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The Interpreter: India, Long at Odds With Pakistan, May Be Rethinking Nuclear First Strikes

Use It or Lose It

Shashank Joshi, a fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, said he suspected that Mr. Menon was signaling something subtler: a warning that India’s strategy could adapt in wartime, potentially to include first strikes.

That distinction may be important to Indian officials, but it could be lost on Pakistani war planners who have to consider all scenarios.

Mr. Joshi, in a policy brief for the Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank, tried to project what would happen if India embraced such a policy, or if Pakistan concluded that it had.

First would come the arms race.

The fear of a first strike, Mr. Joshi wrote, “incentivizes Pakistan to undertake a massive nuclear buildup, in order to dispel any possibility of India disarming it entirely.”

India, whatever its strategy, would feel compelled to keep pace.

Second comes the tightening of nuclear tripwires, Mr. Joshi warned, as “this reciprocal fear of first use could pull each side in the direction of placing nuclear forces on hair-trigger alert.”

Finally, in any major armed crisis, the logic of a first strike would pull both sides toward nuclear escalation.

“If Pakistan thinks India will move quickly, Pakistan has an incentive to go even quicker, and to escalate straight to the use of the longer-range weapons,” Mr. Joshi wrote.

This thinking would apply to India as well, creating a situation in which the nuclear arsenal becomes, as analysts dryly put it, “use it or lose it.”

‘That Can Blow Back Real Quick’

The most optimistic scenario would lock South Asia in a state of mutually assured destruction, like that of the Cold War, in which armed conflict would so reliably escalate to nuclear devastation that both sides would deem war unthinkable.

This would be of global concern. A 2008 study found that, although India and Pakistan have relatively small arsenals, a full nuclear exchange would push a layer of hot, black smoke into the atmosphere.

This would produce what some researchers call without hyperbole “a decade without summer.” As crops failed worldwide, the resulting global famine would kill a billion people, the study estimated.

But nuclear analysts worry that South Asia’s dynamics would make any state of mutually assured destruction less stable than that of the Cold War.

For one thing, Pakistani leaders view even conventional war with India as an existential threat, making them more willing to accept nuclear risks. For another, a large-scale terrorist attack in India could be perceived, rightly or wrongly, as Pakistan-sponsored, potentially inciting war. The disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir, where conflict sometimes boils over, adds a troubling layer of volatility.

“Maybe it is this Reaganesque strategy,” Mr. Narang said, comparing India’s potential strategic shift to President Ronald Reagan’s arms race with the Soviet Union. “But Pakistan has a much bigger security problem than the Soviet Union did. And that can blow back real quick.”

Source: NYT > World

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