What After Balakot? The Future of South Asian Deterrence

Image: DRDO / Ministry of Defence, Government of India [GODL-India]

With the nuclearization of South Asia in 1998, it was hoped, according to the principle of nuclear deterrence that stability would follow in the region as per the logic of the Cold War. However, the long peace of the Cold War must  be understood in the context of the superpowers refraining from direct armed conflict based on the principle of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) and also on the supposition that the actors were rational, a precondition of deterrence theory. The rationality hypothesis only gained credence due to the fact that direct nuclear conflict was avoided. However, as corroborated by the Cuban Missile Crisis, the rationality thesis had its limits even during the Cold War, limits which are now exposing the fraught nature of deterrence in South Asia with  Indo-Pak relations still plagued by persistent instability. With both sides willing to initiate direct conventional armed conflict with each other, this piece argues that the Balakot airstrike has rendered the formulaic theory of nuclear deterrence to be obsolete in the South Asian context. India’s outlook has undergone a long due yet radical shift and Balakot reflects India’s adoption of a more “proactive” stance on terror. Under these circumstances the actors compulsively engage in escalatory manoeuvres without any appropriate mechanism for de-escalation. This necessitates re-examining deterrence in the region and the role of nuclear weapons in South Asia.

The factors responsible of Conflict in South Asia

Two factors set apart South Asia from any other theatre of conflict. Firstly, the arch rivals India and Pakistan have a shared history with the latter having no ‘existence in itself.’ Therefore, Pakistan sought to derive its legitimacy from the Islamic Identity which was nullified with the creation of Bangladesh. Pakistan could only extricate itself from the ensuing crisis of identity by challenging the dominant power in the region- India. Continued antagonism with India forms the basis of Pakistan’s new identity, and if it tries to make peace, it will lose this identity. On the other hand, if it sustains the conflict, it risks a reprisal from India, which could potentially lead to its destruction and the permanent ruination of South Asia. 

Secondly, the role of non-state actors in determining the trajectory of India-Pak relations needs to be examined. Non-state actors and their sub conventional offensives have the potential to escalate into an unconventional conflict between India and Pakistan. From there on it can snowball into a nuclear exchange. Thus the efficacy of the nuclear deterrent comes under severe scrutiny.

Another major difference between the Cold War era superpower conflict and the conflict in South Asia is the fact that both India and Pakistan are mid level nuclear states with the former State being the status quoist and having considerable conventional asymmetry over the latter Revisionist State. This leads Pakistan to partake in direct confrontation with India by focusing on its nuclear shield to offset India’s conventional advantage with the effect that it even has begun a quest to develop tactical nuclear weapons to make nuclear retaliation almost likely against Indian conventional military operations. India’s Cold Start doctrine aims for retaliatory strikes across the Line of Control (LoC) as a response to Pakistani adventurism, and this further complicates the scenario. Low missile flight times and the fact that a nuclear first strike by either side would result in damage to both the States as a result of the subsequent nuclear fallout show that the continuance of deterrence in the region is perhaps more important than it ever was during the Cold War. This makes the adoption of a more sustained attempt at back-channel diplomacy absolutely crucial, with the objective to establish at least a mechanism of tacit cooperation for conflict de-escalation imperative in South Asia.

The Indian idea of nuclear strategy: The need for more coordinated diplomacy

George Tanham has emphasized the importance of Hindu culture in shaping Indian strategy. Hindu ideas of time and life encouraging calibrated response rather than assertion has led India largely to develop a strategic culture based on reaction to its immediate environment. Perhaps, because of the Hindu idea of non-aggression India has not issued any nuclear white paper except the No First Use (NFU) pledge. However, the attempt of the Modi Government to project a more “muscular” image internationally leads to a sense of ambiguity regarding the status of the NFU pledge. In respect to the No First Use doctrine, the political brass in New Delhi must be decisive.

In sharp contrast American strategists place very little emphasis on winning a nuclear war, because the American approach was that nuclear wars could not be won because the human costs would erase any meaningful concept of victory.” It clearly indicates a degree of strategic clarity, not witnessed in the actions of Indian strategists. To that end, Indian planners are reluctant to establish links between strategic culture and behaviour, which ultimately leads to uncoordinated nuclear diplomacy without the establishment of a proper medium of communication to decrease tensions in the event of a possible conflagration. Structural hindrances include the lack of a proper Command and Control structure. Also being a non-NPT Nuclear Weapons State because of which India finds its options for nuclear diplomacy restricted.

A further assessment of the strategic environment of South Asia reveals that in this environment the possibility of misperceptions is very high. This precarious situation necessitates the adoption of a more assertive diplomatic posture on part of India, as seen in the aftermath of the Balakot airstrike. The creation of proper channels of communication to establish mutual trust between India and Pakistan is also an essential requirement for deterrence particularly when the air force is being used in sub-conventional warfare, a new precedent in deterrence theory and military history.

India must also be clear on the political objectives of the Balakot like strikes, as the result of military operations are never perfect and therefore, military operations must be underpinned by clear and clever diplomacy avoiding unnecessary but not unforeseen escalation. New Delhi must also realize that a nuclear shield will not be effective against Pakistani sponsorship of terror in Kashmir, and nuclear brinkmanship in this regard can have disastrous consequences for both sides.

As explained earlier the strategic environment of South Asia leads to the invalidation of the classical deterrence paradigm. The hypothesis is vindicated when it is seen that that deterrence in South Asia has actually been enforced because of the active interference of third parties including the US as seen in the aftermath of the Kargil Conflict. Growing religious radicalism in the two countries will upset strategic calculations leading to misunderstandings, and increase the number of flashpoints between India and Pakistan. While the geopolitical and geostrategic features of the region render the application of conventional theories of deterrence to be extremely problematic and short-sighted, it goes without saying that both New Delhi and Islamabad must recognize the futility of conflict, especially one draws on without end. A space, free of external influences must be opened up by both states and they must display firm commitment towards the making of a secure and stable South Asia. 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics.


Dhritiman Banerjee is an undergraduate student of political science at the Department of International Relations, Jadavpur University, Kolkata, India.

Subhranil Ghosh is a 2nd year post-graduate student pursuing Political Science with specialization in International Relations at the Department of International Relations, Jadavpur University.