Impact of Nuclear Arsenals on India-Pakistan Relations

Maeve White
February 15, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017


Fig. 1: Security lights on the India-Pakistan border. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Since their independence nearly six decades ago, India and Pakistan have fought in four wars and engaged in innumerable conflicts. Fig. 1 shows the border between India and Pakistan completely lit up by security lights, illustrating how closely guarded the border is on either side. Nuclear capabilities have had a huge impact on the relationship between the countries and strategies for deterring conflict. Increased nuclear capabilities in these countries leaves the possibility for a quick escalation in future conflicts and potential for crisis.

Motivations for Obtaining Nuclear Arsenals

India and Pakistan have differing underlying motivations for obtaining nuclear weapons. India sought to obtain a nuclear bomb as a way to achieve stature on the international stage among the world's leading powers. [1] India wanted to set down a path to join the other superpower nations by possessing the currency of international power. Prestige was the primary reason for India obtaining a nuclear bomb, with the thought of security second. [1] Pakistan, on the other hand, sought to obtain nuclear weapons primarily for security, specifically against India, whose conventional military weapons are superior to Pakistan's. [1]

Differing Nuclear Doctrines

Just over a year after nuclear tests in both countries began, the two were at war over Kargil. This conflict represented a lack of nuclear learning in both Pakistan and India, as neither side understood the effects of their nuclear capabilities on strategy or diplomacy. [1] Following India's diplomatic and operational victory, the country was left with the belief for limited conventional war under the nuclear umbrella. [1] Its policymakers decided to adopt a no-first use doctrine. [1] Indian leaders came to believe that nuclear weapons can fail to deter conflict, and that nuclear weapons can actually encourage aggressive behavior. [2] They also believe that in certain situations, conventional capabilities can generate deterrence more effectively than nuclear weapons. [2] Pakistan, on the other hand, wishes to deny India any ability to carry out conventional operations, and retained a first-use option. [1] India has stated that it reserves the right to retaliate massively if Indian forces are ever attacked with nuclear arsenal, while Pakistan avoids declaring specific red lines in order to prevent India from circumnavigating them while on a hostile course of action. [1] Pakistani leaders, also in contrast to India, believe that deterrence and nuclear weapons are very closely linked, as their nuclear capabilities have prevented aggression by a conventionally stronger India. [2] Pakistan also believes that without robust nuclear capability, Pakistan will be unable to generate sufficient deterrence in the future to protect itself from growing Indian conventional threat. [2] India and Pakistan have clearly differing views on nuclear weapons and their need for deterrence. Pakistani deterrence strategy is based on risk manipulation, while India's strategy is to call Pakistan's nuclear bluff. [1]

Future Implications and Possible Steps Forward

The nuclear doctrinal mismatch between India and Pakistan could have serious implications for future crisis management and resolution neither sides is convinced of credibility of its adversaries doctrine but have confidence in their own. [1] There is a clear lack of understanding for each others escalation dynamics, nuclear capabilities, and motives. [1] Due to Pakistan's reliance on nuclear weapons to deter an Indian conventional attack, they may plan to rely on nuclear weapons more heavily in the future, lowering the nuclear threshold on the subcontinent. [2]

Both Pakistan and India have refused to join the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and continuing to build their arsenals while the international community has exhausted efforts to dampen the Indian- Pakistani nuclear arms race. [3] This build-up of tension and misunderstanding, along with refusal to join NPT could lead to a crisis in the future. Feroz Khan, a lecturer at the US Navy Postgraduates School, recommends three pathways for Pakistan and India to enter into the global nonproliferation regime. The first is developing political and technical criteria for membership into the regime as it is inherently nondiscriminatory. [3] The second path is to enter into separate bilateral talks with each country, while the third approach is to enter into multilateral negotiations (much like in the case of the Iran nuclear deal). [3] The multilateral agreements would allow for all stakeholders in the community to participant and deter any chance of favoritism during the deal. [3]


The interconnected nature and strategic competition between India and Pakistan has the potential to create a sudden crisis where nuclear deployment could be possibly used. There is a need for the global community to understand this relationship and take part in attempting to move these nations towards a more acceptable place in the nuclear world order.

© Maeve White. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] F. H. Khan, Going Tactical: Pakistan's Nuclear Posture and Implications for Stability," Institut Français de Relations Internationales, September 2015.

[2] G. P. Schulz and J. E. Goodby, eds., The War That Must Never Be Fought: Dilemmas of Nuclear Deterrence (Hoover Institution Press, 2015).

[3] F. H. Khan, "Burying the Hatchet: The Case for a 'Normal' Nuclear South Asia," Arms Control Today 46, No. 2, 15 (March, 2016).