Nuclear Postures of India and Pakistan: Implications for South Asia

The South Asian region works like a chess board on which great powers are fighting and shaping the security dynamics and stability of the region. The Strategic Competition between U.S and U.S.S.R during the Cold War led to the inception of the concept of strategic stability which is a combination of crisis stability & arms race stability. It is defined as “the absence of incentives for any use of nuclear weapons, which effectively also requires preventing major military conflict among the nuclear weapon states”. Its critical elements include the possibility of mutually assured destruction, possession of redundant second-strike capability and undertaking confidence building measures to sustain it.

South Asia has remained a volatile region since the day of cold war politics. The uneasy relations between India and Pakistan hold the central position in description of the South Asian region. The theoretical basis of nuclear deterrence and stability in South Asia arises from two factors. One factor is existential deterrence that was proposed by McGeorge Bundy during the Cold War era and another factor is distinct nuclear doctrine adopted by each state. The essence of existential deterrence is that nuclear adversaries will avoid the full-scale war because of assured second strike capability.

According to third party estimates Pakistan has 160 nuclear warheads and India has 150 nuclear warheads. India on one hand says that it follows the policy of No First Use (NFU) while on the other hand the Indian declaration of the option to use nuclear weapons against any use of ‘Nuclear’, ‘Chemical’, or ‘Biological’ weapons against Indian territory, or its Armed Forces anywhere in the world, virtually nullified the ‘no first use’ commitment. Thereby, not only extending the threshold of nuclear use but also expanding the geographical scope. Credible Minimum Deterrence is a declaratory policy of Indian nuclear doctrine which may have a different connotation when it comes to “operationalization” of this policy aspect. India may not have the similar kind of minimum against China that it may propose against Pakistan. India’s minimum against Pakistan may not be minimum against China. It will actually further amplify the existing conventional imbalance and thereby it will further reduce Pakistan’s nuclear threshold. However, Pakistan has always been sceptical of Indian declaration of NFU and considers it just uncredible.

As far as Pakistan’s Nuclear Policy is concerned, Pakistan doesn’t adhere to a No First Use Policy. Unlike India, Pakistan’s nuclear policy is driven entirely by the threat to its security emanating from India and is, therefore Indian centric. The discourse on the direction, aims and objectives of the nuclear policy is mainly confined to statements given by officials. Public debate on such issues is not very broad based and the published literature on the subject is very limited, compared to the volume of published material emanating from India’s academic circles and think tanks. Existential deterrence and Pakistan’s nuclear deterrence has deterred India for more than two decades from taking advantage of conventional superiority. Both 1999 and 2003 draft nuclear doctrines of India indicate officially no-first use option, India would not be the first to use nuclear weapons, India would use only in retaliation. NFU is aimed at gaining high moral ground and has no credibility, as India had itself refused to give any credence to China’s “No First Use” Policy. Moreover, India’s Current Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, while speaking at Pokhran in 2020 said “till today, our nuclear policy is ‘no first use’, What happens in future depends on the circumstances” clearly proving Pakistan’s reservations to be true.

There are several destabilizing factors that affect South Asian strategic stability. These factors include: India’s vulnerability to command and control, uncertainties, and the absence of nuclear risk reductions efforts and agreements. Geographical proximity has also created dangers between India and Pakistan. The absence of agreements on de-facto boundaries, where disputes still exist, is also a destabilizing factor. There is also absence of a dedicated command and control system which allows civilian control during crises or heightened tensions. Indian Analysts are also propagating the potential instabilities introduced by the Nasr Battlefield Nuclear Weapon. Indian army says that it has practiced fighting through Nasr strikes. But the real thing would be totally different because any limited nuclear use would be strong enough to halt or resist any Indian military advance.

Some Doable Measures:

India and Pakistan should negotiate the bilateral agreements to reduce the nuclear weapons leading towards their elimination to make South Asia a nuclear weapon free zone (NWFZ). Either of the countries should voluntarily or involuntarily drop out of the arms race. Confidence building measures can also play a key role in maintaining strategic stability in South Asia as these CBMs can be helpful in resolving complex issues.  Both states should go for no war pacts and give up the idea of ballistic missile defence system. Public must have a clear understanding of nuclear dangers because public would be able to put pressure on their leaders to avoid a nuclear conflict. Pakistan’s proposal for Strategic Restraint Regime, offered in 1998 to focus on stable deterrence and peaceful resolutions of all issues, stands as a reasonable way forward.

Conclusively, strategic stability in South Asia is dependent on threat perception of both the states as they need to overhaul their relations and to think and act more rationally to achieve long-lasting security and peace of South Asia.


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Muhammad Usama

Written by Muhammad Usama

Muhammad Usama Ali is undergraduate student of Strategic Studies at National Defence University Islamabad. He can be reached at

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