Twenty Years into Nuclear South Asia: Mitigating Dangers Together

South Asian Voices

Twenty years ago this month, India and Pakistan conducted nuclear tests in Pokhran (Rajasthan) and Chagai (Balochistan) respectively. Expectedly, the tests sparked international opprobrium, followed by sanctions on both countries. Since then, India and Pakistan have embarked on ambitious nuclear trajectories, characterized by steadily growing nuclear stockpiles and improved delivery systems. The introduction of new technologies such as battlefield nuclear weapons (Pakistan’s Nasr) and India’s ballistic missile defense system have raised the stakes in South Asia and made stability in the region relatively precarious. Despite these dangers, there is absence of robust mechanisms or a bilateral dialogue in order to manage the risks specific to the nuclear domain. This article identifies a few possible areas where India and Pakistan could work together to mitigate nuclear dangers.

However, before proceeding further, it is important to differentiate rhetoric from reality. It is often argued that the frosty relationship between India and Pakistan will lead to a nuclear exchange. Notwithstanding the dangers of two nuclear neighbors in an acrimonious relationship, it must be pointed out that there is greater rationality in the region’s leadership than is generally projected by some media outlets or Western scholars. There is more credibility in the argument, which some scholars have made, that a nuclear exchange in South Asia will most likely result out of miscalculation or inadvertent escalation.  Having interacted with a number of policymakers and analysts from both sides during Track II discussions and having participated in a number of war games, the author feels that fears of a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan are exaggerated. This does not imply that South Asia is immune from nuclear dangers. It simply means that both sides possess a degree of rationality when it comes to nuclear-related decisions, and the situation is not as dire as sometimes projected.

Ways to Reduce Nuclear Dangers in South Asia

There is no dearth of literature on possible nuclear confidence-building measures (NCBMs) in the South Asian context. Some of the well-known suggestions have emanated from the Ottawa Dialogue and works by Indian and Pakistani scholars. Unfortunately, the subcontinent has experienced little progress in adopting any out-of-the-box or even inside-the-box NCBMs. This is largely due to the lack of willingness in New Delhi and Islamabad to embrace NCBMs. Both countries judge the viability of NCBMs against the fear that such measures may reduce opacity. Ambiguity in the nuclear realm is preferred as both sides perceive it to be helpful for nuclear signaling (even though that may be more dangerous than helpful during a crisis). Decisionmakers also believe that ambiguity allows them more flexibility to respond to or deter certain actions by the other party. Keeping in mind the reluctance of states to cooperate in the nuclear domain, it is best to suggest nuclear-related measures that are incremental and not perceived as compromising the preferences of either side. With this hope, below are some suggestions that may help ameliorate nuclear dangers in South Asia:

Bilateral Cooperation in Radiation Protection

India and Pakistan can establish bilateral mechanisms to address the possibility of a nuclear-related accident that involves the release of radioactive material and can be carried across the border by winds. Given that both countries would be concerned about any humanitarian crisis owing to a nuclear-related accident, this suggestion may be palatable to decisionmakers. This suggestion comes from LV Krishnan, Former Director (Safety Research), Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research, Kalpakkam.[1]

Both Pakistan and India are party to multilateral International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Conventions on Early Notification of a Nuclear Accident and on Assistance in the Case of a Nuclear Accident or Radiological Emergency. However, differing interpretations by the two sides of the provisions set out by the above Conventions can lead to problems following the environmental release of radioactive materials in a nuclear accident. In such a situation, both the parties can agree to share data on location of radiation detectors around the accident site and their readings directly with each other instead of routing the information through the IAEA. Moreover, the two could share meteorological data and adopt a common computational scheme to estimate source term through inverse modelling, which would enable timely projection of radiation levels and facilitate protective measures. The IAEA describessource term as “a specific type of release characteristic of a reactor family representative of a type of accident.” In the absence of such a mechanism, any differences in radiation level information presented by the two countries in an accident scenario could lead to confusion among the public. This would further be compounded by crowd measurements of radiation levels (which is now possible) and their circulation on social media. Such a scenario can be avoided if both sides coordinate and provide timely and verified information to each other. This mechanism, which can assume the form of a CBM, can be the first step in opening up communication between the two countries on an important aspect of nuclear safety in the civil domain.

Train Select Cadre of the NCA in Crisis Management

India’s strategic military thinking towards Pakistan revolves around conventional war fighting without resorting to nuclear use, thereby showcasing New Delhi’s offensive orientation at the conventional level. On the other hand, Islamabad’s traditional thinking towards New Delhi reflects an offensive posture at the sub-conventional level. Also, its nuclear thinking is dominated by posing the threat of or actual use (case in point: battlefield nuclear weapons) of nuclear weapons, with a periodic attempt to reassert the irrelevance of limited conventional war. Thus, the resulting military plans allow limited space for crisis management or opportunities for de-escalation. This can prove to be a dangerous trend, especially in light of the uncertainties of nuclear war.

It is pertinent to incorporate elements of crisis management in India and Pakistan’s military planning during the pre-war or conflict/war stage. Crisis management should be an important guiding factor for the leaderships, which at present appear to be solely driven by political and military thinking. In conversations with officials from India and Pakistan, it has been repeated to this author that both countries have military personnel who specialize in evaluating conventional and nuclear war scenarios. It is recommended that the existing cadre of the Nuclear Command Authority (NCA) is trained in crisis management and war termination. They can also act as advisers and help utilize “natural pauses, thresholds, and prominent features as bases for compromise, even tacit ones.” These pauses act as ‘breathers’ for the parties to undertake comprehensive assessment of the situation or can be used to signal the scope for face-saving to the adversary.

If personnel ­part of the nuclear decisionmaking system are sensitized to and trained ­in crisis management, it could help mitigate possible dangers. The trained experts of the Crisis Management Team of both countries can meet on an annual or biannual basis to review various control mechanisms, regardless of the state of bilateral relations. Moreover, the trained serviceperson can be deputized for crisis negotiation, if need be. This suggestion in no way compromises the sensitivities of both parties and can be implemented unilaterally, with the intent to manage any future crisis that involves the nuclear angle.

Establish a Nuclear-focused Hotline at the NSA Level

It has been repeated time and again that communication between adversaries is key to managing a crisis effectively. In the din of battle, channels of communications offer an opening for both sides to prevent escalation. In the South Asian context, the current hotline operates at the lower level (i.e. at the level of the Director Generals of Military Operations) where major decisions cannot be taken swiftly and decisively. It is worth establishing a hotline at the higher political-executive level, say at the National Security Adviser level, to keep a channel of communication open, to facilitate potential war-termination efforts during the course of a conflict. This hotline can specifically be for communication on nuclear-related issues during an ongoing crisis.


The advent of nuclear weapons in South Asia 20 years ago has had serious consequences for stability in the subcontinent. Considering the limited NCBMs between the two countries, there is greater scope for instituting more ways to mitigate possible nuclear dangers, no matter how incremental or “small” they appear in the present context.

Original Source: Aditi Malhotra, Twenty Years into Nuclear South Asia: Mitigating Dangers Together, South Asian Voices,

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