Nuclear Deterrence in South Asia: Case of rivalry between India and Pakistan

Although the eyes of today’s world are looking at the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there are plenty of other “hotbeds“ of conflict in the world that have the potential to spark a conflict. The situation in South Asia is one such area, as the rivalry between India and Pakistan does not seem to cool down anytime soon. To make the matter worse, both nations are in possession of nuclear weapons and as such, possible escalation of their relationship might have grave consequences for the whole region.

Deterrence Theory

In practice, it prescribes that states are able to deter aggression by convincing the would-be aggressor that such action would be too costly [1]. In essence, it relies on a number of factors, such as the determination to bear the costs of the conflict and the capability to retaliate in a way that would make such costs unbearably high [2]. Furthermore, credibility is also at the heart of deterrence strategy. What makes such deterrence work is the credible implication of attack or retaliation.

Deterrence in the past was based on conventional military capabilities but after the invention of the atomic bomb, nuclear deterrence came to the forefront of deterrence thinking [3].

In general, nuclear weapons are much harder to be contested by enemy actions. The reason for that is that even a small fraction of the nuclear weapons that would survive in the aftermath of a preemptive strike would be more than enough to incur impossible costs. This was especially true during the early Cold War as there was little in the way of defending against a nuclear attack, but even now when the anti-missile systems are much more advanced, the risk of (even fairly limited) second strike possibility is not to be taken lightly. At its core, nuclear deterrence is based on mutually assured destruction that would come to be in case of full war.

As such, the relationship between two countries equipped with nuclear weapons turns into a game of “brinkmanship” – both sides test each other’s resolve to either force them to escalate the conflict and risk nuclear annihilation or to step down and concede [2].

History of the Indian-Pakistani Relationship

Following the hard-won independence from the British Empire, the former Indian Raj dissolved into two countries roughly along religious lines. The western part of the British Crown’s Jewel became the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, while the eastern (predominantly Hindu) part of the nation became the Republic of India. However, the split was not without its victims and the dissolution resulted in the mass emigration of religious minorities as well as hundreds of thousands of casualties of communal violence [4].

Connected to the religious issues is the continuous clash over the area of Jammu and Kashmir as both countries (along with China) claim ownership of this territory. This resulted in the 1947 war between the freshly independent countries. Jammu and Kashmir territory was a special case of the princely estate since it had a Muslim majority, but remained part of predominately Hindu India as proof of Indian secular plurality [5]. The war ended two years later with the establishment of the Line of Control – a heavily militarized border between the countries [6].

Map of the borders of India and Pakistan. Source: Wikimedia

Another important milestone of the Indo-Pakistani relationship then came in the form of the Bangladesh Liberation war of 1971. This war ended with the secession of Eastern Pakistan (today’s Bangladesh). This is marked by the so-called Simla Agreement (of 1972) which established the basis for peaceful dialogue between the neighbors, their adherence to principles of non-violence and, aimed to eventually turn the Line of Control in Kashmir into a regular (demilitarised) national border. Both states also agreed to respect the territorial integrity of each other, hopefully ending conflicts over the disputed territory. Even though this conflict and the subsequent treaty led to a period of unprecedented peace between the two countries, the Bangladesh secession weakened Pakistan’s position even more and gave it another reason to seek even more effective tools of deterrence.

Possible Nuclear Confrontations

Let us look at, for example, the 1990 Crisis over Kashmir territory or the Kargil Crisis of 1999. The first crisis almost escalated into a full-blown conflict of national militaries but Pakistan’s worries over the possible nuclear escalation, as well as pressure from third-party actors (such as the US), led to a peaceful settlement [7]. In this case, it was India that managed to credibly project its nuclear capabilities as it managed to convince other nations of its resolve to pursue any means necessary to achieve its goals. Pakistan, which most likely did not have access to nuclear weapons (though they were in development by that time), had no choice but to de-escalate [8].

The second example of nuclear deterrence in practice is the Kargil Crisis of 1999, had likewise revolved around Kashmir, this time around the strategic area of Kargil. This area is well beyond the Line of Control and its capture by Pakistan soldiers threatened crucial supply lines and communication [9]. Unlike the previous crisis where the nuclear capabilities of both nations were kind of ambiguous, the nuclear tests performed by both countries during the 1990s meant that both nations were aware of the credibility of each other’s arsenals. As such, India was well aware of the risk that would come with a hostile incursion into Pakistani territory. Strict orders were given not to cross Indo-Pakistan borders, even though there were Indian plans that would result in an invasion of Pakistan [10].

This could be considered a success of Pakistani nuclear deterrence, as it, through 1998 nuclear tests, managed to properly communicate its resolve to use nuclear weapons and the credibility of its power [9].

Nuclear Capabilities and Doctrines

The first country to demonstrate its nuclear capabilities was India, which managed to conduct its first nuclear test (Operation Smiling Budha) in 1974 [4] even though the country was initially opposed to the development of nuclear weapons based on Gandhian ideals of non-violence [11]. Due to continuous disputes with Pakistan and China, India simply needed to develop an effective deterrence strategy to defend itself from its regional rivals, Pakistan and India. As of today, India dedicates approximately 150 nuclear warheads to this cause [12].

As for its doctrine, India adopts a firm no-first-use policy of nuclear weapons. Though such a policy is quite common and respectable, it brings its own set of issues for deterrence. Since deterrence is in many ways a game of brinkmanship, the lack of resolve to confidently employ nuclear weapons could make the country look less resolute. Furthermore, the no-first-use policy also means that nuclear weapons will not be used in the case of conventional attack and by itself offers only limited deterrence against non-nuclear threats.

Pakistan´s cruise missile Babur. Source: Wikimedia

Despite the certain disadvantages of having a nuclear arsenal solely for the purpose of retaliation, there are practical reasons for why India adopted such a doctrine.  As a late nuclear power, it is not one of the signatories of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) which severely limits its access to the market with nuclear material/technologies. However, the Indian need for nuclear deterrence also means that it cannot give up its nuclear weapons [13]. Because of it, India has to show a more responsible approach to its nuclear program and tread carefully in order to not attract unwanted attention from the international community that might result in worsening of relations or economic sanctions.

Pakistan, on the other hand, is perceived to be the nominally weaker party (proved by the secession of Bangladesh), and as such, it needed to develop a nuclear arsenal to defend against its eastern neighbor in an almost existential struggle [8]. Furthermore, the fact that India managed to test nuclear weapons first then gave Pakistan further incentives to advance its own program. Lagging, the country’s nuclear program became operable most likely in the late 1990s as it was not able to convince India of its nuclear capabilities in the 1990 crisis, but played an important role in the Kargil crisis [8].

Due to its position as an “underdog”, Pakistan also did not adopt the no-first-use policy as it needs its nuclear arsenal not only to deter Indian nuclear weapons but also its conventional forces [9].

There are four possible conditions under which Pakistan might use nuclear weapons. These are: spatial (capture key areas in Pakistan), military (destruction of Pakistan’s security forces), economic (violent limitation of economic potential – naval blockade), and, political (outside destabilization and encouragement of secession such as was the case with Bangladesh) [8].

The last two of these conditions are rather problematic due to the fact that both political and economic instability in Pakistan might very well be the result of Pakistan’s fragile domestic situation that might prove unstable even without Indian intervention.


Even though the current situation in the region is calm at the moment with no clashes, the fact remains that the rift between India and Pakistan is not going to heal any time soon. The continuous disagreements and clashes over the Jammu and Kashmir territories might result in a violent escalation and military incursions and both sides continue to accuse each other of supporting subversive activities. Military conflict is still a possibility.

As for the role of nuclear weapons in this stand-off, it appears that (based on the evaluation of past crises) they have some degree of inhibiting effect as no crisis, however dire, turned into a full-scale war. However, the fact that there is always a present danger of escalation of the situation into conflict (albeit limited one) means that the conflict is frozen to a stalemate. Neither side has incentives to compromise as neither side believes in others‘ willingness to escalate the situation. Nuclear weapons thus provide only limited security provisions while their existence implies a risk of impossibly costly nuclear war.

Furthermore, there is the issue of differing doctrines between the countries. The fact that Pakistan is willing to first use nuclear weapons under certain conditions means that India needs to be constantly worried about its neigbour’s intentions while not exactly facilitating goodwill through its own actions. Meanwhile, the Indian no-first-use policy gives it a less resolute position when it comes to negotiations in which nuclear deterrence has its role.


[1] Brown, A. and Arnold, L. (2010) ‘The Quirks of Nuclear Deterrence’, International Relations, 24(3), pp. 293–312. DOI: 10.1177/0047117810377278.

[2] Powell, R. (2003). Nuclear Deterrence Theory, Nuclear Proliferation, and National Missile Defense. International Security, 27(4).

[3] Stone, J. (2012). Conventional Deterrence and the Challenge of Credibility. Contemporary Security Policy, 33(1), 108–123. doi:10.1080/13523260.2012.659591.

[4] Pokraka, A., 2019. History of Conflict in India and Pakistan – Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. [online] Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. Available at: <>.

Majid, A., Hussain, M., (2016). Kashmir a is a conflict  between India and Pakistan. Journal of South Asian Studies 31(1).

[6] Singh, K., 1999. What Is the Line of Control? – The Short Answer. [online] WSJ. Available at: <>.

[7] Hagerty, D. T. (1995). Nuclear Deterrence in South Asia: The 1990 Indo-Pakistani Crisis. International Security, 20(3), 79. DOI:10.2307/2539140.

[8] Bluth, C., (2010) India and Pakistan: a case of asymmetric nuclear deterrence, Korean Journal of Defense Analysis, 22:3, 387-406, DOI: 10.1080/10163271.2010.50002.

[9] Quinlan, M., (2000) How robust is India-Pakistan deterrence?, Survival: Global Politics and Strategy, 42:4, 141-154, DOI: 10.1080/713660251

[10] Ghani, U., (2012). Nuclear Weapons, India Pakistan Crisis. Summer 2012. 137-145.

[11]Tannenwald, M., (2021). Twenty-three Years of Nonuse Does the Nuclear Taboo Constrain India and Pakistan?. Stimson Center.

[12] Kristensen, H., Korda, M., (2020) Indian nuclear forces, 2020, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 76:4, 217-225, DOI: 10.1080/00963402.2020.1778378.

[13] World Nuclear Association. 2017. India, China & NPT. [online] Available at: <,-china-npt.aspx>.


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