Strategic Space

25 Years of Nuclear India and Pakistan: Crisis Communications Must be Made a Priority

25 May, 2023    ·   5849

Dr. Manpreet Sethi writes that while the two countries have observed a quarter century without nuclear incident, it would be naïve to dismiss the possibility of future dangers.

Manpreet Sethi
Manpreet Sethi
Distinguished Fellow at CAPS

In May 1998, two countries, India and Pakistan, emerged as states with nuclear weapons. They also happened to be neighbours with disputed territorial claims. International reactions not only criticised and imposed sanctions on both, but also expressed anxiety about the two states getting themselves and the region into trouble, given their frequent crises, which now could lead up to nuclear escalation.

Fears about the region becoming a nuclear flashpoint were strengthened when a conflict ensued at Kargil in 1999, where regular Pakistani soldiers clandestinely occupied Indian territory. India, however, conducted its military operations with a controlled use of force to avert escalation. Simultaneously, the international community called out Pakistan for its nuclear blackmail. Military and diplomatic pressure eventually compelled Pakistan to withdraw.

Another crisis, however, came along soon thereafter, when terrorists, supported, trained, and equipped by Pakistan, attacked the Indian Parliament in December 2001. India resorted to full scale military mobilisation and Pakistan responded similarly. After a tense, year-long stand-off, the situation de-escalated when then Pakistani President Gen. Musharraf committed to preventing his country from being used as staging ground for terrorist attacks on India. The promise, unfortunately has not been kept. Terror attacks, supported and enabled by Pakistan, have been a regular disruptor of India-Pakistan relations.

During such disruptions, India and Pakistan have normally reduced or cut-off their communications as a way of expressing displeasure. While this is not uncommon behaviour between adversarial dyads, the worry is that such a political state-of-affairs could exacerbate crisis situations. The resultant trust deficit can lead states into hedging strategies and offence-defence capability build-up, thereby creating potential for more crises.

Common sense demands communications during crisis—to arrest, contain, limit, and terminate it. This is especially critical between nuclear possessors, and they bear a special responsibility, for their own sake, to keep some accepted channels of communication open. In fact, many things can go wrong in the absence of clear crisis communication protocols.

First, it would be difficult to determine the right conduit or mechanism for communicating a threat or an assurance. Unless both sides have an established modus operandi or channels that have been regularly used and tested repeatedly for resilience, state wouldn’t have a go-to, default option in a crisis. They will lose precious time trying to find the right way of communicating. This was evident in the recent incident when a Chinese balloon flew into American airspace. The lack of well-defined communication counterparts between the two countries eventually resulted in the US shooting the balloon down with a military aircraft. The possibility of escalation always looms in such a scenario.

Second, since trust is the first casualty in a crisis, the absence of a communications channel that both parties have some faith in can further degrade confidence. This is even more of a challenge in contemporary times, with an abundance of disinformation and deep fakes. Third, an absence of official communications inevitably leads to this space being occupied by a cacophonic media resorting to conjectures without a full sense of the situation. This can only deepen a crisis by playing up fears and paranoia. Also, social media platforms allow views, opinions, and emotions to be aired without any sense of accountability, thereby vitiating the atmosphere. Therefore, it is critical that crisis communications take place between authorised channels that are reliable and confidential, and even insulated from media influence. In crises, only established modes of communication, even if backchannels, can ensure timely transfer of messages that can be confidentially and reliably communicated to the adversary.

Fortunately, technology today can ensure technically reliable and efficient channels for quick delivery of messages. But the bigger problem of crisis communications is the absence of understanding their true value. This is exacerbated by the fact that states don’t have a shared sense of risk that could be generated in the absence of communication. Rather, some countries believe that letting risks perpetuate better deters the adversary. Risk creation, therefore, takes precedence over risk reduction. China is a good example of this thinking. Beijing has resisted Washington’s efforts to improve crisis communication channels. It believes that keeping these risks alive deter US provocations, which it might otherwise be tempted to take if it had the safety net of communications. So, China sees risks as useful for enhancing deterrence, and is not convinced about the desirability of crisis communications.

In India and Pakistan’s case, while several crisis communication channels are in place, they have not always been used optimally. For instance, the Director General Military Operations (DGMO) hotline has existed for nearly 50 years now, but instances of their successful use have been few and far between. According to some accounts, during the Kargil conflict, it was used with mixed results. Tactical hotlines between local commanders have helped manage local stand-offs, monitor illegal border crossings, and even help each other in case of disasters, such as a a major earthquake in Muzaffarabad in 2005.

In 1989, a hotline between the Indian and Pakistani prime ministers was also instituted, and used to exchange views and even establish dialogues. In fact, during the early part of the Kargil conflict, too, PM Vajpayee used the hotline to reach out to PM Nawaz Sharif. Thereafter, however, the use of this hotline is less known.

Interestingly, in August 2005, special telephone lines were instituted between the deputy ministers for foreign affairs on both sides, particularly to prevent misunderstandings and reduce the risks from accidental missile launches. Yet, when such an incident did come to pass in March 2022 with the accidental launch of a cruise missile, the BrahMos, from India into Pakistan, according to publicly available information, the hotline wasn’t activated by either side, whether to provide or to seek information. Two factors kept the situation from escalating: Pakistan’s sober approach and India’s wisdom in choosing to keep its nuclear and conventional missiles separately. However, accidents can still happen, and the value of crisis communications can’t be emphasised enough.

Despite the fears of the western world, India and Pakistan have completed a quarter century without any nuclear incident. All crises have been handled with a high consciousness of risks and controlled use of force. Given, however, that the two countries have unresolved issues and grievances, it would be naïve to dismiss the possibility of crises in the future. It is, therefore, imperative to energise existing communication channels or build new ones to avert the possibility of a full-blown crisis, and find ways to get out in case we slip into one. Not talking to each other because of a lack of clarity on how to communicate, or with whom, would be disastrous during a crisis. In fact, similar attempts at setting up credible crisis communication channels must be instituted with China, too.

Even individuals keep emergency numbers handy. It would be dangerous, and foolish, for two nuclear nations to not do so as well.


Dr Manpreet Sethi is Distinguished Fellow, Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS), New Delhi, and Senior Research Adviser, Asia Pacific Leadership Network (APLN).