is that, if these rationales for complacency are correct, they nonetheless point toward the greater relevance of NRRMs.  Moreover, little creativity or heavy lifting is required to add to their number, since preparatory work has already been done. 

All of which raises the fundamental question of what constitutes the basic, minimal requirements of responsible states possessing nuclear weapons.  India and Pakistan have not signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and neither is keen to accept a moratorium on the production of bomb-making fissile material.  Pakistan is blocking the start of negotiations for a fissile material cut-off treaty.  Shall disinterest in the negotiation of bilateral NRRMs now be added to this list? 



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