South Asia is going through what can be called the first bounce of the nuclear ball, an arms buildup. This is a time when Pakistan and India focus on acquiring fissile material and building weapons. This drives Pakistan’s plutonium mills and India’s commercial nuclear power deal with the United States.
The second bounce of the ball may be quite different than the first. For example, it may see intense crises and shocks – aggravated by the enlarged nuclear forces. So it would be a mistake to assume the current environment will be the environment of the future. Like the first nuclear age, the Cold War, there are likely to be ebbs and flows in competition, with different problems and shocks developing over time, interspaced with periods of relative calm.
India has mainly responded to Pakistan’s nuclear buildup not with one of its own, at least not yet anyway, but with strategy innovation, improved intelligence, missiles, and a nuclear triad. Strategy innovation is especially important because it is one of the great drivers of competition, and may transcend the political issues that are the original source of rivalry.
In the first nuclear age innovation – technological and strategic – was a major factor in the arms buildup. The appearance of strategic innovation in South Asia is important, therefore, in a way that goes beyond the particulars of any one innovation. An example of India’s strategy innovation involves new ways of using conventional forces in a nuclear environment. India’s “Cold Start” strategy, for example, calls for prompt mobilization of fast-moving battle groups made up of armor, helicopters, and mechanized forces to thrust into Pakistan as punishment for a Pakistani attack or a terrorist outrage.
Cold Start’s subnuclear option recognizes the nuclear threshold explicitly. The concept behind it is to fight below this threshold, if possible. But Cold Start has a nuclear element, too. Should Pakistan fire nuclear weapons at this Indian force, India can escalate with nuclear strikes of its own.
Cold Start provides fascinating insight into the dynamic interactions of the two military systems on the subcontinent. It shows how both countries have shifted from conventional war-fighting to escalation strategies. I do not believe this is a matter of a conscious choice by either country. Rather, it is an emergent property of the interacting nuclear systems in South Asia. They have little choice but to play the game this way, short of a sweeping arms control or disarmament initiatives.
Escalation as a strategy has come into being not because anyone wanted it too, but from the mutual interaction of both sides having nuclear weapons. While escalation strategies have always existed in South Asia, they are now front and center. This marks a fundamental change from the conventional attrition strategies of previous wars.
Cold Start shows something else, too. The dynamics in the region go beyond nuclear weapons in the narrow sense. There is no rigid arms race with each side matching the other in atomic bombs. If this were the case it would actually be easier to control. But the arms race is more complicated because it involves parallel changes in other key subsystems, and these have their own momentum.