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India, Pakistan and their growing nuclear arsenal

India and Pakistan exchanged a list of each other’s nuclear installations on Saturday like they have done at the start of each year under a 1988 pact in which the two sides agreed not to attack these facilities. That is the main confidence building measure in the area of nuclear security between the two countries, even though their nuclear weapons programmes have expanded significantly since then. Indeed for some years now there is a growing body of international opinion that holds that Pakistan has stepped up production of fissile material, and may just possibly hold more nuclear weapons than its much larger rival, India.

Which is remarkable given that the Indian nuclear programme is driven by the need for deterrence against much bigger armed-China, the third element in the South Asian nuclear tangle. The Indians who conducted a nuclear test as early as 1974, thus,may be behind not just the Chinese, but also Pakistan in terms of the number of warheads, fissile material and delivery systems.

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists in a global report in August 2010 estimated that India had assembled 60 to 80 warheads and produced enough fissile material for 60-105 nuclear warheads. Pakistan is estimated to have assembled 70–90 warheads and produced missile material for as many as 90 warheads. China’s arsenal was estimated at 240 nuclear warheads. Here’s a PDF of the report prepared by Robert S.Norris and Hans M.Kristensen.

The majority of India’s and Pakistan’s warheads are not yet operationally deployed, the researchers said. Both countries are believed to be increasing their stockpiles although the competition is nowhere near the intensity of the race between the United States and Russia during the Cold War. Indeed even today the combined total of Indian and Pakistan warheads will only be slightly more than the number carried by a single U.S. Trident submarine.

Nevertheless the race to expand nuclear weapons programme as also missile development adds another layer of instability in South Asia, with Afghanistan and Pakistan at the centre of the turmoil and home to al Qaedaand allied militant groups. The question is why now ? Why is Pakistan seeking to expand its arsenal ? Is this a numbers game ? Are the rivals getting sucked into a nuclear arms race without intending to ?

Mark Hibbs, a nuclear affairs expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told me in a conversation last month there was a “budding arms race” on between India and Pakistan, although nowhere near the scale of the Cold War duel between the United States and the Soviet Union.

And it’s been some years in the making with the rest of world unable or perhaps unwilling to stop it. As early as 2008, the United States had evidence of an increase in Pakistani nuclear activity, according to diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks and published by The Guardian. Peter Lavoy, an intelligence officer briefing NATO permanent representatives on the The National Intelligence Estimate for Afghanistan and Pakistan in December 2008 said ” despite pending economic catastrophe, Pakistan was producing nuclear weapons at a faster rate than any other country in the world.”

Another secret cable dated November 2009 and written by then U.S. ambassador to Islamabad Anne W. Patterson provides a glimpse of Pakistani thinking on nuclear security and why it was stonewalling the launch of negotiations for a fissile material cutoff treaty. First off, the India-United States civilian nuclear accord which the two countries signed off in 2008 dramatically changed the strategic landscape in South Asia. Pakistani officials saw the pact as unshackling India’s nuclear weapons programme by giving New Delhi access to fuel imports to run its civilian nuclear energy plants while saving its domestic uranium reserves for its weapons programme. Thus any numerical advantage held by Pakistan over India in terms of nuclear warheads didn’t matter in the long run because it could continue to produce fissile material at home long after Pakistan had exhausted its reserves.

Secondly, an increase in high-technology defense and space trade between India and the United States, Russia, and others had improved the quality of India’s nuclear systems, according to Pakistani thinking. While Pakistan faced trade barriers and was denied access to foreign technology on account of proliferation concerns, India was no longer held back by these constraints and was using market access to improve its nuclear delivery vehicles.

Third, India’s growing conventional military superiority backed by one of the world’s fastest growing economies had forced Pakistan to turn to nuclear weapons to blunt the edge. While India was buying planes, tanks and heavy artillery, Pakistan was struggling to maintain its military at current levels. On top of that, the Indian military’s Cold Start doctrine of rapid mobilisation and offensive action inside Pakistan had compelled Islamabad to work harder on its nuclear deterrent with many experts suggesting it transform its nuclear arsenal into small, tactical weapons to be used in the battlefield against superior Indian conventional forces. It’s another matter that it remained open to question whether India really had the capability and the will to implement the Cold Start doctrine as I wrote in this analysis based on another set of U.S. cables.

Finally, the Indians were eyeing missile defence even though this could be years away, Pakistani officials argued. Which would make it imperative for Pakistan to improve its nuclear deterrent, both in quality and quantity.

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