Nuclear Signaling In South Asia – OpEd


Nuclear signaling in theory can be advantageous for both transmitter and receiver if signals are understood properly. The weak or misinterpreted signals can lead towards further deterioration of the situation especially at the times of crisis. The complex and arbitrary nuclear signals pattern of South Asian region has sometimes strengthen and at sometimes deteriorated its strategic stability.

This inconsistency and lack of proper communication channels have resulted in major crisis between India and Pakistan and these crisis were often deescalated by the third party intervention. Based on the core assertion that the nuclear signaling plays an important role in Strategic Stability of the region ,it can be asserted that the working communicability framework of the region over the years have discouraged the two nascent nuclear nations from exchanging their strategic arsenals but has failed in resolving pivotal conflicts.

South Asian conflict chronology includes events like Kargil conflict, the Indian parliament attacks and the moderately less intense Mumbai Attacks. If nuclear signaling were not transmitted between the two parties, these events could have advertently or inadvertently escalated to a point of no return i.e. nuclear exchange between the India and Pakistan. In this context deterrence diplomacy and strategic communicability were preventive measures which deterred and encouraged confronting parties to diplomatically engage. India and Pakistan are a diverse nuclear dyad with more than one reason to obtain an aggressive tone with each other which eventually translates to military readiness or standoff.

Post Pulwama military engagement between the two states is also the incident in which nuclear signaling was done and war hysteria was created by the BJP government. Anti-Pakistan rhetoric was the central to election campaign of the BJP party and Modi even succeeded in achieving his short term political goal but this anti-Pakistan propaganda resulted in negative impact on the regional stability. Irrespective of the highly tensed environment Pakistan’s leadership responded with maturity at the same time making it clear that the attack won’t be left unresponded. On the other hand India’s reckless attitude during the whole crisis and use of the nuclear card was a very dangerous trend.

Moreover the rapid Indian arms buildup has generated arms race between the two states. Procurement of conventional weapons and sophistication of nuclear weapons is also a factor that plays a vital role in deterrence and consequently concludes that this can be a major fissure in the deterrence maintained by the two states and can eventually erode the fabric of deterrence. With the induction of Tactical Nuclear Weapons (TNWs) as well as plans to enhance strategic arsenals to thermonuclear proportions as well as induction of Ballistic Missile Defence Shield Programs, India and Pakistan have also opted to induct active conventional doctrines with sophisticated and upgraded arsenal as precursors to controlled warfare. However the prospective induction of nuclear triad, thermonuclear weapons and considerations to alter or amend its ‘No First Use’ doctrine as well as maintenance of Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) system by India have not only proved to be disparate signals but have also sufficiently destabilized the deterrence patterns of South Asia. This implies that Indian nuclear signals in non-existence of restraint or control signals, have been not only hyper aggressive but have also remained detrimental initiatives to the overall structure of deterrence. Moreover the induction of nuclear submarines capable of deploying surgical strikes by the Indian navy as well as BMD countermeasure systems to deter aggressive responses are also signals capable of initiating arms race in the region. 

With the induction of proactive and aggressive conventional force doctrines in India as well as precedent behavior of engaging in surgical interventions in Pakistan through conventional forces, Pakistan has suffered from what can be called a ‘proportionate signaling vacuum’ because of its conventional disparity and willingness not to engage in conventional confrontations in a nuclear environment. Induction of TNWs thus became the only compensatory signal to secure territorial and conventional force disparity. Where TNWs are signaled to be defensive last resort retaliatory signals, Indian counter signal of enhancing its missile programs as well as induction of more long-term strategic arsenals can be termed as an ‘imbalanced, disproportionate misinterpretation of nuclear signals. Hence there is need to for both the countries to fine tune their nuclear signaling by developing a proper strategic language and by removing the filter of mistrust and bias while receiving signals from the other side.

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

Sher Bano

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

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