Southern Asia's Nuclear Powers | Council on Foreign Relations
A surface-to-surface missile is launched off the eastern Indian state of Odisha, September 15, 2013. (Indian Defence Research and Development Organisation via Reuters)

 by Sher Bano 16 June 2020

The rapid modernization of strategic weapons in South Asia has become the cause of increasing rivalry between India and Pakistan. With India’s quest to achieve nuclear triad that includes the development of submarine launched ballistic missile, land based ballistic missiles and fighter bomber aircrafts; it aspires to attain the global power status. India in order to strengthen its nuclear force is rigorously working on building strong naval force and is also developing short range ballistic missiles that are nuclear in nature. India is also expanding its capabilities in the outer space by developing its fleet of satellites and is building anti-satellite missiles that can be used for both military and civilian purposes. This shift in India’s nuclear posture along with strategic modernization will pose a huge threat to Pakistan’s nuclear threshold and will increase the risk of nuclear escalation in South Asia.

On January 8, top Government officials of India said “The BMD program has been completed”. Under this program India has developed homegrown ballistic missile defense (BMD). DRDO and IAF are now looking for the government’s approval in order to activate and install the system. But according to the sources the complete installation of the system will still take three to four years. This air defense system was tow tiered, PAD (Prithvi Air Defense) and PDV (Prithvi Defense Vehicle) interceptors are the first layer that is designed to destroy the missiles that are at exo-atmospheric altitude of 50-180 kilometers. Single stage solid rocket propelled AAD/Ashin interceptor is the second layer that is designed to destroy enemy missiles coming from endo atmosphere at the altitude of 15-40 kilometers. This BMD system of India can reportedly intercept medium range ballistic missiles. Even though ballistic missiles are used for defensive purposes but in South Asian region these developments will further increase the security dilemma for Pakistan. The Indian leadership and military might get false sense of security from this and they might launch an offensive operation against Pakistan. In response to this Pakistan has already developed Ababeel (surface to surface ballistic missile) that has a range of 2200 kilometers. But still India has a technological edge over Pakistan due to its indigenous developments and India’s ambitious goals of increasing its military capabilities are also quite threatening for the strategic stability of the region.

In order to attain the assured second strike capability and complete its nuclear triad, India will be spending massive amounts of money to strengthen its naval nuclear force. According to its current defense budget India would be spending US $14 billion on the development of Arihant class Submarine fleet and mobile Agni-V intercontinental ballistic missile. India has also successfully tested the k-4 missile that has the range of 3500 km with help of which India can target Pakistan from much safer distance. It is further working on the development of k-5 (5000km) and k-6 (6000km). In order to counter India’s growing submarine capabilities Pakistan has developed Babur-3 with MIRV capabilities. India and Pakistan being the most important actors in the Indian Ocean Region would determine the future of IOR that whether it would remain peaceful or not. The Indian Naval nuclearization will become the cause of disturbing the strategic balance of the region. It would initiate arms race in the region and will increase the risk of nuclear engagement.

India is also rapidly enhancing its space related technologies which will be very alarming for the regional and global peace. On March 27, 2019 India successfully conducted anti-satellite missile test (ASAT). India tested this missile by destroying one of its own satellite located about 300 kms above the earth’s surface. Indian space program started in 1960s and has developed with the passage of time. Since 2016 India has been working robustly on its cruise missile related technologies and other space launch vehicles. India also collaborated with its ally Israel in order to get all such weapon systems and technologies to counter Pakistan’s cruise and ballistic missile deterrence. Even though India claims that operation “Shakti” was defensive in nature, it can have huge impact on the strategic stability of the region. Pakistan has variety of ways to deliver nuclear devices but the cruise missile and ballistic missile capabilities still are the fundamental means. With ASAT capabilities, India now has a tested technology with which it can kinetically destroy the incoming offensive ballistic missiles. This successful test can also motivate the Indian scientific and strategic community to move from NFU (No First Use) to FU (First Use), which is an ongoing debate in India. Moreover India’s overconfidence in its ability to destroy Pakistan’s ballistic missiles could motivate India to go for more offensive preventive or preemptive nuclear strike.

In the absence of any regional arms control mechanism, the South Asian strategic circumstances will further deteriorate and will move toward a complete gridlock. With the increasing unconventional and conventional imbalances, deterrence stability of the region is under a lot of pressure. Moreover the nuclear threshold is becoming blur and chances of war have increased.

The writer is working as a Research Affiliate at the Strategic Vision Institute (SVI), a non-partisan think-tank based out of Islamabad, Pakistan.