Nuclear deterrence theory is now being tested against the subcontinent's complex realities. As US-Soviet nuclear competition was evolving, deterrence theorists identified a stability/instability paradox associated with offsetting N-weapon capabilities. Its essence was that nuclear weapons were supposed to stabilise relations between adversaries and to foreclose a major war between them. Simultaneously, offsetting nuclear capabilities might also prompt provocations, instability, and even conflict at lower levels—because nuclear weapons would presumably provide insurance against escalation.
Deterrence theorists and strategic analysts argue about most things, including this paradox. Deterrence optimists who believe in the stabilising attributes of offsetting nuclear capabilities are convinced that the spectre of the mushroom cloud will rationalise national security policies. The Kargil war didn't shake their optimism—they thought its short duration, and the concerted international efforts to end the hostilities, can be attributed to the nuclear dangers present. Other deterrence theorists are not as sanguine. Indeed, most strategic analysts believe offsetting nuclear forces could only provide for stability when opposing nuclear forces are safe, secure and survivable against pre-emptive attack.
For states with strategic depth, the problems of maintaining safe, secure and survivable nuclear forces are quite surmountable. For those not blessed with strategic depth, maintaining safe nuclear forces is a challenge. These can be met by maintaining some nuclear capabilities at a state of readiness, but this poses another set of dangers.
Whether states have strategic depth or not, the acquisition of safe, secure, and survivable nuclear forces takes time. In the meantime, nuclear dangers can be quite pronounced and the stability/instability paradox is most evident. Usually, nuclear acquisition by adversaries happens unevenly—the disparities can increase anxieties, prompting one state or another to pursue quick-fixes or to take stunning chances. The Cuban missile crisis is now widely
viewed as Kremlin's quick-fix attempt to deal with growing nuclear disparities and to protect an indefensible territory from US conventional might. The first 15 years of offsetting US-Soviet N-capabilities were also marked by harrowing crises over Berlin and a prolonged ground war in the Koreas. Again, soon after acquiring N-capabilities, China clashed with the Soviet Union in a contested border region. And, yes, India and Pakistan fought in Kargil right after demonstrating the efficacy of their nuclear weapon designs.
There's one lesson in these disparate cases: stability is far from assured once nukes enter the inventory. Instead, nuclear safety demands constant attention, hard work, and unilateral steps to evolve reliable command and control networks, and coordinated intelligence capabilities. Yet, it's a dangerous indulgence to think these steps are sufficient.
The paradoxes extend well beyond the stability/instability theorem. Adversaries that acquire nuclear weapons for protection wind up becoming more vulnerable. Dangerous or foolhardy provocations don't disappear with nukes. Indeed, there's a strong correlation between the Bomb and actions that could make its use more likely. With acquisition, tensions grow, especially in the early stages of competition, resulting in yet another paradox—the adversaries must also find ways to cooperate at least in the narrow sphere of avoiding the use of these weapons of mass destruction.
A new Stimson Center report, The Stability-Instability Paradox, concludes that the challenges of risk reduction are likely to be far greater on the subcontinent than they were in the US-Soviet paradigm. For one, bipolarity provided a measure of simplification. Nuclear balance could be codified in treaties predicated on equality. A common understanding of stabilising/destabilising activities could also be negotiated. Competition was pervasive, yet the most dangerous aspects were successfully placed off-limits. After the early crises over Berlin and Korea, Washington and Moscow avoided brinkmanship. The triangular nuclear interactions in South Asia may be far more difficult to stabilise. LoCs are a poor substitute for globally-recognised borders, and a risk reduction agenda is extremely hard to put in place when the status quo over hotly contended ground isn't mutually acceptable.
The US and the Soviet Union took weird comfort in their bloated N-arsenals, though added numbers increased risks associated with safety and use control. Small arsenals pose a different set of risks. Previous cases suggest that they don't provide much of an insurance policy, particularly in the early phases of a nuclear competition. Put another way, limited arsenals might generate risks, rather than guarantee risk reduction. Indeed, historical record suggests that security concerns have been particularly worrisome to states possessing smaller nukes. In the early phases of arsenal-building, vulnerabilities are most evident, verification weak, and command and control untested.
The brief, crisis-filled record since India and Pakistan acquired covert, then overt nuclear capabilities, seems to confirm this. If India, Pakistan and China are to demonstrate a superior wisdom that resists ever-increasing nuclear capabilities, they must first demonstrate a superior wisdom to reduce risks. A.B. Vajpayee has been wise in inviting Gen Musharraf to New Delhi. Both leaders have no higher responsibility than to reduce nuclear dangers on the subcontinent. Success needs a sustained bid by India to engage Pakistan and changes in the Pakistan army's varied support for militancy in Kashmir. There's a great deal of work to do to increase nuclear safety; much time has already been lost. (Michael Krepon is president emeritus of the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington, DC.)