South Asia's Fragile Nuclear Balance

Nuclear deterrence between India and Pakistan remains an unstable equation.

Pakistan has used an unusual event—the inauguration of its naval strategic-forces command (NSFC) headquarters—to declare that it now possesses a sea-based nuclear-second-strike capability.

A press release from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Public Relations last month said that the opening of its headquarters marked the formal establishment of the new NSFC branch. It further explained that “HQ NFSC will perform a pivotal role in the development and employment of the Naval Strategic Force . . . which is the custodian of the nation’s 2nd strike capability.” But the release leaves room for speculation on whether the sea-based second-strike capability to be commanded by NSFC already exists or whether it will emerge with the naval strategic force.

While Pakistan said in 2006 that it had shared its nuclear assets among its three military wings, its naval strategic force is considered to be rudimentary, with a limited fleet of Agosta submarines, and it’s unclear whether it has developed and deployed the naval variant of the Babur cruise missile, with a reported range of around 430 miles. Pakistan has an operational second-strike capability with its massive inventory of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles and strategic-delivery aircraft; the projection of the naval component only enables survivability for its second-strike option. And since India tested its Agni-V long-range ballistic missile with a range of over 3100 miles in late May, Pakistan has on five occasions test-fired various variants of its Hatf missile system, which some Pakistan analysts said was part of its second-strike-capability buildup.

Will Pakistan’s projection of a second-strike capability further destabilize South Asia’s fragile nuclear calculus—or should they be seen as deliberate attempts by Pakistan to confuse India on its deterrence posture? Nuclear deterrence between India and Pakistan, in place since the 1998 nuclear tests, is an unstable equation: The nuclear tripwires maintained by Pakistan are confusing in their articulations of thresholds for a nuclear first-use policy. India, on the other hand, declared a no-first-use (NFU) posture, saying it will use nuclear weapons only to retaliate against a nuclear, chemical or biological attack. Islamabad, however, rejects New Delhi’s NFU as mere rhetoric and seeks to deter potential Indian aggression at all three operational levels—subconventional, conventional and nuclear.

Pakistan is worried India will not stick to its NFU pledge. They know India might launch a first strike against Pakistan’s counterforce assets in the event of credible intelligence of a potential Pakistani nuclear attack. And Islamabad has consistently believed that its declared readiness to escalate a conventional conflict to the nuclear level could effectively deter New Delhi from crossing the border or launching a (sub) conventional attack. Consider a statement by Pakistani president General Zia ul-Haq as early as 1988 that “if India crosses the border even by an inch, its cities will be annihilated”—a threat his successors have since effectively used in all conflicts between the South Asian nuclear neighbors.

Why a second-strike capability?

There are various scenarios for Pakistan’s possession of a survivable second-strike capability. Their present nuclear-deterrence equation goes like this: If India crosses any of the perceived thresholds during a conventional conflict, Pakistan could launch a nuclear strike against Indian population or strategic assets. A single use of nuclear weapons, even on forward-moving Indian forces, could be considered by New Delhi as a first strike, prompting massive retaliation with the objective of destroying Pakistan beyond redemption. India perceives its threat of massive retaliation (a metaphor for bombing Pakistan back to the stone age) as sufficient to deter Islamabad from planning a nuclear strike.

But Pakistan’s projection of its second-strike capability on a naval platform adds a new dimension to this equation, which could be relevant in at least three scenarios:

—In the event India initiates a nuclear first strike and destroys Pakistan’s land-based strategic assets, including its ballistic-missile depots and bases of its nuclear-capable F-16 or J-17 aircraft, Islamabad will have the option of launching retaliatory strikes from its nuclear-armed submarines, along with surviving elements of its land-based assets.

—Pakistan’s submarine-based nuclear missiles could launch a preemptive attack on India’s own nuclear-armed submarines, thus depriving India of survivable nuclear assets for an effective second strike, especially if such an attack is coordinated with a simultaneous strike by Pakistan’s land-based forces on Indian population centers and strategic assets.

—If India undertakes a massive retaliation in response to a nuclear first-use by Pakistan and in the process destroys Pakistan’s core strategic assets, then Islamabad could plan another wave of nuclear attacks, which could in principle be a third strike in the nuclear conflagration. Assuming strategic naval assets of both nations survive, there even could be a fourth strike by India (provided any remnants of civilization remain to warrant such considerations).