Potential Dangers Ahead
This survey of the nuclear weapons programs in China, India, and Pakistan describes the significant transitions underway in the character of their respective arsenals. These changes, however, do not automatically portend increased instability in each dyad. The Sino-Indian nuclear relationship, for example, has remained remarkably subdued where arms race, deterrence, and crisis stability are concerned. This comforting outcome is produced by the fact that the political problems between the two nations do not intensely implicate nuclear weapons. That China’s nuclear modernization is driven by concerns about the United States rather than India also helps in this context, though the growing sophistication of Chinese nuclear forces ends up putting India at a further disadvantage.
Whether this matters to policymakers (as opposed to analysts) is less clear: to the degree that state managers are influenced by the reality that both sides possess “absolute” weapons, the differences in the relative quality of these capabilities or the precise nuclear balances between the two countries matter less. In any case, Chinese nuclear superiority over India is so pronounced that, for the foreseeable future, New Delhi will focus mainly on increasing its capacity to hold Chinese countervalue targets at risk in order to limit any future nuclear threats issuing from Beijing—which are judged to be remote in any case.
Although the Indo-Pakistani nuclear rivalry dominates public attention more than its Sino-Indian counterpart, here too the dangers of nuclear instability may be less acute than many widely voiced fears suggest. The fundamental challenge in this dyad is less the competing nuclear weapons themselves and more the circumstances under which they become relevant. Both India and Pakistan are continuing to develop their nuclear arsenals primarily to deter threats that might be posed by the other (and in the case of India, deterring China simultaneously). Left to their own devices, the Indian and Pakistani nuclear programs will continue to emphasize survivability through a combination of increasing inventory size and diversification. But the two nations’ aims are subtly different: Pakistan seeks to use its nuclear weapons to prevent all forms of conventional war, whereas India seeks to use its nuclear weapons primarily to prevent nuclear use or nuclear threats directed against itself.
This asymmetry of objectives would not matter were it not for Pakistan’s attempt to use its nuclear weapons as cover to challenge India through terrorism and other forms of subconventional war. Pursuing such a strategy of nuclear coercion has opened the door to Indian threats of conventional military retaliation, which, in turn, precipitate the dangers of Pakistan’s tactical nuclear weapons use and further escalation therefrom. The hazards of deterrence instability thus persist in the case of India and Pakistan as a chronic condition. That it has not mutated into acute crises more often is largely due to the fact that India had been rather cautious about responding with force against Pakistan for many reasons, including the dangers of nuclear escalation. Even a supposedly muscular government of the sort represented by Narendra Modi has not been indifferent to these risks. As a result, the problems of crisis instability too have been muted—a particular danger that has been mitigated largely because the nuclear arsenals on both sides have been designed primarily for punitive retaliation rather than damage limitation.
When all is said and done, however, the most important factor for maintaining strategic stability in the Sino-Indian and Indo-Pakistani dyads is that all three nations still view their nuclear weapons primarily as political instruments rather than as devices for true warfighting. This is most clearly the case where India is concerned. It also holds for China, though this could shift depending on how its current force expansion turns out. Although it may seem counterfactual, even Pakistan ultimately values its nuclear weapons more for their political than their operational effectiveness. Even its tactical nuclear weapons, which are advertised as usable instruments and were developed explicitly for that purpose, find their greatest value not in neutralizing operational threats on the battlefield but as tripwires that signal a willingness to escalate to higher levels of violence and thereby hopefully provoke international intervention on Pakistan’s behalf when facing intense Indian conventional military operations. Both outcomes are, in any case, intended to exploit the political consequences of nuclear use to produce speedy war termination rather than really attempting to alter the operational outcomes to produce battlefield success.
The perception of nuclear weapons as essentially political instruments in all three Southern Asian states thus produces a measure of strategic stability that is more robust than their expanding arsenals would suggest.
The perception of nuclear weapons as essentially political instruments in all three Southern Asian states thus produces a measure of strategic stability that is more robust than their expanding arsenals would suggest. The nuclear asymmetries in the region, accordingly, are manifested in both external and internal dimensions. Externally, the nuclear postures of China, India, and Pakistan remain sharply differentiated from the postures of the world’s strongest nuclear-weapon states, namely, the United States and Russia. The latter still maintain very large nuclear arsenals that are fundamentally configured for executing those prompt counterforce operations associated with damage-limiting nuclear strategies. The continued U.S. emphasis on nuclear deterrence by denial is understandable in the light of Washington’s security obligations to its numerous allies. But as a result, and also because of its own Cold War inheritance, Russia has also persisted with a force structure that is intended to prosecute nuclear warfighting, sometimes in even more ambitious guises at the theater and tactical levels than the United States. All the same, the current asymmetry in nuclear doctrine and force posture between the United States and Russia on the one hand and between the three Southern Asian states on the other hand is both significant and conspicuous.
The internal asymmetries in capabilities and posture within the Southern Asian nuclear triangle have been the subject of close examination in this monograph. But the key insights are worth reiterating in this conclusion. Where the increases in force size are concerned, China has moved much faster than India to build up its nuclear capabilities in recent years. On this count, it is matched only by Pakistan, which has also moved with alacrity to expand its arsenal in comparison to the force levels obtained around 1998. India, too, has undoubtedly enlarged its nuclear forces since that time, but the growth here has been remarkably slow and the actual numbers of weapons deployed much smaller than public estimates imply. The same conclusion holds with respect to the qualitative transformation of the arsenal itself. Again, China leads the Southern Asian trio in the diversity of nuclear weapons possessed and in terms of their yields and quality. Pakistan follows next, with India further behind. China also leads where the transformation of the nuclear posture is concerned: now moving toward maintaining a small, rotating portion of its force on heightened alert, Beijing could shift eventually toward preserving a much larger proportion of its capabilities primed for prompt operations. Neither Pakistan nor India have followed suit in regard to their land-based forces, though the advent of continuous Indian (and Chinese) SSBN deterrent patrols will change that outcome in years to come. Even here, though, China is likely to realize this transition much faster than India.
The bottom line, therefore, is that within the Southern Asian triangle, China remains the dominant nuclear power: this is not surprising, given its ambitions to challenge the United States as the global hegemon. But the pursuit of this aim has widened its nuclear superiority over India in consequential ways, even if New Delhi has not yet felt compelled to mitigate this challenge, again for sensible reasons of its own. On many counts, Pakistan remains the second-most-capable nuclear power in Southern Asia, whether measured by the number or the diversity of its nuclear weapons. Yet this advantage is less politically significant than it seems because India, its principal antagonist, is unlikely to prosecute any military operations that make Islamabad’s nuclear reserves relevant for purposes of defense. This fact, however, is itself an overdetermined tribute to the success of Pakistani deterrence. The plodding expansion of India’s nuclear capabilities then suit New Delhi’s status quo disposition just fine, and its third-place status in the regional nuclear sweepstakes does not seem to alarm its decisionmakers unduly because of their conviction that India’s modest nuclear reserves today suffice to protect their interests in all plausible threat scenarios involving China and Pakistan.
Within the Southern Asian triangle, China remains the dominant nuclear power: this is not surprising, given its ambitions to challenge the United States as the global hegemon.
For all the stability deriving from these conclusions, however, there are uncertainties that could become significant in the years ahead and should be watched carefully by U.S. policymakers. The real dangers of strategic instability would arise if the present expansion of the nuclear inventories in China, India, and Pakistan went beyond numerical growth into specific aspects of qualitative change. Three innovations would be especially destabilizing in this regard.
The first danger arises from the development of defense-driven damage-limiting capabilities and the associated strategies that go with them over time. Specifically, the missile defense programs in China and India merit observation, with a particular emphasis on Beijing’s efforts. Pakistan has displayed no interest in developing missile defenses and India seems satisfied with thin enclave defenses at this point. Neither approach fundamentally threatens strategic stability. China, however, appears to be pursuing a more significant missile defense program: if this effort were to produce a “thick” nationwide defense umbrella or even substantial enclave defenses, the impact on the advanced nuclear powers—including the United States, Russia, and even the United Kingdom and France—would be minimal. But, when married to China’s offensive weapons, it would possibly weaken India’s retaliatory capabilities and could spur New Delhi into pursuing a larger offensive nuclear and missile program than is currently underway in order to correct the imbalance.
The second danger arises from the development of offense-driven hard-target counterforce kill capability, together with the requisite damage-limitation strategy than exploits such potential, over time, in one or more of the Southern Asian states. Neither China nor India nor Pakistan possess such capabilities today, although China comes closest because it has some highly accurate ballistic missiles and, of course, high-yield warheads. China’s principal strategic nuclear delivery systems, however, are still relatively inaccurate: this includes its more modern ICBMs, such as the CSS-10 and the CSS-20. Whether China’s follow-on ICBMs or later flights of its current ICBMs end up being extremely accurate and in what numbers remains to be seen. Any consequential shift on both counts would bring the possibility of damage-limiting counterforce strikes within reach, with significant impact on both distant rivals like the United States and nearer competitors such as India. The standard set by the nuclear version of the CSS-18 is already unsettling. If other evolving Chinese theater systems, such as the CSS-22 and the CH-AS-X-13 ALBM, come to possess a combination of variable- or lower-yield warheads and high accuracies, they could—again depending on their numbers—pose special threats to India insofar as they could support counterforce strikes against India’s nuclear reserves in a crisis.
India could address such developments by increasing its own ballistic missile accuracies, but it would almost certainly respond to any increased Chinese counterforce capability by investing more resolutely in its submarine-based nuclear force with an eye to enhancing the survivability of its own national deterrent. Notwithstanding speculation on this issue, India currently does not possess counterforce capabilities against Pakistan, and Islamabad, for its part, has shown little interest in pursuing counterforce capabilities against India. On balance, therefore, any counterforce competition within Southern Asia will be driven primarily by China. Beijing will likely push the envelope in developing some hard-target counterforce weapons over time. These capabilities will be stimulated mainly by its desire to target specific U.S. systems and strategic facilities along China’s periphery and eventually on the U.S. homeland; to be able to mount symmetrical responses in case of U.S. limited nuclear attacks on Chinese military or strategic targets; and to support any discrete nuclear first-use strategies should Beijing feel compelled to adopt extreme measures in any intense conventional conflict with the United States. Such an evolution, however, would also affect India in ways that could trigger conscious counter-responses by New Delhi.
The third danger arises from the possibility that one or more of the Southern Asian states might over time acquire the technical capability to procure asymmetric intelligence transparency vis-à-vis its rivals—a development that in tandem with the other two dangers could produce significant crisis instability of the sort that does not exist today. As previous discussion elaborated, the fact that China, India, and Pakistan all maintain relative opaque nuclear forces is actually conducive to strategic stability in the region. The significant uncertainty about the location of the others’ nuclear reserves mitigates the temptation to attempt any efforts at interdicting them, even in an acute crisis. But various developments in surveillance technology, data aggregation and analysis, and cyber intrusion and exfiltration could enable one or more of the rivals to pierce the prevailing veil of opacity and learn the locations of their adversary’s nuclear reserves. Any asymmetric advantage in locating the others’ nuclear forces increases the prospect of instability—especially if one country, such as China, also enjoys nuclear superiority in terms of the number of weapons and the accuracy of the delivery systems. The most destabilizing aspect of asymmetric intelligence transparency is that the compromise of locational uncertainty may not be detected by the victim in good enough time to develop countermeasures. Obviously, the uncertainty about whether any counterforce attacks based on the intelligence procured would enjoy comprehensive success would still persist as a break on any temptations to launch splendid first strikes in a crisis, but the possibility of any regional state breaching opacity is something that the United States should be closely attentive to.
If Pakistan were to achieve such a breakthrough vis-à-vis India, or if India were to achieve such clarity vis-à-vis Pakistan or China, the outcome is unlikely to be destabilizing as long as India and Pakistan persist with small inventories of relatively inaccurate nuclear systems. Any Chinese advantages in intelligence transparency vis-à-vis India, however, would have grave consequences because, in time, Beijing is likely to possess sufficient numbers of either large or accurate nuclear weapons to target the entirety of India’s nuclear storage sites and the military bases that support nuclear operations. The United States, accordingly, should be concerned about this prospect; Washington should warn New Delhi if it becomes aware that China is realizing such an advantage. India’s growing importance in the evolving U.S. strategy toward China demands such intelligence cooperation.
Even as Washington mulls these possibilities, the United States ought to recognize other dilemmas—both its own and India’s.
The key dilemma facing the United States because of the nuclear transitions in Southern Asia, and especially China’s dramatic nuclear expansion, will be the constraints imposed upon Washington’s longstanding desire for further nuclear reductions with Russia.
The key dilemma facing the United States because of the nuclear transitions in Southern Asia, and especially China’s dramatic nuclear expansion, will be the constraints imposed upon Washington’s long-standing desire for further nuclear reductions with Russia. Pakistan’s new desire to be able to hold at least some U.S. targets at risk with nuclear weapons adds an additional complication, though Islamabad’s nuclear forces are likely to remain sufficiently modest that they can be treated as a “lesser included case” of China’s nuclear expansion. If Beijing’s nuclear forces, however, are poised to rival the number of deployed U.S. strategic warheads over this decade and the next, it is highly unlikely that either Washington or Moscow will be able to negotiate further reductions in their strategic arsenals without China’s participation in such future efforts. Assuming it persists, the growing Russo-Chinese strategic alignment on display in the lead-up to the 2022 war in Ukraine will only make the imperatives of metering future U.S. strategic nuclear forces to those possessed by both these competitors more pressing, especially if Washington’s current nuclear strategy of deterrence by denial remains firmly ensconced.
Given the uncertainties of international politics, even if the United States were to seek strategic arms reductions in the face of growing Chinese nuclear capabilities, it is unlikely that Russia would be enthused about such diminutions since nuclear weapons alone today remain markers of its great power pretensions. In any event, U.S. allies are also unlikely to be enthusiastic about any future arms control efforts that portend a weakening of U.S. nuclear advantages because they rely on the benefits of Washington’s functional nuclear superiority for their own security. Even friendly bystanders like India, although quick to support all nuclear reductions that purportedly lead up to eventual nuclear disarmament, are astute enough to recognize that U.S. nuclear dominance serves their strategic interests at a time when China remains a major threat to New Delhi and Russia’s future trajectory seems entirely uncertain.
For its part, India faces two significant and unique dilemmas as well. As this report highlighted, India’s biggest nuclear deficiency vis-à-vis China (and Pakistan) is the absence of reliable high-yield weapons in its inventory. Although Indian policymakers have underplayed this limitation, in part because of a genuine belief that fission warheads are adequate substitutes for thermonuclear weapons, this deficit mattered little when Sino-Indian ties and U.S.-China relations were each relatively stable. At a time when both dyadic partnerships are in deep trouble, however—especially the former—there may come a point when New Delhi feels the need to deploy robust and validated thermonuclear warheads to strengthen deterrence against a more powerful adversary while still maintaining a relatively small nuclear arsenal.
Unfortunately for India, the inadequacies that mark its thermonuclear weapons stockpile cannot be confidently remedied without a return to hot testing. New Delhi undoubtedly has several friends—such as Russia, France, the United Kingdom, and Israel—who have the capacity to aid its weapons designers in perfecting their thermonuclear devices. But it is unclear whether any one of them would be willing to provide such assistance, which, in all cases save Israel, would also require them to violate their NPT obligations. In a different era, the United States provided exactly such help to France when, faced with the growing Soviet threat, U.S. president Richard Nixon’s administration made the bold decision to aid Paris in surmounting its difficulties with developing a staged thermonuclear weapon. The highly secret discussions between U.S. and French nuclear designers took the form of a “Gong Show,” where the former, permitted by presidential authorization only to provide “negative guidance,”1 clued the latter with a clanging chime whenever their technical errors surfaced in the conversations. The resulting cooperation helped France to develop an effective trigger for its fusion weapons, among other nuclear capabilities. Although this partnership with a legitimate nuclear-weapon state, as defined by the NPT, did not fall afoul of international obligations, it “almost certainly . . . violated U.S. law.”2 But it was entirely justified because such cooperation represented an audacious U.S. pursuit of its own supreme national interests, which required supporting the French force de frappe in the face of the growing Soviet threat.
At a time when U.S. competition with China finds India in an analogous position to that of France during the Cold War, Washington’s choices could help India to develop a powerful nuclear deterrent that durably protects its ability to balance Chinese power in ways that ultimately benefit the United States in Asia and globally.
At a time when U.S. competition with China finds India in an analogous position to that of France during the Cold War, Washington’s choices could help India to develop a powerful nuclear deterrent that durably protects its ability to balance Chinese power in ways that ultimately benefit the United States in Asia and globally. In an ideal world, the United States would be able to directly assist India—as it once did France—in developing its own advanced weapons, especially its thermonuclear devices in regard to their effectiveness, reliability, and safety. Even though U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration is seeking ways to deepen strategic cooperation with India versus China, nuclear design assistance will prove to be a bridge too far because it would run afoul of other U.S. nonproliferation objectives and its extant international obligations at a time when the U.S.-China rivalry may not seem as intense as U.S.-Soviet competition once was and, hence, would not precipitate the hard decisions previously made by Nixon (and, in a different way later, by George W. Bush through his civil nuclear cooperation agreement with India).
Yet the United States can aid the Indian effort to develop a capable nuclear deterrent, and this assistance would be manifested most clearly when India decides that it is necessary to return to hot testing. As argued previously, New Delhi is unlikely to field-test its nuclear weapons until it either faces a supreme emergency or other established nuclear-weapon states, especially its adversaries, test their nuclear devices first. Whatever the provocation, any Indian return to overt nuclear testing could provoke U.S. sanctions and almost inevitably either the suspension or the termination of the U.S.-Indian civil nuclear cooperation agreement. It would also lead to an interruption of India’s collaboration with other partners in the Nuclear Suppliers Group. These outcomes are certain because the Bush administration, despite trying valiantly, was not able to persuade the U.S. Congress to give India a clean waiver from the relevant provisions of the U.S. Atomic Energy Act (especially Section 129), which would have treated India as a de jure nuclear-weapon state by releasing the U.S. president from the obligation to terminate nuclear cooperation in the event of nuclear testing by New Delhi.
As a consequence of this constraint, any Indian return to nuclear testing would provoke a termination of the bilateral 2008 civil nuclear cooperation agreement. Although a nuclear test by New Delhi is by no means imminent, it is important for the United States to recognize that such an event could occur eventually, and that the administration of the day will have to exercise its waiver authorities in partnership with the U.S. Congress to avoid penalizing India for its renewed nuclear testing. India’s decision to resume nuclear testing, if and when it occurs, will be necessary to both perfect its fusion weapon designs and to credibly communicate that it possesses the requisite capability to deter Beijing in the context of what may be deeply intensifying Sino-Indian (and possibly U.S.-China) strategic rivalries. An Indian ability to balance China in this way is fundamentally in America’s interest. Because India can independently improve its delivery systems and their effectiveness without any external constraints, protecting its freedom to test its advanced nuclear weapons when circumstances demand it constitutes the best U.S. contribution toward enhancing geopolitical stability in the wider Asian region at a time when Chinese assertiveness will be increasingly harder to deter in the face of the ongoing improvements of its own strategic capabilities.
The second dilemma facing India pertains to how it might increase the survivability of its nuclear deterrent in the face of the growing Chinese threat. Unlike the problems associated with possibly resumed Indian nuclear testing, which fundamentally implicate U.S. law, the challenges at the U.S. end with aiding India to develop a more resilient nuclear force only implicate U.S. policy—but are complex all the same. As the analysis in this report highlights, the rapidly expanding Chinese nuclear force could bequeath Beijing with a large number of highly accurate ballistic missiles that could in time hold at risk almost every Indian nuclear storage site if China succeeds in piercing the veil of opacity that currently protects these facilities. In the past, Chinese simply did not possess either the appropriate number of missiles or the accuracies required to execute such damage-limiting attacks. Both these constraining conditions now promise to become relics of the past—with only continued opacity and the inferred Chinese disinterest in using nuclear weapons against India intervening to prevent a potential breakdown in crisis stability, yet with significant uncertainties as to their permanence.
Since New Delhi cannot count on both conditions persisting in perpetuity, the Indian answer to this threat cannot consist of building either more or deeper terrestrial storage facilities because such solutions will only place it at the wrong end of the cost-effectiveness equation. Rather, enhancing the survivability of the Indian deterrent will require a combination of stealth and mobility in the form of an effective nuclear ballistic missile submarine force. Unfortunately, New Delhi thus far has not been able to develop a powerful yet compact naval nuclear reactor, and it is unclear whether India possesses the diverse other technologies required to produce a truly quiet submersible either. As a matter of policy, the United States does not assist other countries in this regard—and for good reason. The U.S. Navy is the world’s preeminent force in underseas warfare and, hence, has eschewed sharing its technological capabilities for fear of diminishing its own advantages. The recent agreement between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States (AUKUS) to help Canberra acquire nuclear attack submarines remains the most conspicuous exception to the standing policy and was controversial precisely because it was such a startling deviation.
The very logic that drove the Biden administration’s decision on AUKUS, however—aiding a close friend to advance Washington’s aim of balancing China—arguably carries over in the case of India, even though New Delhi is not a treaty ally. Because India shares strong common interests with the United States in constraining the Chinese quest for hegemony in Asia, and because the survivability of India’s nuclear deterrent is a critical backstop to that effort, Washington ought to consider ways to advance this latter objective. Fortunately, it does not require the United States to necessarily offer direct assistance, as it did in the case of Australia. Instead, through a deliberate policy shift analogous to that of Bush’s nuclear agreement with India but at much lower political cost, it could encourage another U.S. ally—France—to offer India such collaboration with explicit American support.
The resulting agreement between India, France, and the United States (INFRUS) would not only go some distance in placating Paris for the shabby manner in which Washington helped to abort the previous Franco-Australian agreement for submarine construction, but it would also help India to avail of the superb French naval nuclear propulsion technology to build up its own sea-based deterrent (as well as its nuclear attack submarine force). What Washington would do most of all in such a hypothetical INFRUS compact is to endorse and midwife an Indo-French arrangement. Such an agreement, of course, could be concluded independently between Paris and New Delhi, but it is rather unlikely that France would pursue such a deal in the face of either U.S. reluctance or opposition. Consequently, the most sensible approach to aid India in building an effective naval nuclear reactor would be to develop a trilateral mechanism that first discusses the nature of Indian requirements and, thereafter, develops a plan of action that the United States could endorse even if it does not itself contribute any particular nuclear technology. The threats that will be posed by China’s growing nuclear capabilities to India’s strategic reserves are likely to be significant enough in the coming years to warrant the exploration of such ambitious solutions—if the common U.S., French, and Indian goal of preventing Beijing’s hegemony in Asia and globally is to be realized.
Even as Washington considers these issues, however, the analysis in this report confirms that the continuing expansion and modernization of the nuclear deterrents in Southern Asia will be an enduring fact of life for a long time to come. The recent—and blatant—Russian effort to engage in nuclear coercion during the Ukraine war could provide an example for an ever more ambitious China to exploit in the context of a future crisis with either Taiwan or India. Given these possibilities, the United States ought to begin thinking now about how nuclear weapons ought to be utilized to prevent any unfavorable outcomes to its interests. And where India is concerned, this will require entertaining some innovative policy options that enable New Delhi to blunt Beijing’s nuclear superiority in ways that advance both its own national security and American geopolitical aims.
1 “Memorandum From Helmut Sonnenfeldt to Henry A. Kissinger, ‘Nuclear Cooperation With France—Gallery-Schlesinger Meeting September 25, 1973’,” September 24, 1973, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, Nixon Presidential Library, National Security Council Files (NSCF), box 960, France Vol XI April 73–31 December 1973. Obtained and contributed by William Burr and included in NPIHP Research Update #2. http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/113238; and Richard H. Ullman, “The Covert French Connection,” Foreign Policy 75 (Summer, 1989): 9.
2 Ullman, “The Covert French Connection,” 3.