Table of Contents

The current patterns of nuclearization in Southern Asia confirm that although China, India, and Pakistan had at various points historically supported the idea of abolishing nuclear weapons, albeit with differing degrees of enthusiasm, that aspiration has now been consigned to the dust heap of history. At a formal level, all three states still claim that they would like to see the eventual abolition of nuclear weapons. But the character of competitive international politics has taken each of them further and further from that goal.

China’s recent emergence as a superpower—facing the United States, the existing hegemon, in an open-ended competition for global influence—has made nuclear weapons modernization a critical element of its security calculus because these instruments, more than any other, provide Beijing with the ultimate guarantee that its strategic rivals will not be able to either issue existential threats or constrain its preferences on matters that affect its vital interests.1 Although the United States remains the principal focus of China’s nuclear transformation, these same capabilities also serve to deter Russia if Beijing’s currently strong relationship with Moscow were to turn sour in the future. By the same token, Chinese nuclear weapons also serve as effective deterrents against its other regional rivals, including nuclear-armed states such as India and non-nuclear powers such as Japan, Vietnam, Australia, and the Philippines (in part because some of these countries host critical U.S. military bases that are relevant to potential U.S. military operations against China).2

India, for its part, also has reason to hold on to its nuclear weapons and expand its inventory further, mainly because it is confronted by two nuclear-armed rivals, China and Pakistan. Of the three Southern Asian states, nuclear weapons arguably have the weakest utility for India because its robust conventional military forces offer it substantial protection vis-à-vis China and Pakistan. Consequently, India needs nuclear weapons only because its adversaries happen to possess them: they serve solely to deter nuclear threats and nuclear use, challenges that would disappear if its regional rivals did not possess nuclear weapons. Of course, New Delhi may still desire nuclear weapons for prestige, but in an era where nuclear weapons lack the salience they once had, this consideration would diminish in significance. In any event, the key point is that unlike China, which increasingly requires nuclear weapons because it is involved in an acute geopolitical competition with the United States, India has a less compelling need for nuclear weapons for security—requiring these capabilities only because its neighbors have acquired them for more pressing reasons and, in the process, have created new problems including the possibility of collusive threats against India.3

Of the three Southern Asian states, Pakistan perhaps represents the best exemplar of a country that desperately holds on to its nuclear weapons because they exemplify the indispensable guarantee of its security. Unlike China and India, which have large landmasses, huge populations, and substantial conventional military capabilities, Islamabad is convinced that its security, today and into the future, cannot be assured either by diplomacy or by conventional military power alone—an understandable inference derived from its painful defeat in the 1971 war with India. Consequently, Pakistan is embarked on a significant expansion and diversification of its nuclear arsenal and is unlikely today to ever give up its nuclear capabilities—even if universal nuclear disarmament otherwise beckoned—because the threats to national survival loom more heavily in Islamabad’s consciousness than they do in Beijing’s or New Delhi’s.4

As a result of these different, but intersecting, concerns, China, India, and Pakistan will for the foreseeable future pursue the steady buildup and diversification of their nuclear capabilities. This trend reflects their national judgments that the security threats, including those posed to each by the other(s), only seem to be increasing in intensity. Furthermore, although all three states recognize that the other major nuclear powers, especially the United States and Russia, have reduced the size of their own arsenals in recent years relative to their historic maxima, no Southern Asian state has yet concluded that these reductions obviate the need for an expansion of their own strategic deterrents. This conclusion is most clearly manifested in the case of China, whose choices then shape Indian decisions in some ways, with more complicating derivative effects on Pakistan in turn.5 All told, nuclear weapons continue to be relevant to the security competition in both the Sino-Indian and the Indo-Pakistani dyads, although with distinctive attributes in each case. This chapter reviews these elements with an eye to understanding their impact on strategic stability—that is, assessing how different developments in the nuclear realm affect the prospects of war and peace as manifested in deterrence, crisis, and arms race stability.

Nuclear Weapons in the Sino-Indian Security Competition

The Sino-Indian relationship is rivalrous across multiple dimensions. Even before the two states appeared in their modern incarnation—India as independent in 1947 and China as communist in 1949—their earliest struggles centered on status. India, thanks to its civilizational inheritance (which shaped the trajectory of many Asian nations, including China, through the spread of Buddhism), its extensive military involvement in Asia and beyond (because of the British Indian Army’s operations under the Raj), and its precedent-setting decolonization (which signaled the demise of European imperialism), imagined that it would become the most influential power in Asia. China, for its part, scorned India as the subjugated ward of a colonial power and visualized its own reconstitution as a revolutionary state as offering the opportunity to resurrect its ancient centrality in East and Southeast Asia while serving as the fountainhead of revolution globally. The competition between these two ambitions quickly tainted Sino-Indian ties despite their early efforts to preserve amicability.6

Geopolitical and territorial problems further compounded these status rivalries. Mao’s invasion of Tibet abolished the geopolitical buffer that New Delhi had hoped would survive to its north—another legacy of the Raj that would decay in time to India’s disadvantage—and brought in trail acute disputes about territorial boundaries that ultimately led to the 1962 Sino-Indian war, which finally congealed the adversarial perceptions on both sides.7 This antagonism quickly became enmeshed in the larger rivalries of the Cold War. India sought assistance first from the United States to cope with Chinese aggression at a time when Sino-U.S. relations were themselves hostile. When the latter improved in the early 1970s, India turned to the Soviet Union for assistance, a relationship that survived until the end of the Cold War, after which India reached out once again to the United States for support in managing the dangers posed by a rising China. Given China’s greater capabilities relative to India, New Delhi’s ties with other great powers came to be viewed by Beijing as more troublesome than India’s independent actions toward China. Consequently, India’s tacit alignments with the major states quickly become the third dimension of Sino-Indian competition, further exacerbating their other animosities.8

India moved quickly after its defeat in the 1962 war to limit China’s capacity to endanger its security. Beyond the search for great power assistance, New Delhi invested heavily in modernizing its conventional military capabilities and developed in effect an entirely new land force, currently consisting of some twelve mountain divisions (and being expanded to include a mountain strike corps), to defend its Himalayan frontiers. Simultaneously, India modernized its airpower, improving both the quality of its combat aircraft and its air base infrastructure, to provide air defense and support its land forces in the event of any future conflict with China. In response to China’s first nuclear test in 1964, India also initiated research aimed at investigating the development of nuclear weapons, an effort that finally produced India’s first nuclear test explosion a decade later but did not yield an operational device until the early 1990s.

These efforts underscored the intensity with which India perceived China as its most serious threat, even though the challenges involving Pakistan otherwise dominated its attention. The dangers posed by the latter, however, were judged to be more manageable because India’s greater size and national resources provided it with a significant measure of protection, advantages that did not carry over to its rivalry with China. The high visibility surrounding India’s balancing effort against China since 1962, consequently, gave rise to the widespread belief in the West that New Delhi is locked into a “one-sided rivalry” with Beijing because “China does not regard India as a serious rival.”9

Nothing could be further from the truth. China admittedly faces bigger threats than India: the United States and Japan are the most prominent today, and Russia has been a major threat historically. China’s strategic attention is thus dominated by the dangers emerging from its east, but the lower priority accorded to neutralizing India in the southwest “does not equate to neglect” by any means.10 China, undoubtedly, has cultivated “a feigned indifference toward India, coupled with the consistent denial that New Delhi remains a potential rival.”11 This public posture, however, has been driven by the shrewd calculation that acknowledging India as an adversary would elevate it in importance undeservedly and thereby undermine China’s efforts to position itself as the preeminent power in Asia.

Even as China has continually fostered the impression of ignoring India, its internal judgments have been quite different: as Gary Klintworth accurately summarized some three decades ago, “China perceives India to be an ambitious, overconfident yet militarily powerful neighbor with whom it may eventually have to have a day of reckoning.”12 Not surprisingly then, China’s actions over the past sixty-odd years indicate that it has moved decisively—even if only subtly—to contain India in highly effective ways. Even more to the point, John Garver has argued, “China’s moves to counter India over the last decades have been essentially successful, while Indian efforts to counter China have essentially failed.”13 These Chinese moves include bolstering Pakistan’s power in order to “marginalise India in Asia and tie it down to the Indian sub-continent.”14 As part of this strategy, Beijing provided Islamabad with the “ultimate gift” of nuclear weapons15—a bequest that ensures New Delhi will always have to worry about its west even as it seeks to play a larger role in the wider Asian theater. Simultaneously, China developed preferential ties with the smaller states of Southern Asia itself, thus attempting to weaken India’s hegemony within its own immediate neighborhood. Finally, over the last two decades, Beijing’s conventional military weaknesses along its southwestern frontiers have been progressively corrected to slowly erode the advantages that New Delhi procured as a result of its post-1962 military modernization.

Because China has enjoyed a significant and growing edge in relative power over India since about 1990, it has been able “to do much with little”16—in other words, to constrain India effectively without either inordinate exertions or seeming hell-bent on doing so.17 That this approach has been successful is corroborated by the fact that many Western analysts claimed for the longest time that China was indifferent to India, clearly an odd contention for a country that has gone to great lengths to surreptitiously transfer nuclear weapons designs, technology, and materials to India’s adversary Pakistan. Equally striking is that China began to target India with nuclear weapons soon after New Delhi conducted its first nuclear test in 1974. That this development materialized long before India had acquired a nuclear arsenal of its own refutes the notion that Beijing has nothing but patent disregard for India. The characteristics of the long-range missiles then in Beijing’s inventory revealed its significant targeting of India, something academic observers of China’s nuclear forces were able to slowly corroborate by the late 1990s.18 This Chinese nuclear targeting of India has only expanded over time and will continue unabated as Beijing’s nuclear inventory increases in size and diversity in the years ahead.

Until the Agni-II MRBM entered the Indian inventory around 2010, India remained highly vulnerable to Chinese nuclear weapons. New Delhi’s air-delivered nuclear bombs still cannot reach the most important Chinese targets in the eastern half of the country. Consequently, India’s development of long-range nuclear-tipped missiles since 1998 seeks to replace its previous abject vulnerability to China’s nuclear forces with some semblance of mutual vulnerability—no matter how asymmetrical that might be.19 In the years ahead, the Indian land-based missile deterrent force will incorporate larger number of Agni-IV and Agni-V IRBMs, with the latter likely to be based in secure locations in central and southern India. These investments could create weak arms race instability as India acquires the wherewithal to deter China, even as China directs most of its nuclear modernization primarily at the United States (while implicitly and automatically covering Russia as well). Beijing could respond by further increasing the number of nuclear weapons targeting India, in part because it will have the capacity to do so without compromising its other deterrence objectives. In any event, thanks to the expansion of China’s nuclear capabilities driven by fears about the United States, India will come to subsist as a “lesser included case” of successful deterrence arising from Beijing’s investments in neutralizing even bigger threats.

Just to be sure, however, China will also expand its strategic defense capabilities vis-à-vis India, but both states are likely to avoid a tightly interactive arms race with each other because China already possesses the capacity to inflict enormous damage on India while the latter is still trying to play catch-up.20 India undoubtedly has to make critical decisions about its future force size, given the now increasingly visible Chinese nuclear expansion.21 But the evidence thus far does not suggest any rush to expand the size of the Indian arsenal and this trend, too, is wholly consistent with the conviction of Indian policymakers that the nuclear balance of capabilities is unlikely to make the difference that theorists often suppose it does in a crisis.22 Because both Chinese and Indian nuclear forces are primarily focused on countervalue targeting presently, the pressures on bilateral arms race stability are further dampened. And because Pakistan’s nuclear forces targeting India also share a similar orientation in the main, New Delhi has managed the challenges posed by the two asymmetrically capable nuclear rivals without heightened arms race instability.23

What offers hope in turn for deterrence stability—that is, preventing the use of nuclear weapons by one against the other—is the relatively low likelihood of nuclear crises between China and India. Despite the different kinds of nuclear expansion currently occurring in each country, neither state treats bolt-out-of-the-blue nuclear attacks as a realistic contingency that they must plan for vis-à-vis each other. Any nuclear crises, to the degree that these are plausible, would arise only in the context of a major conventional war along their disputed borders. The most dangerous contingency in this context would be a deliberate Indian effort to conquer Tibet or undermine Chinese control over the region. Such possibilities would threaten China’s core interests—as Indian military leaders have long realized24—but there is no evidence that New Delhi has the intention either to pursue such goals or to acquire the capabilities toward these ends.

In all other circumstances, the incentive to employ nuclear weapons, either through threats or actual use, is extremely low for different reasons on each side. For starters, the disagreement over the boundaries implicates relatively marginal territories for China. For India, the stakes are higher, especially in the eastern sector—in Arunachal Pradesh—because the region is vast, it enjoys an active Indian administrative presence, and it hosts significant populations near the contested border. These conditions, however, do not obtain in the western sector—in Ladakh—and although India will continue to affirm its claims here all the way to the 1865–1897 Ardagh-Johnson Line, it has for all practical purposes reconciled itself to the loss of the territories that China has controlled in Aksai Chin since 1962. The remaining disputes consequently are over tiny pockets of territory in the western and central sectors of the border, which both sides claim, and which could provoke military confrontations of the kind that occurred in May 2020.

While it is highly unlikely that India will employ unprovoked military force to reclaim any Chinese-occupied territory, China could well attempt to seize Indian enclaves that it believes to be its own. Precisely to ward off this possibility, India has made vast military investments now for close to sixty years. As a RAND Corporation report concluded at the turn of the century:

it is often inadequately recognized that, as far as basic security is concerned, India is actually relatively well-off vis-à-vis China. The Himalayan mountain ranges that divide the two countries, for example, provide a natural defensive shield against any easy Chinese aggression, and these benefits of nature have only been reinforced by Indian artifice since the disastrous border war of 1962. Today, India’s conventional forces enjoy a comfortable superiority over their Chinese counterparts in the Himalayan theater; the Indian Army has superior firepower, better-trained soldiers, carefully prepared defenses, and more reliable logistics. Similarly, the Indian Air Force has better aircraft, superior pilots, and excellent infrastructure and would most likely gain tactical superiority over the battlefield within a matter of days if not hours in the event of renewed Sino-Indian hostilities. And, while the Indian Navy is not directly relevant to any Himalayan border conflict, the fact remains that it is superior to the Chinese Navy in technology, training, and war-fighting proficiency and would have little difficulty enforcing effective surface and subsurface barrier control should any Chinese naval units seek to break out into and operate within the Andaman Sea. Only in the realm of nuclear capabilities does China currently have an overwhelming, uncontestable superiority over India.25

Although India’s conventional military advantages have eroded since this analysis was published, the broad conclusion that India can effectively dissuade China at the operational level of war in the relevant theaters in and around Southern Asia arguably holds at least for now. For all the changes that have taken place in the land, air, and naval arenas in recent times—to include new Chinese investments in firepower, air defense, and precision missile strikes—India can still thwart Chinese aggression in the most likely scenarios imaginable. And if New Delhi successfully completes the military modernization program that the Indian Army and Air Force currently envisage, India will be able to hold off even major Chinese encroachments robustly during this decade and well into the next.26 After the bilateral crises since May 2020, the Chinese civilian and military leaderships also cannot presume that India will be intimidated in ways that prevent it from confronting Beijing’s aggression militarily.

For all the changes that have taken place in the land, air, and naval arenas in recent times, India can still thwart Chinese aggression in the most likely scenarios imaginable.

These judgments have two important implications for nuclear stability. First, despite being the nominally weaker power, India does not need to use nuclear weapons to neutralize any Chinese conventional attacks along its frontiers. Second, despite being the nominally stronger power, China, for its part, is highly unlikely to either issue nuclear threats or actually employ nuclear weapons in order to secure control over what are essentially peripheral territories in the most plausible scenarios pertaining to deterrence breakdown.27 On this count, the asymmetries of interests, capabilities, and resolve all favor India in principle: China is unlikely to seek to recover its claimed territories through the use of nuclear weapons where India has greater equities such as in its northeast; China is unlikely to use nuclear weapons to defeat India’s conventional forces in situations where they enjoy operational advantage; and China is unlikely to threaten the use of, or to actually use, nuclear weapons to recover territories currently under Indian control in the face of New Delhi’s determination to protect them.28 Obviously, where these conclusions are concerned, contingencies involving the comprehensive struggle over Tibet are ruled out ex hypothesi. Furthermore, since unlimited-aims wars between China and India are inconceivable and no outcomes in any Sino-Indian limited-aims wars pose existential threats to national survival in either country, the temptation to seek nuclear solutions to conventional military problems is low to nonexistent where China and India are concerned. The no-first-use nuclear doctrines articulated by both states are, therefore, entirely consistent with the fundamental political-military realities that define their security competition.

Even if India were to find itself facing serious conventional reverses in a limited-aims Sino-Indian conflict, it would be better off developing non-nuclear operational solutions or alternative political strategies to neutralize any Chinese advantages. New Delhi understands this logic completely. Hence, it has rejected entirely Bharat Karnad’s recommendation, for example, that India employ tactical nuclear weapons against China because it is not in New Delhi’s interest to cross the nuclear firebreak first—no matter what the battlefield challenges may be—and thereby provide Beijing with the opportunity to unleash more lethal nuclear retaliation that could ultimately escalate to countervalue exchanges.29 For some time to come, China’s nuclear forces will remain optimized largely for attacks on soft targets. Beijing’s larger and more reliable nuclear warheads, in comparison to India’s, ensure that although any nuclear deterrence breakdown would be extremely costly for both sides, it would be inordinately more so for India.

At the time of the 1998 tests, and for the two decades preceding them, China deployed CSS-2 IRBMs with yields of close to 3 megatons, CSS-5 MRBMs with yields of somewhere around 500 kilotons, and even CSS-3 ICBMs with yields of close to 3 megatons targeted against India.30 Neither the PLAAF nor the single Chinese SSBN likely had any nuclear responsibilities against India at the time. The Chinese missiles allocated to Indian targets were controlled primarily by 53 and 56 Bases, headquartered at Kunming in Yunnan Province and Xining in Qinghai Province, respectively, though it is possible that 52 Base headquartered at Huangshan (Tunxi) in Anhui Province and 55 Base headquartered at Huaihua in Hunan Province could have had secondary targeting responsibilities for India as well.31 China’s nuclear targeting of India around the time of the 1998 tests is illustrated in Map 1.

The modernization of the PLA Rocket Force and the reorganization that has occurred since the 2016 reforms are unlikely to have changed the basic responsibilities of the 53 and 56 Bases for targeting India. The base numbering system and their military unit cover designators, however, have changed as have their missile inventories. 53 Base, still headquartered at Kunming, is now 62 Base; 56 Base, now headquartered at Lanzhou, is 64 Base. The former consists of seven missile brigades, with at least four having a nuclear mission. The latter consists of at least seven missile brigades, with some six likely having nuclear responsibilities (Figure 2). Between these two bases, Indian targets are covered by a mix of nuclear CSS-5 MRBMs, CSS-18 IRBMs, and CSS-10 ICBMs. (Although the CSS-20 ICBM is also deployed by some brigades subordinate to 64 Base, these brigades historically were not known to be responsible for targeting India and, hence, may be discounted.) It is possible that some CSS-3 ICBMs, the remnants of China’s early long-range strike capabilities, which are now deployed solely at 66 Base (formerly 54 Base) headquartered at Luoyang in Henan Province, may have some residual targeting responsibilities for India, with the current 662 Brigade substituting for the older formations that previously deployed these missiles with 56 Base at Delingha or with 55 Base at Tongdao.32 The coverage offered by China’s current deployments of CSS-5 MRBMs, CSS-18 IRBMs, and CSS-10 ICBMs (Map 2) suggests that the CSS-3 ICBM may no longer be necessary for ranging India comprehensively as the newer weapons collectively are more than adequate substitutes including for the CSS-2 IRBMs that have now been retired. Any Chinese targeting of India through the allocation of its aircraft delivery systems and its new Jin-class SSBNs is thus entirely redundant.

All the Chinese missiles allocated against India, with the likely exception of the CSS-18 IRBM, are primarily intended for attacks on large, soft targets, consistent with Beijing’s doctrinal emphasis on retaliatory strikes in the event of a nuclear attack on China. When employed in hypothetical attacks with thermonuclear warheads of three different but representative yields (150 kilotons, 500 kilotons, and 3 megatons) against the ten most-populous cities in India, the casualties that would be inflicted by such strikes—even assuming merely one Chinese weapon on one Indian target—are horrendous. These fatality figures cannot be matched by comparable Indian attacks on Chinese cities with the yields that Indian weapons are presumed to possess: the more-or-less reliable 12-kiloton fission warhead, the claimed 30-kiloton boosted-fission weapon, and the 200-kiloton thermonuclear device. Table 2 enumerates the fatalities that would be suffered by both sides if various Chinese and Indian warheads are employed on the ten most-populous cities in each country (as listed in Table 1).

Table 1
India Population (2011 Census) China Population (2010 Census)
Mumbai 12,478,447 Shanghai 20,217,748
Delhi 11,007,835 Beijing 16,704,306
Bangalore 8,425,970 Guangzhou 10,641,408
Hyderabad 6,809,970 Shenzhen 10,358,381
Ahmedabad 5,570,585 Tianjin 9,583,277
Chennai 4,681,087 Chengdu 7,701,692
Kolkata 4,486,679 Wuhan 7,541,527
Surat 4,462,002 Dongguan 7,271,322
Pune 3,115,431 Foshan 6,771,895
Jaipur 3,073,350 Chongqing 6,263,790

Source: “Cities Having Population 1 Lakh and Above, Census 2011,” Office of the Registrar General & Census Commissioner, October 27, 2011,; Thomas Brinkoff, “China: Provinces and Major Cities,” City Population, November 14, 2020,

Table 2
Chinese Strike
Weapon Yield Lethal Blast Area (km²) Maximum Fatalities per Blast Total Fatalities from a Ten-Weapon Strike
150 kilotons 35.2 704,000 7.04 million
500 kilotons 78.5 1,570,000 15.7 million
3 megatons 259 5,180,000 45.7 million*
Indian Reprisal
Weapon Yield Lethal Blast Area (km²) Maximum Fatalities per Blast Total Fatalities from a Ten-Weapon Strike
12 kilotons 6.53 130,600 1.3 million
30 kilotons 12 240,000 2.4 million
200 kilotons 42.6 852,000 8.52 million

*Note: The possible maximum fatalities from a 3-megaton blast exceeds the total population of five of the cities assumed to be targeted (Chennai, Kolkata, Surat, Pune, and Jaipur). In these cases, the total fatalities were calculated based on the total population of each city.

The illustrations above yield a series of important conclusions pertaining to deterrence stability in the Sino-Indian dyad. First, China has the capacity to inflict appalling pain on India by employing even a small number of nuclear missiles from its larger and growing inventory. If it is assumed that China will have some 250 long-range nuclear missiles in its arsenal soon, it could target India extensively with 10 percent or less of its strategic missile portfolio, leaving the remainder for holding other Chinese regional adversaries and the United States at risk. India cannot levy equivalent fatalities on China with a comparable number of weapons because its long-range missile inventory is still very small and its nuclear warhead yields are much smaller than China’s in comparison.

Table 3: Indian Equivalent Reprisal
Weapon Yield Indian Weapons Necessary to Match a Ten-Weapon Chinese Strike Resulting in…
7.04 million fatalities 15.7 million fatalities 45.7 million fatalities
12 kilotons 54 120 350
30 kilotons 29 65 190
200 kilotons 8 18 54

Note: The number of fatalities for each ten-weapon Chinese strike are taken from the “Total Fatalities From a Ten-Weapon Strike” column of Table 2 based on fatalities calculations for varying yields of Chinese weapons. The number of Indian weapons necessary to match a given number of fatalities is calculated by dividing the total desired fatalities by the maximum fatalities per blast of a given Indian warhead yield.

As Table 3 indicates, the number of Indian weapons required to inflict equivalent fatalities on China, using just its five most-populous cities for comparison, is much, much higher. This constraint derives largely from the political failures of the BJP leadership and the dereliction of Indian nuclear scientists during the 1998 tests. By obscuring the failures of their thermonuclear device design, they ended up spurring the Vajpayee government’s decision to end nuclear testing prematurely before the performance of India’s highest-yield warhead—which even at its maximum delivers just about 20 percent of the explosive power of China’s largest weapons—could be credibly demonstrated.33 As a result of this current asymmetry in Chinese and Indian nuclear capabilities, New Delhi will be extraordinarily careful to avoid confrontations with China that could precipitate any nuclear use. Consequently, the prospect of Indian nuclear first use, even if only with tactical weapons, is entirely fanciful.

Second, India will seek to increase the levels of pain that can be equivalently inflicted on China through nuclear retaliation if that be required. The quickest path to this end would be New Delhi’s return to nuclear testing, which would provide it with the opportunity to validate its higher-yield device designs and convey more credible threats. But this would also be the most provocative course of action internationally and, hence, will be eschewed unless India is confronted by a supreme emergency or is provided with the opportunity because of resumed nuclear testing by other established nuclear powers. In the meanwhile, India is likely to settle for more conservative solutions to correcting the current asymmetries between itself and China: improving its thermonuclear designs through nuclear simulations and computational tools; possibly deploying multiple warheads aboard its missiles in order to economize on the number of airframes required while still enabling “cookie-cutter” targeting of important Chinese cities (although no current Indian missiles carry MRVs or MIRVs); or, more likely, simply increasing its number of nuclear-tipped missiles in order to permit multiple concurrent strikes on major Chinese cities with smaller-yield warheads in an effort to increase the casualties inflicted on China.

Third, although India’s limitations with respect to Chinese population targeting are pronounced, the critical question is whether the significantly lower fatalities that can be potentially inflicted by New Delhi essentially undermines nuclear deterrence stability in the Sino-Indian dyad. Pessimists have argued that India’s inability to inflict high losses on China undermines New Delhi’s capacity to deter Beijing in any serious confrontation because the latter will always have escalation dominance as long as the current nuclear balance persists.34 After all, the illustrative losses that China could suffer as a result of Indian nuclear attacks, depicted in Table 2, do fall short of the immense suffering that has marked other painful moments in Chinese history.35 By the canons of rational deterrence theory, therefore, India’s capacity to ward off Chinese pressures is thus weak and arguably doomed to fail because New Delhi can at best inflict picayune punishment on China in contrast to China’s ability to inflict massive retribution on India.

Whether this conclusion holds in reality as opposed to theory cannot be known because—in the absence of war—the requirements for successful deterrence will forever be a matter of debate. Indian policymakers, however, approach this issue from the perspective of politics in the real world rather than abstruse theorizing. Consequently, they believe that even India’s small nuclear warheads would suffice to effectively deter China because the absolute losses suffered by Beijing would be intolerable today in the light of China’s material achievements. The high value of these assets would only make China more risk-averse and lower its tolerance to accept damage given the relatively low stakes at issue in the most likely military scenarios predicated by Sino-Indian competition.36 This conviction is only strengthened by Indian policymakers’ belief that China cannot be certain India’s high-yield weapons will not work as claimed and hence may in fact risk even greater damage than Beijing might assume if it operated on the presumption that all it had to fear are India’s small nuclear warheads. In any event, the sheer uncertainty that accompanies any nuclear use—both in its immediate consequences and in its longer-term effects on larger geopolitics—are judged by New Delhi to be sufficiently persuasive in deterring any Chinese nuclear use against India even if the latter possesses only more modest nuclear capabilities. Consequently, the former Indian national security advisor Shivshankar Menon concluded, “India-China nuclear deterrence is stable and will likely remain so despite shifts leading to equilibrium at higher technological levels as both programs develop increasing sophistication.”37

Since nuclear deterrence stability between China and India is thus relatively high for multiple virtuously interacting reasons—deriving more from the politics of the Sino-Indian competition than the technical characteristics of the two intersecting deterrents—nuclear crisis stability should also be reasonably robust almost automatically. If crisis stability pertains to the incentives for one state to use its nuclear weapons first because of fears that these assets could be neutralized by a preemptive attack unleashed by the other, then the Sino-Indian dyad is very much immune to these pressures if both sides have no incentives to employ their nuclear reserves to begin with. Even if in some remote hypothetical circumstances nuclear deterrence stability was perceived to be fragile, crisis instability would not inevitably ensue because China and India’s nuclear weapons are survivable enough to preclude both precipitate nuclear use and damage-limiting nuclear attacks.

This is certainly true where Indian first strikes against China are concerned. Chinese nuclear forces are far more numerous, and Beijing has plenty of sufficiently opaque and hardened storage sites to make any Indian damage-limiting attacks inconceivable given its small-yield weapons and its fewer and relatively inaccurate delivery systems. Even though China’s nuclear forces are superior to India’s by multiple measures, New Delhi’s nuclear reserves are arguably secure and hence it would not be confronted by the threat of speedy “use-it-or lose-it” nuclear employment in current political circumstances. China’s high-yield nuclear weapons aboard its long-range missiles can readily hold at risk India’s nuclear production infrastructure, its air and naval bases that host nuclear delivery platforms in peacetime, and its identifiable aboveground command centers and strategic communications facilities. But the core of India’s retaliatory capacities—its land-based missile systems and its nuclear weapons—are still presumably immune to Chinese nuclear attacks if they are sequestered in underground facilities at unknown locations. The expectation that India will also deploy its SSBNs on deterrent patrols over time strengthens this conclusion.

The uncertainty about the location of its land-based nuclear weapons provides India with a high degree of protection in the first instance.38 It must be expected, however, that China will seek to identify these facilities over time using a variety of space-based reconnaissance assets, traditional espionage, and possibly data exfiltration cyber attacks. Even if the locations of some facilities are discovered, however, China can never be certain that it has uncovered all of India’s secure storage sites, thus leaving it vulnerable to future retaliation from undiscovered facilities even if all the detected sites could be successfully attacked. A further constraint on such missions would be the number of Chinese nuclear weapons necessary for success, since a larger quantity might be necessary than is currently reserved for countervalue attacks on India. Although China could allocate many more nuclear weapons for such damage-limiting strikes—especially as its own nuclear arsenal continues to expand—there is no assurance that its attacks on buried Indian facilities would be always successful or, in other words, that it could completely immunize itself against even ragged Indian retaliation.

Underground targets in general are hard to interdict with air- and surface-burst nuclear weapons. Such strikes usually end up destroying the entrances to the storage sites, ventilation intakes, and external utility connections but not the functional substructure itself. For this reason, the United States developed earth-penetrating nuclear delivery systems to interdict the storage chambers where nuclear weapons may be sequestered by various adversaries. China, in contrast, is not known to possess any earth-penetrating nuclear weapons today.39

The roughly 500-kiloton warheads carried by the CSS-5 and CSS-10 could destroy India’s aboveground storage sites if identified, but China may require two or more warheads per bunker depending on its real hardness. The hardness of aboveground bunkers has been assigned a vulnerability number (VN) of 40P8 by one analysis.40 This notation, based on the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency’s Physical Vulnerability System, describes a target’s hardness in order to capture its susceptibility to damage: the number 40 represents the assessed hardness of the bunker, the letter P implies that the damage mechanism is overpressure, and the number 8 refers to yield dependency or the target’s sensitivity to the blast pressure and its duration.41 Every target in principle has a unique VN based on its physical characteristics. Assigning the VN for specific targets is fundamentally an intelligence task because it requires information about the characteristics of the facility and, if necessary, its local environment or, if buried, its surrounding geology. Since the hardness of India’s aboveground bunkers is unknown, however, the following analysis is intended mainly as a heuristic designed to illustrate the nature of the challenges facing China and India.

If it is assumed that all Indian aboveground bunkers are relatively hard—which is what the 40P8 notion implies—then a 150-kiloton Chinese warhead would have a weapon radius of 290 meters; a 500-kiloton warhead would have a weapon radius of 480 meters; and a 3-megaton warhead would have a weapon radius of 960 meters. In simple terms, the weapon radius is the distance from ground zero where, given a uniform distribution of like targets, a target inside has a roughly 50 percent probability of receiving at least the specified degree of damage—with the exact probability of damage depending on the sigma value which accounts for the shot-to-shot variations in nuclear effects and the random uncertainties characterizing a target’s hardness within a given category. Because some targets inside the weapon radius will escape damage while others outside it will not, successful nuclear targeting must account for the problems of response variability.

In the calculations that follow, the single-shot kill probability (SSKP) estimates take into account the uncertainties associated with both the nuclear weapon’s damage function—which depends on the type of target and its damage criteria (as represented by the VN number) as well as the weapon’s yield and its height of burst—and the delivery system’s accuracy as represented by its CEP, which is the radius of a circle within which half of the attacking weapons are expected to fall.

Table 4 summarizes the single-shot kill probability (SSKP) facing any given Indian storage bunker for three varying Chinese weapon yields if the CEP of the attacking Chinese missile is 700 meters—a generous assumption for long-range systems such as the CSS-5 and CSS-10, which could be used to target India.

Table 4: Single-Shot Kill Probability Against an Indian 40P8 Target with 700-meter-CEP Chinese Missiles
Weapon Yield SSPK
150 kilotons 11%
500 kilotons 27%
3 megatons 69%

The results summarized in Table 4 should be broadly reassuring for New Delhi. They suggest that multiple Chinese missiles would be required to destroy a single Indian aboveground nuclear weapons storage bunker if the attacking warheads have yields of 150–500 kilotons, the kind likely to be found on the CSS-5 and CSS-10s.42 (The expenditure ratio improves when China’s warhead yields get into the megaton range. Only the Chinese CSS-3s and CSS-4s have megaton-range warheads today and these missiles, being few in number, are unlikely to be used for counterforce operations against India and hence can be ignored.) The generally unfavorable expenditure ratio facing China in all attacks utilizing CSS-5 and CSS-10 systems thus implies that even India’s aboveground facilities are unlikely to be interdicted by such long-range missilery, assuming that the Indian bunkers are both genuinely hard 40P8 class targets and have all been detected.

Table 5: Single-Shot Kill Probability Against an Indian 40P8 Target with 50-meter-CEP Chinese Missiles
Weapon Yield SSPK
150 kilotons 100%
500 kilotons 100%
3 megatons 100%

This conclusion changes dramatically, however, if China employs more accurate missiles such as the CSS-18. The threat posed by Beijing to India’s aboveground storage facilities is overwhelming when the CSS-18 is assigned an accuracy of some 50 meters (as illustrated in Table 5). At such accuracies, the variation in warhead yield is irrelevant, as each aboveground site falls well within the weapon radius of even a 150-kiloton warhead. In fact, even if the CSS-18 carried a much smaller warhead, say 12 kilotons, it would still enjoy a SSPK of 85 percent against a hard Indian overground 40P8-class bunker. Because the CSS-18 missile is atypically accurate for a Chinese nuclear-tipped ballistic missile, the issue of stability will be shaped largely by the number of identified Indian aboveground bunkers versus the number of Chinese nuclear CSS-18s available. Since neither piece of information is reliably obtainable, no firm conclusions can be drawn except to suggest that deterrence and crisis stability may yet obtain because China may either not have the number of accurate nuclear-tipped missiles relative to the number of Indian storage bunkers or it may choose not to allocate such missiles to destroying all of India’s aboveground bunkers—assuming that they can all be detected and their nuclear role conclusively ascertained—when it is possible that New Delhi will still have additional undetected underground nuclear storage facilities.

Because India would prefer not to rely on China’s reluctance on this count, its ongoing investments in assuring the physical survivability of its land-based deterrent are certain to be directed a fortiori in expanding its underground facilities while preserving their opacity. As subsequent examples suggest, the survivability of India’s underground hides will depend variably on depth and locational uncertainty, given various assumptions about the CEP of attacking Chinese missiles, the yield of their warheads, and the depth of burial of the Indian facilities.

Table 6: Single-Shot Kill Probability Against Indian 40P8 Targets at Varying Depths with 700-meter-CEP Chinese Missiles
  Burial Depth of 25 Meters Burial Depth of 100 Meters
Weapon Yield SSPK SSPK
150 kilotons 9% 5%
500 kilotons 25% 18%
3 megatons 67% 61%

Once again, assuming that the Indian underground storage site is at least as hard as a 40P8 target, destroying any facility that is buried at a depth of 25 meters proves to be quite expensive if the attacking Chinese missile has a 700-meter accuracy. A CSS-5 or CSS-10 missile with such a 700-meter CEP and carrying a 150-kiloton warhead would have only a 9 percent chance of destroying its target and even a 500-kiloton detonation enjoys only 25 percent SSPK. An Indian underground site that is buried at a depth of 100 meters has even greater immunity as Table 6 indicates. A 150-kiloton warhead has only a 5 percent SSPK, and even a relatively large 500-kiloton warhead enjoys only a roughly proportionate—though still small—increase in lethality to yield.43

Table 7: Single-Shot Kill Probability Against Indian 40P8 Targets at Varying Depths with 50-meter-CEP Chinese Missiles
  Burial Depth of 25 Meters Burial Depth of 100 Meters
Weapon Yield SSPK SSPK
150 kilotons 100% 99%
500 kilotons 100% 100%
3 megatons 100% 100%

Improving the accuracy of the delivery systems employed by China, however, changes the story completely. A Chinese CSS-18 with a 50-meter accuracy can destroy its Indian targets irrespective of whether they are buried at a depth of 25 or 100 meters, and this outcome does not depend meaningfully on the yield of the attacking Chinese missile. This finding has important consequences for India insofar as it implies that the survivability of New Delhi’s underground hides does not depend so much on their depth of burial—at least down to 100 meters (which is quite deep anyway)—but rather on denying China information about their location. In the face of the highly accurate nuclear missiles now present in the Chinese inventory, albeit in small numbers, India can best protect its underground storage sites principally by ensuring that China never discover where they actually are.

This will require concerted efforts to camouflage all activities, especially during the construction of these facilities when the possibility of detection is relatively high. Assuming that detection during the construction phase has been eluded, extensive deception and denial investments to defeat Chinese intellection collection activities will still be required. This entails not simply obscuring the physical character of the storage site and its supporting facilities—especially power, communications, and transportation—but also the conduct of military operations conducted from and around the facility. If Table 7 indicates nothing else, it suggests that eluding detection remains the best way to avoid any Chinese damage-limiting attacks that could compromise the survivability of India’s land-based missile deterrent. While denying China targeting information through opacity may impose some delays on India’s capacity to retaliate in the aftermath of any attack, these lags would be worth the price if they had the effect of persuading Beijing that its first strikes would only postpone the Indian riposte but not conclusively eliminate it.

Admittedly, all the calculations above are impressionistic because the hardness of Indian storage sites as well as their location (including the burial depth of the underground facilities) are not known to outsiders. These calculations may also not be precise because information about the direct vulnerability of underground targets is unavailable. Consequently, the results above use the vulnerability of aboveground 40P8 targets as a proxy for underground targets, subtracting the target’s depth from the weapon radius, as informed by the discussion found in the National Research Council’s Effects of Nuclear Earth-Penetrator and Other Weapons.44 It is, therefore, possible that other calculations—which incorporate better data about the vulnerability of specific Indian underground targets and better analytical techniques to measure the ground shock effects more accurately—might come to somewhat different conclusions. Even these, however, are unlikely to produce radically dissimilar results. Although the conclusions above are tentative, it is likely that the absence of accurate physical vulnerability data about various Indian storage sites more or less reflects the situation that would confront any Chinese military planner. If the upshot, accordingly, is greater uncertainty about the effectiveness of any damage-limiting Chinese nuclear strikes on India’s strategic reserves, the benefits for deterrence and crisis stability would only be further magnified.

In the face of the highly accurate nuclear missiles now present in the Chinese inventory, India can best protect its underground storage sites principally by ensuring that China never discover where they actually are.

In any case, given the risks, it should be expected that India will continue to invest in strengthening deterrence by preserving the locational opacity of its storage sites, hardening them through ever-deeper burial, and obscuring them through deception and denial measures—all intended to reduce any Chinese temptations to launch a splendid first strike in a serious crisis. Thus far, India’s investments in protecting its nuclear assets have been driven mainly by the threat from Pakistan—which is much less significant—but it is certain that New Delhi will increasingly factor in China as it expands its storage infrastructure for prudential reasons, even though Beijing’s incentives to use nuclear weapons against India are ordinarily low to begin with. India also has the option of pursuing other solutions: it could disperse at least some of its mobile missile systems at the onset of any crisis with China in order to mitigate the possible vulnerability of its storage sites. But the imperatives for early mobilization are also weaker where China is concerned because the Sino-Indian rivalry is not expected to become so acute as to warrant the employment of nuclear weapons—precisely the reason why deterrence stability is judged to be robust in the first place.

Consistent with this expectation, India did not alert its nuclear forces or flush its mobile missiles even during the most intense moments of the 2020 Sino-Indian border skirmish because it did not want to impose any nuclear overtones on a confrontation that might have provoked a more dangerous Chinese response. Far from attempting nuclear signaling, the flushing of the Arihant SSBN merely represented the Strategic Forces Command’s standard operating procedure, which invariably entails dispersing the fleet from its home ports at the earliest opportunity during any crisis.45 India, obviously, could have dispersed its land and air nuclear systems as the confrontation evolved, but it chose not to do so during this (still ongoing) standoff. As one Indian scholar noted, “The Ladakh crisis is widely perceived to have woken India up to the reality of an aggressive China that is no longer hesitant to showcase its strength. And yet, nuclear weapons have not fetched a mention.”46 For the record, it is also worth noting that China, too, did not engage in any nuclear activities directed at India during this crisis—though, given both Beijing’s nuclear doctrine and its advantages in relative power, such quiescence was only to be expected.47

In any event, New Delhi clearly understands that the long-term solution to mitigating its potential vulnerability to Chinese damage-limiting strikes—and thereby strengthening crisis stability even further—is to complete the acquisition of its nuclear ballistic missile submarine force. When this six-submarine flotilla is finally equipped with the 3,500-kilometer-ranged K-4 SLBM, and the even longer-ranged follow-on systems that are planned, India will have a relatively invulnerable second-strike capability deployed in safe bastions in the Bay of Bengal that can target China effortlessly. The significant weaknesses of Chinese undersea anti-submarine warfare, especially in close proximity to India, makes the survivability of the Indian SSBN force reasonably assured.48 A more significant challenge would be posed by China’s ability to target India’s shore-based infrastructure for communicating with its submarines, but developing air- and even surface ship–based alternatives to mitigate this threat remains a task for the future. The maturation of the Indian SSBN force in any case should completely extinguish any Chinese temptations for nuclear first strikes, even if these incentives are admittedly meager to begin with.

Where nuclear arms race stability, deterrence stability, and crisis stability are concerned, the Sino- Indian dyad is highly stable.

Where nuclear arms race stability, deterrence stability, and crisis stability are concerned, the Sino-Indian dyad is highly stable. This condition is likely to persist on current trends, as long as China’s primary nuclear competition with the United States leaves India to benefit from the positive externalities. As long as China does not dramatically expand the number of its high-precision nuclear-tipped missiles and India is able to protect the opacity of its nuclear storage sites, New Delhi should be able to preserve the immunity of its nuclear reserves until the Indian SSBN flotilla becomes fully operational.

Over the longer term, one uncertainty that could complicate Sino-Indian nuclear stability more directly is the potential threat posed by the emergence of China’s strategic defenses. Although supposedly initiated in response to India’s emergence as a nuclear-weapons power, China’s strategic defense investments currently clearly transcend its concerns about India. Although detailed information is hard to come by, China has already built (and is continuing to build) large phased-array radars at different locations across the mainland in order to secure warning of ballistic missile attacks from all around its periphery.49 The radar installation at Korla is, in fact, intended to cover missile launches originating in India and perhaps across a wider east-west axis south of China.50 These terrestrial systems are complemented by a variety of high-resolution space-based intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance sensors comprising electro-optical, synthetic aperture radar, and electronic intelligence satellites.51 One analyst of international space programs, Gunter Krebs, has identified at least one Chinese satellite, the Huoyan-1, as an early warning platform with its published image clearly revealing the distinctive infrared sunshade that protects the signals passing through the corrector lens to the detector array aboard the satellite. This design, which is similar to the U.S. Defense Support Program spacecraft during the Cold War, suggests that the Huoyan-1 and its sister satellites are intended to detect ballistic missile launches through the use of either scanning or staring sensors that pick up the infrared energy emitted especially during a missile’s boost phase of flight.52

For now, these capabilities appear intended mainly to characterize impending attacks to include providing China with information about the launch source, the numbers of incoming missiles in the attacking salvo, and their projected targets. Having advance warning on these counts may marginally improve the survival of mobile missiles (if these are, indeed, the target of the strike) but generally would be more useful for mounting missile defense operations: space-based detection of offensive missile launches provides both the earliest warning of the impending threats as well as cueing information for terrestrial radars, which can then allocate their energy output to more intensively scan only those threat sectors from which the reentry vehicles are poised to emerge. Optimizing the search function in this way also enables the radar to focus its resources on more discriminate identification of the number of reentry vehicles and their accompanying penetrations aids, if any.53 As China’s missile defense capabilities mature, its strategic defense management systems would provide the targeting information required to launch the interceptors necessary to neutralize the attacking warheads carried by even the longest-range offensive missiles.54

If China builds a robust enough missile defense network over time, it could limit the retaliatory damage that India could inflict in response to any Chinese first strike. This scenario would replicate concerns that arose during the Cold War when it was feared that an ambitious attacker could launch a successful damage limiting attack and then use its defense capabilities to neuter the ragged retaliation that follows.55 India will obviously seek to parry this eventuality by ensuring the survivability of its deterrent to begin with—with the sea-based component becoming even more significant in this context—but it could be expected to invest in assuring the penetrativity of its missile systems in different ways. This could take the form of increasing the size and diversity of the missile inventory itself, adopting different kinds of structured attacks to overwhelm the defenses, incorporating penetration aids into its offensive missile payloads, and deploying MRVs or hypersonic glide vehicles aboard its strategic missiles. All these solutions are likely to be explored by India and there are no political constraints on adopting them either.

The viability of India’s nuclear deterrent vis-à-vis China can thus be maintained by investments that lie well within New Delhi’s capabilities. But perhaps the most important consideration in this day and age is that nuclear weapons use cannot be treated cavalierly by any state—even the most powerful. That itself provides India the respite to preserve its deterrent effectiveness without extravagant investment. Because India sees its nuclear weapons as intended fundamentally to ensure that China will never have any reason to use (or to threaten to use) its nuclear weapons first—just as China views its nuclear weapons as serving the same purpose vis-à-vis India or other threats—the two rivals should be able to preserve strategic stability more easily so long as their current political circumstances do not alter in any radical way.

Nuclear Weapons in Indo-Pakistani Security Competition

Unlike the relatively high stability that marks nuclear competition in the Sino-Indian dyad, the nuclear rivalry between India and Pakistan, especially in its extended dimensions, is more fraught. The Sino-Indian contestation is fundamentally about power politics. Although manifesting itself in serious status and territorial disputes, it lacks the strongly emotive elements that are present in, for instance, China’s rivalry with Japan. Except during episodes of heightened tension or conflict, the relative thinness of Sino-Indian ties has paradoxically enabled both states to manage their differences with a measure of equipoise that has been elusive where India and Pakistan are concerned.

The problems between New Delhi and Islamabad undoubtedly involve power-political disputes over ideology, territorial claims, and power imbalances as well. But unlike the Sino-Indian contestation, the rancor between India and Pakistan is also intensely emotive, thanks to their shared history of violent sunderance at the time of their founding as modern states.56 The competition within the Indo-Pakistan dyad is thus akin to a “veritable civil war,”57 almost a family feud, which gives it an affecting intensity that is absent in the Sino-Indian relationship. These passions are aggravated by Pakistan’s grievances since many of its elites are deeply convinced that India has never reconciled itself to the partition of the erstwhile British Raj and, by implication, to their nation’s very existence.58 The partition that finally occurred with Indian acquiescence, however, did not make things any the less painful for India, which responded initially with a niggardly reluctance to fully transfer the material assets owed to the new state of Pakistan. The memory of these Indian actions—coupled with the early (and still ongoing) disputes over territory, especially the ownership of the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir, which acceded to India instead of Pakistan—remains potent evidence for Pakistan’s belief that India remains an abiding adversary. Pakistan’s defeat in the 1971 war simply indurated this conviction, especially within the Pakistan Army, which had until that point viewed itself as equal, if not superior, to its Indian counterpart. The outcome of this war humiliated the Pakistan Army both as a fighting force and as the vaunted guardian of the state. By vivisecting the country forever, it implanted within the army an enduring desire for vengeance against India that persists to this day.59

In contrast to Pakistan, which has nurtured grievances against India continuously since its founding, India sought to overcome its own initial trauma with Partition by focusing on the immense tasks of economic development and state- and nation-building at home in order to realize its ambitions of becoming a great power. Consequently, India instinctively preferred to ignore Pakistan—a testament partly to its own greater strength and to its very different aspirations—but Pakistan, with its myriad resentments, would not let itself be so easily ignored. Instead, driven by a fear of India and simultaneously a peculiar self-confidence about being able to keep it off-balance, Pakistan—more specifically, the Pakistan Army—pursued a highly confrontational political-military strategy against its larger neighbor. Aided by impressive early economic growth, U.S. arms transfers, and expectations of Western alliance support, Pakistan set out to challenge India through a combination of conventional and subconventional wars on the assumption that seizing the initiative was critical to securing those claimed territories that represented the proof of its own national viability. Stephen P. Cohen aptly captured this psychology when he noted that “Pakistanis . . . like to think of their country as another Israel, with a tough, small, outnumbered, but ultimately triumphant, army that draws its strength from a shared religion and modern military technology.”60 Pakistan’s emphasis on bold preemptive action paid off—until 1971, that is—as it was able to initiate conflicts that either yielded modest victories or played India’s military forces to a draw while relying on the great powers to restrict hostilities before India could muster the resources necessary to defeat Pakistan’s aggression conclusively.

That Pakistan, despite being the weaker state, could contemplate pursuing such a bold strategy for the longest time is a function of the “truncated asymmetry” that characterizes power relations within the Indo-Pakistani dyad.61 Although both the Sino-Indian and the Indo-Pakistani pairs are characterized by pronounced inequalities—with China being far more powerful than India and India, in turn, being relatively more powerful than Pakistan—the differences in relative strength within each dyad are equally conspicuous. Pakistan is much stronger relative to India than India comparably is vis-à-vis China even today. Because India is much weaker than China, while still remaining a relatively satisfied power, New Delhi has never felt compelled to mount persistent challenges toward Beijing. Thanks to its power advantages, China has also been able to limit India’s threats to its interests rather cheaply, including by using Pakistan as an effective proxy. Unlike India, however, Pakistan is a deeply dissatisfied state that is also more powerful relative to its larger adversary; hence, has been able to defy India far more resolutely than India has ever dared with China.62 Further complicating matters, India does not have any regional proxies that could be exploited to decisively undermine Pakistan. Although elites in Islamabad often believe that Afghanistan has served exactly this purpose for India in the past, the plain fact of the matter is that a friendly Kabul cannot constrain Islamabad on New Delhi’s behalf in the way that Islamabad can comparably curtail New Delhi’s freedom of action at Beijing’s behest. For a variety of reasons that include deeper dissatisfaction, the character of the bilateral power differentials, and the presence of foreign (especially Chinese) support, Pakistan has been able to accost India more effectively than India has attempted to in reverse.

The arrival of nuclear weapons to the Indian subcontinent only strengthened Pakistan’s capacity and elevated its determination to persist in its defiance of India.

The arrival of nuclear weapons to the Indian subcontinent only strengthened Pakistan’s capacity and elevated its determination to persist in its defiance of India.63 It is ironic that although New Delhi initiated its nuclear weapons development in response to fears precipitated by China’s—its larger adversary—first nuclear test, India’s weaponization was finally consummated only by developments in Pakistan’s—its smaller rival—nuclear program. This counterintuitive outcome was owed entirely to India’s judgment that while China’s nuclear weapons posed a latent danger to its security, this risk could be managed because the threats of coercion and violent conflict were relatively low and because few Chinese political aims would be advanced by the exploitative utilization of its nuclear capabilities. Pakistan’s confrontation with India, on the other hand, was far more dangerous because Islamabad, proving to be more risk-acceptant than Beijing, had fewer compunctions about militarily provoking New Delhi despite the latter’s superior strength. Pakistan’s deep-rooted animosity toward India, even if sometimes for understandable reasons, then compelled India to hastily develop its own nuclear weapons in order to deter the often-reckless behavior of its smaller but brasher adversary.64

While the acquisition of nuclear weapons by both India and Pakistan since the 1980s should have served to dampen their mutual security competition—because these devices possess far greater utility for defensive rather than offensive purposes—that has unfortunately not been the case. The experience of the Cold War suggests that nuclear weapons generally tend to freeze territorial disputes because threatening to alter the status quo by force promises to be prohibitively costly in the face of nuclear deterrence. Pakistan’s antagonism toward India, accordingly, should have abated as the induction of nuclear weapons on both sides should have not only reassured the weaker state but also limited its capacity to pursue territorial (and, more broadly, geopolitical) revisionism. This expectation, consistent with rational deterrence theory, was shared widely during the 1980s in both India and Pakistan, but the historical record since has confirmed that the demands of rationality can often be frustrated by the imperatives of strategic culture. As C. Christine Fair has insightfully explained, “because the [Pakistan] army defines defeat in terms of being unable to mount a challenge to India either territorially or politically, the army will prefer to take risks than to do nothing at all, which is [what it views as truly] synonymous with defeat.”65 Given this attitude, it is not surprising that Pakistan’s uniformed security managers have not perceived nuclear weapons in the subcontinent as decisively extinguishing the possibilities of conflict but rather as merely channeling them in new directions that yet provide hope for Islamabad to recover its claimed territories, weaken Indian power in the process, and thereby achieve Pakistan’s long-standing dream of permanent security.66

Pakistan’s nuclear weapons have made this strategy all too tenable. It contrasts dramatically with India’s approach to nuclear deterrence—and the differences in the two countries’ respective strategic circumstances and objectives lie at the root of the strategic instabilities that currently afflict the subcontinent.

Within the Indo-Pakistani dyad, India is obviously the stronger of the two powers—economically, militarily, and in terms of international standing. It is also the most status quo power in Southern Asia, and its primary strategic objectives are focused on ensuring rapid economic growth and technological modernization, which New Delhi views as the ticket to achieving true great power capabilities internationally. For India, therefore, nuclear weapons serve important but very limited purposes: they are intended primarily to deter nuclear threats or attacks by its principal rivals, China and Pakistan, since all the other lesser contingencies can be handled adequately by India’s quite capable conventional forces. The nuclear weapons that service this limited objective of deterrence also confer sufficient prestige, thereby satisfying India’s demands for security and status simultaneously.

In contrast, Pakistan’s requirements are more complex. In the first instance, Pakistan, too, views nuclear weapons as deterrents against nuclear threats or attacks emanating primarily from India. But this contingency is highly improbable, because there is no conceivable reason for India to launch an unprovoked nuclear attack on Pakistan. India’s overall conventional superiority, however, unnerves Pakistan. As the Pakistani state continues to face domestic weaknesses, its fears on this count only increase. Pakistan’s nuclear weapons then acquire an additional—arguably even principal—role: to deter Indian conventional military coercion and conventional military attacks.67

If these were the only missions that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons serviced, nuclear stability in the Indian subcontinent would be fairly robust. After all, India has few incentives to attack Pakistan unprovoked by nuclear or conventional means, so Pakistan’s nuclear weaponry should suffice to provide it with reassurance in case India were to behave maliciously. The primarily countervalue-capable nuclear forces on each side effectively checkmate the other, thus providing both states with confidence that neither can prosecute any disarming military strategies that would fundamentally undermine the other’s security.

This prima facie safeguard, however, has been sabotaged—with corrosive effect—by Pakistan’s efforts to use its nuclear reserves not merely for ensuring its own security but to actually force changes in the status quo to its advantage. Visualizing its nuclear weapons as providing it with strategic immunity, Pakistan has embarked on challenging India through subconventional warfare conducted by various proxy groups covertly supported by the Pakistani state.68 This strategy of unleashing state-supported terrorism and insurgency against India in the hope of weakening its control over the contested territories (and enervating it more generally) operates on the assumption that New Delhi will be unable to retaliate through conventional military operations for fear of triggering an escalation sequence that eventually ends up producing a nuclear holocaust. Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, accordingly, serve not merely to provide deterrence against Indian attacks, but more ambitiously to provide a license for “safe” subconventional wars against India.69

Should New Delhi, acting contrary to these expectations, attempt to punish Pakistan through the use of conventional military force, Islamabad’s nuclear weapons only acquire additional utility for brandishing—that is, signaling aimed at compelling New Delhi to freeze its incipient military retaliation while simultaneously catalyzing great power intervention aimed at pressing India for restraint in order to avert the threats of initial nuclear use as well as the horror of any subsequent unrestrained nuclear exchanges.70 Although Pakistan’s acquisition of nuclear weapons is, indeed, meant to free it from dependence on the great powers for its security, relying on external intervention to restrain India still remains a critical element of Pakistan’s security strategy because such involvement holds the promise of suppressing Indian military action without Islamabad having to bear the potentially dreadful costs of actual nuclear weapons employment—which, however painful it may be for India, would be equally if not more costly for Pakistan.71

Inducing foreign intervention to suppress the threat of Indian military action operates on the assumption that any nuclear use between India and Pakistan would create awful negative externalities for the entire international community.72 These burdens, accordingly, can be leveraged to prevent India from implementing its military threats in ways that could provoke either graduated or all-out Pakistani nuclear escalation—which would be disastrous all around. While the international interposing that inhibits India may not materialize in every subcontinental crisis as Islamabad might hope, the strategy of counting on it is not a priori irrational from Pakistan’s point of view given the damage that potentially extensive nuclear weapons use would inflict on the international order and on the global ecosystem as well.73 All the same, it highlights the problematic character of Islamabad’s risk-taking: far from being discrete alternatives, Pakistan’s politico-military strategy thus combines nuclear-shadowed subconventional conflicts, the threat of asymmetric escalation, and the ultimate pledge of assured retaliation to provoke catalytic interventions by the great powers to curb India, all in a mutually reinforcing and unbroken braid.74 However understandable such an approach may be for a weaker power concerned about its security, it nonetheless embodies serious dangers that arise ultimately from Pakistan’s inability to accept the territorial, power, and status realities that admittedly favor India.75

The fundamental danger to strategic stability in the subcontinent, accordingly, does not arise from the presence of Indian and Pakistani nuclear weapons per se, or even from their respective nuclear postures strictly speaking, but rather from the purposes to which Islamabad’s nuclear capabilities are directed.76 If Pakistan sought only to neutralize the perils of Indian nuclear and conventional threats or attacks, the political environment in the subcontinent would be far more placid. Pakistan’s hazardous nuclear strategy, however, has opened Pandora’s box: it has stimulated New Delhi to contemplate supporting Pakistan’s own subnational challengers in retaliation for Islamabad’s provocative behavior; even more importantly from the viewpoint of nuclear stability, it has induced India to develop conventional limited war options intended to swiftly punish Pakistan while remaining under its thresholds for nuclear weapons use.77 Because implementing strategies of enervation—hurting the other through subconventional challenges supported from the outside—is harder for India than it is for Pakistan for various reasons (including geography, the extent of demographic homogeneity in each country, and the time required for success), New Delhi has focused more on exploring how bounded conventional military operations might be used to penalize (or restrain) Pakistan.78

Whether these take the form of large but shallow ground force operations as envisaged in India’s Cold Start doctrine, or special operations behind Pakistan’s borders, or discrete air or naval attacks on various Pakistani assets, the prospect of Indian retaliation has certainly caught Pakistan’s attention. Islamabad has responded to these possibilities by both striving to maximize its force size and diversifying its nuclear weapons inventory to include everything from strategic to tactical nuclear weapons, a response that is shaped by at least four considerations. First, Islamabad views its nuclear capabilities as the ultimate compensation for its conventional inferiority which, although not as significant as is sometimes believed (an issue discussed subsequently), is nonetheless relevant. Second, the geographic disparities between India and Pakistan have compelled Islamabad to attempt to overcome its disadvantages in mutual vulnerability by building up a much larger nuclear force than it perhaps needs for purposes of simple deterrence. Because Pakistani nuclear strategists fear that India might exploit its superior post-conflict reconstitution capability to intimidate Pakistan in any tests of will, they appear intent on acquiring the expanded nuclear force necessary to inflict extensive damage on the bigger Indian homeland in an effort to support the goal of “victory denial.”79 Third, Pakistan requires a large and perhaps superior nuclear force relative to India if it is to enjoy the appropriate immunity to implement its policy of supporting subconventional wars within its adversary’s territory. Because the ability to match the levels of violence embodied by any threatened Indian retaliation is desirable for the success of Pakistan’s strategy of weakening India from within, it is not surprising that acquiring the wherewithal to support full-spectrum deterrence now dominates Islamabad’s force planning. Fourth, and finally, Pakistan will continue to expand and improve its nuclear arsenal simply as a hedge against uncertainty: given the siege mentality that shrouds decisionmaking within Pakistan’s garrison state, its military establishment will perpetually be tempted by the belief that more and different kinds of nuclear capabilities must be developed to counter every imaginable operational contingency, especially those arising from India.80

Although Pakistan’s nuclear expansion is thus driven by various structural reasons, its military establishment has often encouraged various domestic voices to justify this development by reference to India’s substantial conventional and nuclear capabilities. And many Indian interlocutors have only abetted this development in turn. For example, since the 1998 tests, several analysts and occasionally officials in the defense technology establishment have sometimes made extravagant claims about either India’s nuclear capabilities, its missile defense technologies, or its conventional military forces. This hyperbole, which is invariably directed at domestic audiences, represents a species of “strategic solipsism” insofar as it disregards the impact on external constituencies.81 Whether these assertions pertain to the purported yield of India’s nuclear weapons or their relative sophistication more generally, or the quality of various Indian defense systems, or India’s military prowess broadly speaking, they feed into the Pakistani fear of the overwhelming Indian threat and vindicate the necessity for a continued expansion of Islamabad’s nuclear forces.

The author’s conversations over the years with senior Pakistani military officials overseeing the nuclear program, however, suggest that they have an acutely realistic assessment of India’s strengths and limitations, in both the nuclear and the conventional realms. Hence, it is hard to conclude that Pakistan’s nuclear expansion is driven by simple misperception. Rather, the structural factors referred to previously appear to be more powerful motivations, though the bureaucratic interests of both Pakistan’s Strategic Plans Division and the army itself often converge to exploit the exaggerated public impressions about India’s military potency as cover to legitimize their own nuclear buildup.

India, for its part, appears to be marching to the beat of a different drummer. It has focused less on attempting to match Pakistan’s nuclear capability either in numbers or in diversity. For example, it is building up its nuclear missile force quite slowly, while still staying away from developing any tactical nuclear weapons despite some recommendations to the contrary. Instead, New Delhi is investing heavily in ensuring the survivability of its modest nuclear force while extending its reach primarily to hold at risk more distant targets in China—a development that will eventually make Pakistan a “lesser included case” in its larger nuclear strategy. India continues to harbor a vast nuclear production capability, which derives substantially from its civilian nuclear program, but it seems content to refrain from any concerted expansion of its strategic forces given its judgment that relatively few nuclear weapons are required to deter Pakistan and China—although for different reasons in each case. To the degree that Indian nuclear weapons are increasing in numbers, this push appears to be driven more by the need to ensure that a sufficient residual force survives in the face of the enlarging Chinese and Pakistani nuclear arsenals rather than a desire to expand the Indian inventory for its own sake. Obviously, because the contours of the future global nuclear order are still unclear, New Delhi remains intent on preserving its capacity to expand its nuclear weapons capabilities if required, but it does not seem driven to build up the largest possible arsenal it could acquire—or even to match China and Pakistan’s nuclear forces—right now.82

Between the larger number of targets present in India and the perceived need to possess different kinds of nuclear weapons to deal with various operational challenges, Pakistan’s nuclear inventory is expanding and diversifying faster than India’s.

The divergence in India and Pakistan’s approach to nuclear modernization implies that, just as in the Sino-Indian dyad, there is still no real nuclear “arms race” within the subcontinent.83 An arms race, at least in the classic sense, occurs when each side feels compelled to constantly react to an opponent’s strategic acquisitions to preserve its security.84 The persistent interactivity that usually marks arms races, at least in the popular imagination, is hard to find in the case of India and Pakistan since both seem driven, at least in the first instance, to match residual weapons to targets as defined by their overarching doctrines rather than matching weapons to weapons for their own sake. While this dynamic may occasionally suggest weak arms race instability—what one scholar has aptly called “a languorous arms race”85—the more striking characteristic is Pakistan’s behavior: far more obsessed with India than India is in reverse, Pakistan’s nuclear expansion is driven by an intensity that is propelled by its own fears, obsessions, and ambitions. Between the larger number of targets present in India and the perceived need to possess different kinds of nuclear weapons to deal with various operational challenges, Pakistan’s nuclear inventory is expanding and diversifying faster than India’s. Here, the pervasive uncertainty that surrounds all rivalrous competitions is exacerbated by the complications of facing a more powerful adversary (including states beyond India); these, in turn, are intensified by bureaucratic pathologies, directed innovation, and state capture by the men on horseback. Altogether, these elements have combined to produce not “a vicious nuclear arms race” within the subcontinent as is often assumed,86 but instead a determined one-legged nuclear dash that shows no signs of ending any time soon.87

The peculiarities that define arms race stability in the Indo-Pakistani dyad are also reflected in the problems of deterrence stability. As noted earlier, deterrence stability pertains to the incentives of one or both adversaries to use their nuclear weapons to deter nuclear or conventional threats. Neither India nor Pakistan imagine that they would be faced with nuclear attacks emerging from the other without provocation. These contingencies, which preoccupied U.S. and Soviet strategists during the early Cold War, have no parallel in the Indian subcontinent. For all their unresolved disputes, nuclear weapons in India and Pakistan are viewed fundamentally as instruments of deterrence: they serve by, their very presence, to prevent an adversary from issuing nuclear threats or launching nuclear attacks. Moreover, neither state believes that their nuclear weapons can be effectively eliminated by the other’s nuclear forces. This is partly because—on both sides—the weapon yields are small, the delivery systems are relatively inaccurate, and the locations of the strategic storage sites are obscure. Even if these constraints did not exist, however, the national leaderships in both countries do not believe that the risks of a successful nuclear war are worth the benefits and, hence, betray no interest in looking for opportunities to unleash so-called splendid first strikes of the sort that were widely feared during the Cold War. To that degree, the lessons of the nuclear revolution have been absorbed in both India and Pakistan.88

The challenges to nuclear deterrence stability in the Indian subcontinent, therefore, derive mainly from the threats of conventional war—even here, the incentives for nuclear first use are, once again, asymmetric. Because India has stronger conventional military forces, it can cope with all Pakistani conventional military threats without resorting to nuclear weapons in any way. Pakistan, on the other hand, is the weaker power and, hence, conceives of its nuclear capabilities as essential to deterring any significant Indian conventional military operations, including those materializing as retribution for Pakistan’s subconventional attacks on India. Consistent with this calculus, Pakistan has steadfastly refused to rule out the first use of nuclear weapons against India. As Islamabad’s arsenal steadily incorporates tactical nuclear weapons of different kinds, “the threat of early nuclear use on the battlefield” often appears as a disconcerting possibility.89 While the reason for why Pakistan might insinuate the possibility of early first use is understandable—it signals a willingness to bear the costs of escalation in self-defense in order to stop an Indian conventional offensive before it acquires momentum or produces success—it does raise the question of whether such a response is in fact necessary.

A cursory survey of the conventional military balance along the Indo-Pakistani border suggests that Pakistan has robust enough defenses to obviate the need for any early recourse to nuclear weapons, and conversations with Indian and Pakistani army officers over the years indicate that both sides have a remarkably accurate knowledge of the forces deployed across their common border. The Indian Army, undoubtedly, is much larger than its Pakistani counterpart, but a substantial portion of its forces—some twelve out of forty maneuver divisions—are allocated to defending the Sino-Indian border. Of the twenty-eight remaining maneuver divisions, as many as eight (and possibly more) could be requisitioned for operations against China in an emergency. In any event, the twenty-eight divisions nominally available for operations against Pakistan’s twenty-four or so maneuver divisions cannot be committed promptly for such missions because many of them are dispersed during peacetime at cantonments located at great distances from the border.90 If the strengths of the two countries are crudely compared by totaling the division-sized formations located within 200 kilometers of their boundary, it is likely that Pakistan’s twenty divisions face only about twelve Indian divisions in proximity. Moreover, thanks to Pakistan’s constricted geography, its forces have advance positions and logistics sites much closer to the border and in the past have been able to mobilize much faster than their Indian counterparts.91 (Although these precise force ratios may be debated, they do capture the broad contours of the balance.)

Force comparisons of maneuver divisions, however, can be quite misleading because many of these Indian and Pakistani formations are quite irregular, incorporating many more brigades than the standard tables of organization would suggest. The same is also true of brigade counts because many Indian and Pakistani brigades deviate from the standard three battalion/regiment structure; both sides, in any case, have numerous independent brigades that supplement the maneuver divisions. Yet comparisons centered on brigade strength offer a better approximation even if the information gleaned from interviews and public sources in both countries is often incomplete or imperfect.

The Indo-Pakistani border can be broadly divided into four sectors: Jammu and Kashmir; the heartlands of the Indian and Pakistani Punjab; the northern Thar desert in India and the southern Pakistani Punjab opposite it; and the southern Thar desert and the Rann of Kutch in India, which faces the entirety of Pakistan’s Sindh province.

The western part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, from the Siachen Glacier westward all the way to Akhnur, is the responsibility of the Indian Army’s Northern Command, with its 15 and 16 Corps providing the bulk of the forces for its defense. The Pakistani territories facing this border are defended by its Forces Command Northern Area supported by other Pakistan Army formations, from the 10 Corps, which is responsible for defending the districts from Muzaffarabad and Hattian Bala to Bhimber in Azad Jammu and Kashmir.

The area immediately south of Jammu and Kashmir, the heart of the Indian Punjab, is defended by the Indian Army’s Western Command, whose area of responsibility covers all but the southernmost districts of the state. India’s 9 and 11 Corps are the principal formations present for its defense, which is supported by some forward deployed components of its 2 Strike Corps as well. (India’s 9 Corps is actually tasked for the defense of the Jammu-Pathankot axis, further north, in what is the Northern Command’s nominal area of responsibility.) Pakistan’s Central Command lies opposite the Indian Army’s Western Command. Given that the Pakistani Punjab constitutes the core of the Pakistani state, an extremely large number of forces are allocated for its defense: Pakistan’s 1 Strike Corps along with its 30 and 4 Corps are deployed very close to the border, and these formations in turn can be supplemented from forces drawn from Pakistan’s 2 Strike Corps and its 31 Corps, which in peacetime are based actually in Pakistan’s Southern Command.

The southernmost districts of the Indian Punjab and the northern Thar Desert in India, which lie within the boundaries of the state of Rajasthan, are the responsibility of the Indian Army’s South Western Command. The Indian Army’s 10 Corps, supported by its 1 Strike Corps based deep in the rear, face Pakistan’s Southern Command, whose vast area of responsibility extends across the boundaries of both the Indian Army’s South Western and Southern Commands. In operations against the former, Pakistan is likely to employ the bulk of its 2 Strike Corps and 31 Corps to protect the southern portion of the Pakistani Punjab.

The fourth and final sector, which extends from the southern Thar desert in Rajasthan all the way to the Rann of Kutch in India, is defended by India’s Southern Command and its 12 Corps, supported by some forward deployed elements of its 21 Strike Corps. These elements face the Pakistan Army’s Southern Command, whose area of responsibility includes the Sindh province. For defense, it relies primarily on 5 Corps supported by other elements drawn from 31 Corps in the north.

When the forces available to both sides within 200 kilometers of their border are compared by sector at the brigade level, the robustness of Pakistan’s conventional deterrent becomes immediately apparent.92 Only in the northernmost sector of Jammu and Kashmir does India enjoy a numerical superiority on a day-to-day basis. Here, India deploys probably one-and-a-half times more maneuver and combat support brigades than Pakistan, but this force advantage is driven entirely by geography. India has packed military forces within Jammu and Kashmir because hostile geography and tenuous lines of communication often prevent easy reinforcement from reaching the Northern Command’s area of responsibility in times of conflict. However, the complex terrain along the Indo-Pakistani border in the state makes these Indian forces more useful for defense rather than offense. So, between combating insurgencies, preventing further territorial losses, and preparing for military operations without possible reinforcement, India’s numerical force advantages in Jammu and Kashmir cannot be exploited for undertaking rapid penetrations at operational depths in any short war (the only contingency that matters in a nuclear subcontinent). This, in turn, implies that despite its advantages, India would be hard pressed to threaten the state of Azad Jammu and Kashmir—let alone Pakistan—in ways that might provoke nuclear threats or use by Islamabad.

Outside of Jammu and Kashmir, India deploys fewer forces than Pakistan does within 200 kilometers of their common border on a routine basis. In the Punjab plains, where India’s Western Command faces Pakistan’s Central Command, the latter has close to twice the number of maneuver and support brigades deployed by India, and Pakistani forces can often reach full readiness and deploy faster to their wartime positions than their Indian counterparts. Whether this posture will survive India’s Cold Start preparations over time remains to be seen, but Pakistan’s huge force holdings in its Central Command testify to the fact that the Punjab remains the most precious strategic real estate in Pakistan. Further south, Pakistan’s Southern Command has almost one-fourth more brigades closer to the border than the Indian South Western Command. And in Pakistan’s Sindh province, its Southern Command deploys over twice the total number of maneuver and support brigades within 200 kilometers of the international boundary in comparison to the forces maintained by India’s Southern Command. Even if the forces deployed along Pakistan’s western borders—11 and 12 Corps—are withheld from the calculation, the rough numerical balances favor the Pakistan Army in every sector save Jammu and Kashmir (where the disadvantage in any case has virtually no impact on Pakistan’s survival).

Outside of Jammu and Kashmir, India deploys fewer forces than Pakistan does within 200 kilometers of their common border on a routine basis.

These force ratios are admittedly approximations derived from the known locations of various Indian and Pakistani divisions and their attached assets. Although Indian and Pakistani interlocutors characterize these ratios somewhat differently, there are no fundamental differences in their assessments of the sectoral balances. Moreover, these balances have also remained remarkably stable over the last decade, thus suggesting the robustness of the Pakistani posture even in the face of fears about what one Indian chief of army staff described as the Indian Army’s “proactive strategy.”93 Obviously, these static balances will eventually change in India’s favor depending on the duration of a conflict and whether New Delhi is freed from the constraints of a two-front war, the two variables that will affect India’s ability to shift forces from the rear and elsewhere toward its western border.94 And given the nuclear shadow that lurks over every subcontinental confrontation, the role of the international community is just as important, with the most likely outcome being external pressures that force a pause before things got entirely out of control.

The important conclusion, therefore, is that Pakistan has sufficient conventional military capabilities deployed forward to assure its defense, thus making the necessity for nuclear use—and certainly, early nuclear employment—highly questionable in any short war contingency precipitated even by an Indian implementation of Cold Start. This reality also implies that Pakistan has little reason to pursue the ab initio dispersal of its tactical nuclear weapons, let alone pre-delegating nuclear use authority to its battlefield commanders. There is enough evidence to suggest that senior Pakistan Army leaders already appreciate Islamabad’s advantages: As Lieutenant General Khalid Kidwai openly admitted, “there is a healthy balance between the conventional forces on either side . . . notwithstanding the conventional asymmetries [between India and Pakistan] that we keep talking about.”95 Similarly, Adil Sultan, formerly with Pakistan’s Strategic Plans Division, has also declared, “To reduce the possibility of early nuclear use, Pakistan maintains adequate conventional responses to counter India’s offensive military strategy of pro-active operations, and the relatively new strategy of surgical strikes.”96

Even if this were not the case, however—and Pakistan’s conventional defenses failed early in any war with India—Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, tactical or otherwise, would not suffice to defeat Indian military operations in the field. This is certainly true where land combat is concerned (in contrast to naval nuclear use where even discrete attacks can be tactically effective). Operational success in nuclear warfighting on land requires large numbers of nuclear weapons—potentially in the many hundreds—especially if hard targets, such as armored divisions in battlefield deployment, are sought to be attacked and defeated comprehensively.97 Lacking a nuclear inventory of such size, even prospectively, any modest Pakistani nuclear use can only threaten the soft underbelly of the attacker’s logistics train or its forward stocking locations, but even such interdiction may be insufficient to prevent the offensive spearheads from achieving their tactical objectives.

To be sure, any threats of Pakistani nuclear use would have catalyzing political effects within the subcontinent and outside. They would certainly force a competition in risk-taking that either prevents (or freezes) Indian conventional military operations or incites New Delhi to dare Islamabad to use its nuclear weapons in the face of possibly massive Indian retaliation. Either way, international pressures for conflict termination are likely to be overwhelming. In any case, given India’s status quo disposition, it is highly unlikely that any Indian government will pursue substantial enough military operations that risk breaching Pakistan’s nuclear threshold, whatever that might be.98 Instead, if recent history is any indication, New Delhi is likely to restrict its punitive actions to limited air, naval, or special forces activities that can be initiated and terminated quickly, with Indian land forces being held largely in reserve as insurance against any expansive Pakistani military riposte. Pakistan, similarly, is likely to withhold its principal army units mainly to deter any large-scale Indian use of force in retribution for Islamabad’s nuclear-shadowed subconventional warfare against New Delhi.

If such variations of “uglier stability” promise to characterize the Indo-Pakistani rivalry as their respective nuclear arsenals mature,99 the value of Pakistan’s diverse nuclear weapons, especially at the tactical end, becomes questionable. After all, if the main utility of Pakistan’s nuclear weaponry is to signal its willingness to escalate in self-defense when confronted by major Indian conventional military operations—since defeating Indian forces through battlefield nuclear operations is beyond reach and deterring Indian nuclear bolt-out-of-the-blue attacks are irrelevant almost by definition—any Pakistani nuclear weapon would suffice for that purpose. As Pakistani military officers themselves have noted, because “nuclear weapons, irrespective of their size, are qualitatively different from conventional weapons,”100 any threats of their use are always “strategic in nature”101 and “would have strategic fallouts,”102 thus rendering the differences in their technical characteristics, yields, range, or even numbers largely irrelevant. This reality is an obvious consequence of the nuclear revolution—one that has been further strengthened by the nuclear taboo that has arisen over time.

Obviously, Pakistan’s current inventory suggests that its strategic planners believe that they must have many diverse and specialized nuclear devices to block every avenue “for serious military operations by the other side.”103 If such capabilities help to provide Pakistan with reassurance, they might enhance deterrence stability as long as they can be preserved securely and their command and control remains robust even in a crisis. These are not trivial challenges for a country contemplating even symbolic battlefield use, but thus far Pakistan seems to have erred on the side of caution—which is all to the good. Thus, although the Pakistan Army has begun exploring how to integrate conventional and nuclear operations in the field, it has not as yet shown any signs of considering the early dispersal of its tactical systems or relinquishing centralized control over them.104 This conservatism offers hope that these devices will remain primarily latent instruments of deterrence rather than tools for actual use, even if in the process it only ends up calling their very raison d’etre into question. Reflecting on this conundrum, one Pakistani scholar sensibly concluded that the “large scale deployment of tactical nuclear weapons” should be eschewed because this “would be too costly and infeasible.” Rather, “it may be prudent for Pakistan to [merely] deploy a limited number of [these] weapons as signaling or warning to India and use the doctrinal ambiguity [about their use] to create doubt in the adversary’s mind” because there is no assurance that these capabilities at the end of the day promise better or more meaningful protection.105 In fact, their widespread proliferation and any planning for their extensive use would only undermine the conventional defense that Pakistan is more than capable of mounting against most imaginable forms of Indian military action. The sorry consequence of such a choice would weaken Pakistan’s security while simultaneously exposing it to the perils of horrendous and possibly irreparable damage.

On balance, therefore, nuclear deterrence stability in the Indo-Pakistani dyad is afflicted by meaningful, even if not perpetually high, risks. These dangers do not arise from the presence of nuclear weapons themselves, or even their specific characteristics, or the postures in which they are incarnated, but rather from the strategic uses they serve in the context of the ongoing security competition between the two states. Because Pakistan treats its nuclear capabilities as providing cover for its subconventional challenges to India, its nuclear weapons paradoxically become disproportionately important to its defense against any threatened retaliation by New Delhi’s nominally superior conventional forces. The ensuing competition for “escalation dominance”—driven at the Indian end by the desire to limit Pakistan’s capacity to harm Indian interests through low intensity wars and at the Pakistani end by the objective of preventing India from inflicting retribution—has unfortunately taken Islamabad in the direction of developing tactical nuclear weapons that can ostensibly be employed in graduated fashion before seeking recourse to their strategic counterparts.106 This development has, in principle, increased the prospect of nuclear weapons use in the Indian subcontinent, thus making issues of deterrence stability among the most problematic aspects of the rivalry between India and Pakistan.

Nuclear deterrence stability in the Indo-Pakistani dyad is afflicted by meaningful, even if not perpetually high, risks.

Although these innovations are aimed at preventing war by buttressing deterrence, or at least forcing the early termination of conflict before deterrence breakdown eventuates in strategic nuclear exchanges, they do epitomize the problems of deterrence stability in the Indo-Pakistani context that are not present where the Sino-Indian rivalry is concerned.

Mercifully, however, the deterrence instability that is chronically present in the case of India and Pakistan has not translated thus far into acute challenges for crisis stability. As previous discussion indicated, whereas deterrence stability refers to the incentives that a state has to use nuclear weapons at all in the context of a conflict (either to avert conventional aggression or to avoid conventional defeat), crisis instability refers to the incentives that a state has to use its nuclear weapons first in order to avoid their loss to any enemy action that is intended to deliberately (or even inadvertently) target them.

The notion of crisis instability arose during the Cold War when the United States and the Soviet Union had many thousands of high-yield nuclear weapons that could be delivered by highly accurate delivery systems in circumstances when the locations of the adversary’s strategic nuclear weapons were also well known. The problems of crisis instability were judged to afflict primarily land-based forces, both ICBMs and bomber fleets since the precise locations of the former’s silos and the latter’s airfields were well known (or at least could be readily discerned by various surveillance systems such as space-based imaging satellites). Under such circumstances, the “reciprocal fear of a surprise attack” became plausible in theory,107 even though it was always doubtful whether policymakers in real life would ever execute such strategies including in a crisis. The fear of surprise attack, however, was not irrational in principle because both sides had large numbers of highly accurate nuclear systems that could be used to eliminate the other’s land-based nuclear capabilities. Consequently, a bold aggressor could use its own weapons first in an attempt to eliminate the other’s nuclear reserves and thereby spare itself the ravages of expansive retaliation.108

With both sides’ nuclear forces thus susceptible to such first strikes, crisis instability inexorably ensued because the competitors would have strong incentives to use their weapons first in disarming attacks aimed at the other. The imperatives of avoiding crisis instability led to the development of the triad: distributing weapons across diverse delivery systems—land, air, and sea—to increase weapons survivability and thus reduce the incentives for any aggressor to launch any disarming first strikes to begin with. The problems of crisis instability also resulted in explorations about different missile launch regimes, such as launch on warning or launch under attack, whereby ballistic missiles could be launched on receipt of any indications that a first strike was either imminent or underway. These solutions were plausible, however, only because both superpowers during the Cold War had diverse, especially space-based, tactical early warning systems that enabled each to carefully monitor the locations and disposition of the other’s land-based strategic systems.

These conditions do not comparably obtain in the case of India and Pakistan. The land-based systems are smaller in number and relatively inaccurate; the yields of the most reliable nuclear warheads in the respective inventories are small; the locations of the facilities where the warheads and missiles are stored are highly opaque; and the persistent detection systems that can provide tactical warning of nuclear operations by either side do not exist. Consequently, both sides presumably have some information about where the other’s nuclear systems might be cloistered in peacetime, but neither can be confident that they have comprehensive knowledge about all the relevant storage sites. Even if they were to acquire this information by intelligence means, they do not have the requisite nuclear weapon systems either in numbers, device yields, or delivery system accuracy to enable them to interdict all (or even most) of their adversary’s nuclear storage facilities so as to create the use-it-or-lose-it dilemmas that compel the victim to unleash its nuclear weapons first merely because it cannot risk riding out such attacks and going second.

This judgment remains the baseline condition in both India and Pakistan, which is confirmed by the peacetime posture of their respective nuclear forces as well as the little that is known about their patterns of alerting witnessed during crises and their nuclear employment exercises. More recently, however, two American scholars Christopher Clary and Vipin Narang have advanced the provocative claim that India, a country usually characterized as a reluctant nuclear power that envisages its nuclear arsenal as having utility primarily to deter Pakistani nuclear first use (and to retaliate against such first use if deterrence were to fail) might not just use its nuclear weapons first in a crisis but actually seek to unleash a comprehensive damage-limiting first strike against Pakistan’s strategic nuclear forces if any nuclear use by the latter were to appear imminent.109

This claim is grounded in the first instance by India’s strategic predicament, which, since the early 1990s, has sought to develop antidotes to Pakistan’s nuclear-shadowed terrorism. The quest for such antidotes has pushed India to develop various conventional military retaliatory options, which, in turn, has propelled Pakistan to acquire diverse tactical nuclear weapons to prevent India from crossing the threshold from crisis to war. India’s response to this Pakistani innovation has consisted of reiterating its doctrine of “massive retaliation,” in effect threatening Pakistan with devastating punishment if it ever used its nuclear weapons on Indian forces, facilities, or cities first. Although the credibility of this threat has arguably weakened as Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities have increased and improved—in much the same way that the early U.S. Cold War doctrine of “massive retaliation” progressively became less credible as Soviet nuclear forces grew in size and capability—New Delhi has judged that holding on to its retaliatory threat of massive punishment is still worthwhile because, among other things, it does not preclude proportional retaliation should that be necessary in practice.110

No Indian government official, however, has ever suggested that Indian nuclear first use—centered on comprehensive counterforce attacks on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons—might be a sensible strategy for New Delhi even in the face of threatened Pakistani nuclear employment. The closest Indian policymakers have come to discussing this idea has been in the former Indian national security advisor Shivshankar Menon’s book Choices, where he refers to the dilemma that New Delhi would face if it found itself in a situation where a nuclear adversary “had declared it would certainly use its weapons [against India], and if India were certain that [this] adversary’s launch was imminent.”111 While noting that “India’s present public nuclear doctrine is silent on this scenario,” he nonetheless goes on to reiterate India’s continuing commitment to its no-first-use policy because when all is said and done it still makes the most strategic sense for New Delhi in its prevailing strategic circumstances.112 This contingency aired by Menon, coupled with the views of other retired Indian military officers who are skeptical about the benefits of their country’s no-first-use declaration, however has provided the grist for Clary and Narang’s claim that India may be shifting toward a nuclear strategy centered on the first use of nuclear weapons incorporating comprehensive damage-limiting counterforce attacks.

No Indian government official has ever suggested that Indian nuclear first use—centered on comprehensive counterforce attacks on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons—might be a sensible strategy for New Delhi even in the face of threatened Pakistani nuclear employment.

The fact that India is also enlarging its nuclear arsenal beyond what Clary and Narang believe is necessary for minimum deterrence serves as further justification for the assertion that these supposedly excessive capabilities are intended to service the first-strike counterforce mission. This judgment is additionally reinforced by their argument that not only are the numbers of India’s nuclear weapons increasing but the quality of its arsenal is undergoing transformative changes that make the counterforce mission plausible. In particular, they argue that India possesses the necessary surveillance capabilities to detect Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and, furthermore, that India’s nuclear delivery systems, primarily ballistic missiles, have developed the necessary accuracy to make a counterforce attack appear a realistic possibility to Indian policymakers. If all these claims are true—in terms of the analytical questions considered here—they imply that sharply heightened risks of crisis instability exist because in some scenarios pertaining to future Indian punitive military operations against Pakistan, New Delhi will have strong incentives to use its nuclear weapons first to eliminate the entire Pakistani nuclear arsenal (or most of it) before it can be used by Islamabad to threaten reprisals against Indian conventional military attacks.113

The evidence for Clary and Narang’s core assertion—that India is shifting toward a first use nuclear counterforce strategy—however is thin on all three counts: the evidence drawn from the Indian debates, the size of the Indian arsenal, and the quality of India’s counterforce capabilities.

First, although Clary and Narang offer a deeply Talmudic reading of the Indian controversies over New Delhi’s no-first-use policy, their discussion insufficiently recognizes either the noisy character of this discourse (an inherent consequence of Indian democracy where a diversity of views, sometimes not well thought through, are freely aired), or the effort at advocacy that many of these discussions represent (including by retired Indian military officers who may have lost the internal debates on these issues), or the confused nuclear terminology that many Indian policymakers often employ (because satisfying the niceties of nuclear deterrence theory is not their primary concern). Even a thoughtful policymaker such as Shivshankar Menon has often used problematic language when writing about nuclear issues, but this is understandable because his work is not an academic treatise on deterrence but a policymaker’s reflections on India’s strategic challenges. The writings of many Indian military officers on nuclear strategy, including those who have served in India’s nuclear establishment, are often even more muddled, again explained by the fact that, despite their past positions, they have neither been educated in the complexities of rational deterrence theory nor trained to express themselves with the linguistic or logical precision that is commonplace in academic analyses of deterrence. Consequently, the ruminations of Indian officials on nuclear strategy must be subjected to serious “source criticism” before they can be used to draw far reaching inferences about any changes in Indian nuclear strategy.

Not appreciating these limitations often results in foreign commentators treating many of the Indian writings they cite as if they were considered statements of strategy that were intended to satisfy the demands of precision as U.S. nuclear doctrinal and posture statements did during the Cold War. Even the United States, compared to other nuclear powers, was exceptional on this count. Very few Indian writings on military issues—whether conventional or nuclear—ever meet the U.S. standard for conceptual exactitude, which was set from the very beginning by academic theorists who developed and articulated the concepts of nuclear deterrence from within the traditions of social science, mathematics, and game theory. The limitations of Indian writings on deterrence, including those cited by Clary and Narang, have been examined by Indian analysts such as Rajesh Rajagopal, Abhijnan Rej, and Dhruva Jaishankar.114 Their analyses clearly highlight the imprecision that often marks many contemporary Indian writings on nuclear deterrence, which cannot therefore be treated as obviously indicative of the nation’s real nuclear strategy. In some cases, Clary and Narang simply infer what they think their Indian sources must mean from what is often casual language (or even the tenses of their sentences), making the challenge of discerning India’s nuclear strategy from the outside even more difficult. Furthermore, arguing that Indian officials “have refused to . . . deny interpretations of a shift in thinking”115 about their nuclear strategy does not attest to the veracity of a changed strategy either: as one senior Indian official when queried by the author about this very question responded tartly, “the Government of India does not exist to satisfy the inquisitiveness of outsiders about its nuclear strategy,” before chuckling that “uncertainty about what we may or may not do may be good for deterrence in any case.”

Shivshankar Menon’s analysis illustrates the challenges all too well. For example, in a discussion about why India had not chosen a nuclear doctrine centered on “calibrated or proportional responses” early in the post-1998 period, Menon notes that for many sensible reasons “the logical posture at first was counter-value targeting, or targeting the opponent’s assets, rather than counter-force targeting, which concentrates on the enemy’s military and command structures.”116 This sentence merely states that, early on India had few choices but to settle on countervalue targeting because of the character of its nuclear capabilities: “Nuclear-armed Prithvi missiles with their limited range of 350 kilometers were effective deterrents in our situation, since the only real targets for them are the cities of the Pakistani Punjab.”117 Menon’s description of “counter-force targeting, which concentrates on the enemy’s military and command structures,” however does not corroborate the suspicion that India’s nuclear targeting strategy has now shifted.118 The classic conception of counterforce centered on interdicting an adversary’s nuclear weapons, its delivery systems, its storage sites, and its associated command and control. It usually did not refer to attacking conventional military forces and their command structures either in garrison or in the field. India’s nuclear capabilities even in and around 1998 could always have been used to attack Pakistan’s conventional military forces but, because successfully penalizing the latter requires large numbers of nuclear weapons, it made sense for India to concentrate on targeting population centers as a means of inflicting unacceptable punishment.

Today, with the larger number of nuclear weapons present in the Indian arsenal, New Delhi can retaliate by interdicting a wider range of targets including industrial and infrastructure assets as well as conventional military forces in addition to population centers. Menon is, therefore, right to emphasize that “India’s nuclear doctrine has far greater flexibility than it gets credit for,”119 but this does not imply that India only has a choice between “massive countervalue retaliation and preemptive counterforce options”120—as if these are the only alternatives. In fact, the range of Pakistani targets that are susceptible to punitive retaliation is large; hence, India can exact significant punishment on Pakistan without bringing upon itself the complication of attempting to target Islamabad’s nuclear forces either preemptively or after suffering any nuclear attack.

Moreover, there is little in Menon’s discussion suggesting that contemporary Indian nuclear targeting is now directed not only toward attacking Pakistan’s nuclear weapon systems but could do so preemptively and in ways that would be viewed as compatible with New Delhi’s no-first-use policy. In fact, on the one occasion that Menon actually mentions “a comprehensive first strike against Pakistan”—again the perfect example of misleading terminology—he does so solely in the context of responding to Pakistan’s first use of nuclear weapons, where he, in effect, restates the claim that India would be justified in massively retaliating with nuclear weapons the moment Islamabad crosses the nuclear threshold in any form.121

On the question of whether India should shift its no-first-use policy, his argument is actually unequivocal:

What are the alternatives to no first use? Announcing that India would strike first if it considered it necessary, as Pakistan and the United States do? Some say that our declaration is already meaningless as it is only a pious hope and does not cover other NWS [nuclear-weapon states]. If it is meaningless, why the fuss? But that aside, a first-strike doctrine is surely destabilizing, and does not further the primary purpose of our weapons of deterring blackmail, threat, or use of nuclear weapons by an adversary against India. It is hard to see how it would.122

And when he subsequently raises the possibility that “circumstances are conceivable in which India might find it useful to strike first, for instance, against [a nuclear-weapon state] that had declared it would certainly use its weapons, and if India were certain that [the] adversary’s launch was imminent,” he only states laconically that “India’s present public nuclear doctrine is silent on this scenario”123—not that a preemptive nuclear strike is appropriate under such conditions. To infer such a response, as Clary and Narang do, not only raises significant hermeneutical questions about their interpretation—and the minutiae cannot be addressed in any further detail here—but more importantly provokes the question of whether their conclusion about the supposed Indian shift toward counterforce targeting is tenable given what is known about New Delhi’s nuclear and military capabilities more broadly.

This leads to their second argument—that the increasing size of the Indian nuclear force lends itself to a counterforce strategy vis-à-vis Pakistan. The evidence here is also far from persuasive. The Indian nuclear force is certainly growing, but it is not growing faster than that of Pakistan or China. The number of Indian nuclear weapons—meaning warheads plus launchers—is smaller than their equivalent numbers in Pakistan, as most published assessments indicate.124 Nonetheless, the slow growth of the Indian arsenal can be explained simply by New Delhi’s desire to hedge against uncertainty: because India will want to match the numbers of survivable warheads to targets in both China and Pakistan, the size of the Indian nuclear inventory will continue to grow because its adversaries themselves have expanding nuclear forces that could be used to target India’s nuclear reserves. Furthermore, because New Delhi can never be sure about the survivability of its own forces, given that their locational opacity could be breached in unanticipated ways, the incentives to build a larger nuclear arsenal to increase the fraction of the surviving force are relatively high. Finally, much of India’s current—modest—nuclear expansion is driven by the investment in either long-range systems to target China or the sea-based weapons required to enhance survivability, and New Delhi’s investments on both counts are not only far from complete but also entirely inappropriate for counterforce targeting.

In fact, what is striking about India’s nuclear growth is not that its force size is increasing dramatically but how far below its weapons production possibility frontier it actually subsists. Most public sources may in fact overestimate the size of the Indian arsenal because New Delhi’s approach consists not of accelerating the current output of nuclear weapons but rather preserving the potential to do so in case its strategic environment deteriorates in unexpected ways. Consequently, the modest expansion of the Indian nuclear arsenal that is currently occurring is driven by considerations that have nothing to do with its supposed counterforce ambitions. If the latter were, indeed, a driving force, India would have built up a much larger nuclear force in comparison to Pakistan because even the simplest calculations suggest that no preemptive nuclear strikes aimed at damage-limitation could be successfully prosecuted under conditions of either nuclear parity or, even worse, nuclear inferiority.

Finally, a close examination of India’s nuclear capabilities also suggest that it cannot pursue the counterforce strategies that Clary and Narang attribute to it because it lacks the ability to detect Pakistan’s nuclear forces, especially its mobile ballistic missiles, in real time. India’s own nuclear ballistic missiles—the fastest attacking vectors in its arsenal and the only force component that could possibly execute large-scale counterforce attacks in a highly compressed timeframe—also do not have the accuracy necessary for this task. And India’s high-yield nuclear weapons, which could, in some circumstances, compensate for the inaccuracy of its delivery systems, are still unreliable and would be ineffective if deployed without further testing. Most of all, however, India still lacks a command-and-control system designed to execute massive nuclear attacks—strikes that involve scores of simultaneous nuclear missile launches—of the kind that would be required for a splendid first strike directed at an adversary’s nuclear forces.125 Of equal pertinence is the fact that India shows no interest in developing such a command system because it seems satisfied that its current automated decision aids suffice for the retaliatory mission that its Strategic Forces Command plans for as the primary responsibility.

All the same, the discussion that follows illustrates the challenges that India would face in any first-strike nuclear counterforce campaign. By demonstrating the implausibility of success in even discrete operations through a series of vignettes, it corroborates the conclusion that India does not have the capability to execute any meaningful first-strike counterforce strategies and, as such, is unlikely to be seduced by such alternatives.

India does not have the capability to execute any meaningful first-strike counterforce strategies and, as such, is unlikely to be seduced by such alternatives.

If India were to contemplate damage-limiting nuclear first strikes on Pakistan in order to avert the dangers of any nuclear first use by Islamabad—whether through the employment of Pakistan’s tactical or its strategic nuclear forces—the best chance for success would be a bolt-out-of-the-blue attack, assuming that New Delhi knew the locations of all Pakistan’s nuclear storage sites to begin with. Such an attack offers the hope of destroying Pakistan’s entire land-based nuclear force (or most of it) when it is still concentrated in its peacetime locations. This scenario would be attractive because a surprise attack, if successful, on a relatively small number of Pakistani facilities, decisively eliminates Islamabad’s nuclear threat root and branch, and frees India from the fear of having to face Pakistan’s nuclear first use as a counter to New Delhi’s conventional military operations—the danger that India’s supposed shift toward a nuclear counterforce strategy is intended to mitigate.

Even this most favorable contingency—where all of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are concentrated at their peacetime locations and the geo-coordinates of all these facilities are known to India—is currently riddled with serious challenges. For starters, Pakistan’s airfields may be the only targets that are susceptible to easy destruction with a relatively small number of Indian nuclear weapons. If it is assumed that India employs ballistic missiles with a circular error probable of about 100 meters to deliver a 12-kiloton fission warhead on critical Pakistani airfields, no more than two nuclear weapons targeted at the hangarette areas would destroy most of the aircraft at a single airbase such as Sargodha with a relatively high probability (greater than or equal to 90 percent) of success.126 If it is assumed that Pakistan has eight airfields where nuclear capable aircraft are either based or could operate out of, India would thus require about sixteen ballistic missile–delivered nuclear weapons to destroy Islamabad’s air-breathing nuclear delivery infrastructure. (In all the counterforce attack possibilities explored here, ballistic missile strikes are the only relevant forms of attack because aircraft and cruise missile delivery, being much slower and potentially susceptible to interception in comparison, would defeat the purpose of swiftly eliminating Pakistan’s nuclear reserves before they could be either dispersed or launched.)

Pakistan’s principal nuclear capabilities, however, no longer reside in its air-delivered weapons but in its ballistic missiles. Attacking the facilities containing these missiles and their warheads, however, will prove to be far more problematic, even assuming that their locations are known with a high degree of accuracy. If it is assumed again that the CEP of most of India’s strategic missiles is about 100 meters, India would need five 12-kiloton warheads to crush each aboveground Pakistani nuclear bunker with a ground shock vulnerability number of 40P8 on the expectation that it desires 90 percent probability of successful destruction. Two 30-kiloton warheads (the supposed yield of the Indian boosted-fission weapon) would be required to destroy each such bunker, though one 200-kiloton thermonuclear warhead would suffice to destroy each bunker with a single detonation.

The modest warhead yields and the relatively large inaccuracies of India’s missiles combine to increase the number of nuclear weapons required to successfully interdict Pakistan’s aboveground nuclear storage bunkers. If Indian missiles had greater accuracy—say, 30 meters—only one warhead of either 12 kilotons, 30 kilotons, or 200 kilotons would suffice to destroy each bunker at a 90 percent probability of destruction. If Indian war planners demand higher degrees of confidence in their interdiction operations—say, a 95 percent probability of success—the number of Indian weapons necessary to destroy Pakistan’s aboveground nuclear bunkers increases even further if the attacking Indian missiles have a CEP of 100 meters or larger. Because success is more sensitive to accuracy rather than yield, only a missile with a 30-meter CEP or better can destroy one bunker with a single nuclear weapon.

Given current Indian missile accuracies, destroying Pakistan’s aboveground nuclear storage bunkers can quickly absorb a significant number of India’s most reliable nuclear weapons. Even this burden pales into insignificance, however, when Indian attacks on Islamabad’s underground storage facilities are considered. Like most emerging nuclear powers, Pakistan has invested heavily in hard and buried storage sites. These facilities can be divided into two broad categories: facilities built by “cut and cover” methods of construction and located at depths that do not exceed 20 meters (which could be designated shallow underground facilities), and facilities that require specialized tunneling for their construction, possess redundant ventilation, power and communications systems, are located at between depths of 20 to 100 meters (which are considered deep underground facilities). These deep underground facilities can exist under flat plains or under hills and mountains, with their entrance and internal layouts varying considerably depending on the topography. Facilities built at depths greater than 100 meters are also common worldwide and these present difficult targets for attack even with nuclear weapons. The United States has developed specific earth penetrating nuclear warheads for such missions, but neither China, nor India, nor Pakistan are known to have such capabilities today.127 If the information pertaining to Pakistan’s Kirana Hills nuclear weapons storage site is any indication, Islamabad’s deeply buried nuclear storage sites are large—ranging anywhere from a few square kilometers to a few tens of square kilometers in size—and subsist at depths greater than 100 meters.128

If a 40P8-class Pakistani underground storage site located at a depth of 25 meters is attacked by a 12-kiloton warhead carried by an Indian ballistic missile with a CEP of 100 meters, the single shot probability of kill would be only about 24 percent (when measured against a desired 90 percent probability of success), thus requiring 9 Indian nuclear weapons to destroy each buried site. Only if the CEP of Indian missiles is reduced to 30 meters—no Indian ballistic missile is currently capable of such accuracy—does the number required drop to one missile attack per storage site if a 90 percent probability of success is desired. If Pakistan’s storage sites are located at depths of 100 meters—and the Kirana Hills facility, for example, suggests even greater depths from the summit even if its entrance tunnels are entirely horizontal—the requirements for a successful Indian nuclear attack increase dramatically. With a CEP of both 30 and 100 meters, no Indian missile can successfully destroy such targets if they are armed with 12-kiloton warheads. With 30-kiloton warheads and a CEP of 30 meters, India would need 3 nuclear weapons for destroying each target at a 90 percent probability level, but with a CEP of 100 meters (the rough standard for most Indian long-range missiles), India would need to commit 22 nuclear missiles to destroy each Pakistani underground storage site.

This calculation by itself should provide pause. It suggests that even if India’s most reliable nuclear weapons—the 12-kiloton devices—are utilized for attacks on underground targets using highly accurate ballistic missiles of 30-meter CEP—delivery systems that do not yet exist—the expenditure ratio of weapons-to-targets is not always favorable: one weapon would be needed to successfully destroy each shallow underground site, but deep underground sites would be completely impervious to destruction. For Indian leaders possessing a small nuclear arsenal and facing an uncertain number of underground Pakistani targets at varying depths, the benefits of expending their nuclear reserves on this mission, vice some alternative deterrent strategy, cannot make such damage-limiting counterforce strikes particularly attractive.

Even these crude calculations, however, assume that the Pakistani underground facilities to be interdicted are solely point targets. Destroying the entirety of the overground topology that rests above the storage sites is beyond the reach of India’s current nuclear weaponry. The best that India can do in present circumstances is to attempt targeting each of the adits leading to the underground storage caverns, but the number of aim points quickly becomes very large—assuming all can be identified to begin with—and could easily exceed the number of missile-borne nuclear weapons in the Indian arsenal. For example, one Indian analyst has identified ten entry portals at Pakistan’s Kirana Hills facility.129 The actual number of adits could be much larger and depending on their number and the distances between them, multiple 12-kiloton nuclear weapons might be required to suppress this facility. Even if all these weapons were successfully employed, it is worth remembering that the Kirana Hills site is only one among many other facilities that Pakistan has presumably constructed. Interdicting all these targets would quickly absorb a large number of Indian nuclear weapons from what is still a relatively modest arsenal.

The key conclusion of relevance, therefore, to the claim that Indian counterforce attacks are now plausible is that even in the best scenario imaginable—a bolt-out-of-the-blue Indian nuclear attack on an unprepared and undispersed Pakistani nuclear force—the number of Indian nuclear weapons required for success in such operations is potentially large. This outcome is driven partly by the fact that the effective radius of India’s 12-kiloton weapons against hard storage sites is relatively small (because of both their small yields and, more importantly, the inaccuracy of their delivery systems), and equally significantly because the craggy terrain that envelopes the portals of many underground sites could further limit their destructive effects. As a result, attempting to successfully attack all of Pakistan’s underground storage sites—many of which are not point targets—will not only exceed the number of strategic missiles currently in the Indian arsenal but also the numbers that might be reasonably anticipated to exist a decade or so from now.

This conclusion can be easily illustrated. With 12-kiloton-yield warheads and using 100-meter-CEP missiles, India would need ninety weapons merely to interdict ten 25-meter deep Pakistani nuclear weapon storage sites at a desired 90 percent probability of kill; using the same parameters, 450 weapons would be needed to interdict fifty Pakistani targets.130 The ratios might look more appealing if the Indian missiles’ CEP is reduced to 30 meters. Now a single warhead, irrespective of yield, can destroy a single target buried at a depth of 25 meters. But this economy is misleading because if the Pakistani storage sites are enclave and not point targets, then the 1:1 ratio of warheads to targets actually refers to the number of “designated ground zeros” or aim points, many of which may be required to suppress a single Pakistani nuclear storage facility. If Pakistani nuclear weapon storage sites located at a depth of 100 meters have to be attacked, the numbers required become even larger and hence are not worthy of consideration. The bottom line, therefore, is simple: any Indian attempts to destroy all of Pakistan’s underground storage sites will require a large number of nuclear weapons that will certainly exceed the number of missile delivery systems likely to exist in the Indian arsenal during this decade. This issue is particularly relevant because although India will continue to expand its overall nuclear inventory, most of its weapons will not be optimized for damage limiting counterforce attacks.

Even the best-case scenario for Indian nuclear counterforce strikes—a surprise attack on an un-generated Pakistani nuclear deterrent—can, therefore, be eliminated from consideration because of the burdens imposed on India’s still modest nuclear forces.131 And this conclusion does not consider other factors that any attacker must take into account: that the reliability of India’s nuclear weapons and its delivery systems in practice might fall short of their nominal values,132 and the likelihood that any single attacking missile may have a larger CEP than the abstract estimate for its class as a whole. Both these factors would end up making the nuclear force requirements for a successful Indian first strike even larger than they already are. Moreover, the possibility that India may not have successfully identified all of Pakistan’s covert nuclear weapons storage sites, which are continuing to increase in number, should induce sufficient caution in any Indian policymakers contemplating preemptive counterforce strikes because the consequences of coping with any surviving Pakistani weapons, especially those aimed at Indian cities in retaliation, would be devastating. Given this prospect, expending the bulk, if not the entirety, of the Indian land-based missile force on a preemptive attack on Pakistani nuclear forces makes little sense if it does not more or less eliminate Islamabad’s deterrent, even while it would leave India vulnerable to subsequent nuclear threats from China, its much larger and more demanding adversary.

When scenarios other than a bolt-out-of-the-blue strike are more closely examined, the chances of a successful Indian damage limiting nuclear strike are just as, if not more, bleak. Current Pakistani strategic planning calls for a rapid alerting and dispersal of its nuclear forces at the onset of any serious crisis. This does not require the entirety of the Pakistan’s land-based force to be flushed in one go, although that possibility has also been planned for if necessary. What is more likely—precisely because Pakistan is confident that India cannot conduct a successful disarming nuclear attack—is the quick dispersal of its nuclear capable aircraft to various alternative airfields to ride out any possible Indian nuclear strikes. There are over a hundred functional airfields in Pakistan and hundreds of hardened shelters, so reserving a small number of nuclear delivery aircraft, if necessary, to survive early Indian nuclear attacks is entirely within Islamabad’s capacity.

More important, however, are the dispersal routines involving Pakistan’s land-based ballistic missiles. Notwithstanding many claims to the contrary,133 India does not have the technical capacity to continuously track the movement of Pakistan’s mobile missiles or even to identify their dispersed hides where the transporter-erector-launchers would bivouac prior to departing to their launch points. Once flushed from their peacetime storage sites, the detection and continuous tracking of Pakistan’s mobile missile force cannot be undertaken by India’s space systems because the small number of surveillance platforms on orbit also have limited revisit rates.134 And while India could exploit Western commercial high-resolution satellite networks to mitigate the limitations of its own space platforms when executing counterforce strikes, Indian nuclear planners would be diffident to do so because access to such systems could be interrupted if foreign governments, choosing to exercise force majeure, prevent their companies from providing such space surveillance services during an intense subcontinental war. No prudent decisionmakers would, therefore, execute a nuclear war plan that relies on surveillance and targeting information as well as bomb damage assessment deriving from platforms over which they have no control.

The detection and tracking of Pakistan’s mobile missiles also cannot be undertaken by India’s current fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles, which possess mainly electro-optical and electronic intelligence sensors. While these sensors can detect and identify individual transporter-erector-launchers in principle—especially if cued by other sources—India’s unmanned aerial platforms presently are not wide area surveillance systems and hence would be unable to surveil the entirety of the dispersed Pakistani nuclear force.135 They would, moreover, have to operate deep inside Pakistani airspace to conduct their reconnaissance missions, thus making their survival problematic. The Pakistan Air Force routinely prosecutes counter-UAV missions against India, and it must be expected that in wartime both Islamabad’s air and ground-based air defenses will target Indian unmanned aerial platforms as part of their defense of Pakistani airspace.136

Finally, India’s small fleet of airborne warning and control systems (AWACS) are also constrained in different ways: they are optimized for detecting primarily airborne and maritime surface targets rather than relatively slow-moving ground vehicles operating in a complex terrain characterized by a high degree of surface clutter. For example, the radar aboard the most capable Indian AWACS, the Israeli-developed Phalcon, operates in the low gigahertz range, which is highly effective for detecting aircraft but not for locating ground vehicles or for characterizing and tracking them to support targeted attacks, which would require airborne radars that operate in the higher end of the X-band frequency.137

India will acquire such capabilities when it finally purchases intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance (ISTAR) aircraft of the kind that have been under discussion for many years.138 This airborne platform carries a side-looking phased array antenna that combines a ground moving target indicator (GMTI) to track mobile land vehicles in real time and a synthetic aperture radar (SAR) to image the targets. Both operating modes are necessary to detect and track mobile missile transporter-erector-launchers: The GMTI mode enables the radar to track the missile transporter while it moves (but loses the track if the vehicle pauses while the radar beam shifts focus). While the GMTI can thus track vehicular movement depending on the radar’s revisit rate relative to the target, its resolution is insufficient to identify specific vehicles such as mobile missile transporter-erector-launchers. The SAR mode, however, creates high resolution images that can be used to identify specific targets.139 The ISTAR radar system thus fuses the data collected by the GMTI and SAR modes operating alternatively, along with other electro-optical infrared data as well as signal and electronics intelligence, to enable it to track moving targets, such as mobile ballistic missiles once they are dispersed from their peacetime storage sites.140

Acquiring the ISTAR system, however, does not imply that India will be able to detect and track all of Pakistan’s mobile ballistic missiles at will. For starters, the number of platforms that India may acquire—three to five aircraft are currently contemplated—may not suffice for round the clock coverage. Furthermore, its side-looking radar system, which is unlikely to exceed 250 kilometers in slant range at the aircraft’s optimal radar operating altitude of 30,000–40,000 feet implies that it will be able to survey only a narrow 200-kilometer zone coterminous with the Indo-Pakistani border because its operating orbit is likely to lie at least 50 kilometers inside Indian air space to enhance the aircraft’s survivability.141 Data relating to the flight tracks of Indian intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance aircraft from March to June 2021 suggest that these platforms operate much deeper inside Indian airspace even in peacetime, which is not at all surprising given the retrograde constraints that would apply in the face of Pakistani fighters such as the F-16 C/D armed with the ~50 nautical mile–ranged AIM-120C5 missile (Map 4).142 The surveillance zone inside Pakistani territory would, accordingly, be even smaller than the 200-kilometer swath referred to earlier.

The inability to deploy the ISTAR platform in penetrating missions in Pakistani airspace—as the U.S. Air Force, for example, was able to employ its equivalent Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System aircraft in Iraq because of the air superiority it enjoyed during both Gulf Wars—implies that mobile missiles deploying from most of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons storage sites cannot be easily tracked by India’s ISTAR fleet or its various UAVs. The detection of some Pakistani nuclear missile transporter-erector-launchers operating close to the border is possible but locating and tracking the entirety (or most) of the dispersed force to support a preemptive nuclear counterforce attack is implausible.

Even if this were not the case, however, the principal challenge that India faces in targeting Pakistani mobile missiles through nuclear counterforce strikes is the absence of an information fusion and command-and-control system designed to interdict large numbers of time critical mobile targets simultaneously. India has not developed such a system for its nuclear operations—as the United States did during the Cold War and maintains to this day—precisely because its nuclear deterrent has not been designed for the conduct of preemptive nuclear counterforce attacks. Curiously, Clary and Narang argue that “pursuing . . . graduated [nuclear retaliatory] options would place enormous pressure on India’s command and control system.”143 If the command-and-control requirements for Indian nuclear retaliation in the aftermath of a Pakistani nuclear attack are burdensome—precisely the scenario that India has in fact developed substantial technical and procedural capabilities for—the command-and-control burdens to manage a preemptive nuclear strike on even a few dozen fixed targets are enormous. If these strikes must be conducted, as would be more likely, on what could be over a hundred dispersed Pakistani ballistic missiles (and counting), the command-and-control problems could quickly become unmanageable.

All such attacks would require unleashing scores of Indian nuclear missiles from widely dispersed locations to arrive simultaneously (or almost simultaneously) on their equally extensively scattered targets. A sequential arrival of the attacking missiles would be futile because that would alert Pakistan to the Indian first strike and would precipitate the launch of many or all of Islamabad’s surviving weapons. Given the difficult challenges of acquiring accurate targeting information about Pakistan’s dispersed missile force and managing the largescale structured attack necessary to neutralize Islamabad’s deterrent, it is hard to understand why New Delhi would contemplate preemptive counterforce attacks on the entire Pakistani nuclear arsenal if the challenges of managing nuclear retaliation—a much simpler task when focused on countermilitary and countervalue targets—is already deemed to be oppressive.

Even if the problems of command and control are excluded from the analysis, any Indian preemptive counterforce attacks on dispersed Pakistani nuclear missiles would face serious challenges—as the following illustrative calculation indicates. Since mobile missile launchers are soft targets that are more vulnerable to dynamic pressure—that is, the drag from wind effects (designated Q)—rather than overpressure, which is usually used to describe the vulnerability of hard targets, the imputed hardness of such systems is much less than that characterizing aboveground bunkers for example. In the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency’s vulnerability number system,144 the vulnerability of mobile missile launchers is 11Q9, which is sufficient to overturn the launcher and crush the missile.145 These values are highly reliable because the hardness of all missile systems is comparable unlike those of aboveground or underground bunkers whose hardness depends on their design, materials, construction techniques, and passive protection.

With 11Q9 targets, a 12-kiloton warhead’s weapon radius is 1,000 meters, a 30-kiloton warhead’s is 1,600 meters, and a 200-kiloton warhead’s is 3,800 meters.146 For heuristic purposes, the attacking Indian missile is assumed to have a zero CEP, and it is assumed that India has detected the location of the storage site from whence the Pakistani missile launcher would emerge. Two different launcher speeds are assumed: 30 kilometers per hour (that is, the launcher moves 1 kilometer every two minutes) and 60 kilometers per hour (or 1 kilometer every minute). Again, for the sake of simplicity, it is assumed that the launcher is moving along a straight road and has the option of moving in two directions away from its fixed facility. For a Q-type target, the attacking weapon must detonate within 0.6 times the weapons radius away from the missile launcher to achieve a destruction probability of 91 percent.147

On these assumptions, if India attacked a mobile Pakistani missile launcher moving at a speed of 30 kilometers per hour with a missile-delivered 12-kiloton warhead, the weapon would have to reach the target within 1.2 minutes from the time that the launcher started moving. If the Pakistani mobile missile moved at a speed of 60 kilometers per hour, India would have only 0.6 minutes to effectively interdict the Pakistani system. If the size of the Indian warhead is increased to 30 kilotons, the time required for successful attacks on Pakistani missiles moving at 30 and 60 kilometers per hour would be 1.9 minutes and 1.0 minutes, respectively. For a 200-kiloton weapon, the claimed yield of India’s thermonuclear warheads, the attack time required to successfully interdict Pakistani missiles moving at 30 and 60 kilometers per hour would be 4.6 minutes and 2.3 minutes, respectively. If the launcher had the option of moving in only one direction from its fixed facility, then all these reaction times double.

In other words, successfully destroying a Pakistani mobile missile with a 12-kiloton warhead would require an Indian missile to reach its target within 0.6 to 2.4 minutes of the Pakistani launcher leaving its storage site. Given three assumptions—that the Agni-1 SRBM, with its 700-kilometer maximum range, is the most responsive Indian offensive system available, that all the Agni-I missiles are ready and prepared for launch as soon as the Pakistani missile transporter-erector-launchers are detected leaving their storage sites, and—astonishingly—that the time required to both fix and track the Pakistan transporter-erector-launcher after detection and complete updating the target coordinates into the attacking Agni-I missile is zero—the Agni-I’s flight time to target at any range up to its maximum always exceeds the time window required for successful interdiction by an extraordinary margin. Even if the Agni-I is armed with a 200-kiloton thermonuclear warhead, its flight time to target invariably exceeds the maximum time window required to destroy the Pakistani system. The use of India’s longer-ranged systems, such as the Agni-IP, Agni-2, and Agni-3, in such counterforce attacks—irrespective of their accuracy or yield—does not resolve the problem of constrained time windows either.

These calculations are admittedly crude, but they clearly suggest that interdicting Pakistan’s mobile ballistic missiles while dispersing from their storage sites will not be easy for India—despite the artificially favorable assumptions that have been used to favor the hypothetical Indian attack. A more realistic vignette focused on attacking Pakistan’s missile transporters that may be detected when shuttling around after dispersal only confirms the point that the number of Indian nuclear weapons that would be required for this task are extremely and, almost certainly, unacceptably large.

Assume that a Pakistani missile launcher is detected in the field (by any means) at t0. It is reasonable to assume that at least five minutes are required to fix the target, establish a track, confirm the identity of the target, and select and commit the Agni-I missiles to barrage the detected area. Since it takes about nine minutes for the Agni-I to fly to its maximum range, it will require about fourteen minutes to reach the designated target. Again, the Agni-I is assumed to have a zero (or near zero) CEP, and the detected Pakistani missile launcher is operating off-road at a speed of 30 kilometers per hour. From the time of detection to actual interdiction, the Pakistani missile could have traveled in any direction (at least notionally) for up to seven kilometers, thus placing it anywhere inside a circle with a seven-kilometer radius.

The number of attacking missiles required to cover a seven-kilometer radius circle varies depending on the yield of the Agni-I’s warhead: this figure is determined by calculating how many circles pertaining to a given weapon’s radius can be fitted within a larger seven-kilometer circle of uncertainty. The three yields of relevance to the Agni-I, as before, are 12 kilotons, 30 kilotons, and 200 kilotons, with 0.6 of each weapon’s radius—where the probability of kill is 91 percent from a single weapon—treated as defining the lethal area. Because a mobile missile launcher is a Q-type target, there is a substantial probability that it will be destroyed even it is located outside the lethal perimeter of any single attacking missile if the entire circle of uncertainty is blanketed by the requisite number of missiles required to achieve a kill probability of 0.9 or greater.

The results of such a calculation are sobering. If the Agni-I is assumed to possess a single 12-kiloton warhead, its effective kill radius is 600 meters and 103 missile-delivered nuclear weapons would be required to cover the mobile missile’s circle of uncertainty of some 154 square kilometers. If the Agni-I is assumed to carry a single 30-kiloton warhead, its effective kill radius increases to 960 meters and fewer weapons—thirty-nine warheads—are now required to cover the Pakistani mobile missile’s circle of uncertainty. If the Agni-I’s yield is increased to 200 kilotons, the claimed yield of India’s thermonuclear weapons, its effective kill radius increases dramatically to 2.28 kilometers and only seven weapons are now required to cover the mobile missile’s circle of uncertainty.

While the number of Indian weapons required to successfully interdict Pakistan’s dispersing mobile missiles thus reduces significantly as the yields of its weapons increase, this can be hardly any consolation to Indian military planners because the weapons exchange ratios are still highly unfavorable to India at a time when the Indian nuclear inventory is still smaller than, or at best on par with, Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.

The bottom line suggested by this extended discussion is that only Indian counterforce attacks against Pakistan’s airfields stand a reasonable chance of success. Similar attacks, when levied against aboveground or underground storage sites or against mobile ballistic missiles, could be extremely costly in terms of the weapons expended while still not being assured of any high probabilities of success. If, notwithstanding anything that has been said so far, a major Indian counterforce strike might, in fact, manage to eliminate say some 90 percent of Pakistan’s land-based missiles, that option arguably could prove to be attractive to New Delhi in a crisis because the residual Pakistani nuclear force would be small enough to be parried by India’s emerging missile defenses.

Clary and Narang do advance exactly this argument, but it is fallacious on three counts. First, the foregoing explorations suggest that the levels of success required to make an Indian counterforce strategy plausible currently lie beyond India’s reach because it does not have the number of nuclear weapons and delivery systems, relative to Pakistan’s own growing arsenal, for the task. When the complications produced by the small yields of India’s nuclear weapons, the limitations of its surveillance capabilities, the constraints imposed by its command-and-control system, and the larger issues of systems reliability are all factored in, the limitations of any hypothesized Indian counterforce strike become virtually self-evident. Any improvements to India’s strategic capabilities since the turn of the century fail to alter the fundamental implausibility of a counterforce strike, as Indian strategic planners readily recognize.

Second, India’s missile defense systems, which are nowhere near being operational—despite the Indian Defense Research and Development Organization’s oft-cited claims—would even at maturity serve only as point (or, at best, as enclave) defenses for a handful of locations at most.148 Despite their eventual integration into India’s air defense system, their effectiveness against attacking missiles is uncertain. In any case, these systems will defend only a small number of critical sites, which implies that vast portions of the Indian landmass will continue to remain vulnerable to Pakistani retaliation undertaken by its surviving land-based ballistic missiles, not to mention its increasing numbers of land-based cruise missiles as well as its sea-based systems.

Third, the enormous casualties that would be inflicted on India even by Pakistan’s residual nuclear attacks fundamentally call into question the logic of prosecuting even those “successful” counterforce strikes that might be imagined. Clary and Narang correctly note that India has lost “more than 30,000 civilians and security force personnel to terrorist or militant violence in the last thirty years.”149 The possibility of Indian counterforce strikes arise only in the context of New Delhi’s effort to cope with the threats of Pakistani nuclear use in response to India’s conventional punishment against Islamabad for supporting terrorist acts. But the absurdity of the tradeoffs involved here is manifestly apparent: even if ten Pakistani land-based nuclear missiles survive India’s counterforce strike, the devastation suffered by the Indian population outside its missile defenses would be enormous. If the average population density in the core areas of major Indian cities is around 20,000 people per square kilometer, then a single ~12-kiloton Pakistani weapon would kill about 130,000 people and injure another 240,000 more. If this is the price to be paid for an attack on one Indian city—let alone ten—Indian policymakers would be better off accepting the annual 1,000 casualties from terrorism than risking the loss of 130 times more deaths alone from a nuclear attack.

Successive Indian prime ministers, from Atal Bihari Vajpayee down to Narendra Modi, have shied away from even major conventional land force operations that could trigger a Pakistani nuclear response.

Successive Indian prime ministers, from Atal Bihari Vajpayee down to Narendra Modi, have internalized this calculus, however disconcerting, and therefore have shied away from even major conventional land force operations that could trigger a Pakistani nuclear response—let alone contemplating preemptive nuclear counterforce strikes as is now claimed. Because India (like Pakistan) has been a late nuclearizer, its security managers have fully absorbed the lessons of the nuclear revolution. They approach issues pertaining to nuclear weaponry as political animals rather than as academic theorists and, consequently, epitomize the conservatism that McGeorge Bundy described when he wrote:

There is an enormous gulf between what political leaders really think about nuclear weapons and what is assumed in complex calculations of relative “advantage” in simulated strategic warfare. Think-tank analysts can set levels of “acceptable” damage well up in the tens of millions of lives. They can assume that the loss of dozens of great cities is somehow a real choice for sane men. They are in an unreal world. In the real world of real political leaders—whether here or in the Soviet Union—a decision that would bring even one hydrogen bomb on one city of one's own country would be recognized in advance as a catastrophic blunder; ten bombs on ten cities would be a disaster beyond history; and a hundred bombs on a hundred cities are unthinkable.150

This judgment, while emphatically true, does not address Menon’s dilemma: How would India react if it were faced with the knowledge that Pakistan was readying nuclear weapons for launch on India? This conundrum is hardly new and Indian policymakers since Vajpayee’s term in office have had to grapple with it—most acutely both during the 1999 Kargil conflict and the 2001–2002 India-Pakistan crisis. In all imagined contingencies during that time, their conclusions were the same: there is no rational reason for India to attack preemptively even if Pakistan appears to be on the cusp of using nuclear weapons first. The great doyen of Indian strategic thinking, K. Subrahmanyam (and subsequently one of Menon’s predecessors, Brajesh Mishra), summarized these arguments in the following way, which are worth quoting at length from an earlier work:

First . . . any information about imminent nuclear attack, if such is available at all, is likely to be more ambiguous and incomplete than transparent and conclusive given the nature of the strategic capabilities, force architectures, and deployment postures maintained on all sides. Thanks to this fact, incomplete information ought to warrant reticent responses rather than hasty overreaction, especially given the high costs of mistaken action in the nuclear realm. Second . . . even if credible information about an imminent attack is available, it is still prudent for India not to respond preemptively because preemption would only ensure that an attack, which was only probable up to that point, actually became inescapable. Because the difference between probable and inescapable attack embodies enormous consequences for both Indian and regional security . . . prudence and moral sensibility would demand responses that decelerate the pace of escalation, not speed it up—as preparations for preemptive responses ineluctably do. Third and finally . . . the very challenge that such contingencies pose places special obligations on India and its no-first-use pledge: It requires New Delhi to ensure that its strategic assets are survivable enough that even if its adversaries are tempted to unleash first strikes, India will never feel compelled to use its nuclear weapons first merely because the vulnerability of its strategic reserves produces enormous differences between the expected costs of striking first and those of striking last.151

Nothing has changed in the Indian and Pakistan arsenals between 1998 and the present day to fundamentally vitiate these judgments reached early by Indian policymakers. They still remain the most sensible response (other than conventional counterforce) to Menon’s dilemma as well as to other domestic critics of India’s no-first-use policy. Because Pakistan evinces no interest in counterforce strikes against Indian nuclear forces nor has the capacity to execute such attacks even if it so desired, Indian nuclear preemptive counterforce attacks against Pakistan’s static nuclear storage sites or Pakistan’s mobile nuclear weapon systems that may be episodically detected are irrational if they cannot eliminate close to the entire Pakistani nuclear reserve and thereby immunize India against the subsequent retaliation that would become inevitable. In any conventional conflict, it is possible that Pakistan’s mobile nuclear systems may be occasionally attacked successfully by India’s conventional forces, but such instances are a far cry from preemptive nuclear counterforce operations prosecuted by New Delhi.

In any case, neither preemptive Indian conventional nor preemptive Indian nuclear attacks on Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal would comprehensively destroy it, thus making such a campaign futile to begin with. This is exactly the conclusion that Clary and Narang fail to draw even when they admit that “the prospects for [Indian] counterforce success even against Pakistan’s current force are questionable.”152 If so, why would Indian policymakers be supposedly flirting with any nuclear damage-limitation strategies to begin with? Consequently, in the absence of more persuasive evidence—such as a buildup of India’s nuclear weapons inventory relative to Pakistan; an increase in the number of highly accurate Indian missiles; the acquisition of an intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance network that permits real-time targeting; the development of a command-and-control system designed to execute large and structured attacks; or nuclear force exercises that involve rapid alerting, integration, and salvo launches of multiple missiles simultaneously—the insinuation that India is veering toward preemptive nuclear counterforce operations against Pakistan must be dismissed conclusively.153 As Shyam Saran, reflecting the convictions of India’s policymakers, summed it up succinctly, nuclear weapons “are not weapons of war in any meaningful sense. These are weapons of mass destruction—and the keyword here is “mass.” Their use would render any credible war aim irrelevant” (emphasis added).154

Given this judgment, it is equally important to recognize that in any contingency where Pakistan uses its nuclear weapons first, India has targeting options beyond strikes on Pakistani cities when it comes time to retaliate—if New Delhi desires to prosecute strategies other than massive retaliation. India can—and likely will—pursue countermilitary targeting or countervalue targeting outside of population attacks if it seeks to respond proportionately to Pakistani nuclear use that is not directed at India’s own cities to begin with. None of these options will obviously be advertised a priori, but such retaliation does not require alacrity for its effectiveness, and, consequently, the need for striking Islamabad’s nuclear weapons even in retaliation is not at all compelling partly because of the difficulties involved in executing such attacks and partly because such counterforce attacks may not be punitive enough depending on the targets that Pakistan has struck first. India’s nuclear posture has already evolved toward alerting a small subset of its strategic systems at the onset of any crisis—just as Pakistan does as well—in order to both signal resolve to bolster deterrence and to be able to retaliate rapidly against a range of soft targets as part of a strategy of punishment, not denial.

All this confirms the conclusion offered at the beginning of this discussion—that nuclear crisis stability in the Indo-Pakistani dyad is actually quite high despite conventional deterrence stability potentially being threatened by the possibilities of limited war arising from Pakistan’s continuing nuclear-shadowed campaign of terrorism against India.155 Even here, however, things are more hopeful than often feared because even the most muscular Indian leaders, conscious of the risks of nuclear war, have chosen not to exercise force in ways that could lead to easy nuclear escalation.156 To that degree, Pakistan’s nuclear planners have it exactly right: whatever the illogic of their tactical nuclear weapons or the expansion and diversification of their larger nuclear arsenal might be, they have succeeded in cementing deterrence at both the conventional and the nuclear levels vis-à-vis India as a result of a policy that threatens nuclear “first-use-but-last resort.”157 Indian leaders, in turn, may deny that they are deterred by Pakistan’s nuclear threats but that is largely rhetorical posturing that is intended to avoid giving Islamabad the impression that it can needle New Delhi with impunity. The Indian military will obviously prepare for major conventional conflict even amid the threats of Pakistani nuclear use but outside of responding to Pakistan’s most egregious acts of nuclear-shadowed terrorism with limited force, Indian leaders have little interest in provoking or undermining Pakistan (or prosecuting any significant conventional attacks against Pakistan) for their own reasons.

Consequently, Islamabad’s security would be enhanced far more deeply if it were to consciously come to terms with the current geopolitical realities in the subcontinent. This implies accepting the territorial status quo with India, desisting from the futile pursuit of equality with its larger neighbor, and abandoning the religious idioms of rivalry that have proven so corrosive within Southern Asia (with the last pathology, unfortunately, now afflicting India as well). A strategic shift of such magnitude in Islamabad and, more importantly, Rawalpindi would lead both to avoid baiting New Delhi through subconventional conflict—an outcome that would contribute mightily toward mitigating the stresses that otherwise find manifestation in the nuclear realm between both countries.


1 The interactive dynamics involved in the U.S-China nuclear relationship are usefully summarized in Caitlin Talmadge, “The US-China Nuclear Relationship: Why Competition Is Likely to Intensify,” Brookings Institution, Washington, DC, September 2019,

2 U.S. Department of Defense, Office of the Secretary of Defense, The Military Power of the People’s Republic of China, 2005, July 30, 2005, 28; and U.S. Department of Defense, Office of the Secretary of Defense, Military Power of the People’s Republic of China, 2006, May 23, 2006, 26.

3 For an extended discussion, see Tellis, India’s Emerging Nuclear Posture, 117–250.

4 Feroz Hassan Khan, “Pakistan’s Perspective on the Global Elimination of Nuclear Weapons,” in National Perspectives on Nuclear Disarmament, Barry M. Blechman and Alexander K. Bollfrass, eds. (Washington, DC: Stimson Center, 2010), 211–241.

5 The multiple factors implicated in this chain are surveyed in Sharad Joshi, “Nuclear Proliferation and South Asia: Recent Trends,” Nuclear Threat Initiative, Report, July 31, 2007,

6 Manjeet S. Pardesi, “The Initiation of the Sino-Indian Rivalry,” Asian Security 15, no. 3 (2019): 253–284.

7 For an excellent overview, see John Garver, Protracted Contest: Sino-Indian Rivalry in the Twentieth Century (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002), 3–109.

8 Harry Harding, “The Evolution of the Strategic Triangle: China, India, and the United States,” in The India-China Relationship: What the United States Needs to Know, eds. Frankel and Harding, 321–350. See also, Tellis, “China and India in Asia,” 135–137.

9 Susan L. Shirk, “One-Sided Rivalry: China’s Perceptions and Policies Toward India,” in The India-China Relationship, 95.

10 Tellis, “China and India in Asia,” 139.

11 Ibid.

12 Gary Klintworth, “Chinese Perspectives on India as a Great Power,” in India’s Strategic Future, eds. Ross Babbage and Sandy Gordon (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992), 96.

13 John Garver, “Asymmetrical Indian and Chinese Threat Perceptions,” Journal of Strategic Studies 25, no. 4 (2002): 110.

14 Dr. Saji Abraham, China’s Role in the Indian Ocean: Its Implications on India’s National Security (New Delhi: Vij Books India, 2015), 93.

15 Andrew Small, The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics (Mumbai: Random House India, 2015), 1.

16 Tellis, “China and India in Asia,” 139.

17 Garver, “Asymmetrical Indian and Chinese Threat Perceptions,” 109–134.

18 Gill and Mulvenon, “The Chinese Strategic Rocket Forces: Transition to Credible Deterrence,” 38–45; and Gertz, “New Chinese Missiles Target All of East Asia.”

19 Tellis, “The Changing Political-Military Environment: South Asia,” 205.

20 Rajesh Basrur, “India and China: Nuclear Rivalry in the Making?,” S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Policy Brief, October 2013, 7.

21 Kartik Bommakanti and Suyash Desai, “China’s Nuclear Ambiguity and Its Implications for India,” Observer Research Foundation, Occasional Paper, Issue No. 309, April 2021,

22 On the issue of whether the nuclear balance matters, see Rajesh Basrur, “India and China: A Managed Nuclear Rivalry?,” Washington Quarterly 42, no. 3 (2019): 151–170; and for a larger examination of the question that corroborates New Delhi’s intuitions, see David C. Logan, “Nuclear Superiority Is What States Make of It,” unpublished manuscript, Princeton University, June 25, 2020,

23 For a discussion as this pertains to China, see Vipin Narang, “Nuclear Deterrence in the China-India Dyad,” in The China-India Rivalry in the Globalization Era, ed. T. V. Paul (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2018), 187–201.

24 Sundarji, Blind Men of Hindoostan, 141–157.

25 Tellis, “The Changing Political-Military Environment: South Asia,” 207–208.

26 For useful, though not always conclusive, overviews of the Sino-Indian military balance, see Oriana Mastro, and Arzan Tarapore, “Asymmetric but Uneven: The China-India Conventional Military Balance,” in Routledge Handbook of China-India Relations, eds. Bajpai, Ho, and Miller, 235–247; and Daniel Kliman, Iskander Rehman, Kristine Lee, and Joshua Fitt, “Imbalance of Power,” Center for a New American Security, October 23, 2019, An insightful discussion of how current Indian military investments should be modified for success against China can be found in Chris Dougherty, “Force Development Options for India by 2030,” Center for a New American Security, October 23, 2019,

27 For confirming Chinese views on this question, see Toby Dalton and Tong Zhao, “At a Crossroads?

China-India Nuclear Relations After the Border Clash,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, August 19, 2020,, 7–8.

28 Tellis, India’s Emerging Nuclear Posture, 710–712.

29 Bharat Karnad, Why India Is Not a Great Power (Yet) (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2015), 389.

30 Gill and Mulvenon, “The Chinese Strategic Rocket Forces,” 38–45.

31 Ibid., 39–40.

32 Kristensen and Korda, “Chinese Nuclear Forces, 2021,” 325.

33 Karnad, India’s Nuclear Policy, 63–77.

34 See for example, Gregory S. Jones, “From Testing to Deploying Nuclear Forces: The Hard Choices Facing India and Pakistan,” 7; and Bharat Karnad, “A Disruptive Nuclear China and India’s Imperatives,” Security Wise, April 7, 2017,

35 Rudolph Rummel, China’s Bloody Century: Genocide and Mass Murder Since 1900 (New York: Routledge, 1991).

36 Subrahmanyam and Arunachalam, “Deterrence and Explosive Yield”; and Manpreet Sethi, “Nuclear Numbers: Assessing China’s Threshold of ‘Unacceptable Damage,’” Sunday Guardian, February 6, 2021,

37 Menon, Choices, 112. See also Masahiro Kurita, “China-India Relationship and Nuclear Deterrence,” NIDS Journal of Defense and Security 19 (December 2018): 37–61.

38 In their “Worldwide Deployments of Nuclear Weapons, 2017,” Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris note that “As with Pakistan, we have found little reliable information that indicates where India’s 120–130 nuclear warheads are stored. Based on available unclassified sources and satellite imagery, we cautiously estimate that India stores nuclear weapons at at least five locations. India is thought to keep its nuclear warheads and bombs in central storage locations rather than on bases with operational forces.” See Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris, “Worldwide Deployments of Nuclear Weapons, 2017,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 73, no. 5 (2017): 295.

39 The effectiveness of earth-penetrating nuclear weapons is discussed in National Research Council, Effects of Nuclear Earth-Penetrator and Other Weapons (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2005), 18–29.

40 M. McDonnell and J. McGahan, “Target Descriptions and Damage Levels for the SBM SAWG,” March 1976, Science Applications, Inc.

41 The Defense Intelligence Agency’s Physical Vulnerability System is described in detail in Gilbert C. Binninger, Paul J. Castleberry, Jr., and Patsy M. McGrady, “Mathematical Background and Programming Aids for the Physical Vulnerability System for Nuclear Weapons,” Defense Intelligence Agency, DI-550–27–74, November 1, 1974.

42 If it is assumed, for example, that all China’s missiles and warheads function perfectly, that its missiles attack simultaneously and warhead fratricide is irrelevant, and that each warhead’s probability of kill is independent rather than interdependent, twenty missiles each carrying a single 150-kiloton warhead would be required to achieve a 90 percent probability of kill. If the warhead yield is increased to 500 kilotons, eight single warhead missiles would be similarly required to achieve a 90 percent probability of kill. Even using 3-megaton warheads requires two missiles per target to achieve a 90 percent probability of kill, which on balance implies a high expenditure of weapons to targets.

43 Again, if it is assumed, for example, that all China’s missiles and warheads function perfectly, that its missiles attack simultaneously and warhead fratricide is irrelevant, and that each warhead’s probability of kill is independent rather than interdependent, twenty-five missiles each carrying a single 150-kiloton warhead would be required to achieve a 90 percent probability of kill against targets located at a depth of 25 meters. If the warhead yield is increased to 500 kilotons, eight single warhead missiles would be similarly required to achieve a 90 percent probability of kill. Even using 3-megaton warheads requires three missiles per target to achieve a 90 percent probability of kill, which on balance also implies a high expenditure of weapons to targets in all these scenarios. Against targets at 100 meters, the numbers of weapons necessary to achieve a 90 percent probability of kill are similarly daunting: forty-five weapons of 150 kilotons, twelve weapons of 500 kilotons, and three weapons of 3 megatons would be required in this instance, all because of the large 700-meter circular error probable of the attacking missiles.

44 National Research Council, Effects of Nuclear Earth-Penetrator and Other Weapons, 3–51.

45 Debak Das, “China’s Missile Silos and the Sino-Indian Nuclear Competition,” War on the Rocks, October 13, 2021,

46 Manpreet Sethi, “Why India and China Haven’t Used the ‘N’ Word Throughout the Ladakh Conflict,” The Print, August 3, 2020,

47 Despite some Indian speculation to the contrary, the movement of China’s H-6K bombers within its Western Theater Command was only meant to bolster conventional—not nuclear—deterrence against India. See Minnie Chan, “China Sends Long-Range Bomber to Border With India,” South China Morning Post, November 16, 2021,

48 Yogesh Joshi, “Angles and Dangles: Arihant and the Dilemma of India’s Undersea Nuclear Weapons,” War on the Rocks, January 14, 2019,

49 Kania, “China’s Strategic Situational Awareness Capabilities,” 2–4.

50 Vinayak Bhat, “Where Do China’s Missile Early Warning Capabilities Stand? Eye in the Sky Tells You,” India Today, August 11, 2020,

51 For a useful survey of China’s programs, see Mark Stokes, Gabriel Alvarado, Emily Weinstein, and Ian Easton, “China’s Space and Counterspace Capabilities and Activities,” paper prepared for The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, Project 2049 Institute and Pointe Bello, March 30, 2020,

52 Gunter D. Krebs, “TJS 2, 5, 6 (Huoyan-1?),” Gunter’s Space Page,; and “Chinese Ballistic Missile Early Warning,” Global Security, May 3, 2020,

53 The importance of space-based early warning for missile defense operations is illustrated in Lieutenant General Larry J. Dodgen, “Flattening With the New Common of Space,” Army Space Journal, 2006 Winter Edition, 4–5, 44–47.

54 See “Chinese and Russian Missile Defense: Strategies and Capabilities,”

55 For a good discussion of these issues, see Dean Wilkening and Kenneth Watman, Strategic Defenses and First-Strike Stability (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 1986).

56 Tellis, Are India-Pakistan Peace Talks Worth a Damn?, 11–23.

57 Narasingha P. Sil, “India-Pakistan Conflict: An Overview,” Education About Asia 14, no. 3 (2009): 9–13.

58 Ayesha Jalal, “The Past as Present,” in Pakistan—Beyond the Crisis State, ed. Lodhi, 7–20.

59 Tellis, Are India-Pakistan Peace Talks Worth a Damn?, 38–42.

60 Cohen, The Pakistan Army, 90.

61 T. V. Paul, “Why Has the India-Pakistan Rivalry Been So Enduring? Power Asymmetry and an Intractable Conflict,” Security Studies 15, no. 4 (2006): 600–630.

62 For more on this issue, see T. V. Paul, “Causes of the India–Pakistan Enduring Rivalry,” in The India-Pakistan Conflict—An Enduring Rivalry, ed. T. V. Paul (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 3–24.

63 Cohen, The Pakistan Army, 152–158.

64 Rohan Mukherjee and Yogesh Joshi, “The Cost of Restraint: India’s Differential Response to China and Pakistan as Nuclear Rival” (unpublished manuscript, n.d.).

65 Fair, Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War, 27.

66 Ashley J. Tellis, C. Christine Fair, and Jamison Jo Medby, Limited Conflicts Under the Nuclear Umbrella: Indian and Pakistani Lessons From the Kargil Crisis (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2001).

67 Lavoy, “Pakistan’s Nuclear Posture: Security and Survivability,” 2–3.

68 Tellis, Stability in South Asia, vii–x; and S. Paul Kapur, Jihad as Grand Strategy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 51–80.

69 Tellis, ibid. See also, S. Paul Kapur, “Ten Years of Instability in a Nuclear South Asia,” International Security 33, no. 2 (2008): 71–94.

70 Tellis, Stability in South Asia, 44–46.

71 The costs of even modest Pakistani nuclear use are elucidated in Sankaran, “Pakistan's Battlefield Nuclear Policy: A Risky Solution to an Exaggerated Threat,” 118–151.

72 See the discussion in Kapur, “Ten Years of Instability in a Nuclear South Asia,” 71–94.

73 Robert Legvold, “The Challenges of a Multipolar Nuclear World in a Shifting International Context,” in Meeting the Challenges of the New Nuclear Age: Nuclear Weapons in a Changing Global Order, eds. Steven E. Miller, Robert Legvold, and Lawrence Freedman (Cambridge: American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2019), 28–61; and Toon et al., “Rapidly Expanding Nuclear Arsenals in Pakistan and India Portend Regional and Global Catastrophe.”

74 Cf. Vipin Narang, “Posturing for Peace? Pakistan’s Nuclear Postures and South Asian Stability,” 38–78, from which some of the terms in this sentence are drawn.

75 For an extended discussion of the consequences, see Aparna Pande, Explaining Pakistan’s Foreign Policy: Escaping India (New York: Routledge, 2017).

76 Manpreet Sethi, “Pakistan’s Nuclear Posturing and India’s Nuclear Doctrine,” Center for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi, Scholar Warrior, Spring 2016, 63–69,

77 Tellis, Stability in South Asia, 49–50.

78 Kapur, “Ten Years of Instability in a Nuclear South Asia,” 71–94; and Walter C. Ladwig III, “A Cold Start for Hot Wars? The Indian Army’s New Limited War Doctrine,” International Security 32, no. 3 (2007/08): 158–190.

79 Krepon, “Pakistan’s Nuclear Strategy and Deterrence Stability,” 53.

80 Congressional Research Service, “Pakistan’s Nuclear Weapons,” CRS Report, RL 34248, August 1, 2016, 11.

81 Tellis, India’s Emerging Strategic Posture, 206.

82 Rajat Pandit, “India Behind China and Pakistan in Nuclear-Warheads but Not Worried,” Times of India, June 15, 2021,

83 P. K. Singh, “The India-Pakistan Nuclear Dyad and Regional Nuclear Dynamics,” Asia Policy, No. 19 (January 2015): 37–44.

84 For a sophisticated survey, see Colin S. Gray, “The Arms Race Phenomenon,” World Politics 24, no. 1 (1971): 39–79.

85 Waheguru Pal Singh Sidhu, “A Languid but Lethal Arms Race,” Disarmament Forum 2 (2004): 7.

86 Gaurav Sharma and Marc Finaud, “The South Asian Nuclear Posture: A Vicious Nuclear Arms Race,” Geneva Centre for Security Policy, Strategic Security Analysis, Issue 3, November 2018,

87 Ashley J. Tellis, “Deterrence vs. Coercion,” Cipher Brief, May 25, 2016; and Toby Dalton and Jaclyn Tandler, “Understanding the Arms ‘Race’ in South Asia,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, September 13, 2012,

88 On Pakistan’s absorption of the lessons of the nuclear revolution, which is different from India’s, see Diana Wueger, “Pakistan’s Nuclear Future: Continued Dependence on Asymmetric Escalation,” Nonproliferation Review 26, nos. 5–6 (2019): 449–463.

89 A.H. Nayyar and Zia Mian, “Pakistan and the Nasr Missile: Searching for a Method in the Madness,” Economic and Political Weekly 50, no. 39 (2015): 65.

90 Tellis, Stability in South Asia, 19–25. The Indian Army’s force posture has changed somewhat since this RAND study was published but not so fundamentally as to vitiate this conclusion.

91 For a good discussion, see Lieutenant General (retd.) V. K. Sood and Pravin Sawhney, Operation Parakram: The War Unfinished (New Delhi: Sage, 2003).

92 The force ratios described in the following paragraphs owe much to Ravi Rikhye who shared his insights pertaining to the Indo-Pakistani order of battle. Further details are found in Ravi Rikhye, Analysis of India’s Ability to Fight a 2-Front War 2018 (n.p.: Tiger Lily Books, 2018). Very useful historical information on the posturing of the Indian and Pakistani armies by sector can be found in Ravi Rikhye, The War That Never Was (New Delhi: Chanakya Publications, 1988), 95–124; and Ravi Rikhye, The Fourth Round (New Delhi: ABC Publishing House, 1982), 55–151, with more recent, albeit speculative, data available at Richard A. Rinaldi and Ravi Rikhye, Indian Army Order of Battle (n.p.: Tiger Lily Books, 2011). I am grateful to Ravi Rikhye and to another U.S. government reader for reviewing this section and correcting the errors.

93 Ajai Shukla, “Army Able to Launch Faster Response Against Pakistan,” Business Standard, January 13, 2012.

94 Tellis, Stability in South Asia, 19–22.

95 Kidwai and Lavoy, “A Conversation With Gen. Khalid Kidwai,” 7.

96 Adil Sultan, “Challenges in Nuclear Posture and Deterrence From Pakistan’s Perspective,” National Security Journal, December 2021, 4,

97 Tellis, India’s Emerging Nuclear Posture, 133–134; and Nayyar and Mian, “The Limited Military Utility of Pakistan’s Battlefield Use of Nuclear Weapons in Response to Large Scale Indian Conventional Attack,” 9.

98 It is unlikely that given Pakistan’s conventional military advantages, its nuclear use threshold has now descended so low as to trigger nuclear weapons employment merely because India manages to capture and retain some marginal pieces of Pakistani territory for purposes of bargaining in post-conflict negotiations. The credibility thresholds for effective nuclear threats are simply too high to make Pakistani nuclear use plausible in such circumstances.

99 Tellis, Fair, and Medby, Limited Conflicts Under the Nuclear Umbrella, 83.

100 Salik, “Tactical Nuclear Weapons and Deterrence Stability,” 1–2.

101 Feroz Hassan Khan, former Director of Arms Control and Disarmament Affairs, Strategic Plans Division, quoted in Ghazala Yasmin Jalil, “Tactical Nuclear Weapons and Deterrence Stability in South Asia,” Strategic Studies 34, no. 1 (2014): 51.

102 Zahir Kazmi, “Nothing Tactical About Nuclear Weapons,” Express Tribune, May 16, 2014.

103 Kidwai and Lavoy, “A Conversation with Gen. Khalid Kidwai,” 5.

104 See the discussion in Toby Dalton and George Perkovich, “India’s Nuclear Options and Escalation Dominance,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, May 2016, 21.

105 Jalil, “Tactical Nuclear Weapons and Deterrence Stability in South Asia,” 67.

106 For a good analysis of the problem, see Evan Braden Montgomery and Eric S. Edelman, “Rethinking Stability in South Asia: India, Pakistan, and the Competition for Escalation Dominance,” Journal of Strategic Studies 38, no. 1–2 (2015): 159–182.

107 Thomas C. Schelling, The Reciprocal Fear of Surprise Attack (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 1958).

108 Albert Wohlstetter, “The Delicate Balance of Terror,” RAND Corporation, 1958,

109 Clary and Narang, “India’s Counterforce Temptations,” 7–52.

110 Shyam Saran, “Is India’s Nuclear Deterrent Credible?,” (speech, New Delhi, India Habitat Centre, April 24, 2013), Research and Information System for Developing Countries, On the possibly perverse consequences of Indian proportional retaliation, see Tellis, India’s Emerging Nuclear Posture, 340–341.

111 Menon, Choices, 110.

112 Menon, Choices, 110–123; and Rajesh Rajagopalan, “India and Counterforce: A Question of Evidence,” Observer Research Foundation, May 2020,

113 Clary and Narang, “India’s Counterforce Temptations,” 9.

114 Rajagopalan, “India and Counterforce”; Abhijnan Rej, “India Is Not Changing Its Policy on No First Use of Nuclear Weapons,” War on the Rocks, March 29, 2017,; and Jaishankar, “Decoding India’s Nuclear Status.”

115 Clary and Narang, “India’s Counterforce Temptations,” 24.

116 Menon, Choices, 108.

117 Ibid.

118 Ibid.

119 Ajai Shukla, “Will India Nuke Pakistani Cities, or Go for Its Nuclear Arsenal?,” Business Standard, March 20, 2017,

120 Clary and Narang, “India’s Counterforce Temptations,” 24.

121 Menon, Choices, 117. See the pertinent comments in Rej, “India Is Not Changing Its Policy on No First Use of Nuclear Weapons,” on exactly this issue.

122 Menon, Choices, 110.

123 Ibid.

124 See, for example, Kristensen and Korda, “Pakistani Nuclear Weapons, 2021”; and Kristensen and Korda, “Indian Nuclear Forces, 2020,” 218–219.

125 See the pertinent—and fundamentally correct—assessment in Dalton and Perkovich, “India’s Nuclear Options and Escalation Dominance,” 19–26.

126 Unlike China’s CSS-18 missiles, which have accuracies measuring in a few tens of meters to make them good counterforce weapons, India’s missiles have accuracies that run into many tens of meters. The accuracy of the Indian Agni-V missile, for example, “is reported to be 80 meters, which is more than sufficient for a nuclear strike.” Although many Indian commentators bestow extravagant accuracies on various Indian ballistic missiles, senior DRDO officials have confirmed in private conversations that these are entirely fictious because, as one Indian analyst has noted, “for a nuclear role, very high accuracy is not required.” See Arjun Subramanian.P, “Longer Reach and Enabling More Options: AGNI V,” Center for Air Power Studies, Issue Brief, April 30, 2012, 2. Two respected Indian scholars, Ajey Lele and Parveen Bhardwaj in their very useful report, India’s Nuclear Triad: A Net Assessment (New Delhi: Institute for Defence Studies & Analyses, 2013), 35, claim that the “majority of Indian missiles have CEP close to 50m which make them highly precise vis-à-vis to Pakistan whose CEP range varies 200–300 meters.” If this claim is correct, it would make India’s missiles almost as accurate at China’s CSS-18s, which is hard to believe. Since the Indian government has not tasked its strategic forces for counterforce missions, it is not surprising that India’s ballistic missiles do not yet possess the high accuracies that its cruise missiles, for example, have in contrast. While India could certainly improve its ballistic missile accuracy if it chose to, executing effective counterforce missions require more than high accuracy weapons, especially if employed for preemptive damage-limiting attacks.

127 National Research Council, Effects of Nuclear Earth-Penetrator and Other Weapons, 30–42.

128 Vinayak Bhat, “Pakistan Is Protecting Its Nuclear Missiles by Building Underground Fortresses,” The Print, November 22, 2017,

129 Ibid.

130 This calculation assumes sequential targeting where multiple weapons are required. It assumes that sufficient time is taken to assure that the debris generated from the previous shot dissipates before the next shot is taken but no account is taken of the prior shot’s cratering effects. Whatever the limitations of this methodology, or the alternative that assumes simultaneous detonations, the basic conclusion remains unchanged: more Indian warheads than plausibly exist in the arsenal would be required to target all of Pakistan underground sites.

131 To be sure, the calculations presented above may not be sufficiently accurate. The real hardness of Pakistan’s nuclear storage sites is unknown except to the Strategic Plans Division, and the methodology used here to calculate the ground shock effects of Indian nuclear employment is still rule-of-thumb. A systematic campaign analysis, which can be undertaken mostly by governments with intelligence information, would therefore be required to establish firm conclusions, but the data gaps that any Indian nuclear planner will have to face about the different technical parameters pertaining to Pakistan’s storage sites will still give New Delhi pause. Such uncertainties, which confront all military planning, matter less however for conventional deterrence, but would have outsized consequences where nuclear operations are concerned.

132 On this issue, see Koithara, Managing India’s Nuclear Forces, 122.

133 Clary and Narang, “India’s Counterforce Temptations,” 31–36. By way of further example, Lavoy, “Pakistan’s Nuclear Posture,” 17–18; and Rodney W. Jones, “Conventional Military Imbalance and Strategic Stability in South Asia,” SASSU Research Paper No. 1, March 2005, 33, who however makes the case for “the potential for Indian surprise conventional air attacks that could serve a preemptive objective against Pakistan’s nuclear storage facilities, the mobile missile systems prior to their dispersal, and aircraft at air bases” (emphasis added).

134 S. Chandrashekar, Space, War & Security – A Strategy for India (Bengaluru: National Institute of Advanced Studies, 2015), 42–56; Herbert J. Kramer, “RISAT-2 (Radar Imaging Satellite-2),” European Space Agency Earth Observation Portal,; and Herbert J. Kramer, “CartoSat-2,” European Space Agency Earth Observation Portal,

135 Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft: Unmanned 2020-2021 (Coulsdon: HIS Global, 2021), 132, 137.

136 During the 2001–02 crisis, for example, the Pakistan Air Force intercepted and shot down an Indian UAV using a within visual range air-to-air missile. See “Pakistan Claims to Shoot Down Unmanned Indian Aircraft,” Reuters, June 8, 2002,

137 The Concise Global Industry Guide to Radar Systems (Derbyshire: The Shephard Press, 2018), 5.

138 Vivek Raghuvanshi, “India Postpones ISTAR Aircraft Purchase From Raytheon,” Defense News, September 1, 2016,

139 M.T. Fennell and R.P. Wishner, “Battlefield Awareness Via Synergistic SAR and MTI Exploitation,” IEEE Aerospace and Electronic Systems Magazine 13, no. 2 (1998): 39–43.

140 Alan J. Vick, Richard M. Moore, Bruce R. Pirnie, and John Stillion, Aerospace Operations Against Elusive Ground Targets (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2001), 66–81.

141 Factors like surface topology affect the minimum permissible grazing angle—the angle between the surface of the earth and the projection of the radar to a given area—which in turn (in combination with radar altitude) determines the slant range of the radar system. While the ISTAR system that India intends to acquire, the Raytheon Sentinel, has as a practical limit a 2-degree grazing angle, it more often operates at grazing angles between 2.75 and 3 degrees, implying a slant range between roughly 200 and 250 kilometers when operating at an altitude of 30,000–40,000 feet. For more information, see Sentinel: The Airborne Stand-Off Radio System (ASTOR) – Past, Present and Future (Harlow: Raytheon UK, 201), 8.

142 I am grateful to Damien Symon for permitting the publication of this map in this report.

143 Clary and Narang, “India’s Counterforce Temptations,” 9.

144 D. C. Kephart, “Damage Probability Computer for Point Targets With P and Q Vulnerability Numbers,” RAND Corporation, February 1977,

145 McDonnell and McGahan, “Target Descriptions and Damage Levels for the SBM SAWG.”

146 Kephart, “Damage Probability Computer for Point Targets With P and Q Vulnerability Numbers.”

147 “Q” type targets have a sigma-30 damage function. See Binninger, Castleberry Jr., and McGrady, “Mathematical Background and Programming Aids for the Physical Vulnerability System for Nuclear Weapons,” 34.

148 Khan, “India’s Ballistic Missile Defense,” 189–191; and Snehesh Alex Philip, “India’s Ballistic Missile Shield Ready, IAF & DRDO to Seek Govt Nod to Protect Delhi,” The Print, January 8, 2020,

149 Clary and Narang, “India’s Counterforce Temptations,” 11.

150 McGeorge Bundy, “To Cap the Volcano,” Foreign Affairs 48, no. 1 (1969): 9–10.

151 Tellis, India’s Emerging Nuclear Posture, 311–312.

152 Clary and Narang, “India’s Counterforce Temptations,” 10.

153 For an even more expansive list of requirements, to include the organizational and cultural requirements to sustain damage-limiting nuclear strategies, see Dalton and Perkovich, “India’s Nuclear Options and Escalation Dominance,” 19–26.

154 Shyam Saran, “The Dangers of Nuclear Revisionism,” Business Standard, April 22, 2014.

155 For a systematic affirmation of this conclusion, see Rajesh Rajagopalan, Second Strike: Arguments About Nuclear War in South Asia (New Delhi: Penguin/Viking, 2005).

156 Antoine Levesques, Desmond Bowen, and John H. Gill, “Nuclear Deterrence and Stability in South Asia: Perceptions and Realities,” International Institute for Strategic Studies, London, May 20, 2021,

157 Rajagopalan, Second Strike: Arguments About Nuclear War in South Asia, 37.