South Asia’s missile madness and the way forward

Among nine nations possessing nuclear weapons, only India, Pakistan share a 3000 km long contiguous terrain

Tanzeela Khalil January 07, 2024
The writer is a Research Fellow at the Islamabad Policy Research Institute

Is there a sense of moderation in the development and testing of nuclear-capable missiles in South Asia? Given India’s pursuit of great power status, it appears to have abandoned restraint vis-à-vis development of its nuclear forces consequently making any element of rationality and moderation completely obsolete. This unrestrained approach in its nuclear weapons programme has, in turn, prompted Pakistan to maintain a comparable pace to ensure a semblance of balance. Among the nine nations possessing nuclear weapons, only India and Pakistan share a 3000 km long contiguous terrain with unresolved territorial disputes. Both countries have a history of major wars and are actively developing a triad of land, air, and sea-based nuclear forces.

Unlike the situation between the US and Russia, where it might take approximately twenty minutes for an American Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) to cause devastation in Moscow, India possesses a wide range of nuclear-tipped missile systems capable of hitting Pakistani cities and defensive forces in less than five minutes, posing a significant risk. The short reaction times involved create dangers of miscalculation, and there is a real possibility of a pre-emptive response. The capacity for Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) is so vast and rapid that a rational state would likely prioritise peace over escalating the conflict.

It is commonly believed that Pakistan is involved in a missile race with India, responding in a tit-for-tat manner. However, this view oversimplifies the situation. In 2023, India conducted eleven flight tests of various nuclear-capable missiles (Brahmos, Prithvi-II, Agni-I, Agni-P, Pralay and K-15), while Pakistan carried out only two tests (Ababeel and Ghauri). Historically, Pakistan has tested only one missile for every 3 missiles tested by India. From this perspective, Pakistan is following a more restrained trajectory compared to its neighbour, suggesting a need for constraint on India’s missile development. The frequency of Indian missile tests seems to point in a direction opposite to that of minimalism as enunciated in Indian doctrinal proclamations.

Pakistan’s test of its Ababeel missile system on 18 Oct 23 can be viewed in the context of India’s development, deployment and expansion of its Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) programme. The missile was first tested in 2017, aimed at ensuring survivability of Pakistan’s ballistic missiles in the growing regional BMD environment. It has a maximum range of 2200 km and can engage multiple targets with high precision. Unlike India, Pakistan has a modest nuclear capability aimed at deterring Indian conventional and nuclear aggression. India on the other hand exploits the “two-front” war scenario and is developing weapon systems which go well beyond what is required to deter China and Pakistan. Indian development of Agni-VI with a potential range of 10000-12000 km is difficult to justify in terms of adding any deterrent value vis-à-vis China and Pakistan. The development appears to be driven by an Indian desire to match its status with the global players. Alternatively, it could mean India is working towards eventualities where it may find itself in a deterrent relationship with states other than Pakistan and China.

India on the other hand tested a variety of missiles including ballistic, cruise and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Unlike last year, India did not test its ICBM capability. The maximum range missile tested by India in 2023 was Agni-P (2000km), which is a canisterised missile system. Canisterisation allows the possessor to maintain its nuclear warheads mated with the delivery system in a ready to use state. This becomes increasingly worrisome when such technologies are deployed in South Asia where the warning times are too less to constitute a ‘warning” and the crises are frequent. Canisterisation could possibly challenge the sole authority of civilian control over the use of nuclear weapons hinting towards delegation of command unless Indian authorities provide greater details on how they intend to ensure centralised control. This scenario becomes even more dangerous given the accidental firing of Brahmos missile by India in Mar 2022.

If similar missile testing trends continue to follow in South Asia, the vulnerable states will realistically respond by increasing and modernising their nuclear forces. This will reduce any likelihood of arms control arrangements in the region. Diversity and modernisation in Indian nuclear delivery systems is worrisome and would risk not just the regional deterrence stability but also have the potential to threaten global arms control and nonproliferation arrangements. As 2024 will be election year in both India and Pakistan, it could mean lesser number of missile tests. However, if BJP returns to power, it could intensify missile testing in order to demonstrate a muscular foreign policy vis-à-vis its regional rivals. New governments in India and Pakistan, as is the norm, can be expected to extend proposals for peace-dialogue. It would be pragmatic for the two sides to return to the table to address their concerns rather than endlessly competing with each other militarily.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 7th, 2024.

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