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India’s nuclear counter-revolution: nuclear learning and the future of deterrence

An analysis of India’s ongoing evolution in strategic thought and practice since its emergence in 1998 as an overt nuclear-weapon possessor
By Frank O’Donnell Author

This article was originally published in The Nonproliferation Review Journal on March 26, 2020.

ABSTRACT
The India–Pakistan near war of February–March 2019 highlights India’s ongoing evolution in strategic thought and practice since its emergence in 1998 as an overt nuclear-weapon possessor. These changes, involving an increasing willingness to engage in the intentional escalation of conflict with a nuclear-armed rival willing to be the first to use nuclear weapons, challenge certain academic assumptions about the behavior of nuclear-weapon states. In particular, they undermine the expectations of the nuclear-revolution theory—which anticipates nuclear and conventional restraint among nuclear-armed rivals through fear of mutual assured destruction—and the model of nuclear learning which underpins this theory, in which new nuclear-weapon states gradually absorb this restraint through policy-maker learning. This article explores how India’s learning pathway since 1998 has deviated from these expectations. India is instead pursuing its own “revolution,” in the direction of creating capabilities for flexible response and escalation dominance. It concludes by illuminating the similarities between Indian strategic behavior and contemporary practices of other nuclear-armed states, and suggests that New Delhi’s emerging de facto nuclear doctrine and posture is part of a broader empirical challenge to our current conceptions of the nuclear revolution and of nuclear learning.

Read the full chapter in the South Asia special issue of the Nonproliferation Review.

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