By Ravi Rikhye
Analyzing the India-Pakistan nuclear balance over the coming decades is difficult for two reasons. One is that Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine is based on a false strategic premise. The other reason is that India’s nuclear doctrine is not to have a doctrine. From time to time Western-trained analysts, including Indians, produce weakly applicable formulations that may be relevant to the West, but they are irrelevant to South Asia.
Superficially, the nuclear balance is simple and will remain so. India has six times the population and ten times the GDP of Pakistan. India also manages to collect about twice the amount of taxes as a percentage of GDP relative to Pakistan. India’s true defense budget is around $40 billion, two percent of its GDP; Pakistan’s without US assistance is perhaps $7 billion, closer to four percent of GDP. Pakistan has no depth: an Indian advance of 100 kilometers (Jaiselmer to Rahim Yar Khan) would cut Pakistan in half; advances of up to 300 kilometers would overrun Sindh and the Punjab, spelling the end of Pakistan as a nation state. The obvious solution for Pakistan is to deploy nuclear weapons in counter-value mode. Against the possibility that, in accordance with its “Cold Start” doctrine, India will seek not to overrun Pakistan but to make shallow advances of up to 30 kilometers, tactical nuclear weapons employed on Pakistani terrain are the solution.
India’s nuclear doctrine is focused not on Pakistan but on China. India does not envisage a nuclear exchange with China under any practical conditions. Delhi wants only for Beijing to understand that it cannot be blackmailed by China’s nuclear weapons. Somewhere India’s strategic aims became more ambitious: to possess nuclear weapons for recognition as a great power. Incredible as Western analysts may find this assertion, Pakistan figures nowhere in Indian nuclear doctrine! And any Indian insider, be it a senior general or a senior bureaucrat who claims to have the definitive answers on Indian doctrine toward Pakistan, may safely be disregarded because there is no doctrine. This statement needs explanation.
Indians have zero concerns about Pakistan’s counter-value strategy because they believe the Pakistanis are not suicidal. Using nuclear weapons against Indian cities will mean the end of Pakistan. Because Indian nuclear weapons are well-dispersed, a counter-force strike is inconceivable. That leaves tactical nuclear weapons. But India has no intention of pushing Pakistan to the point where the latter feels nuclear use on any level is its sole resort.
Here is Pakistan’s false strategic premise about India: India has absolutely no intention of using the military option to destroy Pakistan. Now, we can admit that persuading Pakistan of this is a losing proposition. As far as India is concerned, Pakistan has a right to nuclear weapons. There has been exactly one occasion since 1947 when India may have planned an advance to the Indus River. This was in 1971, when the eastern offensive was supposed to complement a western offensive. But the purpose of the western offensive – which was not launched – was not to destroy Pakistan, let alone to occupy the country. It was to straighten out the Kashmir Line of Control to India’s advantage. If Pakistan’s strike force and air force could be brought into a big battle and destroyed, that was to India’s advantage because then India would not have to worry about Pakistan for a generation.
After September 11, 2001, India’s strategy has been entirely focused on punishing Pakistan for terror attacks. That India has never done so is another matter. “Cold Start” is explicitly designed to make zero-warning, short-distance jabs into Pakistan. The offensives will last no more than 24-72 hours, after which India will stop before Pakistan feels compelled to use tactical nuclear weapons. Territory seized in Kashmir will not be returned. Territory seized elsewhere will be returned except for that required to buffer choke points, specifically Pathankot-Gurdaspur. Even the West came to realize in the 1970s-1980s that nuclear weapons were not a feasible defense against a massive but shallow Warsaw Pact advance. That is why NATO began a huge conventional buildup. The same conditions apply between India and Pakistan. This is why Pakistan is focusing on boosting its counterstrike conventional forces.
Accordingly, the wise strategic analyst should not waste time on the India-Pakistan nuclear balance. There is nothing to discuss.
Ravi Rikhye has been an independent defense analyst for 50 years.