In the India-Pakistan Conflict, the Stakes Are Higher Than Ever

Pakistani military personnel stand beside a low yield battlefield deterrent short-range surface-to-surface missile - In the India-Pakistan Conflict, the Stakes Are Higher Than Ever


  • Indian and Pakistani military doctrines that evolved over the past decade will greatly raise the stakes in any future Indo-Pakistani conflict.
  • Pakistan will continue to invest in tactical nuclear weapons to use on the battlefield to compensate for India’s growing conventional military advantage.
  • Introducing battlefield nuclear weapons will lower the threshold of nuclear weapons use while raising the possibility of a full nuclear exchange on the Indian subcontinent.


Ever since India adopted a proactive military strategy toward Pakistan in 2004, Islamabad has felt increasingly threatened and has sought to rely more on its nuclear arsenal as a counter, elevating the stakes for conflict in the Indian subcontinent. Despite political constraints to nuclear conflict, New Delhi and Islamabad’s evolving doctrines and force postures have lowered the barrier for a nuclear conflict. For instance, on Oct. 19, Pakistani Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudhry officially confirmed Islamabad’s plans to use low-yield nuclear weapons to impede advancing Indian troops under New Delhi’s “Cold Start” doctrine.

Cold Start — a rapid military response doctrine — is technically not an official Indian policy. In fact, Indian military leaders deny the existence of Cold Start as a concept, attributing the terminology to off-the-cuff remarks by Indian officers. Nevertheless, during the past decade India has adopted a strategy that has greatly alarmed Pakistan, driving Islamabad to invest in tactical nuclear weapons and alter its own nuclear posture.

Changes in India’s Strategy

From Indian independence in 1947 until 2004, the Indian military had maintained a largely defensive military strategy on the border with Pakistan, relying on deployed border units until it mobilized forces for a counteroffensive. For example, the Sundarji Doctrine set up by former Indian Chief of the Army Staff Gen. Krishnaswamy Sundarji in the early 1980s called for a largely static defense along the Pakistani border with seven infantry-heavy “holding corps” backed by a few mobile units that would respond to any enemy penetrations of the Indian lines. As the Indian holding corps weakened attacking Pakistani units, India would then mobilize its own offensive forces in central India, consisting of three heavily armored “strike corps” that would counterattack deep into Pakistan under the protection of the Indian air force, which would be expected to have gained air superiority by this time.

Over time, however, the Sundarji Doctrine’s limitations became obvious, particularly in the asymmetric conflict in Kashmir. Following the Dec. 13, 2001 attack on the Indian parliament building in New Delhi by suspected Kashmiri militants, India launched Operation Parakram, the largest mobilization of Indian forces since 1971. But India failed in its objective to highlight a timely conventional threat to Pakistan; it took India’s strike corps nearly three weeks to reach the Pakistani border, by which time Pakistan had effectively mobilized its own defenses. In that time, international pressure on India to de-escalate had become acute as well. With both sides mobilizing their forces over long periods on a grand scale, the Indian military also feared the situation might escalate into a nuclear conflict.

Subsequently, the Indian military has adopted a far more proactive strategy on the Pakistani border since 2004 — Cold Start. The new strategy has given India the capacity for immediate offensive action into Pakistan. Eight smaller, more cohesive operational maneuver groups are now deployed close to the Pakistani border at a higher level of readiness, able to launch operations within 96 hours. With these strategic placements, India hopes to be better able to deter Pakistani asymmetric attacks and to quickly punish Pakistan in more limited offensive strikes before international powers could intervene to stop the conflict.

Furthermore, India is hoping to avoid a potential protracted two-front war with both Pakistan and China and hopes to be able to defeat Pakistan in rapid action at the onset of a conflict. Finally, by aiming to achieve relatively shallow territorial penetrations in Pakistan  — not exceeding 80 kilometers, or about 50 miles, in depth — India hopes to remove the rationale for the use of nuclear weapons, especially strategic warheads, since the Indian battle groups would not aim to threaten Pakistan’s existence.

Pakistan’s Reaction

Islamabad is aware of the widening gap in conventional military capabilities between itself and India and is further troubled by more frequent fighting with insurgents on its frontier with Afghanistan that could create a two-front commitment. Unable to match India’s growing military investments, Pakistan has taken an asymmetric approach to the new threat, building up and relying on an arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons.

Although it is a nuclear power, India does not operate or plan to develop tactical nuclear weapons. India also maintains a no first use nuclear policy. Pakistan is calculating that tactical nuclear weapons would essentially counter India’s conventional military superiority. By using low-yield tactical nuclear weapons on India’s armored spearheads within its own territory, Islamabad hopes to deter or defeat India’s Cold Start armored thrusts without breaching India’s no first use nuclear policy and risking a wider escalation into a strategic nuclear exchange that might include non-military targets such as cities.

However, there are clear risks to deploying and relying on tactical nuclear weapons. First, India has sought to negate Pakistan’s strategy by announcing that any use of nuclear weapons, including battlefield ones, would technically breach its no first use policy, allowing it to retaliate with its own nuclear weapons. Second, tactical nuclear weapons also might encourage Pakistan to use them early in a conflict for fear that India’s armored thrusts would overrun its battlefield nuclear weapons and its critical population centers and military facilities near the Indian border. Third, Islamabad would also have no guarantees that successful Indian offensive operations would not threaten its existence by continuing their advances beyond initial land grabs. Finally, deploying tactical nuclear weapons across diffuse forward units would weaken command and control, increasing potential non-sanctioned use of the weapons because of miscalculation at the early stages of an Indo-Pakistani conflict. Overall, introducing battlefield nuclear weapons greatly lowers the threshold of using nuclear weapons in a potential large-scale conflict while raising the possibility of a full nuclear exchange on the Indian subcontinent.

Both India’s Cold Start proactive strategy and Pakistan’s increasing reliance on tactical nuclear weapons are highly concerning. Cold Start has been described in India as a strategy that would enable the Indian military to finish the war before India’s political leaders lose their nerve. By deliberately seeking to circumvent international mediation efforts as well as attempting to curb reaction times, India could find itself in a rapidly accelerating conflict with Pakistan with little time for de-escalation.

Understanding India’s rapid response doctrine could also galvanize terrorists into attempting to trigger India’s Cold Start, as was apparently the case with Lashkar-e-Taiba’s 2008 Mumbai attacks. Pakistan’s dependence on tactical nuclear weapons greatly expands the risk of a disastrous nuclear confrontation in the subcontinent as well, enhancing the potential for the use of nuclear weapons in either a real or perceived Cold Start offensive. The stakes are now much higher in any potential Indo-Pakistani conflict.

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