If the arms race in South Asia was limited merely to nuclear weapons, which is the way many observers look at it, it would be one thing. But the competition is broadening, with India tightening linkages among intelligence, command and control, cyberwar, and strategy innovations like Cold Start. For example, the “front end” of Cold Start is better intelligence to determine exactly what Pakistan has done and the readiness of its conventional and nuclear forces. India has invested heavily in satellites, advanced radars, signals intelligence, and reconnaissance to give its commanders an accurate picture of what Pakistan is up to. The “tight coupling” of these elements, in turn, is linked to a rapid mobilization of India’s army and air force. Any delay in mobilization would undermine the entire strategy of counter-escalation against Pakistan.
Cold Start is controversial for good reason. The United States, in particular, has tried to discourage India away from it because it looks like a fast way to produce a nuclear war in South Asia. This is especially true if Pakistan, as many suspect it is in the process of doing, deploys tactical nuclear weapons on its border with India in response to Cold Start.
I wouldn’t be surprised if India changed the name, Cold Start, because it connotes going to war quickly, from a cold start. But while the name may change, the broader strategic concept probably won’t, because India has to come to grips with nuclear realities of South Asia in some way, and because its army and navy want to play a role in the defense of India – even in a nuclear context.
As to where the arms race in South Asia is headed, there are several different possibilities. There is a tendency for some analysts to use the past and simply extrapolate it into the future. But this straight-lining of past trends into the future can be misleading. India is a much richer country than it was in the past, and much of this wealth comes from technological and business innovation.
India’s military in the past was a gigantic, inefficient, sluggish infantry with bloated headquarters and support staffs. But there are more dynamic possibilities for the future, ones that do not involve across the board modernization of every single element of the Indian armed forces. In fact, India is currently in the process of reallocating its defense capital from “old” programs to “new” ones, including nuclear weapons, missiles, submarines, intelligence, stealth, cyberwar, and satellites. One reason for this shift is that India already has a large edge over Pakistan in the old military programs of tanks, artillery, and aircraft, and investing more capital in these capabilities results in diminishing marginal returns. The greater opportunity for India lies in the new program areas, especially in a nuclear context and with respect to China.
The arms race in South Asia now underway is only the first act of a longer drama. Acts two and three could look quite different than the current situation does. For this reason, new, additional frameworks are needed to understand what is taking place. At the moment, the deterrence and nonproliferation are the frameworks most often used to understand the subcontinent. Both put the spotlight on the number of nuclear weapons in each country’s respective arsenals. But future acts require new, different frameworks. The two discussed here are escalation and counterescalation, and the tight coupling that develops among key subsystems like intelligence, cyberwar, and nuclear weapons. In order to understand the nuclear dynamics of South Asia a wider set of frameworks are needed, ones that go beyond traditional approaches.
Paul Bracken is professor of management and political science at Yale University. This article is adapted from his new book The Second Nuclear Age, Strategy, Danger, and the New Power Politics (Times Books).