The US Role in South Asia’s Arms Race
The recent visit to India by US President Donald Trump has also exacerbated an already tense situation between India and Pakistan over the fragile strategic nuclear balance of power in South Asia. By agreeing to provide India with billions of dollars of military aid, including an integrated air defense system capable of defeating cruise missiles, the US has injected itself into the arms race between the two nuclear-armed neighbors. That contest threatens to spin out of control, opening the door for potentially disastrous consequences if either side opts to employ its nuclear arsenal.
US President Donald Trump’s two-day visit to India earlier this week comes at a time when relations between his host country, India, and its neighbor, Pakistan, are at historic lows. Tensions over the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir are reaching a boiling point. Trump’s visit was intended to bring India closer into the orbit of the US to contain Chinese regional ambitions in South Asia. Concerned by China’s aggressive implementation of its Asian infrastructure expansion project, the Belt and Road Initiative, in Pakistan, the US and India were both hopeful that progress could be made toward resolving major trade disputes between the two nations. The specific focus is on the easing tariffs and the re-designation of India as part of a trading program known as the Generalized System of Preferences, which provides developing nations ease of access to the US market while lowering US duties on their exports.
While both Trump and his host, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, want improved bilateral trade, it was clear from the summit’s start that there would be no major resolution of the underlying issues that have plagued their economic relations, which topped $140 billion in trade last year. Any trade deal will come later. To compensate, Trump and Modi highlighted India’s purchase of military equipment and technology valued at more than $3.5 billion, with the possibility of more purchases in the future, including a sophisticated $1.9 billion integrated air defense system intended to protect India’s capital, New Delhi, from hostile air and cruise missile attack. In pushing these arms sales, however, Trump may be inadvertently helping tip the strategic balance of power between India and Pakistan in favor of India, exacerbating an existing arms race that threatens to spin out of control at any minute.
India had previously expressed an interest in purchasing the Integrated Air Defense Weapon System (IADWS), a sophisticated array of advanced radar, electro-optical and multispectral detection and tracking radars and sensors, along with advanced data integration and control centers and highly accurate surface-to-air missiles. The US Defense Security Cooperation Agency, an arm of the Pentagon, approved the sale two weeks prior to Trump’s India visit. A final decision has not yet been made by Indian defense authorities on making the purchase.
For its part, Pakistan expressed concern over the potential sale, with a foreign ministry official stating that the “sale of such sophisticated weapons system to India at this time is particularly disturbing as it would further destabilize the already volatile region. The US decision would disturb the strategic balance in South Asia with serious security implications for Pakistan and the region.” Noting Pakistan’s concerns about India’s hostile intent, the official concluded that “South Asia cannot afford an arms race and conflict.”
South Asia’s Arms Race
The fact is that India and Pakistan are already engaged in an arms race similar to the one between the US and the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. Both nations have tested and deployed nuclear weapons. Both Pakistan and India are pursuing a nuclear “Triad” of nuclear-armed bombers, submarine-launched nuclear weapons and land-based ballistic missiles. However, both nations have vested the lion’s share of their respective nuclear arsenals in land-based ballistic missiles.
India has employed three primary nuclear-capable ballistic missile systems. The first, the Prithvi, is a tactical short-range ballistic missile capable of employing a nuclear warhead. The Prithvi is currently being phased out in favor of the Prahaar short-range missile, which, like the Prithvi, is nuclear-capable. The heart of the Indian strategic nuclear force, however, is the Agni missile system. Five variants, with ranges from 700-8,000 kilometers, have been developed and deployed, with a sixth, an intercontinental ballistic missile with a range of 12,000 kilometers nearing completion. The Agni is equipped with a boosted fission nuclear warhead possessing a yield of 200 kilotons. By comparison, the two atomic bombs dropped by the US on Japan in 1945 had yields of 16 and 24 kilotons.
The stated goal of India’s strategic nuclear force is to achieve what Indian officials describe as “credible minimum deterrence” against both Pakistan and China. When first unveiled in 1999, Indian nuclear doctrine was built around a policy of “no first use.” This later shifted to a policy of a “no first use against non-nuclear weapon states,” highlighting the potential need, in times of crisis, to launch a pre-emptory nuclear strike against any party preparing to attack India with nuclear weapons. In any event, Indian nuclear doctrine calls for “massive nuclear retaliation” against any party who employs a nuclear weapon, regardless of size, against India.
Pakistan has a far different approach toward nuclear deterrence. Unlike India, which seeks to deter both Pakistan and China, Pakistan’s policy of deterrence is focused solely on the Indian threat. Geography dictates Pakistan’s policy, as it is very vulnerable to conventional ground attack from India. As a result, Pakistan has developed a two-pronged nuclear doctrine that calls for early use of tactical nuclear weapons against any Indian conventional attack that threatens Pakistani territorial integrity, as well as a more robust second-strike capability designed to survive any Indian nuclear retaliation and deliver a nation-killing blow in return. Unlike India, Pakistan does not have a “no first use” doctrine when it comes to nuclear weapons. Moreover, the authority for the release of nuclear weapons has been pushed down to the operational level, allowing for these weapons to be used in situations where communication with Pakistani national command authority has been severed.
Pakistan has developed several short- and medium-range ballistic missiles capable of carrying a 30-kiloton warhead. It’s strategic arsenal, however, is based upon the Shaheen family of intermediate-to-intercontinental ballistic missiles, with ranges between 700 and 2,500 kilometers. Many of these are based in hardened silos buried deep into the mountains of Pakistan’s interior, safe from Indian conventional attack and virtually immune from a decapitating first strike. It is these weapons that Pakistan looks to for its second-strike capability, and as such represent the heart of Pakistan’s strategic nuclear deterrence capability.
The Pakistani nuclear doctrine has bedeviled India from the start, with the Indian military forced to absorb several high-profile terrorist attacks on Indian soil from groups based in Pakistan out of fear of inadvertently triggering a Pakistani nuclear response. In order to provide strategic flexibility, India has undertaken an aggressive program to develop a viable missile defense system capable of defeating the threat posed by Pakistan’s nuclear armed ballistic missiles. The Ballistic Missile Defense Program, as this effort is known, employs an array of missile launch detection and tracking radars tied into a two-tiered missile defense shield designed to intercept incoming missiles at high altitudes using a modified Prithvi rocket and also at low-altitude intercepts below 30 kilometers. The system has been successfully tested and is currently being deployed.
If India could deploy a viable missile defense shield, then it would effectively nullify Pakistan’s second-strike capability, neutering Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine. In response, Pakistan has developed a new maneuverable warhead for its Shaheen missile designed to thwart any ballistic trajectory tracking system employed by India. Pakistan is also considering developing sophisticated decoy warheads and other so-called penetration aids, along with multiple independently targeted warheads, designed to overwhelm any ballistic missile defense shield.
India is also developing a long-range nuclear-capable cruise missile, the Nirbhay, designed to be launched from air, ground and sea-based platforms. The Nirbhay recently completed its sixth flight test, and is expected to become operational sometime in 2021. Not to be outdone, Pakistan successfully tested its own nuclear-capable cruise missile, the Ra’ad II, just days before President Trump visited India. The Ra’ad II is seen as providing a answer to India’s Nirbhay cruise missile, creating strategic parity at a time when Pakistan’s nuclear deterrence theory is being sorely tested by India’s advances in missile defense.
This ongoing arms race provides the context to evaluate the proposed sale of the US IADWS. That system is designed to defeat targets such as the Ra’ad II and, if deployed, would, when viewed together with the Indian Ballistic Missile Defense Program, virtually nullify Pakistan’s strategic nuclear deterrence. This alone represents an inherently destabilizing reality. With India’s nuclear posture of “no first use against non-nuclear states,” the risk becomes very real of Pakistani paranoia triggering a preventative nuclear strike in the face of any perceived Indian nuclear threat. The Indian-Pakistan nuclear arms race is already at a dangerous point and needs to be carefully deescalated. By seeking to sell the IADWS to India, the Trump administration is wrongly pushing Indian-Pakistani nuclear competition in a very dangerous direction.