The World's Most Dangerous Arms Race Is Escalating—Rapidly

Analysis: Tensions are growing in India and Pakistan

A Pakistani missile / Twitter video screenshot
January 31, 2017

The world's most dangerous arms race is not to be found in Moscow and Washington, or in East Asia, where tensions are high on the Korean Peninsula and a showdown looms in the Western Pacific between Beijing and the United States. Nor is it to be found in the Middle East, a region in turmoil where two powers—Iran and Saudi Arabia—are engaged in proxy warfare in several hotspots. It lies in South Asia, and the ongoing rivalry between India and Pakistan.

The Indian-Pakistani contest is the global problem most likely to produce a large-scale war between two big, powerful countries and result in the deployment of nuclear weapons.

The rate of new developments in this ongoing arms race has been striking—and something the Trump administration should carefully watch and be prepared to address to avoid catastrophic escalation in South Asia.

Pakistan announced on Jan. 9 that it had successfully tested for the first time a submarine-launched nuclear-capable cruise missile. The launch of the Babur-3 missile, with a range of 280 miles, took place somewhere in the Indian Ocean off the Pakistani coast. Obtaining a naval nuclear deterrent has been a chief goal of Pakistan's maritime strategy as it tries to match the military capabilities of India, which tested a 1,864-mile submarine-launched nuclear-capable ballistic missile in March 2014.

A few days before Pakistan's successful test-launch, India's new chief of army staff, General Bipin Rawat, spoke to India Today and appeared to acknowledge something that Islamabad has long suspected: the existence of an Indian "Cold Start" military doctrine.

"The Cold Start doctrine exists for conventional military operations," Rawat said. "Whether we have to conduct conventional operations for such strikes is a decision well-thought through, involving the government and the Cabinet Committee on Security."

The comment was the first time an actively serving Indian official acknowledged the existence of Cold Start, a doctrine of limited conventional war against Pakistan developed in the mid-2000s. The Indian military would quickly penetrate Pakistani territory, likely in response to a terrorist attack, in a limited manner that would not trigger a nuclear response. The Indian political and military establishments have not officially sanctioned Cold Start—and it is unclear whether Rawat meant the doctrine exists today as policy—but experts believe New Delhi has effectively put it into action.

Two weeks after Rawat's interview, several Pakistani officials "threatened to use nuclear weapons should India invade," the Financial Times reported.

"If ever our national security is threatened by advancing foreign forces, Pakistan will use all of its weapons—and I mean all of our weapons—to defend our country," one official said.

The FT article was a reminder of Pakistan's now publicized response to Cold Start: to build low-yield, tactical nuclear weapons as a credible deterrent against Indian incursions, and use them if necessary. Pakistani Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudhary confirmed in October 2015 that Pakistan was building tactical nuclear weapons in part to counter Cold Start.

Pakistan's response to Cold Start is troubling, especially given current tensions. I have previously written how a large-scale terrorist attack on Indian soil that New Delhi believes is tied to Pakistan could trigger Cold Start into action, which could cause Islamabad to use a tactical nuclear weapon against India. The world would then be in a new and dark place, with unclear consequences.

In this context, it was significant to hear nearly two weeks ago that India is set to deploy 464 new T-90SM main battle tanks along India's western and northern borders with Pakistan. Indian defense officials told IHS Jane's Defense Weekly of the plans to move the Russian-made tanks on Jan. 19. The Indian Army already has a strong tank presence on the India-Pakistan border, but reports that New Delhi is updating its tank formations could be a sign of Cold Start being implemented over time.

"Tanks play a pivotal role in Cold Start as they are the key offensive assets to launch limited but rapid armored thrusts into Pakistani territory supported by mechanized infantry formations and air power within 48-72 hours at the outset of a military confrontation with Islamabad," the Diplomat's Franz-Stefan Gady wrote at the time.

Last week, the Pakistan Armed Forces said the military conducted the first successful flight-test of the new nuclear-capable Ababeel medium-range ballistic missile. The missile reportedly has a range of 1,367 miles and is capable of carrying multiple warheads.

India announced that it will test a K-4 intermediate-range submarine-launched nuclear-capable ballistic missile from an underwater platform on Tuesday, according to local media. The missile has a reported range of 2,174 miles.

There is no reason to believe this back-and-forth escalation will dissipate anytime soon. Tensions between New Delhi and Islamabad have been growing in recent months over the Kashmir border region, which each country claims in its entirety but only controls part of. The Kashmir dispute has been the main cause of nearly all of their prior conflicts, which includes four wars and several crises that nearly escalated into war.

And yet, virtually no U.S. lawmakers brought up the Indian-Pakistani rivalry at relevant confirmation hearings for President Trump's administration. Senators focused their questions on Russia (for good reason), and to a lesser extent on the other four chief threats to American interests: China, Iran, North Korea, and Islamic terrorism.

But Congress and the administration should remember that India has a population of about 1.3 billion people and a nuclear arsenal with 100 to 120 warheads, while Pakistan has a population of about 190 million people and a nuclear arsenal with 110 to 130 warheads. In other words, a conflict in South Asia could bring unparalleled human destruction.

While the United States does not have the same alliances in South Asia that it does in Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia, or the same threat of a would-be hegemonic power threatening vital American interests, Washington has a major stake in the India-Pakistan arms race.

First, as the world's only superpower, the United States has a responsibility to prevent the potential threat of nuclear war. Second, America's bilateral relations with both countries are essential. The United States has designated Pakistan a major non-NATO ally for their decades-long strategic partnership, and Islamabad is too big and influential (and dangerous) to ignore. Washington's relationship with India could be one its most important in the 21st century, as New Delhi is set to see its economic power grow steadily going forward. India could also be a balancing force against China's rise.

The United States is the only country with the right clout to manage an Indian-Pakistani crisis and deescalate it. U.S. diplomacy, for example, was critical in preventing the 1999 Kargil War from getting far worse by putting appropriate pressure on Pakistan. In 2001, Washington helped cool boiling tensions after a terrorist attack on Indian Parliament by urging restraint from and putting pressure on India.

President Trump may very well be faced with a quickly deteriorating crisis between India and Pakistan in the next four years. Cooler heads have prevailed in South Asia with such incidents in the past. That may not be the case next time, however, and there will be a next time. Trump and his secretary of state could be the only two able to bring both sides together before the situation gets out of control. Let us hope they are planning for that day.