Non-Linear, Unpredictable, and Dangerous Crisis-Escalation in South Asia

The advent of disruptive technologies and increasing potency of the information landscape is likely to alter the hierarchy of escalation and add to the complexity of the strategic milieu in South Asia.

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By: Syed Ali Zia Jaffery

South Asia garners significant attention from scholars and policymakers alike, not least due to the presence of nuclear weapons and factors that could trigger nuclear-tinged crises. China, India, and Pakistan’s nuclear arsenals make crisis-escalation a significant topic of inquiry both in terms of academic research and policymaking. Festering disputes, especially between India and Pakistan, coupled with the propensity to use force, have increased fears of unpredictable and disastrous escalation. This is evidenced by the fact that, in the most recent crisis, the two nuclear titans not only used airpower but also threatened to precipitously climb up the escalation ladder.     So, the  question that arises is this: should we look at India-Pakistan crises like we did before? Additionally, how will escalation be controlled and deterrence maintained going forward? These questions need to be seriously addressed in order to introduce much-needed nuance to the discourse on escalation.

In his book “Escalation and the Nuclear Option,” Bernard Brodie writes that escalation control is an exercise in deterrence. In other words, a state must control escalation by deterring its adversary from climbing up the escalation ladder, primarily because rung-climbing represents a clear shift in the level and scale of a crisis. This line of thinking assumes that there are clear firebreaks and transitions between rungs on the escalation ladder, a metaphor introduced by Herman Kahn in his magnum opus, On Escalation. Kahn’s 44-rung escalation ladder continues to remain a useful framework for analyzing crisis escalation, for it explicates how crises will escalate from lower levels of violence to all-out nuclear wars. Though useful, Kahn’s escalation ladder is predictable and linear; it does not offer a one-size-fits-all lens to view escalation and does not easily apply to the current dynamics in South Asia, in the context of India and Pakistan’s chronic nuclear-armed rivalry. In a bid to fully fathom the changing nature and trajectories of escalation, and account for the advent of cutting-edge technologies, it is important to look at new  models of escalation.  

In her 2020 article, “Wormhole Escalation in the New Nuclear Age,” Rebecca Hersman has done exactly that, by analyzing how crises between nuclear adversaries might begin, escalate, and terminate. In challenging the predictability and linearity of Kahn’s ladder, Hersman contends that escalation follows a “wormhole dynamic,” which punctures traditional deterrence and provides actors a chance to jump between various levels of the conflict spectrum. According to Hersman, new technologies are likely to create more attractive avenues to carry out coercion at the sub-conventional and strategic levels among nuclear-armed states. Hersman identifies three factors that can engender the wormhole dynamic in the process of escalation. The first factor is the increasing potency of the sub-conventional domain of warfare. The second relates to the removal of firebreaks between the conventional and nuclear levels, while the third looks at the increasing capacity of regional nuclear powers to cause strategic crises involving bigger nuclear powers. With sub-conventional activities acting as crisis-triggers, feeding into the conventional level, and eliciting third parties’ mediatory efforts in Indo-Pak crises, Hersman’s model is indeed a useful framework to assess shifts in the patterns and laws of escalation in South Asia. Wormhole escalation could very well go on to supplement traditional routes of escalation and undermine deterrence, making deterrence stability in South Asia all the more fragile. Consequently, reliance on the tried and tested manual will not end should crises occur going forward.

Whither Stability-Instability Paradox?

Hersman’s foremost concern is how actions at the sub-conventional level can achieve deleterious effects at the strategic level.  This inquiry may sound familiar given that the allure of sub-conventional operations is commensurate with one side of Glenn Snyder’s Stability-Instability Paradox (i.e. nuclear weapons-induced stability at the strategic level drives up instability at the sub-strategic levels). However, the likelihood of sub-conventional forays destabilizing the strategic level discredits the other side of the paradox. Hersman’s Wormhole model challenges the higher-end stability of Snyder’s model. Certainly,  the precision and speed of  gray zone tactics can help a potential aggressor strike the enemy deep inside its homeland. Through sub-strategic actions, including but not limited to information-based cyber attacks, adversaries can achieve strategic goals like creating social unrest in targeted states. What’s more, nuclear weapons might not be able to deter adversaries from taking such actions.  

Two points from Hersman’s above analysis are noteworthy for South Asia watchers. First, a permissible environment in the sub-conventional domain, hinging on safe, lucrative, and impactful options, like spreading fake news and disinformation, will exacerbate tensions between India and Pakistan, especially given their simmering disputes and resolve to coerce each other. Rather than embroil in kinetic conflict, it is much easier for India and Pakistan to use social media to create fissures on both sides. In 2020, it was revealed that most accounts inciting sectarian violence in Pakistan operated out of India, compelling Pakistan to blame India for stoking sectarianism. India’s successful exploitation of a tinderbox-like sectarianism could ensnare Pakistan in more trouble than a brazen surgical strike. While kinetic action in a conventional domain is difficult to conduct, easily attributable, and may or may not put pressure on the strategic level, instigating sectarian violence through deep fakes and social media attacks is easier. Yet, it is harder to deter through traditional modes of deterrence. Second, with both countries having rudimentary capabilities in deterring these kinds of cyber attacks, they would continue to rely on the currently available tools of deterrence, increasing chances of escalation and the disproportionate use of force. To deal with this quandary and accommodate the pronounced, destabilizing role that sub-conventional incursions play, Rabia Akhtar suggests that Pakistan “undertake doctrinal changes to redesign its conventional and nuclear thresholds.” New red lines could also include social unrest, information blackout, and massive, large-scale cyber-attacks on Pakistan’s key institutions and figures.

Hersman’s new paradox is dangerous once seen through the South Asian lens. When less prohibitive options are added to the South Asian capabilities mix, incentives to “hit without hitting” increase precipitously, something that is likely to mar the already tenuous state of Indo-Pakistani deterrence stability. While the applicability of Snyder’s paradox to South Asia is debatable, the permissible and widening sub-conventional domain certainly is a subversive phenomenon in the region, one that will disturb the traditional fabric of deterrence. This is mainly because age-old notions of nuclear strategic stability may not play an instrumental role in mitigating the strategic risks emanating from potent sub-conventional operations, giving adversaries more windows to traverse the path of escalation without fear of retribution.  

Blurring the Lines and Deterrence Stability

Hersman’s second point assesses how the proliferation of dual-use platforms, by eroding the distinction between the conventional and nuclear domains, has increased room for inadvertent escalation. Firebreaks are indeed important to escalation control and management, especially because they act as tripwires and give states an opportunity to serve a deterrent threat in the shape of a promise to escalate and raise the costs of a prospective action. Transitions from the sub-conventional to the conventional and nuclear levels may become more convoluted going forward given the increasingly difficult task of discerning the intent of the adversaries. With increasingly ambiguous firebreaks, showing the resolve to escalate may not be enough to engender deterrence.

In previous Indo-Pak crises, firebreaks have played a prominent role in crisis diplomacy and escalation control. The fear that either country could cross a particular barrier has not only brought about a degree of restraint but also galvanized the international community into putting out fires. This has been the case from the Kargil conflict to the Pulwama-Balakot Crisis. If anything, Pakistan’s crisis behavior during the Pulwama-Balakot Crisis was guided by the apprehension that both countries could escalate from the conventional to the nuclear level. A future Indo-Pak crisis, in which at least one of the parties is unsure about the adversary’s move and the level it is traversing, will be but riskier and dangerous. Thus, the erosion of barriers between the two levels will certainly not please peaceniks in South Asia.

 Also, an ever-widening trust deficit, coupled with the aggressive use of gray zone tactics, could make the conventional-nuclear immersion more incendiary in South Asia. As deterrence is related to perceptions, an information-led invasion into India or Pakistan’s systems—conventional or nuclear—could be deemed a precursor to something deadlier, invoking the use-or-lose dilemma. This could become all the more possible if perceptions of the survivability of nuclear forces decline.

This is all the more plausible in South Asia, not only because of the near absence of nuclear confidence-building and risk-reduction measures between India and Pakistan but also due to India adding more conventional and nuclear strike options in its repertoire. In the Indo-Pak context, a hostile environment, coupled with higher levels of nuclear-readiness, makes such disinformation-induced strategic paralysis a deadly possibility.

Hersman’s analysis is a useful guide to understanding the shifting escalation landscape in South Asia. However, with both India and Pakistan lagging behind in the acquisition and development of disruptive technologies, firebreaks still separate the levels of conflict. The complex conventional-nuclear interface may not necessarily be bad news for South Asia. Even if the lines were to blur going forward, the fear of uncontrolled escalation in an unpredictable manner will likely create a deterrent effect on a potential aggressor. In a highly volatile  bilateral equation between India and Pakistan, it is somewhat untenable for either country to mull over decapitating dual-use surveillance systems. This is mainly because both are likely to misinterpret each other’s actions. With ambiguity surrounding interpretations and responses, the prospective aggressor might have to rethink before acting with alacrity and ferocity.

Escalation and the Crisis Management Problem

Hersman is rightly worried about the barriers to crisis management that may result from the diffusion of nuclear weapons to regional powers, specifically the ways in which larger nuclear powers might become entangled in regional conflicts. This quandary, especially with reference to India and Pakistan, has been adroitly explained by Vipin Narang in his book, “Nuclear Strategy in the Modern Era.” According to Narang, Pakistan had, in the past, adopted a catalytic posture, under which it used escalatory risk to evoke third-party mediation, particularly from the U.S. While Pakistan no longer employs a catalytic posture, it continues to draw attention of the international community towards nuclear dangers in  South Asia.

The assumption that larger powers will intervene to control escalation between nuclear powers is fallacious. For instance, India, buoyed and propelled by the belief that the United States will aid it in a crisis, may climb the levels of escalation against Pakistan, or China, for that matter. However, the United States might not be able to fully back India given fears of brazen escalation leading to a nuclear exchange. Third-party mediation will indeed be hampered by the conflicting values direct and indirect actors attach to a crisis. While South Asian powers might be able to take actions at the sub-conventional level because of the real or perceived ratifications of superpowers, it would be difficult for Beijing and Washington to apportion blame and force warring-parties to stand down. This predicament will exacerbate, mainly because actions and, by extension, crises would be different. Mediation in a crisis that does not look like a typical crisis is going to be difficult, to say the least. Thus, apropos of the Indo-Pak nuclear rivalry, the shrinking space for crisis diplomacy, coupled with an environment propitious for the outbreak of crises, is not good news.

Also, the old mechanisms of arms control and crisis management may need to be retailored. In the South Asian context, calls for fighting hybrid or 5th generation war should not be brushed aside as mere paranoia. Wormholes may indeed make the strategic milieu in South Asia more convoluted while curtailing the role of traditional concepts of deterrence and crisis management in stabilizing the environment both in peacetime and during crises. To avert the destabilizing effects of wormholes, Hersman astutely underscores the importance of augmenting societal and political resilience well ahead of crises. This is doable in South Asia. Pakistan, for instance, could take steps to improve governance, with a view to building more trust between citizens and the state. Governance in Pakistan can improve if the government commits to undertaking a series of structural reforms that increase the prospect of growth and development in war-ravaged and underdeveloped areas of the country. This must complemented by consistent efforts to counter fake news and mendacious propaganda. For its part, India could take steps to convince powerful media outfits to reduce jingoism and focus more on creating awareness.  

Hersman’s proposal of inducting compliance-enforcement and dispute-resolution in the arms control architecture is a sound, logical one, especially because in South Asia the use of gray zone tactics, not least propaganda, are directly linked to aggravating underlying rivalries and conflicts. With conventional and nuclear arms likely to be assigned different roles in crises and conflicts, Hersman is right in enunciating that traditional arms control scaffolds may not help mitigate the detrimental ramifications of wormhole escalation. The platforms available to states for carrying-out information offensives against their nemeses, not least the social media, are leaving a mark on South Asia. Considered by Hersman as a debilitating development, the weaponization of social media could upend arms control initiatives should they be taken going forward, especially in South Asia. Even otherwise, the fraught environment in South Asia has left little space for substantive discussions on arms control, a factor that makes the region more prone to conflict.    

All this should, therefore, caution policymakers and scholars against analyzing crisis behaviors and the resultant escalation dynamics through old prisms. The advent of disruptive technologies and increasing potency of the information landscape is likely to alter the hierarchy of escalation and add to the complexity of the strategic milieu in South Asia. Consequently, the region could witness nuclear states wade into precarious, unfamiliar situations going forward.

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