India’s quest for modernization and the addition of modern weapons to its conventional and strategic armory has become a specter for the South Asian region. In an already fragile landscape with close geographical contiguity to Pakistan, Indian missiles loaded with nuclear warheads can land in Pakistan within no time. This was witnessed via the BrahMos nuclear missile launch and the Indian Balakot air strike.
India started acquiring its installments of three regiments of S-400 anti-ballistic missiles from Russia. India is likely to get the remaining two regiments by the end of 2023 and is expected to deploy the bulk of these missiles against Pakistan.
The US granted a special waiver to India on sanctions of Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) for importing S-400 from the former’s arch adversary. India plays all camps at one time, pitching one of its suitors against the other and making each believe that it is closest to that country. The US relations with Turkey, its NATO ally, took a bad turn once it cut an S-400 deal with Russia and Washington clamped CAATSA-related sanctions.
Since the S-400 can destroy incoming ballistic missiles, it may increase the sense of security in India and exacerbate the security dilemma of Pakistan. Deterrence works on mutual vulnerability. Ostensibly, S-400 generates a sense of invulnerability and India can be tempted to pre-empt, fearing no retaliation. However, S-400 is not a 100% secure system, and few nuclear-capable missiles can slip through its umbrella. India’s false sense of security and Pakistan’s elevated sense of insecurity can lead to assured nuclear use during a crisis. If India is a rational actor, it would not logically seek such an outcome unless it is confident that it can take out all Pakistani missiles in the first strike.
Like other weapons of its ilk, the S-400 system has some automation built into it for speedy response against incoming missiles. Such semi-autonomous systems fuse the decision-making loop, and any rational actor would opt for the first use of nuclear weapons, fearing that it may lose the chance of ever using them in a conflict.
The more autonomy built into weapon systems and the more humans looped out of decision-making, the greater the risk of fail-deadly situations in crises.
The Soviet Union was working on its early-warning system and BMDs since the early 1960s, which became the motivation for the development of computers. More importantly, human involvement is crucial in the decision-making process, especially during high-alert situations. In the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, the guardians of nuclear weapons gave priority to humanity rather than nuclear use. In another incident in 1983, Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov detected five US missiles launched from US territory on a warning system. He took it as a false alarm and trusted his human instincts. In response, he reported missile detection by the system to his superiors as a technical fault and saved the world from a great disaster.
Autonomy for the machine creates ease for humans. However, when it comes to weapons, it is way too dangerous. Likewise, in March 2003, the US computer-based missile defense system Patriot hit its friendly war aircraft, the Tornado of Royal Air Force, by recognizing Iraqi missiles towards the system. It failed to distinguish a friend from a foe. The inquiry investigated that the autonomous operation of the system was a technical error.
A report identifies India as the top arms purchaser in the global market. Indian overspending on the import of modern technological weapons, such as the S-400, will harm strategic stability.
India maintains ambiguity on its so-called NFU pledge but the developments in force posture are more revealing i.e. it is developing first-strike capabilities.
According to its claims, Indian nuclear capability is designed to massively retaliate the first strike and inflict unacceptable damage by Credible Minimum Deterrence. To justify vertical proliferation, India uses China as a bogey to array its forces primarily against Pakistan. Hence, post-acquisition of S-400, India seeks a first-strike capability against Pakistan. It remains a moot point whether India will have a true or false sense of security for the first strike against Pakistan in a crisis. One cannot rely on luck alone to avert a disastrous nuclear war. Strategic stability rests on first-strike stability. S-400 will take India in another direction.
In the Cuban missile crisis, human nature embraced caveat in its strategic behavior instead of launching nuclear missiles. In the same vein, on 9 March 2022, when India “accidentally” launched nuclear-capable BrahMos on Pakistan’s soil, only Islamabad’s strategic restraint saved a nuclear war. It represents two important factors. First, instead of retaliation like Patriot missiles did in Iraq in 2003, Pakistan’s human decision-makers handled the situation wisely. Secondly, Pakistan’s intelligence, surveillance, command, and control are credible as a nuclear weapon state. Pakistan’s responsible nuclear behavior was exemplary.
The Indian procurement of high-speed precision weapons and their deployment on the borders facing Pakistan poses serious threats to the already fragile strategic stability in South Asia. Such Indian military modernization is increasing nuclear risk. Pakistan needs to enhance its space program, which not only helps in space technology, communications, and security but also benefits multiple civilian domains like agriculture and valuable scientific data, among others. Doing so will help guarantee the survivability of the state in the realist paradigm. Additionally, Pakistan may start working on artificial intelligence and machine learning tools. In this era of the fourth industrial revolution, states have to struggle and strive for emerging technologies for survival.
The author is an Associate Research Officer at the Center for International Strategic Studies (CISS), Islamabad. He is also an M. Phil. scholar from the Department of Defence and Strategic Studies, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. He tweets @alibaig111.