The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

Both have nuclear arsenals and both resent one another. It’s a wonder that India and Pakistan haven’t already launched their nukes at one another.

As India commemorates the 24th anniversary of the Kargil War, the nuclear question between the two longstanding rivals has resurfaced: How might a nuclear confrontation have unfolded if both nations had pressed their respective nuclear buttons?

In 1999, Pakistan maneuvered ballistic missiles toward the border, and in 2000, White House officials and national security experts claimed that India was preparing five nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles. Such nuclear escalations between the two nations had never come so close to the brink before.

From 1999 to 2001, Pakistan’s posturing and saber-rattling concerning nuclear warfare often captured headlines. In 2019, the nuclear question reemerged after India launched bombing raids in Balakot, Pakistan.

Recently, Pakistani strategic planners alluded to a radical shift in the country’s nuclear doctrine. Lieutenant General (retired) Khalid Kidwai, advisor to Pakistan’s National Command Authority, made a significant speech where he revisited Pakistan’s nuclear strategy.

Full spectrum deterrence (FSD) refers to the expansion of the nuclear triad at tactical and strategic levels across land, air, and sea, incorporating advanced technology. Pakistan plans to enhance its battlefield and strategic strike capabilities with tactical and strategic nuclear weapons.

This expansion has potential ramifications for South Asia’s security architecture. China’s ongoing support for Pakistan’s nuclear program, including covert cooperation, lends credence to this development. China’s delivery of modern naval frigates to Pakistan further hints at the acceleration of their partnership beyond economics, potentially making full-spectrum deterrence a visible reality for Pakistan.

For India, Pakistan’s nuclear factor is more of a strategic irritant than an alarming threat. India’s doctrine of credible minimum deterrence talks about massive retaliation only if attacked, while Pakistan’s doctrine includes the option to launch a nuclear strike if “threatened.”

India’s concern lies more in Pakistan’s potential technological advancements in tactical nuclear weapons in cooperation with China. This cooperation could strengthen Pakistan’s nuclear deterrence against India, putting the South Asian region on an even more precarious footing.

The Kargil War offers insights into the nuclear dynamics between India and Pakistan. Statements from leaders like former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, advocating for massive retaliation based on perceived threats, place India in a complex position regarding conflict escalation.

A shift in Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine could complicate India’s options in maintaining thresholds while executing effective or pre-emptive strikes. International pressure, sanctions, and India’s growing counter-ballistic capabilities might help manage the nuclear escalation ladder to some extent. Nevertheless, any nuclear scenario between the two nations could deeply disturb the South Asian power equilibrium and lead to a regional arms race, adding more fuel to the nuclear fire.

The 24th anniversary of the Kargil War serves as a sobering reminder of the tenuous peace and persistent challenges that mark the nuclear relationship between India and Pakistan. The recent developments in Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine offer a window into the evolving strategic landscape of the region, highlighting the importance of diplomatic engagements, strategic foresight, and caution in these uncertain times.

Srijan Sharma is a former editor and national security analyst specializing in intelligence and security. He has written for several institutions, journals, and newspapers. He is currently a guest author for the School of International Studies in New Delhi.