The Problem From Hell: South Asia’s Arms Race

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The Problem From Hell: South Asia’s Arms Race

India has responded to Pakistan’s nuclear build-up by innovating and adopting a controversial concept called “Cold Start.”

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.

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).