The Looming Threat in South Asia: Nuclear Postures of India and Pakistan

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By Maciej Lempke, Columnist

When assessing nuclear weapon risks, the international community is currently preoccupied with Iranian development – this week’s negotiations in Oman are the latest effort to quell their ambitions – and North Korean provocation.[1] Although Tehran and Pyongyang are indeed a cause for concern, it is the current nuclear postures of Islamabad and New Delhi that should worry us the most. The development of tactical nuclear weapon capability and ambiguous nuclear-use policies on both sides continue to fuel tensions and increase the likelihood of nuclear exchange.

Recent literature suggests Pakistan has increasingly sought and acquired tactical nuclear weapon capabilities. [2] In 2011, Islamabad introduced the “Nasr” missile, a 60 km-range truck-mounted ballistic weapon capable of carrying a sub-kiloton warhead. Pakistan is also currently developing a short-range nuclear-capable sea-based missile system.[3] Islamabad’s intensified work on tactical nuclear weapons is meant to deter India’s conventional attack and achieve second-strike capability.[4] In response, India also escalated its work on tactical nuclear capabilities, including the 150-km range Prahaar tactical ballistic missiles and the 750-km Shourya hypersonic missiles.[5] Last month, the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) also tested its new nuclear-capable cruise missiles capable of skirting enemy air-defense systems.[6] Some argue that nuclear developments on the Indian side serve the purpose of securing counterforce or escalation dominance over Pakistan.[7] Ultimately, Pakistan and India’s advancement of their respective tactical weapon capability is particularly worrisome as it dramatically lowers the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons by making the unthinkable – a nuclear conflict – more acceptable and thus more plausible.

These new nuclear capabilities are especially worrying given the current ambiguity of nuclear postures in India and Pakistan. Pakistan’s nuclear posture is primarily designed to counter the Indian threat; it pledges no-first use against non-nuclear weapon states, but does not rule out first-use against nuclear-armed aggressors.[8] Perhaps most worryingly, Pakistan’s nuclear posture is based on the conviction that it must remain intentionally vague about its nuclear red lines in order to maintain deterrence against India’s conventional superiority.[9] Islamabad outlines four red lines that could potentially drive it to nuclear first use, including a conventional attack by India, destruction of a large part of Pakistan’s air or land forces, and economic or political destabilization resulting from Indian interference.[10] By being deliberately unclear about its nuclear red lines, Pakistan reserves significant room for interpretation when it comes to nuclear-use. This posture not only reaffirms India’s fears but also further lowers the threshold for nuclear weapons use.

India’s nuclear posture is based on a no-first-use policy and a commitment to maintaining only credible minimum deterrent forces – largely viewed as a sign of restraint and stability. However, India’s no-first-use policy seems to be nothing more than a political statement. While India’s official nuclear doctrine declares that it will refrain from using nuclear weapons first, it officially admits a readiness to utilize them in case of a biological or chemical weapons attack.[11] In addition, the size of India’s deterrent nuclear force far exceeds what would be ‘minimally’ required to counter Pakistan’s capabilities.[12] This is because India’s nuclear policy is envisaged to counter China’s much larger arsenal.[13] This raises questions about New Delhi’s claim of possessing nuclear weapons solely for defensive purposes vis-à-vis Pakistan.

In addition to its tactical nuclear arsenal, India has made progress in developing its ballistic missile defense system and the DRDO has admitted it is currently developing Multiple Interdependently Targetable Reentry Vehicles (MIRVs) for some of the Agni strategic ballistic missiles.[14] Ultimately, the development of defensive capabilities along with MIRV-equipped nuclear missiles looks like ambition to achieve a disarming first strike capability – a blatant negation of New Delhi’s official posture.[15]As Vipin Narang argues, coupling MIRVs and ballistic missile defense (BMD) could enable a state to consider first-strike strategies that use multiple warheads to target an adversary’s nuclear arsenal and then rely on BMD to intercept any missiles that survived the disarming strike.[16]Although there is no confirmation that this is India’s thinking, these planned capabilities fuel Islamabad’s concerns over the survivability of its nuclear forces.[17]

The nuclear postures of India and Pakistan facilitate an atmosphere of mistrust and uncertainty which, when coupled with the introduction of tactical nuclear weapons and the lack of mutual understanding of red lines, increases the likelihood of a nuclear conflict sparked by miscalculations and misperceptions of intentions. Bearing in mind that both sides have little regular communication on nuclear issues, hostile and ambiguous signaling is a major factor contributing to the risk of nuclear war.[18] As reciprocal indications of mistrust escalate tensions, a seemingly minor border skirmish might spiral into nuclear exchange. Ultimately, without a clear formulation of nuclear postures and thus without mutual understanding of the other’s intentions, the risk of nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan will continue to increase.

 Maciej Lempke is a first year M.A student in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University. His academic research has focused on issues related to nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. He worked in the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Poland to the United Nations and National Atomic Energy Agency of Poland. He received his B.A degree in International Relations and International History from Aberystwyth University. 

[1] Paul Richter, “Obama urges caution as final push begins on Iran nuclear talks,” Los Angeles Times, November 9, 2014, accessed November 10, 2014,

[2] Tim Craig and Karen DeYoung, “Pakistan is eyeing sea-based and short-range nuclear weapons, analysts say”, the Washington Post, September 21, 2014, accessed November 8 2014,

[3] Ibid.; Ramamurti Rajaraman, “Battlefield weapons and missile defense: Worrisome developments in nuclear South Asia”, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 70 (2014), p.1.


[5]Vipin Narang, “Five Myths about India’s Nuclear Posture,” The Washington Quarterly 36 (Summer 2013), pp. 145-146.

[6] Rahul Singh, ‘Nuclear-capable missile to be tested on October 17, Hindustan Times, October 13, 2014, accessed on 8 November 2014,,

[7]Narang, “Five Myths about India’s Nuclear Posture”, p.147.

[8] Paul K. Kerr and Mary Beth Nikitin, “Pakistan’s Nuclear Weapons: Proliferation and Security Issues”, Congressional Research Service, March 19, 2013, p.13, accessed on: 8 November 2014,

[9]Narang, Nuclear Strategy in the Modern Era: Regional Powers and International Conflict (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), p.80.


[11]Narang, “Five Myths about India’s Nuclear Posture”, p.150.

[12]Ibid, p.144.


[14]Rahul Singh, “India to deploy defence against ballistic missiles by 2016, says DRDO chief”, Hindustan Times, September 2014,accessed on 8 November 2014,; Narang “Five Myths about India’s Nuclear Posture”, p.146.

[15] Ibid.,

[16] Ibid., pp.146-147.

[17] Ibid., p.147.

[18]The Editorial Board, “A Risk to India’s Nuclear Doctrine”, The New York Times, April 9, 2014, accessed on: 9 November 2014,

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