*This post was originally written for Global Intelligence Trust

Sam Seitz

With proliferating asymmetric threats in the cyber realm, lackluster global economic growth, and the constant specter of terrorism, it’s easy to overlook the threat of war between nation-states. Although it is certainly true that inter-state war is on the decline and thus far less likely to occur than terrorism or non-kinetic attacks on U.S. information technology systems, it still represents the most dangerous threat to world peace (1). This is due to the simple fact that wars between well-armed states can lead to far higher casualties and much greater destruction than small-scale terror attacks. In other words, while the probability of an inter-state dispute escalating to open conflict is fairly low, the magnitude of the consequences demands that the risk be taken seriously. The region that is perhaps the most likely to experience high-intensity conflict between major powers is South Asia. With nuclear-armed India and Pakistan existing in an enduring rivalry, constantly taking provocative actions against the other, the risk of inadvertent conflict is relatively high. The nuclear status of both India and Pakistan – and, in particular, Pakistan’s highly aggressive nuclear posture – makes a conflict very risky indeed, as escalation dynamics might lead to the use of nuclear weapons.

Since 1998, when both India and Pakistan tested their nuclear weapons in quick succession, the subcontinent has come perilously close to witnessing a major war on a number of occasions. This was particularly true during the late 90s and early 2000s, when both countries were learning how to organize their arsenals and were developing their nuclear postures (2). Fortunately, with the possible exception of the Kargil Crisis, we have yet to witness a major military escalation in South Asia. While there have been a number of Pakistani provocations, such as the Mumbai terror attacks and insurgent violence in Kashmir, neither side has been willing to escalate tensions to the point of full-scale war. This lack of conflict is not a reason for optimism, however, as there are at least two dynamics of the Indo-Pak relationship that increase the likelihood of conflict: The stability-instability paradox and India’s adoption of an aggressive conventional military doctrine (3).

The stability-instability paradox describes the increase of small-scale conflict associated with the acquisition of nuclear weapons. States that possess nuclear weapons are effectively invulnerable, as their ability to launch a nuclear retaliatory attack makes the stakes too high for rivals to consider war. However, this invulnerability allows nuclear weapons states to risk low-level conflict because they know that no country is going to risk war with a nuclear-armed state over a minor transgression. In other words, nuclear states’ protection from major wars allows them to take greater risks lower down on the escalation ladder. This is certainly the case with Pakistan, which has exploited its nuclear arsenal to execute a number of asymmetrical attacks against its eastern neighbor, India. For example, Pakistan felt comfortable seizing territory in Indian-controlled Kashmir in 1999 in part because “[Pakistan] believed that their incipient nuclear capabilities had effectively neutralized whatever conventional military advantages India possessed” (4). There is also compelling evidence that suggests that Pakistan exploited the security offered by its nuclear arsenal to support the 2001 attack against the Indian Parliament by Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed. This attack quickly precipitated a major military crisis, as India responded by initiating Operation Parakram, mobilizing 500,000 troops along the border and threatening to strike Pakistani terror camps and invade parts of Pakistani Kashmir unless Pakistan turned over individuals connected with the attack and renounced terrorism. In response, Pakistan quickly deployed its own forces along the border, and soon over 1,000,000 troops were squaring off along the India-Pakistan border (5). Tensions were lowered due, in part, to Pakistani concessions and U.S. intervention. However, in 2002, Pakistani militants again crossed into India and killed 32 Indian military personnel. The U.S. was forced to intervene a second time to halt India’s planned invasion of Pakistan (6). These types of provocative and vicious attacks have become less frequent over time, but they have certainly not ceased. Indeed, just this past week, 18 Indian soldiers were killed in Kashmir, and evidence suggests that Pakistan was in some way involved (7).

In response to these Pakistani provocations, India adopted a highly aggressive conventional military doctrine in 2004 in an attempt to raise the costs for Pakistani action. Known as Cold Start, this new doctrine is designed to allow for the swift mobilization of Indian military personnel in order to execute rapid strikes against Pakistani positions in the event of a conflict (8). However, it is not at all clear that Cold Start will serve to decrease tensions on the subcontinent. Instead of deterring war, it might actually lead to conflict escalation due to its embrace of limited war. Cold Start was initially developed in response to the 2001 Parliament attack: Indian politicians and strategists were deeply frustrated with the relatively slow mobilization of Indian forces and sought to design a doctrine capable of rapidly responding to Pakistani provocations (9). Instead of organizing the Indian military into three Strike Corps designed to defeat Pakistani forces head on – the pre-2004 organization of the Indian military – Cold Start argued for a reorganization of the offensive component of the Indian Army into eight integrated battle groups designed to launch quick, shallow strikes into Pakistan. The central idea of Cold Start is to strike sufficiently deep into Pakistani territory to extract significant concession but not so deep as to spook Islamabad into deploying nuclear weapons (10).

Cold Start is advantageous for a number of reasons. It allows for relatively rapid mobilization and thus faster retaliation against Pakistan in the event of an attack. Furthermore, the smaller, more dispersed organization allows for greater Indian flexibility, making it harder for Pakistan to predict and defend against Indian attack vectors. Thus, India should be better able to hold Pakistani forces at risk. However, the smaller size of integrated battle groups makes it less likely that Pakistan would view Indian incursions into Pakistani territory as an existential threat, reducing the risk of nuclear conflict. At least that is the theory. In reality, there is good evidence to suggest that Cold Start might actually increase the risk of large-scale conventional war, even as it meaningfully decreases the risk of Pakistani-backed terror attacks. This is because Cold Start decreases the time in which external actors like the United States can intervene and deescalate the situation. As Ladwig writes, “the international community may find integrated battle groups on the road to Lahore before anyone in Washington, Brussels, or Beijing has the chance to act” (11).

Cold Start is also dangerous in that it increases the risk of deliberate or inadvertent escalation on the part of Pakistan. Cold Start is premised on the idea that limited war is possible. In other words, it relies on the belief that India is capable of launching targeted strikes on Pakistan without triggering a nuclear response. This is certainly plausible, but it is important not to underestimate the level of confusion and fear that exists during high-intensity military conflict. Pakistan might misread Indian intentions and view limited Indian strikes as an existential threat, thus prompting them to order the use of tactical nuclear weapons against Indian forces. Miscalculation is particularly likely in the case of an Indo-Pak conflict, as most major Pakistani population centers are located near the border. Thus, even limited Indian incursions into Pakistani territory might appear extremely threatening to Pakistani leadership (12). This could lead to an escalation up the nuclear ladder, as India might very well consider a nuclear response to a Pakistani tactical nuclear strike. It’s also important to remember that during a war, Pakistan will not sit idly by and allow Indian forces to strike with impunity. Thus, a conflict would be fast and highly unpredictable, increasing the risk of strategic miscalculations and limiting external mediators’ ability to deescalate the crisis. The aforementioned problems would only be compounded by India’s poor national security organization. During the 2008 Mumbai attacks, for example, there was no sign of any Indian integrated battle groups. Thus, it is far from clear that the clunky and cumbersome Indian military hierarchy is even capable of effectively executing Cold Start.

Finally, it is crucial to examine the nuclear capabilities and strategies of the two countries. As Vipin Narang convincingly argues, Pakistani doctrine is designed to permit maximum flexibility (13). This is due to India’s superior conventional military capabilities: Pakistan simply can’t afford to fight India on India’s terms. However, India is limited in its responses to a Pakistani nuclear strike because “its own arsenal is physically configured for a countervalue strike on Pakistani population centres” (14). In other words, Pakistan has a wider range of nuclear capabilities and is therefore able to control escalation dynamics. Because India lacks the ability to deploy tactical nuclear weapons, Pakistan is able to operate at the tactical nuclear level with virtual impunity because it is exceedingly unlikely that India would be willing to retaliate against a small-scale Pakistani nuclear strike with a full-scale strategic retaliatory strike against Pakistani cities. This further undermines the Cold Start doctrine, as it means that Pakistan might consider utilizing tactical nuclear weapons against Indian formations, destroying them before they can secure any strategic objectives. India’s hands are tied because its nuclear arsenal is only effective at the strategic level: It could either choose to withdraw or strike Pakistani population centers, but those are the only two options. Neither option is ideal, and thus India would be forced to make a number of difficult decisions while under severe pressure. In a situation like this, it is conceivable that an inadvertent escalation occurs, throwing the entire subcontinent into full-on nuclear conflict.

In conclusion, Indo-Pak deterrence is incredibly complex and, in many ways, is an ineffective system for limiting conflict escalation. Both countries have developed risky strategies in an effort to deter and coerce the other, so understanding the dynamics of Indo-Pak deterrent relationship at both the conventional and nuclear level is absolutely crucial to lowering the probability of a major conflict. Luckily, we have yet to witness a significant war between India and Pakistan since they have acquired nuclear arsenals. However, this is not a justification for complacency, as the costs of a war in one of the most populous areas of the globe would be unimaginably high.


Works Cited

(1)- Pinker, Steven. The Better Angels of our Nature. New York: Viking Press, 2011. Print.

(2)- Kapur, S. Paul. “Ten Years of Instability in Nuclear South Asia.” International Security, 33(2) (Fall 2008): pp. 71.

(3)- Ibid, 72.

(4)- Ganguly, Sumit. Conflict Unending: India-Pakistan Tensions since 1947. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001. Print. pp. 92.

(5)- Kapur, 80.

(6)- Ibid, 81.

(7)- Ed. Board. “Rising Tensions in Kashmir.” New York Times. 23 Sept. 2016. Web. Accessed 24 Sept. 2016.

(8)- Ladwig III, Walter C. “A Cold Start for Hot War?” International Security, 32(3) (Winter 2007/08): pp. 158.

(9)- Ibid, 161.

(10)- Ibid, 163-166.

(11)- Ibid, 167.

(12)- Joshi, Shashank. “India’s Military Instrument: A Doctrine Stillborn.” Journal of Strategic Studies, 36(4) (2013): pp. 517.

(13)- Narang, Vipin. Nuclear Strategy In The Modern Era. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014. Print.

(14)- Joshi, 522.