There has been a considerable escalation of tension between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan in the aftermath of the Pulwama attack. While the outbreak of a full-fledged conflict is no more than a distant possibility, a paper by Christopher Clary and Vipin Narang, published in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s journal International Security, considers the likelihood of a pre-emptive nuclear strike by India in response to Pakistan’s continued aggression as a ‘counterforce’ strategy.
India has had a long-standing policy of nuclear restraint and is believed to pursue a no first use policy. However, the authors suggest that, since 2003, India has devoted considerable resources to develop nuclear capabilities far in excess of what is required for mere retaliation. In addition to these enhanced capabilities, there has been a host of public comment from both serving and retired Indian national security officials about the possibilities and strategic importance of a pre-emptive nuclear strike.
These strikes, the authors argue, could potentially limit the capabilities of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.
However, this shift in policy, or even a perceived shift, would carry major risks. It could potentially lead to an arms race in the subcontinent, and also create a vicious geo-political environment that would provide incentives for both sides to mobilize nuclear weapons first.
The authors also warn that a pre-emptive strike may not destroy enough Pakistani nuclear weapons on the ground, leaving Indian defence systems vulnerable to a retaliatory nuclear attack from Pakistan. As such, though tensions are running high in the aftermath of the Pulwama attack, there is need for caution in determining the way forward. Any escalation of tensions between the nuclear-armed neighbours can have massive implications for both South Asian and global security.
Also read: India’s Counterforce Temptations: Strategic Dilemmas, Doctrine, and Capabilities