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  • Lee Clark

On the Unique Nature of the Indo-Pakistani Nuclear Relationship

The relationship between Pakistan and India is one of the most volatile in the international community. The two nations have an extensive history of hostility that includes aggressive rhetoric, direct violence, and state-sponsored terrorism. This relationship is further complicated by territorial disputes and the fact that both nations possess sizeable nuclear arsenals. The nuclear dynamic between India and Pakistan is unlike any other bilateral relationship and the international system, which is a cause for concern among experts. I recently explored this idea in a paper for Dr. Greg Hall at the University of Kentucky. Here’s what I found.

Pakistan and India both have between one and two hundred nuclear weapons, though Pakistan is building more as fast as possible. India's nuclear weapons are more advanced and up-to-date than Pakistan’s weapons, but Pakistan has developed a significant arsenal of tactical weapons as a counterbalance.

Because of the tense and sometimes hostile relationship India has with its two nuclear-armed neighbors and its history of British colonialism, India sees deterrence in three categories: first, as protection from Pakistan and China. Second, as a guarantee that domination by a foreign power will never be possible again. Finally, as an aspect of strategy to attain great power status. By maintaining the capability to use deterrence in its security strategy, India is making a case to the international community that it is capable of handling the stresses and responsibilities of a great power.

Pakistan perceives itself as the underdog in the relationship, reliant on foreign aid to keep from collapsing. This air of disadvantage and desperation deeply affects the Pakistani view of deterrence. Pakistan sees deterrence as its primary tool to prevent domination by India, especially in light of historical Indian military victories over Pakistan. It is possible that Pakistan is attempting to invoke the “madman theory” that unpredictability and aggressive behavior will deter aggression from a rival because they see Pakistan as unstable or more likely to retaliate.

A major source of the uniqueness of this relationship involves the ongoing Kashmir crisis. The possession of nuclear weapons by both countries has entrenched the Kashmir conflict. A territorial dispute such as the Kashmir conflict would normally be solved through a conventional war or diplomatic means. Sadly, the presence of nuclear weapons ensure that a conventional war will be avoided by both sides and the cultural animosity between the two make a diplomatic solution unlikely. As a result, asymmetric violence and terrorism in the region are rampant and will likely remain so. In no other place is the concept of deterrence used to prolong a low-intensity conflict that would normally be solved through conventional means. Whereas deterrence is traditionally thought of as a means to prevent violence, here both sides are using it as a way to prolong a violent conflict while keeping it in a limited capacity.

Issues of command and control of nuclear weapons also lend to the uniqueness of the Indo-Pakistani dynamic. Pakistan lacks substantial PALs, has placed control of tactical weapons with field commanders in the past, lacks early warning capabilities, and has a low threshold for use with the recent advent of a flexible retaliation doctrine.

Another serious concern as it relates to command and control in Pakistan is inventory security. Pakistan has been shown in the past to lack substantial loss prevention measures such as sophisticated surveillance of storage sites, and adequate numbers of trained guard personnel. These issues make the possibility of the theft of a weapon a distinct possibility.

Pakistan's nuclear weapons program carried immense cost, preventing Pakistan from developing other portions of its society, such as economic opportunities for its citizens. A nation so obsessed with developing a bomb for prestige and countering a historic rival is likely to be more cavalier about the use of said bomb than nations that develop a bomb out of a more general desire for a deterrent. This desperation creates an atmosphere and an attitude that are unique in the international system and erode stability by making the use of a nuclear weapon inherently more likely.

Because this dynamic is unique and entrenched, a clear and definite resolution appears unlikely in the foreseeable future. Because both nations possess a credible nuclear deterrent, neither is likely to initiate nuclear aggression. This allows smaller scale violence in the form of border skirmishes and terrorism to thrive and proliferate. Because of the unique nature of the conflict and its potential to exacerbate instability in the form of nuclear insecurity, increased attention is necessary. Serious scholarship, attention from the global intelligence community, attention from the global defense establishment, and resources from peace initiatives must all focus more on ensuring that this conflict does not escalate into nuclear aggression.


Lee Clark recently graduated with an MA from the Patterson School for Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky. His professional interests include nuclear weapons policy, ethics in international security, the intelligence community, and analytic writing. He can be contacted at


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