India, Pakistan and the Stability-Instability Paradox

 By Mohak Gambhir


The Pulwama attack was a crucial moment for India-Pakistan relations in recent history. The attack in which 40 security personnel of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) lost their lives led to the Balakot airstrikes by India. The strikes were an exception among the norms of responses we have come to witness in a less than full-scale war environment, an important strategic message to Pakistan. The Indian Air Force struck Pakistani territory on 26 February 2019, nearly five decades since the 1971 war. Airstrikes rank worryingly high on the escalation ladder when two nuclear-armed states are involved. Pakistan countered India’s strikes with its own the very next day. Tensions reigned high as India calculated its response measures to Pakistani strikes while the Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan convened a meeting of Pakistan’s National Command Authority (NCA). The meeting was Pakistan’s strategic signalling as the NCA oversees its nuclear arsenal. While the situation was controlled and did not spiral out of control, it provided a solid base to examine the applicability of the stability-instability paradox in the India-Pakistan context.

Stability-Instability Paradox

At a strategic level, stability in international relations is the likelihood of maintaining the status quo and that no large-scale war occurs between concerned actors as far as conflict is concerned. The concept of the stability-instability paradox deals with the relation between the stability established at the strategic level in a nuclear environment and the instability it creates at limited violence levels that is below the threshold of a full-scale war which might result in the use of nuclear weapons. While Glenn Synder’s essay published in 1965 is often referred to when discussing the concept’s origin, it goes back further. In 1954, B.H Liddell Hart,[1] amid the emergence of hydrogen bombs during a raging Cold War, said, “To the extent that the H-bomb reduces the likelihood of full-scale war, it increases the possibility of limited war pursued by widespread local aggression.” [2]

The concept was derived under the ambit of the deterrence theory in the backdrop of growing concerns of an all-out nuclear war between the US and the Soviet Union. An arms race ensued between the two, inevitably leading to strategies like second-strike capability and massive retaliation. The bilateral strategic equation stabilised as both countries achieved near capability parity by making significant progress throughout the 1960s and acquired long-range ICBMs and second-strike capabilities through their nuclear submarines.

The India-Pakistan Context

The deterrence theory academics eventually started applying the stability-instability paradox to the India-Pakistan equation, and rightly so, given both are nuclear weapons states with an ongoing dispute over Kashmir, and their geographical proximity only adds to the instability. One such theorist, Michael Krepon, argued in the mid-2000s how at least one of the two tenets of the stability-instability paradox fits perfectly in the India-Pakistan context. He argued, “Pakistan’s active support for separatism and militancy in Kashmir has notably coincided with its acquisition of covert nuclear capabilities.”[3] Rajesh Rajagopalan, however, rightly countered this point by highlighting how Pakistan has exercised the policy of supporting militancy in India, in the case of Punjab and Mizoram, while also carrying acts of terrorism.[4] He used this line of argument to question its application in the South Asian context. But that approach is flawed as it ignores other variables like the disruptions brought in due to domestic political changes and reinvigorated political will that can introduce instability, at least at lower levels of violence. The possibility of limited war/conflicts arising due to a change in political leadership or security circumstances in the region or the domestic situation in India when it comes to responding to Pakistan’s proxy wars must be taken into account. For instance, while the 2008 Mumbai attacks did not lead to a limited conflict, the Pulwama attack in 2019 resulted in the Balakot airstrikes, which involved significant escalation via airpower by both sides. This is the instability at lower levels of violence that the initial scholars spoke of when discussing this concept and it’s directly linked to a change in the ruling government in India.

The second crucial aspect of the stability-instability paradox – that irrespective of heightened tensions at the lower levels, the two states would actively avoid an escalation that might lead to a nuclear exchange – has been true in the India-Pakistan case till now. Just a year after both countries went overtly nuclear, India and Pakistan engaged in a limited scale conflict in Kargil in 1999. Despite both countries being nascent nuclear powers at the time and given the severity of the conflict, although still below the levels of a full-scale war, it did not escalate to the stage where nuclear weapons could be employed. While this does not guarantee restraint in the future, it is confidence-inspiring to note. The two countries have a hotline at the Director General Military Operations (DGMO) level.[5] Key agreements have been signed like the “Agreement between India and Pakistan on pre-notification of flight testing of ballistic missiles” (2005)[6] and “Agreement between India and Pakistan on reducing the risk from accidents relating to nuclear weapons” (2007)[7], which further stabilise the situation at the higher level of violence. With both countries expanding on their second-strike capabilities, the stability at the strategic level (full-scale war) is expected to increase.

With Pakistan not yielding on its use of terrorism against India and India getting more stern in its response to such acts, the nuclear space between India and Pakistan is becoming increasingly dynamic with evolving nuclear delivery mechanisms and doctrines. It is specifically vital to understand Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine evolution since India maintains a ‘No First Use’ doctrine when it comes to the use of nuclear weapons in case of war. Without declaring an official policy, Pakistan has brazenly communicated to India and the world over the years its ability and willingness to use nuclear weapons first to defend its sovereignty. This was planned to maintain a minimum credible deterrence without engaging the militarily and economically superior India in an armed race. The initial aim behind acquiring nuclear weapons and having a doctrine of massive retaliation was to ensure two things. First, to deter an Indian attack, conventional or nuclear, against Pakistan. Second, to prevent an Indian victory in the war should the deterrence fail. But with India’s growing military capabilities and doctrinal changes (to respond to Pakistan’s terrorism activities in the country), Pakistan has had to undertake changes to its own doctrines and capacity building to counter India. Developments in India like the pursuit of ballistic missile defence (BMD) and ballistic missile submarine programme, Cold Start doctrine and the Indian military’s overall modernisation has led Pakistan to lower the nuclear threshold. Pakistan now pursues what it calls a full-spectrum deterrence.[8] This doctrine has been supported by the development of military platforms like the Babur cruise missile to counter India’s BMD and Hatf IX (Nasr) short-range ballistic missiles (SRBM) for tactical nuclear warheads (TNWs) to tackle any land operations under the Cold Star doctrine.[9]

Pakistan has used its high-ranking retired military officers like Gen Khalid Kidwai to communicate its nuclear redlines, albeit followed by denials to maintain ambiguity. Gen Kidwai was the first head of Pakistan’s Special Plans Division (SPD) and held the position for 13 years. A report by two Italian experts, Paolo Cotta-Ramusino and Murizio Martellini, titled ‘Nuclear safety, nuclear stability and nuclear strategy in Pakistan’[10], highlights some critical parameters according to Gen Kidwai for the use of nuclear weapons by Pakistan against India.

“Nuclear weapons are aimed solely at India. In case deterrence fails, they will be used if:

  1. India attacks Pakistan and conquers a large part of its territory (space threshold)
  2. India destroys a large part either of its land or air forces (military threshold)
  3. India proceeds to the economic strangling of Pakistan (economic strangling)
  4. India pushes Pakistan into political destabilisation or creates a large-scale internal subversion in Pakistan (domestic destabilisation).”

Expectedly, these were later denied by Gen Kidwai[11], pointing out how there can not be fixed redlines for using nuclear weapons. Given Pakistan’s lowering of the nuclear threshold, both in terms of doctrine and capability, its policy of using terrorism in India and the limited large-scale level military options left with India as a response to such terrorist acts, instability at lower levels is expected to continue and potentially, increase. Thus, meeting the second tenet of the stability-instability paradox in the India-Pakistan context.


The stability-instability paradox has held quite well in the Indo-Pakistan context till now. The concept of nuclear deterrence hinges on threat perception by the actors involved. The Indian state, has and will continue to resort to kinetic punitive measures in response to Pakistan’s acts of terrorism after evaluating the domestic and international circumstances. However, the fear of mutually assured destruction due to Pakistan’s ever-increasing nuclear arsenal and its efforts to acquire a sea-based second-strike capability is helping Pakistan lower the nuclear threshold and enabling it to continue its proxy war against India. Though India could respond to this by increasing the frequency of military actions against Pakistan while staying below the nuclear threshold. But this approach has two key challenges. First, Balakot strikes shed light on the gaps in the Indian capabilities at the lower level of violence. The issues with the operational data-link[12], absence of software-defined radios and an insufficient number of Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS) hampered the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) effectiveness during the operation. The gaps in IAF’s capabilities were highlighted due to Balakot, but similar deficiencies exist in the Army and the Navy. Plugging critical gaps is of utmost importance as far as limited conflicts with Pakistan is concerned. Gaining a competitive edge over Pakistan in this sphere would necessitate timebound investments in the latest high-end technologies and rigorous training with those platforms, irrespective of the financial burden. Second, globally there is consensus that just military force cannot bring an end to acts of terrorism. A recent example of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan is a testament to that. So long the Pakistani state believes the benefits of using terrorism as a tool against India concerning Kashmir and, ergo, its interests at the domestic front exceed whatever cost it has to bear vis-à-vis India or from the international community, India can only manage Pakistani terrorism to a certain extend. Since India cannot use the full might of its military power due to the nuclear factor and given Pakistan’s unrelenting stance on Kashmir and terrorism, violence at the lower levels is expected to continue, possibly rise, in the future.


[1] Michael Krepon (2010), “The Stability-Instability Paradox”, Arms Control Wonk, 02 November, Available at accessed on 01 December 2021

[2] Ibid

[3] Michael Krepon (2005), “The Stability-Instability Paradox in South Asia”, Stimson Centre, 01 January, Available at accessed on 01 December 2021

[4] Rajesh Rajagopalan (2006), “What Stability-Instability Paradox? Subnational Conflicts and the Nuclear Risk in South Asia”, South Asian Strategic Stability Unit, February, Available at accessed on 01 December 2021

[5] Michael Krepon (2004), “The Stability-Instability Paradox, Misperception, and Escalation Control in South Asia”, The Asia Dialogue, Available at accessed on 01 December 2021

[6] “Important Agreements”, High Commission of India, Pakistan, Available at  accessed on 01 December 2021

[7] Ibid

[8] “A CONVERSATION WITH GEN. KHALID KIDWAI”, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 23 March, Available at accessed on 26 December 2021

[9] Ibid

[10] “Report on Nuclear safety, nuclear stability and nuclear strategy in Pakistan” (2002), Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, 14 January, Available at accessed on 26 December 2021

[11] Malik Qasim Mustafa (2016), “South Asian Nuclear Thresholds: Repercussions of Cold Start Doctrine and Tactical Nuclear Weapons”, Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad, Available at accessed on 26 December 2021.

[12] Angad Singh (2020), “From Kargil to Balakot: The continuing challenges to India’s modern air power”, Observer Research Foundation, 12 March, Available at From Kargil to Balakot: The continuing challenges to India’s modern airpower | ORF ( accessed on 26 December 2021