Nuclear Signaling In South Asia – Analysis


By Mobeen Tariq

After the advent of nuclear weapons the security environment has changed. There is no global war like WWI and WWII. No direct confrontation between the two super powers in cold war. Deterrence has become the corner stone of strategy. Nuclear deterrence is the core of strategic stability in South Asia. One of the Requirements of deterrence is communication. Communication or signaling implies of demonstration of political will and resolve to use nuclear weapons to the adversary. Therefore nuclear signaling involves the show of credibility and capability through different styles and means.

Three main methods are employed in order to deliver the threat explicitly and these are public statements, private messages and demonstrative actions (which includes primarily ballistic missiles flight tests and demonstration of technological advancement in lethal armaments). Clear and ‘careful’ communication is therefore necessary but there are certain difficulties in achieving the task. The biggest problem is the perception of interpretation of threat by the adversary in the time of crisis. This problem comes into account particularly when a ballistic missile flight test is carried out by an adversary or the movement of missiles (defensive or operational) during crisis. In adequate or adequate means of surveillance could lead to faulty intelligence reports that could further escalate crisis and even prompting any of the state party to crisis to go for accidental launches.

Pakistan India Relations
Pakistan India Relations

The first ever case of nuclear signaling between Pakistan and India came about in 1986-1987 brass tacks crisis. However many different explanation and accounts are available based upon varying perceptions. The crisis began when India started massing its quarter and a half troops very close to the Southern border near Sindh province of Pakistan in the garb of military exercises. While brass tacks were a military exercise it did not occur in a strategic vacuum. Pakistan was engaged in Afghanistan in collusion with America against U.S.S.R. India in a time line between 1983 and 1988 was engaged in active military engagements in South Asia. Domestically the Indian province of Punjab was restive where Sikh separatist insurgence had become unmanageable. P.R Chari describes the possible politico-military objectives in these terms. Consequently, the most viable strategy for India would be to adopt a defensive posture in Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir, but take advantage of its superiority in armor and combat aircraft to achieve major operational gains across Rajasthan in Pakistan. Within this frame work of military thinking, several contingency plans could be envisaged within a matrix of politico-military objectives. These ranged from detachment of Sind, to the destruction of a part of nuclear program relevant to Pakistan’s nuclear option, to improving Indian military situation in Siachen, to straightening out the line of control in Jammu and Kashmir, to destroying training camps for Kashmiri militants across the border.

Scale and scope of exercise was massive that was first ever of its kind in South Asia. Security analysts compare these military exercises with NATO and Warsaw pact exercises. Four corps headquarters, nine infantry divisions, three mechanized divisions, three armored divisions, one air assault division and three armored brigades were involved in brass tacks exercises. Deposits of additional ammunition in dumps near the exercise area, carrying of live ammunition and forward deployment of Air force assets were itself evident that the real intent behind these exercises was not as simple as it appeared.

Pakistan responded by deploying offensive formations in Ravi-Chenab corridor while maintaining defensive posture in South. What had actually happened was that Pakistan was conducting its own military exercise during November and December 1986 Saf-e-Shikan and flying horse by Army reserve south(ARS) and Army reserve north(ARN). While following the developments on Indian side ARN and ARS did not returned to their peace time locations and relocated in Ravi-Chenab corridor and Bahawalpur-Marot area respectively. So by mid-January India and Pakistan were in an eye ball to eye ball contact. As we have discussed above that nuclear signaling means political posturing in such a way that shows the resolve of using nuclear weapon to adversary. Different channels can be used to deliver the threat. In brass tacks crisis Pakistan used formal and informal channels to deliver the threat to use nuclear weapon to India. Indian high commissioner was summoned in ministry of foreign affairs by Zain noorani, state minister for foreign affairs and was categorically told that “if India took any action not conductive to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Pakistan, Islamabad will consider inflicting “unacceptable damage on India”. He further continued by saying “Pakistani actions will not be limited to northern India, but would include targets beyond”. In response to the query, whether the message implies threat to Bombay, Noorani replied,” it might be so”.

Second informal channel used to communicate the threat was the interview of Dr A.Q Khan by Indian journalist Kuldip Nayyar. This interview was conducted on 28th January 1987. A. Q said “Pakistan has succeeded in enriching Uranium to weapon grade and could build nuclear weapon”. He emphasized “nobody can undo Pakistan or take us for granted. We are here to stay and let it be clear that we shall use the bomb if our existence is threatened”. This interview was published on 1st march 1987 in London observer; however the threat was delivered before hand. So Pakistan used diplomatic channels and interview of A.Q Khan to deliver threat of use of nuclear weapon to India.

Doctrines are important source of signaling. India declared its draft nuclear doctrine on 17th August 1999.Provision 1 India will demonstrate the political will to employ nuclear weapons. Provision 2 in an event of a major attack against India or Indian forces anywhere by Chemical, Biological Nuclear weapons , India will retain the option of retaliating with nuclear weapons. Pakistan on the other hand does not have a declared nuclear doctrine but an interview based report offers an analysis of Pakistan’s nuclear posture. D.G SPD Lt Gen(Retd) Khalid Kidwai stated that under following conditions Pakistan will resort to nuclear weapons:-

1. India attacks Pakistan and conquer a large part of its territory.

2. India destroys a large part of either army or air force.

3. India proceeds to economic strangling of Pakistan.

4. India Pushes Pakistan into political destabilization or creates a large scale subversion The conflict was of immense importance as it was first of its kind after overt nuclearization of South Asia.

The Kargil crisis began in early May 1999 when India discovered that it had lost control over lightly defended mountainous territory to a covert incursion on the northernmost fringes of the Line of Control (Loc) overlooking the town of Kargil.The incursion interdicted a strategic highway linking Srinagar to the Leh district and onwards to the Siachen Glacier.Fighting escalated when in late May India introduced its Air force in conflict.On July 11th 1999 Pakistan army began withdrawal from Kargil .India recaptures key peaks at Batalik. July 16th was date set for total withdrawal. The role of ballistic missiles has become a matter of controversy as the accounts of Pakistan, India and U.S differ. US officials evidently believed and later openly alleged that Pakistan mounted nuclear weapons on nuclear missiles for deployment during the Kargil crisis.

These assertions were made by President Clinton of U.S in print and electronic media. Indian journalist Raj Chengappa claimed that India had activated its nuclear delivery Vehicles to alert level 3 meaning that some nuclear missiles could be mated with Nuclear weapons in short notice. Pakistani foreign secretary Shamshad Ahmad made a statement on May 31 warning that an escalation of the limited conflict could lead Pakistan to use “any weapon” in its arsenal. In other accounts and writings it is believed that Indian and Pakistani officials exchanged nuclear threats 13 times between May 26th and June 30th

A serious crisis between India and Pakistan arose beginning with the terrorist attack on the Indian parliament on December 13, 2001.This was followed by India’s almost immediate mobilization of the bulk of its regular military forces on or near the border with Pakistan. The mission was named “operation Parakaram”.Diplomatic communications were fatally disrupted as India and Pakistan withdrew their high commissioners. Pakistan responded by counter mobilization of troops along the entire Indian border.The nuclear signaling between India and Pakistan starts by the missile test. Pakistan flight tested three types of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles.On May 25th, 2002 Ghauri (“Hatf-5”) 1,500 km range medium-range surface-to-surface ballistic missile was tested.On May 26th 2002 Ghaznavi (“Hatf-3”) with a short-range of 300 km range was tested successfully. On May 28th Pakistan launched the “Abdali” short-range (180 kms) ballistic missile. Prior to Pakistani tests of BM’s, In January 2002 India conducted flight test of Agni 1 with a range of 700-900 KM and Pay load of 1000kg. Clearly it was a Pakistan specific Missile.

The first nuclear signal from Islamabad emanated from Pakistani President Musharraf’s speech on the occasion of Pakistan’s National Day on March 23, 2002. It was tinged with a warning to India of an “unforgettable lesson” if it dared to challenge Pakistan. The “unforgettable lesson” was seen as alluding to the use of Pakistani nuclear weapons to counter an Indian conventional attack across the Loc. Although there was no official response to this nuclear signal by the Indian Cabinet, Defense Minister George Fernandez criticized Musharraf’s statement as “childish”. Another nuclear signal from Pakistan came in the form of an interview of President Musharraf to German weekly newsmagazine on April 6th 2003 in which he was quoted saying “in the event that pressure on Pakistan became too great, “as a last resort, the atom bomb is also possible” Indian COAS General Padmanabhan in a press conference on January 11th 2002 said in a reply to a question “India possessed the capability of a retaliatory strike, and, warned that if any country was “mad enough” to initiate a nuclear strike against India, then “the perpetrator of that particular outrage shall be punished severely”.

Mobeen Tariq, MSC Strategic and Nuclear Studies, and may be reached at [email protected]

2 thoughts on “Nuclear Signaling In South Asia – Analysis

  • May 3, 2011 at 10:45 am

    Nuclear signaling is diffrent as that of conventional..the matter of the fact is ,
    nuclear weapons protected the region from major war.
    Due the reason we can assume only nuclear signaling will stop us from a major war in the region.

  • May 22, 2011 at 12:42 pm

    It the major factor which have reserve the war between the two countries.


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