There is a rich and varied output in strategic and security writings on nuclear South Asia. South Asia is the post-Cold War test bed on which nuclear deterrence, escalation dominance, nuclear doctrines, force structures, command and control systems, and crisis management principles are being examined afresh. Western experts are not the only ones to benefit from this churning of ideas: Indian and Pakistani policymakers are also coming to their own conclusions.
Nuclear South Asia has a list of positives to its credit. India and Pakistan have been through a number of serious disagreements and tensions since 1998. Despite grave provocations and serious domestic political pressures, both sides have demonstrated considerable crisis containment or management skills. Military responses have not escalated beyond the conventional domains, and have avoided risks of nuclear escalation. Additionally, there have been meaningful Track II engagements between India and Pakistan that have helped clear the air on misperceptions and misinterpretations. The governments of the two countries have used this to better understand the security dynamic which operates during the build-up to and during crisis.
Phrases like "dangerous deterrent" and "unstable peace" have been used to describe the South Asian scene. In the decade and half since their nuclear tests, India has published its nuclear doctrine and Pakistan has indicated its thresholds. Both sides have put into place legislation and systems to improve safety and security. They have put in place command and control systems at strategic and operational levels. There is restraint in the nuclear rhetoric.
"Arms build-up" and "arms race" are a constant refrain on South Asia. Capability accretion is a reality in South Asia. One observer of the South Asian nuclear scene interprets this accretion in nuclear capabilities as a vigorous attempt by both states to seek strategic and tactical stability. He goes on to say that in India and Pakistan, strategic and tactical stability are not mutually incompatible, and that it has aided efforts to preserve the status quo and led to a decline in tensions.
The reported development of non-strategic nuclear weapons in Pakistan can either be viewed through this prism of a search for stability, or as a destabilizing development. If "tactical nuclear weapons" are to be used during operations, the Indian position may well be that a nuke is a nuke and the use of even a tactical one is a strategic strike. The Indian decision makers may not attach importance to either the yield of the weapon used, or the territory on which it is detonated. The response could well be strategic on the lines indicated in the India doctrine. The search for strategic stability will continue to drive the development of a nuclear triad and other capabilities. What remains to be seen is the speed and scale on which the strategic apparatus will come about.
What risks can we expect in the circumstances that prevail in South Asia? Given the desire for stability demonstrated by both sides, what trigger can introduce instability and raise the risk quotient? The first is that of nuclear security and safety. The second risk relates to a situation in which one side, more likely the weaker one, can initiate a crisis with a view to involving the major powers in taking sides. Past events bear out the reality of such crisis intervention by major powers in South Asia. Whether this will be a recurrent reality remains to be seen.
South Asia's leaders, not unlike US presidents in the Cold War and even today, cannot be oblivious to public opinion when it comes to nuclear weapons. The primacy of the political ingredient in nuclear risk reduction cannot be ignored in South Asia. It also offers the most promising area for new attempts in risk reduction. In the absence of the political element other measures will amount to no more than technical fixes.
Is there a 'Black Swan' in this sky which can ruin the best laid plans? What can surprise the two countries and international community? International terrorism and its extensive reach is the intangible danger which can upset the arrangements for stability India and Pakistan make, either individually or bilaterally. This is also an international or global security requirement. The Nuclear Security Summits during the Obama presidency have made a singular contribution on this. Such work will have to be sustained.
The future of nuclear risks in South Asia is not well served by the fear generated in the discourse on it. The sense of imminent Armageddon is never far from the American writings on nuclear South Asia. Such prognosis is not helpful to objective analysis. Where there are nuclear weapons there are risks. Even the most experienced states in this game cannot claim certainty or immunity in such matters. Fear, therefore, cannot be the basis for rational action.