In his book “Escalation and the Nuclear Option”, Bernard Brodie warned analysts against conflating occasional outbreaks of violence with a failure of deterrence. Mercifully, one constant across nuclear ages has been that deterrence failure has only been theorized and not witnessed. Deterrence, especially nuclear deterrence, has diminished the role of force in global politics while making its use less promising. However, deterrence is not necessarily deemed advantageous by states, especially those that want to alter regional and global dynamics in their favour. Here, it is important to recall that one of the principal effects of Robert Jervis’ nuclear revolution theory is that status quos are hard to change. Thus, for a country like India, that has categorically expressed its intent to capture more territories that are currently within the territorial boundaries of two nuclear-armed states, mutual deterrence is a real hindrance.
Ever since the nuclearization of South Asia, India has tried its best to sidestep mutual vulnerabilities and create space for the use of force under a nuclear overhang against Pakistan. All this has meant that India and Pakistan are holding onto different sides of the coercion spectrum. While Islamabad wants to ensure that deterrence remains intact, New Delhi wants compellence to succeed at all costs. A robust deterrence equation leaves little room for compellence to create the intended strategic effects. In 2019, New Delhi gave compellence another chance by carrying-out airstrikes inside the mainland Pakistani territory of Balakot, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. That the brazen strikes were part of India’s retaliation mix against Pakistan’s alleged, unproven involvement in a suicide attack in Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu and Kashmir (IIOJK) is reason enough to deliberate on coercion as a whole that includes compellence rather than only look at deterrence. Here, it is befitting to enunciate that India wanted to, through the use of force, “compel” Pakistan to do away with its supposed espousal of terrorism. India’s compellent route was chosen after miscalculating Pakistan’s thresholds (read non-nuclear) and resolve to retaliate and level the scores.
While Islamabad wants to ensure that deterrence remains intact, New Delhi wants compellence to succeed at all costs.
That misreading proved costly, to say the least. Let alone compel Pakistan, India’s airstrikes were unable to deter Pakistan from leveraging the agility of its Air Force in broad daylight and striking back. That Pakistan did not allow India to push the red lines to its advantage is one of the clearest manifestations of India’s compellence failure. Besides, compellence is said to be attained when a state (Pakistan) does something that it does not want to do, but does so due to punishment, or the fear of punishment germinating from the adversary (India). With Pakistan retaining and exercising control over its response options, India was unable to compel Pakistan. For Islamabad, considering the strikes as tolerable and fait accompli was not an option, for such an approach would have had colossal reputational costs and would have opened up more windows for India to try its luck at compellence. Pakistan was certainly not coerced as far as the compellence side of the mosaic was concerned. Also, if the idea was to deter via escalation, it did not achieve the desired effects, given that Pakistan resorted to calibrated escalation matching, at a place and time of its own choosing.
As for deterrence, there are two things to consider here. One, even if the Balakot strikes were designed as a package full of deterrent threats and signals, they failed, given that Pakistan was undeterred from applying force in retaliation. Two, ostensibly, Pakistan’s airstrikes in Rajouri and the ensuing, deadly dogfight did deter India from initiating the second round of escalation. As it is easier to claim deterrence, Pakistan can claim that it deterred India at two levels. India was not willing or able to use its proactive war strategy to bite and hold Pakistani territory, even after the occurrence of what India called a terror attack. Therefore, Pakistan could rightfully claim that its full-spectrum deterrence kept the enemy at bay. Going forward in the crisis, India signalled its intent to escalate the crisis by threatening to launch missile strikes on Pakistani targets. India’s willingness to drastically shift to another domain of weaponry was reflective of one thing: Indian Air Force’s inability to go one up on its counterpart. In other words, the readiness and precision displayed by the Pakistan Air Force were instrumental in deterring its opponent from escalating tension.
The chain that binds deterrence stability and crisis stability is the belief in the force of deterrence. Though deterrence derives power from the spontaneity of a costly response, it is enfeebled, if the receiver of the deterrent threat denies that the promised, inevitable reprisal will leave him and his country worse-off.
But why, after failing to both deter and compel Pakistan in the Pulwama-Balakot crisis, did India push to precipitously escalate the crisis, and that too, after Pakistan fully demonstrated its resolve to stand firm and escalate, if and when needed? There are two points to delve into here: One, during the crisis, it was amply obvious that the overarching phenomenon of nuclear deterrence was too hard to circumvent. The choices that both India and Pakistan made during round one factored in what McGeorge Bundy termed “existential deterrence”; Two, the very force of deterrence caused anxieties within the Indian leadership that felt that the costs of escalation were manageable. This is one of the reasons as to why a thorough dissection of the Balakot episode is of import. The chain that binds deterrence stability and crisis stability is the belief in the force of deterrence. Though deterrence derives power from the spontaneity of a costly response, it is enfeebled, if the receiver of the deterrent threat denies that the promised, inevitable reprisal will leave him and his country worse-off. Today, strategic stability, a corollary of deterrence stability and crisis stability, is ever so fragile. India’s crisis behaviour in the Pulwama-Balakot crisis typified a suicidal, erroneous belief that India could get away with striking deep inside mainland Pakistan. More menacingly, the Indian leadership also calculated that missile strikes would leave India better off. A closer study of the Pulwama-Balakot crisis does not make for good reading. If one of the states in a nuclear dyad fancies what Hans Morgenthau called “conventionalization”, maintaining deterrence stability would be a tall order. Almost two years down the line, India still thinks it won the Pulwama-Balakot crisis. This thinking does not augur well for the future of strategic stability in an even-otherwise fraught South Asian strategic environment.