Frank O'Donnell



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I am an Associate at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University, as a joint appointment by the Managing the Atom Program and International Security Program. I am additionally a Lecturer at the Boston College Political Science Department, and a Consultant and Nonresident Fellow in the South Asia Program at the Stimson Center. Previously, I was a Stanton Junior Faculty Fellow at the Belfer Center, and an Assistant Professor at Plymouth University at the Britannia Royal Naval College. I have been a Visiting Fellow in the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the School of International Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, and the Institute of Foreign Policy Studies at the University of Calcutta. I have also held research roles at the University of Aberdeen and James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

My research investigates the intersection between strategic cultures, technical force developments, deterrence conceptions, and stability challenges within nuclear rivalries.  A book on this subject, evaluating inadvertent and accidental escalation risk within the China-India-Pakistan trilateral strategic rivalry, is forthcoming with Georgetown University Press. I am currently working on a second book manuscript based upon my Ph.D. dissertation. This identifies and classifies Indian nuclear schools of thought. It proves that the lack of consistent patterns of Indian strategic opinion and practice, as they relate to positive or negative developments in India's threat environment, is explained by how these threat environments are perceptually constructed by these schools of thought. 

My writings on these themes have appeared in journals such as Asian Survey, Comparative Strategy, Contemporary Security Policy, Orbis, and Survival. I have also provided testimony to the UK House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, and regularly comment on South Asian security issues for various media. 

I received my Ph.D. from the Defence Studies Department at King's College London. I hold an M.Sc. in Strategic Studies from the University of Aberdeen, and an M.A. in International Relations and Middle East Studies from the University of St. Andrews



Book Project I

India and Nuclear Asia: Forces, Doctrine, and Dangers

Co-authored with Yogesh Joshi, Nuclear Security Postdoctoral Fellow, CISAC, Stanford University

Georgetown University Press (forthcoming Nov. 2018).

This book constitutes a substantive contribution to security studies and international relations literatures concerning South Asia, nuclear strategy and posturing, and nonproliferation policy. It provides a holistic analysis of India’s contemporary nuclear doctrinal and posturing developments, policy debates, and regional strategic context. To provide a full picture of India’s nuclear profile in the early 21st century, the volume also analyzes its nonproliferation policy approaches.

The book argues that the nuclear doctrinal and force developments of India, Pakistan and China, as well as their related internal debates, are elevating the risk of inadvertent and accidental escalation within this trilateral nuclear complex. Inadvertent escalation is defined as conventional attacks on nuclear forces, bearing the risk of introducing nuclear implications to a previously conventional conflict. Accidental escalation is defined as a military action, ordered by policymakers, that has unanticipated escalatory effects.

Through a comprehensive analysis of the contemporary nuclear thought, policies, perceptions, and postures of India, Pakistan and China, the book identifies common trends to develop its argument into specific contributory factors driving such unplanned escalation risks. With regard to inadvertent escalation, these include the forthcoming launch of naval nuclear forces in a context of mutually contested maritime boundaries; the growing employment of dual-use delivery vehicles, increasing the risk of misperception of the mission of an adversary platform; and the emerging preferences of all three states to employ missiles early in a conflict to force early termination, without a clear understanding of how adversaries would respond to such strikes.

Accidental escalation dangers are being generated, firstly, by the near-absence of substantive strategic and nuclear dialogue between India, China and Pakistan, which permits worst-case misperceptions of mutual strategic intentions to go uncorrected. This is exacerbated by the second factor, consisting of the growing ambiguity of nuclear intentions. India is developing capabilities that would support nuclear warfighting missions, as voices in favour of such strategies grow in New Delhi. Pakistan is revising its operative nuclear concept to “full spectrum deterrence,” entailing developing a tailored nuclear capability to deter nearly every potential level of Indian conventional attack, but its precise nuclear threshold is less clear than ever before. China is reorganizing its higher defense structure into a single integrated command facing India with a focus on higher military readiness and aggressive tactics, and developing new road-mobile and dual-use variants of the missiles employed for Indian targeting missions. Authoritative Chinese military scholars and authors are increasingly cognizant of the need for Beijing to respond more directly to the India threat, as these authors also begin to explore conditioning or revoking China’s no-first-use policy.

The book concludes by arguing that New Delhi, Beijing and Islamabad firstly initiate nuclear and naval strategic dialogues to discern mutual nuclear and territorial intentions and thus reduce the risk of conflict emerging from a misperception of these. Secondly, it argues that India should conduct a public official defense review to assess its strategic regional context and lead to the adoption of a posturing response that clearly separates conventional from nuclear threats and assigns response packages to conventional and nuclear forces respectively. This latter exercise should reiterate that Indian nuclear forces only obtain credibility as a tool of last resort, and should be thought of solely in the minimum terms of deterring specifically nuclear threats. Stronger conventional defenses and renewed effort to building these should form the Indian response to nonnuclear threats.

As well as disaggregating and prioritizing the specific regional threats poses to Indian security, and generating a more efficient use and development of defense resources in response, such a process would reduce the capability-led and doctrine-led ambiguity regarding nuclear thresholds that we have seen emerging above. It will also help India address political and technical questions regarding its nuclear force capabilities that influence its stances toward the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty issues within its broader nonproliferation policy approach. 

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Book Project II

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India's Search for Deterrence:  Strategic Nuclear Subcultures and Policy Preferences

India’s evolving conceptions of how nuclear deterrence operates will inform our understanding of nuclear weapons in the post-Cold War second nuclear age, and of how state security communities evaluate and decide their deterrence requirements. To understand the perceptual context surrounding India’s recent nuclear policy decisions - including the views within India’s nuclear strategic elite of the true policy options available to New Delhi at the time - we must explore India’s strategic nuclear discourse. The reconstruction of nuclear strategic discourse undertaken by this book also permits us a window into the larger set of deterrence assumptions that underpin Indian strategic elite arguments. These have changed since India conducted nuclear tests and declared itself an overt nuclear weapons state in 1998, and are continuing to evolve. This book uniquely outlines how this process happened, and its implications for our understanding of India’s nuclear future and its rise as a global power.

My manuscript introduces a new dataset of nuclear opinion articles published in elite English-language newspapers. Drawing a random sample from this dataset, the book finds that India hosts two competing schools, or “subcultures” of nuclear thought: a “minimalist-political” subculture that believes India should possess a small nuclear arsenal for primarily political reasons, and with restricted military roles; and a “maximalist-operational” subculture that supports less restrictions on the platform diversity, numerical size and defense roles of Indian nuclear forces.

These two subcultures closely relate to the minimalist and maximalist traditions of nuclear thought. The former is generally defined as a concept of deterrence that seeks a small force designed on the principle of posing adequate retaliatory risk to adversaries. By contrast, maximalist strategists assert that credibility depends upon ensuring retaliatory certainty based upon numerical force supremacy or parity at multiple imagined levels of nuclear warfighting.


As they present themselves in the Indian strategic context, however, these subcultures are not limited to the preferred mission and sizing requirements of India’s nuclear arsenal. Indeed, they also encompass the relationship of India’s nuclear status to its profile as an emerging power, with minimalists arguing that continued nuclear restraint helps distinguish India as a responsible rising power, and maximalists instead positing that enhancing India’s nuclear destructive capabilities will help it accrue regional and international respect. In addition, the subcultures divide upon their comparative willingness to contemplate conventional war in a nuclear environment. 

The book traces how four key influences upon Indian strategic thought and practice - constituting the strategic activities and attitudes of Pakistan, the United States and China, and India's nuclear technical capabilities - have been constructed within its nongovernmental elite strategic discourse from 1998 to present. The lack of correlation between a worsening strategic environment and an increased level of support for more hawkish strategic policies, and vice versa, is explained by the fact that we cannot assume that India’s strategic elite will necessarily read a hostile strategic environment as requiring nuclear and conventional policies belonging to the more assertive maximalist-operational school of thought, and a more benign context as an argument for minimalist-political approaches. Instead, the level of support for each of these schools is dependent upon the perceptual framing of these four factors within the Indian elite discourse, which can be qualitatively distinctive from their actual material influences at the time. 


Against this background, we see a gradual increase in comparative quantitative support for framings of these four factors that support the maximalist-operational subculture, policy options expressing its logic, and subsequent official policy decisions that resemble these policy options. This indicates a steady erosion of the minimalist-political subculture that dominated Indian nuclear thought from 1964. This transition in operative deterrence concepts initiates with the discourse surrounding the 2001-2 militarized crisis with Pakistan. A concluding chapter, exploring contemporary Indian nuclear policy discourses surrounding Pakistan and China, highlights that the maximalist-operational subculture continues to attract support, with destabilizing implications for Indian and regional security.



India’s Evolving Nuclear Force and Implications for US Strategy in the Asia-Pacific  (Carlisle, PA: US Army War College Press, 2016)   (co-authored with Yogesh Joshi and Harsh V. Pant)

Journal Articles

"Managing Indian Deterrence: Pressures upon Credible Minimum Deterrence and Nuclear Policy Options," Nonproliferation Review, Vol. 25 Nos. 5-6 (forthcoming, 2019) (co-authored with Debalina Ghoshal)

"Reconsidering Minimum Deterrence in South Asia: Indian Responses to Pakistan’s Tactical Nuclear Weapons," Contemporary Security Policy  Vol. 38 No. 1  (April 2017)

"Managing Indian Defense Policy: The Missing Grand Strategy Connection," Orbis Vol. 59 Issue 2  (Spring 2015)  (co-authored with Harsh V. Pant)

"Lost at Sea: The Arihant in India’s Quest for a Grand Strategy," Comparative Strategy  Vol. 33 Issue 5  (Nov/Dec 2014)  (co-authored with Yogesh Joshi) 

"India’s Submarine Deterrent and Asian Nuclear Proliferation," Survival  Vol. 56 No. 4  (Aug/Sep 2014) (co-authored with Yogesh Joshi)

"Evolution of India’s Agni-V Missile: Bureaucratic Politics and Nuclear Ambiguity," Asian Survey  Vol. 54 No. 3  (May/June 2014) (co-authored with Harsh V. Pant)

Chapters in Edited Books


Book Reviews

“The Evolution of India’s National Security Apparatus: Persisting Structural Deficiencies,”  (co-authored with Harsh V. Pant),  in Harsh V. Pant (ed.) The Routledge Handbook of Indian Defence Policy  (Oxford: Routledge, 2015)

Review: Aqil Shah, The Army and Democracy: Military Politics in                  Pakistan (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014),”                               International Journal of Military History and Historiography Vol. 37                Issue 2 (2017)

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Sample Syllabi

International Security

This course surveys modern international conflict and security. Students will evaluate the security problems at the center of the international system, with a primary focus on dilemmas encountered in each escalatory level of conflict and the capability of international institutions to resolve crises. You will be introduced to a variety of competing theories of how international stability is developed and sustained, and explore how these paradigms relate to contemporary global security problems. We will firstly study how international security is conceptualized by three major theories of international relations: realism, liberalism and constructivism. We will then study strategy and what strategic theory tells us about the nature of warfare. These concepts will be applied throughout the course to analyze topics from each escalatory level of conflict. The second section will start our exploration of levels of conflict, beginning at the subconventional level. We will assess the challenges of combatting terrorism and insurgencies, and the implications of the opening of new cyber and space domains of conflict. The next section will examine intervention and conventional war. We will study dilemmas of intervening through proxy war, peacekeeping and peace enforcement, and then progress to explore the challenges of fighting limited wars and managing escalation within wars. The fourth section, bringing us to the nuclear level, will critique the principles of nuclear strategy and debates in the study of nuclear doctrine and postures. The final section will evaluate the effectiveness of major international institutions in resolving conflicts, and what this tells us about global security. This course takes the form of seminars, and emphasizes the importance of developing analytical skills through student critical questioning of assigned readings and other student interpretations of these readings.


Theories of International Relations

This course provides an introduction to theories of international relations. Students will critically assess how states interact with each other and the utility of international relations theoretical paradigms in explaining these interactions. Questions that this course will address include: What is the value of theory to understanding modern international relations? What are the conditions that explain outbreaks of war and peace? Why do states choose to cooperate or compete with each other? The course will firstly assess the importance of theory for understanding international relations, how theory is applied analyze developments in world affairs, and the major international relations paradigms of realism, liberalism and constructivism. It will next explore how international conflict is explained by these major theories, covering topics including alliances and deterrence. The third section will examine how international peace is built according to these theories. This section will incorporate elements such as international law, international institutions, and global democratization. The course will finally identify the importance of strategic culture and norms in shaping state perceptions and international behavior, and how major theories account for these influences. We will conclude each section by exploring an important case study in modern international relations, discussing how it challenges the logic and conclusions of each of the three principal theories studied in this course. This course takes the form of seminars, and emphasizes the importance of developing analytical skills through student critical questioning of assigned readings and other student interpretations of these readings.


 International Relations of South Asia (Boston College, Fall 2018)

This course offers an overview of South Asian international relations and security issues. The course will firstly introduce theories of international relations and the more specific concepts of hegemony and regional security complexes. It will next explore the structure of South Asia as a regional security complex, including the foreign policy approaches of each state within this system, and the role of South Asian institutions. We will then investigate regional human security issues, including those related to economic development, water security, energy security, and climate change.  Next, we will study security challenges as they arise from patterns of terrorism, insurgency, conventional war, and nuclear strategy. The course will conclude by assessing the implications of the historical and contemporary involvement of the United States, USSR/Russia, and China in the region.


Rising Powers in the International System

This seminar explores theoretical and policy implications of rising powers in international relations. The course is structured around major debates concerning the rise of China, India and Japan in the international system in the early 21st century. Questions that this course will address include: Can rising powers be peacefully accommodated in the existing structures of the international system? Will greater global multipolarity stabilize or destabilize international relations? How are these states responding to their growing power in domestic political trends and strategic perceptions? What consequences will these transitions have for managing global issues such as security disputes, nuclear non-proliferation, economic governance, and climate change? This course will firstly identify the relevance of international relations concepts such as power transition theory and multipolarity to analyzing this topic, and the anticipated consequences of rising powers for international stability in the realist, liberal and constructivist theoretical paradigms of international relations. We will next assess the contemporary international behavior of China, India and Japan in detail, with a section devoted to exploring the foreign and defense policy behavior and domestic worldviews of each state, alongside a study of international and regional responses to their rise. Throughout each section, we will continue to examine how these elements of rising power behavior challenge or support each of these major theoretical paradigms. The course will conclude by focusing on implications of these rising powers for global issues, including unresolved security disputes, nuclear non-proliferation, stable economic governance, and climate change. These seminars will emphasize student critical questioning of the ability of existing concepts of international relations to explain conditions surrounding rising powers, as part of developing original research questions.


Courses Taught:

International Security: Managing Current Threats and Conflicts

Britannia Royal Naval College

Responsible for syllabus development and instruction

Classes: Civil and Proxy Wars, Clausewitz and Strategic Thought, Cyber and Space Conflict, Limited War, Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction, Strategic Assessment and Planning, Theorizing Asian Security

Number of course iterations taught: 6

Student Evaluations

The aim of this course is to develop in students a robust theoretical and analytical understanding of the dynamics of contemporary warfare and of international and British security challenges in the 21st century.

This course provides a theoretical foundation for the study of war, then proceeds to analyse Britain’s engagement in international institutions as a core element of its security approach. The course concludes with an exploration of contemporary types of conflict and security threats, and their implications for our understanding of war in the 21st century. Each topic includes a survey and critique of its contemporary academic and policy debates and their attendant implications for international and British security.

At the end of the module students will have acquired:

1.    Factual understanding of contemporary warfare and 21st century conflict trends, especially those relevant to British security and armed forces in the post-Cold War and post-9/11 worlds.

2.    An awareness and ability to apply some of the key theoretical concepts used to understand contemporary warfare, international security challenges, and modern international relations. These include Clausewitzian strategic theory and general theories of international relations (constructivism, liberalism, and realism) alongside specific concepts such as cyberwarfare, space conflict, proxy war, limited war, and hedging.

3.    Understanding of issues and lessons related to mission planning and cooperation in the multilateral environment, especially those that cast insight upon Britain’s participation in NATO and European Union missions.

4.    Enhanced problem-solving skills, constituting: the ability to comprehend the relevant issues for a given research problem; identify and gather relevant information from the academic literature; evaluate and apply contending analytical approaches; and engage with academic and policy debates in the field.

5.    An ability to participate effectively in group discussion, employing critical thinking and reasoning skills alongside those outlined above.


Introduction to International Relations and Strategic Studies

Britannia Royal Naval College

Responsible for syllabus development and instruction

Classes: Chinese and Southeast Asian Security, Nuclear Deterrence, Russian Foreign and Security Policy

Number of course iterations taught: 4

Student Evaluations

This course provides students with a grounding in the modern history of international relations as well as some of the concepts that have been used to understand it. The course pays particular attention to the causes and conduct of conflict in the 20th and 21st centuries. It argues that the kind of war and warfare that is prevalent at any given time stems not only from the state of military technology but also from the nature of the actors in the international system and the nature of the system that they inhabit. By the end of the course, students will have acquired key factual knowledge about the history of international relations and modern warfare, and an understanding of the theories of international relations and doctrines of warfare. The learning objectives are facilitated by means of a series of lectures, and by the completion of student essays.


Critical Thinking about International Relations

Britannia Royal Naval College

Seminar Leader

Classes: Chinese Foreign and Security Policy, International Organizations, Nuclear Deterrence, Russian Foreign and Security Policy
Number of course iterations taught: 3

Student Evaluations

This course forms a complementary seminar discussion component to the "Introduction to International Relations and Strategic Studies" course. Students are graded on a 10-minute presentation on an assigned seminar topic and class participation. 


Naval Analysis

Britannia Royal Naval College

Seminar Leader

Classes: National Security Strategy, Security Dynamics of the Korean Peninsula
Number of course iterations taught: 3

Student Evaluations

This short postgraduate course interrogates the historical development and current forms of naval strategy, and how it relates to challenges in the evolving international security context, with special reference to East Asia. Students are graded on an essay, 10-minute presentations on an assigned seminar topic, and class participation.


Issues in Nuclear and Missile Nonproliferation

James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies

Guest Instructor

Class: The Nuclear and Missile Arms Race in South Asia

Designed for serving US Government nonproliferation practitioners, this course covers urgent current issues, including next steps in managing Iran’s nuclear capabilities, meeting the growing North Korean nuclear challenge, and assessing the outcome of the 2015 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference. Long-standing nonproliferation questions are also explored, such as: At what point does a state acquire a nuclear deterrent? Does the spread of nuclear power contribute to the proliferation of nuclear weapons? And, how effective are treaties, inspections, technology controls, and sanctions, as nonproliferation tools? The course includes a mix of lectures, panel discussions, debates, and brief exercises.


UK Joint Services Command and Staff College

Seminar Leader

Air Force Junior Officer Development Course

Number of course iterations taught: 3

Student Evaluations

This short seminar discussion course explores the historical development and current forms of air power, and how it relates to challenges in the evolving international security context. Students are graded on 10-minute presentations on an assigned seminar topic and class participation.




Policy Briefs

Stabilizing Sino-Indian Security Relations: Managing the Strategic Rivalry After Doklam (Carnegie Paper),” Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy (June 2018)

Launching an Expanded Missile Flight-Test Notification Regime,” Stimson Center (3 May 2017)

Indian Minimum Deterrence for South Asia’s New Nuclear Environment,” Contemporary Security Policy Blog (13 Oct 2016)

Three Questions for Indian Nuclear Policy,” King’s College London Defence Studies Department (18 March 2016)

New Depth to Indian Ocean Nuclear Deterrence,” Dartmouth Centre for Seapower and Strategy (3 March 2016)

Indian Defense Reforms: Institutionalizing Clarity and Cohesion in Security Planning,” Center for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania (16 November 2015). Also published in Hindi

An Economic Surge for Afghanistan,” University of Calcutta Institute for Foreign Policy Studies (24 Sep 2013)

India’s Missile Defense: Is the Game Worth the Candle?,” (with Yogesh Joshi), The Diplomat (2 Aug 2013)

India and Pakistan in 2013: Nuclear Extroversion, Political Introversion,” European Leadership Network (4 June 2013)

Pakistan’s Nuclear Labyrinth and the Future of Democratization,” (with Yogesh Joshi), East West Center (25 Apr 2013)

Addressing Pakistan’s Atomisation,” (with Yogesh Joshi), Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (Mar 2013)

Managing India’s Missile Aspirations,” Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (10 Feb 2013)

New Delhi’s New Missile: A Watershed for India’s Nuclear Arsenal,” (with Shashank Joshi), RUSI Analysis (20 Apr 2012)

India’s Space Ascent Gains New Boost,” ISN Insights (11 May 2011)

Engaging the New Nuclear Diplomats,” ISN Security Watch  (1 Jul 2010)

Managing Asia’s Nuclear Rivalry,” ISN Security Watch  (16 Jun 2010)



Expert Interview - Frank O'Donnell on China's One Belt One Road,” Nepal Matters for America (20 April 2018)

Trump's Nuclear Review Could Trigger a Chain Reaction in Asia,” Axios  (8 Feb 2018)

Face-off Between Asia's Nuclear Giants Raises New Fears,” Axios (23 Jan 2018)

Our Muddled Defence Establishment,” The Hindu Business Line (17 Nov 2015)

Aim for Higher Testing Standards,” The Pioneer  (27 July 2015)

Contributor on India-Pakistan relations, “All Things Considered,” National Public Radio  (30 March 2015)

Making Waves in Perilous Waters,” The Pioneer (6 Aug 2014)

Afghanistan Needs an Economic Surge,” The Pioneer  (20 Nov 2013)

 “Agni-V Test: Important Decisions about the Country’s Deterrence Doctrine Must be Made,” (with Shashank Joshi), Economic Times  (23 Apr 2012)

India’s Nuclear Choices,” (with Shashank Joshi), Times of India  (23 Apr 2012)



British Engagement with India Following the EU Referendum,” submitted to UK Parliament House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee (27 July 2016)


Background image from Iskander Rehman, "Hard Men in a Hard Environment: Indian Special Operators along the Border with China," War on the Rocks, January 25, 2017.

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Phone: (+1) 617-599-3053

Skype: frank_odonnell