RPI Author Christopher Clary: The Changing Balance of Conventional Forces in South Asia

RPI Author Christopher Clary: The Changing Balance of Conventional Forces in South Asia


Rangers from Pakistan and India shake hands during Wagah border ceremony (Source: NPR)

Rangers from Pakistan and India shake hands during Wagah border ceremony (Source: NPR)

Christopher Clary, a participant in RPI’s Nuclear Debates in Asia project and a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, recently wrote an essay for The Stimson Center titled “Deterrence Stability and the Conventional Balance of Forces in South Asia” where he argued that the traditionally held notion that India holds an overwhelming conventional superiority over Pakistan is — for the time being — overstated. Clary concludes, however, that India’s conventional modernization efforts will continue to outpace Pakistan,and that the primary challenge is “how to manage this transition from a regime where conventional and nuclear deterrence operate, to one in which Pakistan is primarily reliant on its nuclear arsenal.”


Here are some highlights from his report:

On the unquestioned assumption of India’s conventional superiority:

India’s considerable military edge over Pakistan is normally taken as a given, from which analysts typically focus on how Indian political and military leaders might employ military force and whether they would accidentally cross a Pakistani “redline.” Within Pakistan, analysts scrutinize whether and how its leadership would choose to employ nuclear weapons (or threats of their use) in the face of impending Indian conventional military victory. Often this assumption—jumping to the end of the story—is justified by pointing to past precedent. After all, India has not lost any of its four wars with Pakistan. Even some within Pakistan occasionally jest that “the Pakistan Army is the best army to have never won a war.” At a certain level of abstraction, these historical references are certainly true, but past conflicts tell us very little about the contours of a future fight.

On the most likely scenario for future large-scale conflict between India and Pakistan:

The standard template, then, for most analysts concerned about uncontrolled escalation in South Asia is that a future India-Pakistan conflict will begin with a major terrorist attack in India that can be traced back to Pakistan. The December 13, 2001 attack on the Indian parliament and  the November 26, 2008 attacks in Mumbai are archetypical examples of possible triggers of conflict. A third attack, the coordinated bombing of the Mumbai commuter rail system on July 11, 2006, also merits inclusion as an example of a possible initiator of unintended conflict, since these attacks were stunningly effective, killing 209 and injuring 900 more.

Notably, none of these despicable attacks triggered an actual war or even limited hostilities between the two militaries. One could nonetheless imagine, under plausible scenarios, that certain mass casualty acts against iconic targets might lead to a decision by a future Indian Cabinet Committee on Security to initiate hostilities against Pakistan.

While India’s conventional superority over Pakistan is not yet overwhelming, Clary argued that several factors will ultimately push New Delhi in that direction:

The military expenditure asymmetry is simply too large and growing too rapidly for even a determined Pakistani effort to keep up with growing Indian military strength. India has gone from spending nearly four to five times as much as Pakistan in 1988 to nearly seven to eight times as much in 2012. Neither Pakistan’s geographic advantages nor India’s procurement lethargy can prevent a growing conventional mismatch from occurring. Nor can India’s lethargy in military procurement be assumed indefinitely into the future.

India’s economy is simply too large for Pakistan to compete. Even if India maintains defense spending at around or under two per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), over time it will outstrip Pakistan’s ability to maintain a credible conventional defense, even though Pakistan spends many times more on defense as a percentage of GDP. As the Indian military expands its qualitative superiority, particularly in the air domain, it will become increasingly difficult for the Pakistani military to deny India victory in limited fights in the medium- to long-term.

Finally, this growing imbalance has profound implications for U.S. crisis management in South Asia:

Growing conventional asymmetries are likely to decrease the ability of outsiders, most notably the United States, to manage the risk of conflict on the subcontinent. Deterrence stability on the subcontinent depends in large measure on Pakistan’s military leadership. In the 1990s, Rawalpindi responded to unfavorable strategic shifts by relying to a greater extent on violent non-state actors. This strategy forced New Delhi to “pay attention” to Pakistan, while tying down significant numbers of Indian security forces in counterinsurgency operations, most notably in Kashmir. Put another way, support for militancy was considered to be a force multiplier for Pakistan and a force divider for India.


This analysis suggests that Washington would have limited ability to fundamentally change defense trends that are tilting hard in India’s direction. As such, providing weapons systems to Pakistan that are most suitable to a potential war with India would do little to alter basic trends, while postponing the choices facing Pakistan’s military leadership

To read the full report, click hereBe sure to follow the Rising Power Initiative’s Nuclear Debates in Asia project on Twitter (@westmyer) and this blog for more news and analysis on nuclear issues in Asia.