Kashmir conflict: Do nuclear weapons prevent all-out war?

It’s safe to say that India-Pakistan relations are nearly on a war footing.

Saber rattling has been near constant in recent weeks after terrorists — from Pakistan, according to India — stormed an Indian military base in India-controlled Kashmir and killed 18 soldiers. India’s home minister denounced Pakistan as a “terrorist state.” Pakistan’s defense minister threatened nuclear war.

Then came Thursday, when India claimed to have carried out a “surgical strike” across the border into Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. The operation, according to the Indian government and military, targeted terrorist “launch pads” and killed several dozen militants. New Delhi’s detailed (and perhaps exaggerated) account said the operation lasted four hours. If true, it arguably would have been the most audacious incursion onto Pakistani soil since US Special Forces stormed Osama Bin Laden’s compound.

Pakistan angrily denied that this strike had happened, contending that India had merely engaged in cross-border firing (killing two Pakistani troops) — a frequent occurrence on the volatile frontier. Pakistan nonetheless vowed to undertake a “forceful response” if such an incident occurred again. India has evacuated villagers from several border areas in anticipation of possible Pakistani retaliation.

With both sides banging the war drums, it may be tempting to fear that all-out conflict isn’t far away.

The good news, however, is that a hot war between the nuclear-armed nemeses remains an unlikely prospect.

Nukes are often cited as the chief deterrent to all-out war, and for good reason.

Pakistan refuses to adopt a no first-use policy, which means it could hypothetically respond to India’s use of conventional military force with a nuclear strike. This is no empty threat. Pakistan, according to estimates from experts in August, has between 110 and 130 nuclear warheads and is described as boasting “the world’s fastest-growing nuclear stockpile.” Most critically, it is emphasizing the production of tactical nuclear weapons, which are meant for actual battlefield use.

India, meanwhile, boasts about 100 to 120 nuclear warheads. It has no known plans to develop tactical nukes. And it has adopted a strict no first-use policy.

Last year, Pakistani Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudhary stated explicitly that his country could use tactical nukes as a response to India’s Cold Start doctrine — a strategy (albeit one not yet formally incorporated into Indian military doctrine) that calls for limited conventional uses of force in Pakistan.

Chaudhary’s announcement suggested that India would not need to go far to run up against Pakistan’s nuclear red lines. The implication was that even the limited use of force could trigger a Pakistani nuclear response.

And yet India’s cross-border strike Thursday suggests that India has more room to maneuver under the nuclear umbrella than Pakistan’s threats may suggest. Additionally, as Shashank Joshi recently noted, India staged limited cross-border raids in the 2000s. These did not elicit threats of a Pakistani nuclear response. (Pakistan became a declared nuclear weapons state in 1999.)

In this sense, Pakistan’s nuclear weapons aren’t as much of a deterrent as it may suggest. India could likely get away with additional cross-border incursions that target Pakistani terrorists, with possible retaliations from Pakistan that may include mobilizing more troops along the border and, perhaps, limited conventional strikes in India. (If India were to hit Pakistani soldiers instead of militants, Pakistan’s chances of a robust response would increase.)

New Delhi’s no first-use policy means that Pakistan could exercise limited force in India without having to worry about an Indian nuclear response. However, for Pakistan, a safer and more likely step would be simply sit to back and let the anti-India terror groups on its soil carry out more attacks in India.

All of this could safely happen under the nuclear umbrella.

Additionally, there are reasons other than nukes that limit prospects for a hot war.

First, Thursday’s strike was not as escalatory as the jingoistic rhetoric in India may have suggested; New Delhi described it as a one-off operation to pre-emptively avert terror attacks in India.

Second, Washington is likely working the phones with its interlocutors in Islamabad to urge restraint. Pakistan won’t want to risk further aid and arms cutbacks from Washington that could be imposed if it retaliated militarily in a big way.

Third, operational incapacities within India’s armed forces and the inferiority of Pakistan’s conventional forces to India’s (in terms of pure numbers) constrain military options on both sides.

The uptake? Nukes don’t deter all conflict on the subcontinent, but they do minimize the prospects of major war. Meanwhile, non-nuclear factors give reason for hope that the region will be spared the heavy bloodshed threatened amid all the bluster of recent days.

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