A Troubled Transition: Emerging Nuclear Forces in India and Pakistan

by Ashley J. Tellis
Tuesday, November 5, 2019
Image credit: 
istock

The competitive and often antagonistic relationships between China and India and between India and Pakistan have deep historical roots that predate their possession of nuclear weaponry. The Indo-Pakistani rivalry dates back to 1947 when both emerged as newly independent states from the erstwhile British Raj in the Indian subcontinent.1 Although India survived the crises leading up to Partition as a more or less satisfied state, Pakistan’s dissatisfactions—rooted initially in its claims over the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir—were acutely intensified by its wrenching defeat in the 1971 war with India. The loss of the eastern half of Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in this conflict drove Islamabad’s desire for new forms of security and vengeance, which resulted in the immediate pursuit of nuclear weapons and later a concerted campaign of terrorism—conducted under the protective shadow of its nuclear weaponry—against India.2

Just as Pakistan settled for nuclear weapons in the aftermath of a major conventional defeat against India, New Delhi too took the first steps toward acquiring a nuclear weapons capability in the aftermath of a major defeat against China. Although China and India are physically located near each other, the two nations had thin political interactions for centuries. The core of the traditional Chinese state faced East Asia—far away from the Indian subcontinent—while the Indian kingdoms were preoccupied for most part with security competition among themselves and had little time or capability for rivalries with their Chinese neighbors. This pattern of mutual neglect began to change during the British Raj, when the British Indian empire became increasingly sensitive to the need to protect its northern frontiers against Russian and Chinese penetration. A series of incomplete border agreements with Tibet—a functionally independent but suzerain Chinese state—was negotiated, but as long as there was no active Chinese presence in Tibet, these controversial agreements had no deleterious consequences for India.3

The Chinese invasion of Tibet from 1950 onwards changed this situation completely: it brought Chinese military power for the first time in close proximity to India, accentuated the Sino-Indian disagreement over their boundaries, and eventually precipitated a short but intense border war in 1962—which India lost decisively. The Indian defeat in this conflict roughly coincided with China’s own efforts to develop a nuclear weapon with Soviet assistance, and the first Chinese nuclear test in 1964, then, spurred the Indian interest in exploring its own nuclear option—an effort that was magnified because of the Indian rout two years earlier.4

By the 1980s, therefore, the Southern Asian region was well on the way to nuclearization, albeit at a different pace in each country. China was already a mature nuclear power, having conducted a series of nuclear tests since 1964. It was recognized as a legitimate nuclear weapon state under the 1967 nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT). India had tested a nuclear device in 1974, but then abruptly slowed the development of its nuclear program for several years, before accelerating its efforts again after 1988 when it became clear that Pakistan had become a threshold nuclear weapons power.5  In 1998, both India and Pakistan openly tested their nuclear weapons and called themselves “nuclear weapon states,” thus joining China as declared nuclear powers and making transparent the nuclear rivalries that had been largely clandestine for several decades earlier.

This paper briefly surveys the current state of nuclear weapons developments in India and Pakistan some two decades after their dramatic 1998 nuclear tests with a view to identifying the principal challenges to strategic stability arising from the presence of nuclear weapons in the Indian subcontinent and to explore what, if anything, the international community might do to aid both countries in mitigating these dangers. Although the paper does not examine developments in the Chinese program since that time, Beijing’s relevance as a nuclear actor in the Indian subcontinent cannot be overemphasized. For starters, Pakistan’s nuclear weapon capabilities are owed directly to Chinese assistance, which began in tangible forms after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and were intended to help its ally, Pakistan, against both Soviet and Indian power simultaneously.6 China’s nuclear assistance to Pakistan and its own nuclear arsenal were thus perceived in New Delhi as direct threats to India. Consequently, India’s nuclear capabilities were directed toward deterring both rivals—one stronger, one weaker—simultaneously. A comprehensive assessment of the nuclearization in Southern Asia would accordingly have to include Sino-Indian nuclear interactions and Sino-Pakistani nuclear interactions as they pertain to India. These dimensions are not considered in any detail in this paper—since the focus is principally on the Indian and Pakistani programs and their interacting dynamics—but China cannot be lost sight of and will be referred to whenever relevant.

Even when the Indian and Pakistani nuclear programs are prescinded from China and considered synoptically however, significant asymmetries are manifest.

To begin with, the Indian nuclear weapons program is a small part of a large and complex civilian power program, which focuses on generating electricity, developing breeder technology, and utilizing nuclear applications in a wide range of civilian endeavors from agriculture to medicine. The Pakistani nuclear program, in contrast, focuses primarily on military uses, although it does include a small research effort and now a modest power generation program.

Furthermore, although India is the larger and more resource-rich state, its nuclear weapons program is proceeding slowly in comparison to Pakistan. In large measure, this is because India’s conventional military advantages over Pakistan (and over China along their common border) do not require New Delhi either to overemphasize nuclear weapons as deterrents or to expand its arsenal energetically, especially when both the size and the character of the Pakistani and Chinese weapons programs are in considerable flux. Pakistan, in contrast, paranoid about its security vis-à-vis India, is embarked upon a concerted expansion of its nuclear arsenal, focused on building everything from strategic weapons to various tactical devices.

Finally, India’s approach to nuclear weapons is still fundamentally conservative. Viewing nuclear weapons mainly as political instruments for deterring blackmail and an adversary’s nuclear use, New Delhi treats its strategic capabilities primarily as instruments of dissuasion. As a result, it has concentrated on building secure second-strike reserves against both Pakistan and China, and at a slower rate than both. While India possesses a large inventory of weapon-grade and reactor-grade plutonium, these resources have not been used to build the largest weapon stockpile that India is capable of. Pakistan, in contrast, views its nuclear weapons far more expansively: they serve to deter threats and/or nuclear and conventional attacks by India (and increasingly the United States); they also function as military instruments of war at the tactical and operational levels, mainly to threaten escalation to strategic levels in order to force war termination after a conventional conflict has already begun; and, most problematically, they finally serve as a license for pursuing sub-conventional conflicts against India through the use of terrorist proxies on the assumption that the pervasive threat of Pakistani nuclear use would prevent any meaningful military retaliation by New Delhi, while at the same time functioning as instruments for catalyzing international intervention to pressure India should Pakistan’s expectations about New Delhi’s restraint prove to be fallacious.7 Consequently, Pakistan has concentrated on enlarging its inventory of both highly enriched uranium and weapons-grade plutonium and using both to build the largest and most diverse stockpile of nuclear weapons that Pakistan is capable of, although this effort—just like its Indian counterpart—is riddled with the usual inefficiencies that are endemic to South Asia.

In any event, the strong belief in India and Pakistan (and in China) that they are still some ways from achieving the kind of nuclear capabilities required to protect their national interests ensures that all three states will likely continue to expand their nuclear arsenals for many years to come, even if the other established nuclear powers continue to pursue progressive reductions in stockpile size in the interim.

Nuclearization in the Indian Subcontinent

A comprehensive view of the current activities pertaining to nuclearization in South Asia would require a detailed analysis of what is occurring in India and Pakistan in seven issue-areas: fissile materials production; nuclear weapons research and development (R&D), designs, and production; delivery systems R&D, production, and deployment; developments in command, control and communications and in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C3ISR) capabilities at the physical and organizational levels; the availability of strategic defenses and their significance; and the characteristics of the nuclear force posture, to include the integration of nuclear weapons with other military capabilities. Unfortunately, the nuclear programs in India and Pakistan (and in China) are obscured by dense veils of opacity along almost every dimension, making a highly granular analysis impossible through open sources. The limited information available in the academic and professional literature, when supplemented by conversations with strategic planners, senior policymakers, and military officials in both countries, however, permits an analysis in broad strokes. The preliminary judgments are detailed here largely with a view to identifying the challenges arising out of the competitive nuclearization underway in both countries.

India

India has an active program for producing fissile materials for its nuclear weapons. Although New Delhi has espoused a minimum deterrent since 1998, the Government of India has never translated that concept publicly into a specific number of desired weapons. Rather, it appears to have continued the slow production of fissile materials relative to its technical capacity, while waiting for clarity about the end results of Chinese and Pakistani nuclear modernization as well as the eventual outcome of the desultory Fissile Material Control Treaty (FMCT) discussions in Geneva. Again, unlike China and Pakistan, which pursued both the uranium enrichment and the plutonium pathways to nuclear weaponry, India has focused its attentions mainly on the latter because its nuclear weapons effort grew out of its civilian nuclear power program. This program, which centered on pressurized heavy water reactors utilizing natural uranium as fuel, produced weapons-usable plutonium as a byproduct. This byproduct, consequently, became the primary fissile material utilized in India’s nuclear weapons device designs from the 1970s to the present day.

India currently operates 22 nuclear power reactors, of which 14 units are fully safeguarded. It has an additional 7 reactors under construction, including a fast breeder reactor. India also operates a single 100 MW research reactor, Dhruva, the earlier 40 MW CIRUS reactor having been decommissioned. Since the 1980s, India has also operated a uranium enrichment plant, which has been considerably expanded in recent years. In theory, therefore, India has a total of 9 unsafeguarded reactors that it could use to produce weapons-usable plutonium as well as an unsafeguarded uranium enrichment facility that could produce highly enriched uranium (HEU) for its nuclear weapons.8 It appears, however, that India has rejected the latter course. Because the early Indian experience with nuclear weapons centered entirely on the use of plutonium for its implosion devices, Indian weapon designers have stayed with plutonium exclusively in all their weapon designs, even though it is possible that they could explore incorporating HEU in some future weapons.

Even more significantly, India appears to have eschewed using its unsafeguarded power reactors to routinely produce weapons-grade plutonium, relying rather on the Dhruva research reactor for this purpose. Averting the stress on the refueling machines in the power reactors and maximizing the generation of electricity seems to have shaped this choice.9 Similarly, the uranium that India has been enriching at its Mysore Rare Materials Plant (RMP) since the early 1990s has been largely low enriched uranium (LEU) intended primarily for fueling the new nuclear ballistic missile submarines that are now under construction.10 Beyond this primary defense-related need, India has also used the RMP facility to produce different grades of enriched uranium for research purposes as well as for experimenting with alternative  fuels for its civilian pressurized water reactors. As a result of these choices—using the unsafeguarded reactors primarily for producing power and the enrichment facility mainly for producing LEU for submarine fuel—the Indian inventory of fissile materials for weapons is far smaller than it could be if New Delhi were to choose otherwise.

The available data suggests that the Indian stockpile of weapons-grade plutonium today consists of anywhere from 430-730 kilograms, with the best and most realistic assessments coming in at the lower end of the spectrum.11 According to the International Panel on Fissile Materials, India is also supposed to have between 2600 and 5400 kilograms of HEU.12 Although this inventory consists of uranium that is enriched to 30 percent—and is thus technically HEU—it is highly unlikely that uranium of such a grade would be used in a nuclear weapon. More importantly, though, both the quantity of HEU and the level of enrichment characterizing this stockpile are highly speculative. They derive from presumptions about the number of centrifuges, their separative efficiency, and their duration of operation, none of which can be discerned with confidence from the outside. India also produces tritium for its weapons program, but the quantity in the inventory is unknown. Since there is no way of knowing how many nuclear weapons India actually has, the public estimates usually available are all abstract inferences based on the amount of fissile material India is believed to possess divided by the amount of material required by some notional nuclear design. Thus, for example, if the Indian fission weapon requires about 4 kilograms of Plutonium-239, the Indian weapons inventory today could consist of anywhere between some 107-182 devices.

Whether this number is accurate or not—and there is good reason for skepticism because India traditionally maintained a bigger inventory of fissile material than it had finished weapons—India’s annual production rate of weapon-related fissile materials has been generally low. Prior to 1998, India was believed to have roughly produced about 12-16 kg of weapons-grade plutonium (WGPU) annually from its two research reactors. With the retirement of the CIRUS reactor in 2010, India increased its plutonium production from the surviving Dhruva reactor marginally, perhaps producing as much as 16-20 kilograms of WGPU per annum from Dhruva alone—clearly an improvement, but nowhere close to what it could be if India were to utilize its unsafeguarded power reactors for this purpose.13

If this rate of production continued until 2025, India would add another 112–140 kilograms of WGPU to its fissile material inventory to bring it up to anywhere between some 540–870 kilograms of WGPU, sufficient for about 135–217 notional nuclear weapons. Increases in HEU of some 20-50 kilograms per year are also projected, but these materials, even if they were produced, would not be applicable to India’s plutonium-based weapons inventory.14

Because India has had a major civilian nuclear power program over the years, it has accumulated a huge stockpile of reactor-grade plutonium, some 6000 kilograms or so.15 In principle, this inventory too is available for nuclear weapons, but in practice it is unclear whether India’s nuclear weapon design base is sophisticated enough to use reactor-grade plutonium to consistently produce the desired yields without further hot testing. Obviously, reactor-grade plutonium can be used in nuclear weapons at the price of reduced yields, but unless India chooses to suddenly expand its nuclear weapons inventory, there is no good reason why reactor-grade plutonium should be its fissile material of choice given the constraints on its reprocessing capacity. Consequently, the reactor-grade plutonium currently existing in the Indian stockpile will likely be used as feeder fuel for its breeder reactors rather than as fissile material for its weapons.

The key conclusion to be drawn from this brief review of India’s fissile material stockpile is that New Delhi possesses a huge quantity of weapons-usable materials that it could use to build a large number of nuclear weapons, if it chose to do so. Even today, India appears to have produced fewer weapons than its existing fissile materials stockpile would permit. Indian policymakers in fact seem intent on refraining from maximizing their nuclear weapons production. Instead, they have consistently declared that they have no interest in matching Chinese nuclear capabilities on a one-for-one basis, noting that a small number of survivable weapons ought to suffice where deterring Chinese coercion is concerned. This proposition hinges on the assumption that the Chinese capacity for counterforce targeting against even a weaker power such as India is still limited and, hence, even a small number of surviving Indian weapons should suffice to deter Chinese blackmail in the context of a crisis.

This conclusion seems to hold just as readily where Pakistan is concerned. Although Indian policymakers recognize that Pakistan has made significant strides in its nuclear program, the fact that its geographical vulnerabilities cannot be erased by even by an expanding nuclear stockpile suggests to them that even a smaller but effective Indian nuclear force ought to suffice to deter Pakistan as long as Rawalpindi’s nuclear forces cannot be used to execute “splendid” damage-limiting counterforce strikes against India.

Notwithstanding such calculations, there is no denying that recent discussions among Indian strategic elites have argued the need for much larger Indian nuclear forces than were commonly discussed during the national debates occurring around 1998.16 At that time, the largest Indian nuclear force advocated by a few hawkish commentators hovered at around 300 weapons, but this number—which appeared to be vaguely benchmarked to the British and French deterrents—appears to have become much more acceptable to a larger number of Indian experts today. The Government of India, however, has been—not unexpectedly—silent on all such discussions; consequently, the lack of clarity about India’s ultimate desired force size persists, even as the production rate of its fissile materials and other weapons-relevant materials seem to have increased somewhat beyond its pre-1998 norm.

Sizing its nuclear forces appropriately cannot be an easy task for India, given that New Delhi faces two nuclear adversaries, China and Pakistan, simultaneously. The former outranks India by all measures of nuclear capability and, although the latter is weaker in terms of national power, it does possess a formidable and growing nuclear inventory. If the current projections of India’s WGPU inventory are accurate, India may just about have enough material for some 200 weapons by 2025, but the weaknesses in their technical quality vis-à-vis China will not be easily remedied without further testing.

The challenges posed by China and Pakistan in this context are accentuated by what is known about India’s principal device designs. India’s most reliable weapon today remains a relatively low-yield fission design capable of producing about 12-15 kilotons (kt).17 This design constitutes the mainstay of its air-breathing delivery systems. India’s thermonuclear ambitions have been on display since 1998 and Indian sources suggest that such weapons, which can supposedly produce yields of up to 200 kt if not higher, will form the spear point of its land-based missile force.18 It is not clear, however, given the less-than-perfect success of its thermonuclear test, whether these advanced weapons are either effective devices or can be considered as credible deterrents. The lessons learned from the 1998 tests by India are unclear. Senior Indian interlocutors have suggested that their weapon designers have been pursuing design improvements since then, but it is still uncertain whether India’s thermonuclear weapons can reliably produce the high yields that some Indian commentators imply are readily available.19

There is a body of opinion in India, however, that thermonuclear weapons are not necessary for effective deterrence either vis-à-vis China or vis-à-vis Pakistan since a larger number of reliable fission weapons targeted appropriately will inflict sufficient damage for assured deterrence. Whether the Government of India shares this view is unknown, but its attitude towards maintaining a permanent moratorium on nuclear testing or signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty eventually will depend greatly on its judgment about the necessity of inducting reliable advanced weapons into the Indian arsenal.

Even though the effectiveness of at least India’s thermonuclear design remains an open question, India, like China and Pakistan, continues to make steady progress in developing the delivery systems required for deterring its regional competitors. India has maintained aircraft-delivered nuclear weapons since the 1990s, and there is no evidence that it is ready to give up on these capabilities any time soon. The continued emphasis on aircraft for delivering nuclear weapons derives from the conviction that the Indian Air Force (IAF) can penetrate Pakistan’s airspace (and China’s airspace adjacent to India’s border) readily.20 Consequently, at least some Indian Mirage 2000 and Su-30MKI (and possibly Jaguar) squadrons are allocated for the nuclear delivery mission.

Because large parts of China lie beyond the useful operating radii of IAF fighters, India has moved slowly to develop and field a variety of land-based ballistic missiles for nuclear operations. Although unnecessary for missions against Pakistan, they are nonetheless useful here as well. The earliest Indian missile system, the liquid-fueled Prithvi I SRBM has now been retired, whereas the liquid-fueled Prithvi II SRBM, the solid-fueled Agni-1 SRBM, the solid-fueled Agni-2 MRBM, and the solid-fueled Agni-3, 4, and 5 IRBMs are either in testing or are slowly being inducted into the Indian arsenal with either fission or thermonuclear warheads. The number of longer-ranged Agni missiles in the Indian inventory is currently very small—they seem to be in single digits—but the rail- and road-mobile versions will, for the foreseeable future, function as the backbone of India’s land-based nuclear deterrent. When fully operational, they will provide New Delhi with the capability to interdict targets deep within China. Current Indian plans call for basing these missiles along a wide swath of the Indian landmass because the long range of especially the Agni 4 and 5 missiles allows them to reach Chinese targets without having to be deployed close to the Indian border with China.21

India has also deployed a small number of ship-launched versions of the Prithvi—the Dhanush—which are nuclear armed, and a short-range submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM), the K-15 Sagarika, which will be deployed aboard India’s ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) with a nuclear payload. These systems, however, will eventually give way entirely to the long-range K-4 and K-5 submarine-launched ballistic missiles as later Indian SSBNs are slowly inducted into the force. India also has a variety of cruise missiles in its inventory, but these are designed currently only for conventional operations. Furthermore, and in contrast to Pakistan, India has not developed and deployed any tactical nuclear weapons. Consequently, the ominous label, “nuclear-capable,” which is often applied to Indian missile systems such as the Prahaar, Brahmos, and Nirbhay, is misleading.

Just like its nuclear weapons, the desired size of India’s missile force is unknown, but it is certain to be somewhat smaller than the number of nuclear devices India possesses. The public data on existing Indian delivery systems summarized in good sources like Hans M. Kristensen and Matt Korda corroborate the larger point made earlier about India’s nuclear progress: New Delhi seems content to slowly develop a relatively small arsenal compared to its potential capacity.22 If all the systems listed below are armed with nuclear warheads, then the Indian arsenal consists of some 76 missile-borne weapons, plus gravity bombs and other aerial weapons slated for aircraft delivery. Kristensen and Korda suggest that the total Indian arsenal currently consists of about 130-140 nuclear weapons of all types.

India: Nuclear Missiles23

Range

Number Deployed

Prithvi-2

350 km

24

Agni-1

700+ km

20

Agni-2

2,000+ km

8

Agni-3

3,200+ km

8

Agni-4

3,500 km

In Development

Agni-5

5,400 km

In Development

Dhanush ShLBM

400 km

4

K-15 Sagarika

700 km

12

K-4 SLBM

3,500 km

In Development

 

While the Indian missile inventory is certain to increase in the years ahead, it is unclear what its end strength will be. The current Indian plan appears to be the creation of at least four missile groups (brigades) deploying different versions of the Prithvi and Agni-series missiles. This force would likely be enlarged to include possibly another two or three brigades over the next decade.

For many years now, Indian defense technologists have worked steadily on missile defense research and development, exploring ballistic missile defense (BMD) capabilities as an insurance against deterrence failure. Although the government has not made any formal decisions yet on whether to deploy a missile defense system, it appears as if the nation is moving towards a “creeping” deployment of some modest defenses aimed at protecting at least New Delhi and Bombay to begin with. India’s current capabilities, centered on the Prithvi BMD—not the S-400—system, would permit it to deploy at best a thin defense of urban targets against stray or accidental attacks. The thin BMD systems, similar to those currently being deployed in China, suggest that India, again like China, believes that an offense-dominant nuclear regime is likely to robustly survive for at least another decade. Consequently, India’s evolving strategic defense capabilities are not intended to, nor will they, undermine the current nuclear deterrence equation with Pakistan. The longer-term question of whether India should deploy a thicker BMD shield has not been settled.24

Over the past two decades, the most significant transformations in India’s nuclear deterrent have not been either weapons or delivery systems—though these garner the most attention—but rather the improvements in the supporting infrastructure and procedural systems that are necessary for successful deterrence. Since the Manmohan Singh government took office, India has expanded the number of missile bases, nuclear weapon storage sites (many of them underground), developed a communications network that links all the nodes in its deterrent system, and completed the construction of various command centers from where its national leadership can operate in a crisis.25 The procedural systems have been similarly transformed. The Strategic Force Command (SFC), which was first created by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government in 2003, is now the nodal institution for administering and managing the Indian nuclear arsenal. It develops contingency plans for nuclear operations for consideration by the political leadership, identifies future capabilities that may be required, and is responsible for managing the entire nuclear release and execution sequence when directed by the civilian national command authority.

The SFC also has administrative oversight of India’s nuclear weapons, which ordinarily are not mated to their delivery systems until the appropriate moment in the alerting sequence. (This obviously may not apply to India’s SSBNs, though the procedures for handling India’s sea-based deterrent at maturity are still unclear.) India thus continues to maintain its land-based deterrent (both aircraft- and missile-delivered weapons) routinely as a “force-in-being” rather than as a “ready arsenal,”26 though, as anticipated earlier, New Delhi has now moved toward preserving “a small set of rapid-response capabilities primarily for shoring up deterrence and “concentrating the mind” of Pakistani decisionmakers who might be tempted to behave irresponsibly in a crisis.”27 In this context, the primary task of the SFC is to develop and maintain the technical and procedural capacity to permit the rapid integration of India’s separated deterrent components, integrating them into useable systems when required, and employing them when authorized by the national leadership.28

The nuclear arsenal is controlled entirely by civilian leaders who have the sole authority to make nuclear use decisions, with the arsenal itself still heavily biased toward “negative control,” meaning that nuclear weapons cannot be used unless explicitly authorized by civilian authority. Moreover, civilian personnel—the scientists and technologists from the Department of Atomic Energy and the Defense Research and Development Organization—are still deeply involved in custodial, mating, and release activities where nuclear weapons are concerned. The Indian armed forces continue to control the various nuclear launch vehicles in peacetime, but they do not have exclusive custody of the weapons themselves. Through an elaborate system of segregation, oversight, and control, India has also consciously avoided—just as in China—integrating its nuclear capabilities with conventional warfighting instruments. Rather, nuclear weapons, being seen as instruments of last resort, are developed, maintained, and deployed through parallel systems to conventional forces, rather than being integrated with them. India’s conventional war planning treats nuclear weapons as unique and distinctive.

India’s nuclear doctrine is consistent with this posture. India has long been committed to a “no first use” policy, though this declaration is inherently unverifiable and, in the final instance, unenforceable. Successive Indian governments have confused matters considerably, first through unnecessary qualifications and then though occasional insinuations about the validity of the policy by various political leaders. Although it is impossible to certify that India will hold firmly to a “no first use” policy a priori, its worth derives fundamentally from a structural logic that is unassailable: India is more powerful than Pakistan conventionally, and can hold its own against China as well in any conventional conflict along the Himalayan border. Consequently, it has no need to use its nuclear weapons first to stave off any possible conventional defeat. Furthermore, even if Pakistani or Chinese nuclear use against India was imminent, it is hard to see what remedial advantages India might derive from its own first use.29 Indian nuclear forces currently (and prospectively) are incapable of executing any comprehensive damage-limiting attacks even against Pakistan, let alone China. One senior SFC officer has recently declared these to be an “impossible task.”30 Consequently, some recent U.S. academic speculation notwithstanding, that removes the only contingency that makes Indian nuclear first use strategically sensible.31

What the episodic Indian political angst about its commitment to “no first use,” therefore, represents is a frustration with not having found a satisfactory solution to the problem posed by Pakistan’s nuclear-shadowed terrorism against India. The threat to revoke India’s “no first use” policy in response offers cathartic satisfaction, but because it cannot cure the precipitating aggravation to begin with, even the threatened Indian reversal of the “no first use” policy yields no significant strategic gains (while it produces significant political and reputational downsides all the same). Consequently, India has made no efforts to change its nuclear posture to support preemptive offensive nuclear operations. It has concentrated on improving its capacity to retaliate quickly after absorbing either a token or a significant nuclear attack on the assumption that it would receive strategic warning, with the most effective targets of Indian retribution still being countervalue or countermilitary. India, of course, retains the capacity to strike static nuclear targets, such as nuclear weapon storage sites if these are identified a priori, but unless it unleashes bolt-out-of-the-blue attacks—which are utterly improbable—the effectiveness of these actions is suspect; this would be all the more true for any encompassing attempts at counterforce strikes against dispersed, and likely mobile, nuclear systems.

Indian nuclear planning, its exercises, its doctrine, and its extant force posture thus converge to suggest that New Delhi continues to invest more in ensuring its capacity to quickly and assuredly retaliate in the aftermath of an attack rather than developing the capacity to mount preemptive nuclear strikes against an adversary’s alerted nuclear forces. This constitutes a shift from the posture envisaged after the 1998 tests, when “delayed—but assured—retaliation” was the operating principle.32 Consistent with this evolution, India has focused on building the most durable command and control mechanisms necessary on the assumption that strategic warning of a conflict or of a nuclear attack will be available, and that all of its nuclear forces do not need to be readied uniformly. This belief, in turn, is grounded on the conviction that for all the stressful rivalries with Pakistan and China, nuclear war is largely improbable in this day and age and because India’s conventional superiority vis-à-vis both countries is likely to persist for some time to come, New Delhi can approach the prospect of nuclear reprisal operations with some equanimity.

On balance, India’s ongoing nuclear investments can therefore be summarized as a steady enlargement of its retaliatory capacities, but at relatively measured, sometimes even languid, pace of change.

Pakistan

Like India, Pakistan also continues to produce fissile materials for its weapons program, but unlike India, has focused on expanding its inventory as rapidly as possible and through two different routes concurrently. From the very beginning, the Pakistani nuclear program was fundamentally about producing weapons, not nuclear energy. This program traditionally utilized HEU for its nuclear devices, relying primarily on the Kahuta uranium enrichment plant begun by A. Q. Khan in the late 1970s and a couple of other subsidiary facilities for fissile material. Today, the Kahuta plant has been complemented by another major enrichment plant at Gadwal. As Pakistan has slowly acquired new nuclear power reactors from China, it is likely that new enrichment facilities will be constructed in the future to produce LEU for these reactors.

The major shift in Pakistan’s fissile material accumulation strategy began in the late 1980s when, despite the successes of its uranium enrichment program, Pakistan decided to pursue the plutonium pathway as well.33 The desire for a larger stockpile of fissile materials and the attractiveness of WGPU for building more compact nuclear weapons as well as for enhancing the yield of its existing weapons pushed Pakistan in this direction. The Khushab-1 reactor, which began construction with Chinese assistance in 1987, commenced operations in 1998. It has been followed by the Khushab-2, -3, and -4 reactors: all are 50 MW plutonium production reactors using natural uranium as fuel and moderated by heavy water.34 At normal capacity factors, it is estimated that Pakistan should be able to produce between 24-48 kilograms of plutonium annually from these four reactors, assuming that natural uranium is steadily available as fuel.

The best public estimates in 2018 suggest that Pakistan has accumulated between 3,000-3800 kilograms of HEU since its enrichment facilities became operational in the early 1980s. 35 This stockpile is obviously slightly larger today. If the earlier heuristic is applied—that it takes around 15 kilograms of HEU to build an implosion device—then Pakistan can be presumed to have anywhere between 200-250 weapons-equivalents worth of HEU alone. If Pakistan’s weapons use, say, 20 kilograms of HEU, the nominal inventory size drops somewhat to 150-190 weapons, slightly higher than India’s plutonium-based inventory. If it is further assumed—reasonably—that Pakistani fission weapons are roughly comparable to India’s in yield, then Pakistan already has a numerical edge in arsenal size. This conclusion is strengthened when Pakistan’s WGPU inventory, which consisted of 280 kilograms in 2018, is added to the mix: At about 4 kilograms of Plutonium-239 to achieve a critical mass, Pakistan can boast close to another 70 nuclear weapons, taking its inventory size beyond the levels currently achieved by India. This reflects broadly the consensus in the literature: that Pakistan has a larger nuclear arsenal than India, but the strategic significance of this fact however is nugatory.

Although Pakistan has a small stockpile of civilian HEU—some 17 kilograms36—these materials are safeguarded and hence beyond the reach of its weapons program.

The more consequential issue for the future size of the Pakistani arsenal, therefore, is the projected fissile material production that can be anticipated from the enrichment facilities now fully on line. The public estimates suggest that Pakistan’s unsafeguarded HEU stockpile could increase to close to 6,000 kilograms by 2020 (and by extrapolation to possibly 7,500 kilograms by 2025).37 The WGPU stockpile could increase by another 100-120-odd kilograms to reach a grand total of some 400 kilograms by 2025.38

If such totals obtain, Pakistan could add another 150-190 HEU weapons (if these use 20 kilograms of HEU each) and another 30-odd plutonium weapons to its arsenal by 2025, bringing its total arsenal size to close to 400-480 notional weapons by 2025. In practice, however, these totals are likely to be smaller, though by how much is unclear.39 Obviously, these number are all notional because Pakistan’s nuclear weapon stockpile today is remarkably diverse, with each design requiring different amounts of fissile materials.  Consequently, unless accurate information about the exact number of Pakistani warheads and their types become public, it is difficult to translate of how fissile material stockpiles correlate into numbers of warheads.

The abstract calculation of notional weapons, therefore, is intended merely to provide an indication about trends and directions—and the bottom line here is clear: the Pakistani nuclear weapons program is expanding quickly even after making allowance for the usual inefficiencies. As Peter Lavoy, a former National Intelligence Officer for South Asia, once characterized it, “Pakistan is producing nuclear weapons at a faster rate than any other country in the world,”40 driven by its growing fissile materials inventory which shows no signs of stopping. Other than the yields and the sophistication of its device designs, Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal could thus rival the arsenals of smaller nuclear powers, such as China, France, and the United Kingdom, over the next decade. This would be true even if Pakistan had a fourth fewer weapons—a more realistic possibility—than the maximum numbers illustrated earlier.

Irrespective of how Pakistan’s fissile material inventory evolves over time, the central question of strategic sufficiency has still not been clearly addressed by military leaders in Islamabad. Pakistan’s then-President Pervez Musharraf acknowledged as far back as March 2005 that his country’s nuclear capabilities had already crossed its “minimum deterrence” threshold.41 Subsequently however, the U.S.-India civilian nuclear accord, the growing Pakistani fears about an Indian BMD shield, and the dangers posed by U.S. power to Pakistan—a perception vivified by the successful U.S. attack on Osama bin Laden at Abbottabad—all combined to justify a continuing expansion of the Pakistani arsenal. As a result, there has been no sign yet of Pakistan slowing down its fissile materials production: this continuation is obviously driven partly by its fears of India’s larger materials production potential,42 the desire to amass the largest possible stockpile of weapons-related materials before any FMCT—however remote that may seem now—comes into force, and its old force sizing metric for all things military, “more is enough.”

The continuing expansion and diversification of Pakistan’s delivery systems highlight the imperatives driving its fissile material expansion. After some initial hesitation, Pakistan has confirmed its intention to develop a full-fledged triad, choosing to ape India at least in this regard.43 The earliest Pakistani nuclear weapons were aircraft-delivered gravity bombs. With the advent of Pakistan’s ballistic missile force, it was initially expected that the air-breathing component would steadily be replaced by missiles entirely. Perhaps because of bureaucratic politics and certainly the more rational desire for diversification, however, the Pakistan Air Force has now held fast to its aircraft-delivered nuclear weapons, supplementing its gravity bombs with new air-launched cruise missiles such as the Raad and with short-range glide bombs, thus giving its strike-fighters a lease on life where nuclear missions are concerned.

Pakistan, accordingly, continues to maintain an aviation strike capability centered on two squadrons of F-16s and one squadron of Mirage V fighters, though it is likely that these aircraft will be committed to nuclear missions only in the second wave of nuclear strikes—after Pakistani missiles are unleashed—or for first-wave standoff attacks with cruise missiles. Over time, it is possible that the current Mirage V force will be replaced by new Chinese JF-17s as the second-line nuclear delivery system after the F-16s.

Important as the nuclear component may be for the Pakistan Air Force, the dramatic transformations in Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent writ large, however, have been manifest in its land-based missilery. This is now the central component of Pakistan’s nuclear force: it is controlled by the most important institution of state, the Pakistan Army, through the Army Strategic Forces Command (ASFC),  and it appears in a wide variety of systems ranging from Pakistani variants of the Chinese M-11 SRBM (christened Ghaznavi in Pakistan), to the North Korean No Dong (christened Ghauri in Pakistan), and the more or less indigenously developed Shaheen II, III, and Ababeel MRBMs, now supplemented by solid-fueled nuclear-tipped multiple-launch rocket systems (MLRS) like the Nasr and ground-launched cruise missiles such as the Babur.

Pakistan: Nuclear Missiles44

Range

Number Deployed

Ghaznavi (Hatf-3)

290 km

16

Shaheen I (Hatf-4)

750 km

16

Shaheen IA (Hatf-4)

900 km

UNK

Ghauri (Hatf-5)

1,250 km

40

Shaheen-2 (Hatf-6)

1,500 km

8

Shaheen-3 (Hatf-X)

~3,500 km

UNK

Ababeel

2,200 km

UNK

NASR (Hatf-9)

60 km

6

Babur GLCM

500 km

12

Raad ALCM

350 km

UNK

 

With the exception of the Ghauri, which is a liquid-fueled weapon, Pakistan has emphasized the development of mobile, solid-fueled, missiles with extended ranges in order to comprehensively target Indian territory (to include its outlying islands)  as well as shorter-ranged MLRS to support battlefield operations with nuclear fires. Pakistan has also concentrated on developing a variety of other tactical nuclear weapons: the Nasr and the nuclear-tipped cruise missiles deployed along the coast, on surface vessels, and aboard its conventional submarines are best known, but Pakistani planners have also discussed other types of “short-range/low-yield” weapons—their preferred terminology—such as naval nuclear torpedoes, nuclear depth charges, nuclear land mines, and the like. Although these systems are nominally “tactical,” in that they possess smaller yields and are intended for battlefield use, they can obviously be employed in a “strategic” role as well, for example, through discrete targeting intended to secure certain political effects.

The diversity of these systems suggests that Pakistan’s nuclear weapon design proficiency has grown impressively over the years, now resulting in its technologists imagining new tactical weapons for almost every kind of warfighting domain imaginable. Whether or not all these systems come to fruition, that the Pakistani military has come to conceive of nuclear weapons as offering solutions to almost every operational problem faced by all three military services indicates both the dominance of the Strategic Plans Division (SPD) in the country’s strategic planning and its lock on national resources.45

In any event, the land-based missile component will likely be the one most highly prioritized and accordingly will continue to expand in the foreseeable future. Pakistani military officers have indicated in conversations over the years that they would like to raise and equip somewhere between 6-12 Strategic Missile Groups (SMGs) by 2025. If this ambition provides any indication, the growing Pakistani fissile material inventory makes sense. Depending on how these groups are configured in terms of subordinate regiments, the land-based deterrent as a whole could consist of anywhere from 200-250 missiles of all types apart from the gravity weapons, sea-based systems, and tactical nuclear devices.

This continuing expansion of the Pakistani nuclear deterrent—as exemplified by the number and diversity of strategic delivery systems as well as the presence of different kinds of tactical nuclear weapons—exemplifies the doctrinal shift from “minimum” deterrence in favor of what is now called “full spectrum” deterrence.46 This shift is intended to convey the Pakistani determination to acquire the requisite nuclear weapons of sufficient diversity to enable it to either deter or dominate escalation at every conceivable level of conflict with India. Given India’s superior conventional strength and its vast landmass, Pakistan’s “full spectrum” deterrence is designed to be able to punish India for any possible infraction at every level of violence. This approach, which remains the Pakistani version of the Eisenhower administration’s “New Look” strategy,” is intended to enable Pakistan to wreak historically unprecedented levels of damage on India in order to force war termination before any conclusive Pakistani military defeat.

This is often imagined in the West to be a strategy of nuclear warfighting, but it is not the case. If nuclear warfighting implies neutralizing every threat at the operational level by the application of nuclear fires, Pakistan’s arsenal—no matter how fast it is growing—is simply not large enough to permit nuclear warfighting in the classic sense of the term. It is large enough, however, to enable the symbolic yet effective application of nuclear weapons at every level of violence vis-à-vis India, with each application intimating a willingness to escalate further to the point where countervalue strikes not only become a logical terminus but also where Pakistan, though willing to risk its own demise, conveys its determination to comprehensively destroy its geographically larger adversary, India. Building a substantial nuclear arsenal thus appears sensible to Pakistani military planners because it is viewed as critical to negating India’s superior power and thereby reducing its invulnerability relative to the geographically smaller state of Pakistan. Such a capability also has the conscious benefit of reducing Pakistan’s vulnerability to other threats such as the United States: a large and diversified arsenal makes U.S. nuclear damage limitation strategies harder to implement and serves as a deterrent to any future U.S. threats to Pakistan.

At a technical level, the capacity to implement this broader strategy has been assisted greatly by the simplicity and flexibility of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons designs. Pakistan’s traditional weapon designs were based largely on modifications of a Chinese implosion design that utilized HEU and was first tested in 1966. The 1998 tests confirmed that Pakistan had multiple device designs, possibly derived from scaling the original “CHIC-4” design received from Beijing. Because this design was extraordinarily versatile, it appears to have formed the design basis in one way or another for most of the nuclear weapon variants that now exist in the Pakistani arsenal. The most reliable weapon in this stable of capabilities is believed to produce a yield of some 12-15 kt (comparable to its principal Indian fission counterpart), but there have been persistent reports since the 1998 tests that Islamabad is actively pursuing advanced weapons designs, both boosted-fission and thermonuclear weapons, intended to produce enhanced yields.47 Assuming this is the case, it must be expected that Pakistan now has nuclear weapons capable of producing larger yields, and that if Islamabad were to revert to hot testing at some point in the future, it would be able to deploy nuclear weapons of great explosive power. The emphasis on increasing yields and producing the more compact nuclear devices required to arm the diverse set of delivery vehicles now deployed in the Pakistani armory indicates why Islamabad has focused on tritium and WGPU production in recent years.48

As the Pakistani nuclear force has expanded beyond the few tens of weapons that were originally intended, Islamabad has steadily put in place an elaborate command and control structure that includes impressive technical as well as organizational components.49 The necessity for such a system inherently derives from the fact that Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent, like India’s, is maintained routinely in de-mated condition. Furthermore, unlike India, whose nuclear weapons are oriented primarily to the tasks of retaliation, Pakistan’s arsenal is tasked with deterring an adversary’s first use, while using, if necessary, its own nuclear weapons first to achieve certain operational and strategic aims. Because the goal of survivability requires Pakistan to disperse its weapons widely without compromising their security—a task achieved primarily by opacity, deception and denial, and mobility—while at the same time being responsive enough to be used first in the context of crises and war, Pakistan has developed an elaborate command and control system that ties together its nuclear weapon storage sites and the military units designated to deliver them in accordance with a structured alert sequence.50

The technical communications system used for transmitting nuclear dispersal, weapons integration, and nuclear use orders as well as the codes necessary to arm the various devices is now separated from the systems used for conventional military operations.51 Unlike the Indian nuclear deterrent which is dominated by civilians in key roles throughout the release sequence, the Pakistani nuclear management system is manned, controlled, and supervised primarily by the military. At the highest levels, the National Command Authority is personified by a civilian Prime Minister, who presides over a joint civilian-military decision apparatus, but in practice the Chief of Army Staff, along with his uniformed subordinates especially in the SPD, retain preeminent decision-making powers with respect to the development, acquisition, deployment and use of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.52 The Pakistani armed forces treat their nuclear assets seriously as usable instruments and, accordingly, have managed nuclear operations with an eye to emphasizing “positive control”—the assurance that nuclear weapons can be employed when authorized—during a conflict, while simultaneously attempting to maximize “negative control” both in peacetime and prior to any legitimate nuclear release. Managing the inherent dilemmas associated with this approach has required dramatic increases in organizational capacity for supervising the steadily expanding nuclear arsenal intended for executing large-scale strategic attacks primarily on India but against other extra-regional powers as appropriate.53

For a force that plans to use nuclear weapons first and possibly extensively depending on wartime circumstances, the extent of integration between Pakistan’s nuclear and conventional war plans is unclear. Because Pakistan may have to use nuclear weapons first or even early in any future war with India—the latter issue is still ambiguous—the idea of full nuclear and conventional force integration is appealing but exceptionally difficult to achieve especially when tactical nuclear weapons are involved. Beyond issues relating to the security of such weapons in a wartime context, the impact of nuclear use and the necessity to anticipate a comparable counter-response have significant consequences for the Pakistan Army’s ability to mount a robust conventional defense. It is unclear whether the Pakistani military has figured out solutions to this conundrum—even NATO forces did poorly on this issue during the Cold War—but implementing effective conventional-nuclear integration would be critical even if Pakistan’s current plans emphasize only discrete nuclear use.

Finally, Islamabad—unlike New Delhi (and Beijing)—has not entertained the acquisition of strategic defenses for reasons of both cost and effectiveness, preferring instead to focus on how best to implement its strategy of “nuclear first use in the last resort” as a means of upholding regional deterrence.  Deterring war above all else remains the objective of the Pakistan military, not winning conventional wars or even nuclear combat, even though Pakistan might edge in the latter direction once its current acquisition programs bear full fruit. What is clear, however, in the interim, is that the Pakistani military has comprehensively integrated its nuclear weapons planning not so much with its conventional military operations but with the country’s diplomatic positions on various nuclear disarmament issues in order to ensure that no external constraints emerge on its ability to build the largest and most sophisticated arsenal possible.

On balance, Pakistan’s ongoing modernization programs can then be best summarized as a comprehensive enlargement of nuclear capacity at a relatively rapid, perhaps even frenetic, pace of change.

Managing the Challenges of Nuclearization in South Asia

The current patterns of nuclearization in South Asia amply confirm the conclusion that although India and Pakistan (and China) have, at various points historically, supported the idea of abolishing nuclear weapons with varying degrees of enthusiasm, that position has now been consigned to the dust heap of history. In fact, all three nations are engaged today in a steady buildup of their strategic capabilities. This expansion reflects, in part, their judgments that the global abolition of nuclear weapons is unlikely, while the security threats faced by each demand a sturdy investment in their nuclear deterrents. Furthermore, although all three states recognize that the established nuclear powers have reduced the size of their own arsenals in recent years, none of them judge that these reductions obviate the need for an expansion of their own strategic capabilities.

This conclusion is most clearly manifest in the case of China, which has continued to pursue its nuclear modernization driven largely its perception of American, and to a lesser degree Russian, precision strike, offensive nuclear, and strategic defense programs.54 This buildup provides China a natural degree of immunity against India: its larger nuclear arsenal serves to effectively deter India but, as an additional measure of protection, Beijing is pursuing all the same an emerging ballistic missile defense capability to shield it against the threats posed by a weaker nuclear power such as India. India’s nuclear expansion consequently, however slow, is then designed to levy a certain minimum level of threat to China, while deterring Pakistan at the same time. Vis-à-vis China, India seeks to transform its historical abject vulnerability to Beijing’s nuclear capabilities with some modicum of mutual vulnerability, whereas vis-à-vis Pakistan, India seeks sufficient nuclear capabilities to be able to punish Islamabad in the event of the latter’s nuclear attacks in a variety of scenarios imaginable.   

Where the Indian and Pakistani nuclear programs specifically are concerned, their ongoing expansion reflects complex—and sometimes troubling—realities. Both states are moving towards larger nuclear arsenals than were discussed in 1998. In some ways, this was to be expected. Neither nation then had a good sense of what deterrence sufficiency would involve, and when changes in the external environment pressed upon them—the steady expansion of Chinese military capabilities in the case of India, for example—it is not surprising that New Delhi believed itself compelled to embark on a larger nuclear program than might have otherwise sufficed or which it had originally intended. The slow expansion of India’s nuclear forces in this context is interesting. The evidence suggests that although India has the capacity to accumulate fissile materials more rapidly and to build a larger number of weapons and delivery systems, it has moved more slower than its capacities permit.

Consequently, there is no real “arms race” in the region. A nuclear arms race, at least in the classic sense, occurs when each side feels compelled to constantly react to an opponent’s strategic acquisitions in order to preserve its security. By this definition, exemplified most clearly during the Cold War, the arms race in South Asia is elusive and peculiar. Although both India and Pakistan are developing arsenals that are intended to target critical assets possessed by the other (and in India’s case, China as well), while also maximizing the survivability of their deterrents, they seem to be driven more by a desire to match residually surviving weapons to targets rather than to match weapons to weapons per se. This seems most clear in the case of India but is perhaps less so in the case of Pakistan.

Pakistan is clearly unique in this regard: far more obsessed with India than India is with Pakistan, or India and China are reciprocally with each other, Pakistan’s continued nuclear expansion is driven by one of two possibilities: an intense race against its own obsessions and fears, taking its bearings from exaggerated assessments of Indian nuclear and conventional capabilities and geopolitical objectives, or a conscious recognition of India’s plodding improvements, but a desire nonetheless to build the largest and most diverse nuclear arsenal it possibly can, principally for reasons associated with bureaucratic politics, technological determinism, and state capture by the Pakistan Army. Whatever the reason, the Indian subcontinent will witness a problematic one-legged nuclear “race” for a long time to come.

It is tempting to speculate how the international community might be able to reassure Pakistan so as to slow down its drive toward building a larger and larger arsenal over time. Unfortunately, there are no easy solutions here: if outsiders were to attempt to persuade Rawalpindi that the Indian nuclear arsenal is not as large as some Pakistanis fear or that Indian conventional forces are in actuality more constrained than many Pakistanis believe, these efforts would be dismissed as contrary to the true facts or as motivated initiatives designed to suppress Pakistan’s deterrent while leaving India’s unconstrained. Similarly, attempts to offer Pakistan strategic protection that might diminish its desire for more weapons would also be seen as incredulous, given Pakistan’s past experiences with foreign alliances. The international community, therefore, will simply have to live with the reality of a growing Pakistani nuclear arsenal until its military leaders believe they possess the force size sufficient for effective deterrence.

The prospect of expanding arsenals in both Pakistan and India brings in its trail two other significant challenges: the safety and the security of their nuclear weapons. Both nations now are inducting into service a variety of nuclear device designs, intended to be carried by diverse delivery vehicles, each of which will impose unique stresses on their payloads. Because of international nonproliferation pressures over the decades, India and Pakistan have developed their nuclear weapons under conditions of secrecy and with limited hot testing. The few hot tests that have occurred so far were aimed mainly to validate the effectiveness of the device designs to produce the desired yields, rather than to ensure the safety of the devices under varying conditions. It is highly likely therefore that the nuclear weapons currently in Indian and Pakistani possession do not meet the best standards of safety associated with the device designs in the inventories of other mature nuclear powers.55

As long as these weapons are maintained in separated form—with the fissile cores removed from the non-nuclear firing assemblies—the risks of an accidental explosion are non-existent. But if the nuclear weapons are maintained as fully integrated systems—even if they are not married to their delivery vehicles—the dangers of an unintended explosion increase, especially during possible movement or transportation. These risks become more serious when complete nuclear weapons are deployed, for example, on ships or submarines routinely, or if weapons are assembled and mated to land-based missiles prior to flushing and dispersal. Any accidental detonation that occurs during a period of crisis or in the fog of war could precipitate escalatory consequences that are extremely unpleasant to imagine. Again, unfortunately, there is little that the international community can do to help India and Pakistan address these challenges. Minimizing the risks of accidental detonations requires assisting with intimate secrets of nuclear weapons design—for different reasons both recipients and donors would be unwilling to engage on these problems, however serious they might be. The only role that the United States and other interested powers, therefore, could play would be to provide authentication in the case of an accidental nuclear detonation, especially in the context of a crisis or a conflict, thereby tamping down the incentives for escalation on the part of the other side.

If the problems associated with the safety of Indian and Pakistani weaponry do not lend themselves to easy international cooperation, the dangers associated with nuclear security offer more promise. Both India and Pakistan are intently conscious of the challenges of nuclear security and both nations have great incentives to protect their weapons against unauthorized access for reputational and for strategic reasons.56 Because both nations face a series of internal security threats, protecting their nuclear weaponry has taken on additional priority. Pakistan’s previous history of outward proliferation has made it exceptionally sensitive to this issue. As best as can be discerned, Indian and Pakistani facilities housing their nuclear weapons seem to be reasonably secure under static conditions. Their principal defense still remains opacity: although the number of nuclear storage facilities in both countries is increasing, their locations are publicly unknown, they are often disguised, and they are invariably well guarded. There is, however, a tradeoff between protection through opacity—which involves minimizing signatures—and protection through a heavily-layered physical infrastructure that risks revealing the location of strategic assets. Similar considerations apply to the transportation of nuclear weapons.

The United States, for many years now, has worked closely with Pakistan to help improve its nuclear security, partly by assisting with technological solutions and partly by helping with institutional solutions such as developing a personnel reliability program.57 U.S. engagement with India has been thinner in comparison, though India could benefit considerably in this regard as well. Recent bilateral dialogues hold the promise of renewing New Delhi’s interest in nuclear security issues, since they do not require India to compromise on any of its own nuclear secrets. Rather, understanding the best practices followed by other established nuclear powers would provide India with ideas for upgrading its own nuclear security system, a task that remains a continuous work in progress as the threats themselves evolve. As the Indian nuclear weapons program grows in size and diversity, the informal security practices of yesteryears—which relied heavily on personal patriotism and the personal knowledge of individuals by their superiors—will have to evolve toward more institutionalized forms of reporting and assessment. The international community, especially the United States and France, could be most helpful on this count by sharing with India the protocols they follow to ensure effective oversight in regard to both site and transportation security.58

While there are reasons for continued attention to India’s and Pakistan’s nuclear programs, especially in the areas of safety and security, the most pressing dangers in the subcontinent do not arise from the threat of counterforce strikes as some scholars have recently contended.59 Neither Indian nor Pakistani nuclear forces have the capacity to execute damage-limiting first strikes that would create crisis instability of the kind that the United States and the Soviet Union feared during the Cold War. The most pressing challenge concerning nuclear stability in South Asia is not the numbers of nuclear weapons or their continuing growth or their specific technical characteristics, but rather the political uses to which they are put. The persistence of nuclear coercion—deriving from the view that nuclear weapons, being useful for more than simply deterring threats, can be exploited to support unchallenged low-intensity wars against an adversary—remains the most dangerous near-term strategic challenge in the subcontinent.

Pakistan remains a particularly troublesome perpetrator on this count. If Pakistan’s nuclear weapons were intended solely to deter India’s nuclear and conventional attacks, nuclear stability within the Indian subcontinent would be fairly robust. After all, India has few incentives to attack Pakistan by nuclear or conventional means, so Pakistan’s nuclear weaponry would be useful mainly to provide it with reassurance in case India were to behave maliciously. Unfortunately, however, nuclear weapons in Pakistani hands have had larger and more corrosively destabilizing effects: they have enabled Pakistan to pursue its revanchist aims of recovering the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir by force, or more specifically, by unleashing state-supported terrorism against India in the hope of weakening Indian control over the contested territories and beyond or weakening India itself.

This policy, which one scholar has aptly described as “jihad as grand strategy,”60  is based on the assumption that India will be unable to retaliate against Pakistan conventionally for fear of spiraling toward a nuclear holocaust. Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, being intended not merely to provide deterrence against Indian attacks, but more ambitiously, a license for its sub-conventional wars against India makes nuclear deterrence in South Asia more unstable than it would otherwise be—if Pakistan’s strategic objectives were as conservative as India’s. China’s acquiescence to the Pakistani strategy of perpetrating nuclear-shadowed terrorism against India has not helped either. Although China has ceased to behave similarly toward India since the 1980s, its support for Pakistan in its competition with India only serves its larger objective of tying India down to the subcontinent in the hope of preventing it from becoming a larger challenger on the Asian stage. The international community thankfully can help on this count. By penalizing Pakistan’s efforts at nuclear coercion, it can help to break the linkage between political revisionism and nuclear weaponry in ways that will ultimately assist both Pakistan’s internal stability and the orderly evolution of nuclear stability within South Asia.

 

Acknowledgments

The author wishes to gratefully acknowledge the very helpful comments on this paper by John H. Gill, Gregory S. Jones, and several senior U.S. government officials, and the research assistance provided by Megan Maxwell, Junior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

 

Ashley J. Tellis holds the Tata Chair for Strategic Affairs at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he is a senior fellow. He served in a number of positions in the State Department and the White House, including as senior advisor to the U.S. ambassador to India and as senior director for strategic planning and Southwest Asia on the National Security Council. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books.


 
1 For an excellent overview of the India-Pakistan conflict, see Sumit Ganguly, Conflict Unending: India-Pakistan Tensions since 1947 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001).
2 Ashley J. Tellis, Are India-Pakistan Peace Talks Worth a Damn? (Washington, DC: 2017), 25-42.
3 A good summary can be found in John W. Garver, Protracted Contest: Sino-Indian Rivalry in the Twentieth Century (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001), 3-109.
4 George Perkovich, India’s Nuclear Bomb (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 60.
5 K. Subrahmanyam, “Indian Nuclear Policy—1964-98,” in Nuclear India, ed. Jasjit Singh (New Delhi: Knowledge World, 1998), 26-53.
6 For an overview, see Andrew Small, The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics (Delhi: Random House India, 2015), 27-46.
7 Ashley J. Tellis, C. Christine Fair, and Jamison Jo Medby, Limited Conflicts Under the Nuclear Umbrella: Indian and Pakistani Lessons from the Kargil Crisis (Santa Monica: RAND, 2001), 48-50.
8 For an overview, see World Nuclear Association, “Nuclear Power in India,” World Nuclear Association, December 2019, https://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/country-profiles/countries-g-n/india.aspx.
9 Ashley J. Tellis, Atoms for War? Indian Civilian Nuclear Cooperation and India’s Nuclear Arsenal (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2006).
10 M.V. Ramana, “An Estimate of India’s Uranium Enrichment Capacity,” Science and Global Security 12, no 1-2 (January 2004), 115–124.
11 International Panel on Fissile Materials, “Countries: India,” February 12, 2018, http://fissilematerials.org/countries/india.html, and especially Gregory S. Jones, Reactor-Grade Plutonium and Nuclear Weapons: Exploding the Myths (Arlington: Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, 2018), which provides the most insightful analysis of Indian and Pakistani fissile material production.
12 International Panel on Fissile Materials, “Countries: India,” February 12, 2018.
13 See the discussion in Jones, Reactor-Grade Plutonium and Nuclear Weapons, 115-121.
14 Ramana, “An Estimate of India’s Uranium Enrichment Capacity.”
15 International Panel on Fissile Materials, “Countries: India,” February 12, 2018, http://fissilematerials.org/countries/india.html.
16 P.R. Chari, “India’s Nuclear Doctrine: Stirrings of Change,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, June 04, 2014, https://carnegieendowment.org/2014/06/04/india-s-nuclear-doctrine-stirrings-of-change-pub-55789.
17 Ashley J. Tellis, India’s Emerging Nuclear Posture (Santa Monica: RAND, 2001), 519.
18 Sanjay Badri-Maharaj, “Does India Need Thermonuclear Weapons,” IDSA Comment, September 22, 2017, https://idsa.in/idsacomments/does-india-need-thermonuclear-weapons_sbmaharaj_220817.
19 Ibid.
20 For a discussion of IAF advantages vis-à-vis Pakistan and China, see Ashley J. Tellis, Troubles, They Come in Battalions (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2016), 7-15.
21 Yogesh Joshi and Frank O’Donnell, “Two Decades of Indian Nuclear Force Development: The Emerging Posture and Looming Decision Points,” India and Nuclear Asia: Forces, Doctrine, and Dangers (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2019), 24-25.
22 Hans M. Kristensen and Matt Korda, “Indian Nuclear Forces, 2018,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 76, no. 6 (2018), 361-366.
23 Kristensen and Korda, “Indian Nuclear Forces, 2018.”
24 India’s changing approach to missile defense has been discussed in Ashley J. Tellis, “The Evolution of U.S.-Indian Ties: Missile Defense in an Emerging Strategic Relationship,” International Security, Vol. 30, No. 4 (Spring 2006), 113–151.
25 For a useful overview of the development and structure of the Indian nuclear command and control system, see Vipin Narang, Nuclear Strategy in the Modern Era: Regional Powers and International Conflict (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), 99-110.
26 These distinctions are discussed in detail in Tellis, India’s Emerging Nuclear Posture.
27 Tellis, Fair, and Medby, Limited Conflicts Under the Nuclear Umbrella, 57.
28 For a good discussion of the SFC and its role, see Gaurav Kampani and Bharath Gopalaswamy, Asia In The “Second Nuclear Age” (Washington, DC: Atlantic Council, 2017).
29 For an excellent discussion of this issue, see Rajesh Rajagopalan, “The Strategic Logic of the No First Use Nuclear Doctrine,” Observer Research Foundation, August 30, 2019, https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/strategic-logic-no-first-use-nuclear-doctrine-54911/.
30 Harsh V. Pant and Yogesh Joshi, “Nuclear rethink: A Change in India’s Nuclear Doctrine has Implications on Cost & War Strategy,” The Economic Times, August 17, 2019.
31 Cf. Christopher Clary and Vipin Narang, “India’s Counterforce Temptations: Strategic Dilemmas, Doctrine, and Capabilities,” International Security 43, no. 3 (Winter 2018/2019), 7-52.
32 Tellis, India’s Emerging Nuclear Posture, 321-340.
33 Narang, Nuclear Strategy in the Modern Era, 58.
34 Hans M. Kristensen, Robert S. Norris, and Julia Diamond, “Pakistani Nuclear Forces, 2018,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 74, no. 5 (2018), 350.
35 International Panel on Fissile Materials, “Countries: Pakistan,” February 12, 2018, http://fissilematerials.org/countries/pakistan.html.
36 Nuclear Threat Initiative, Civilian HEU: Who Has What? (Washington, DC: Nuclear Threat Initiative, 2014), http://www.nti.org/media/pdfs/heu_who_has_what_2014_11.pdf?_=1416267490, and International Panel on Fissile Materials, Global Fissile Material Report 2010: Balancing the Books: Production and Stocks (Princeton, NJ: International Panel on Fissile Materials, 2010), 126–130.
37 Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris, “Pakistani Nuclear Forces 2011,” Strategic Security (blog), July 17, 2011, http://fas.org/programs/ssp/nukes/images/PakistanChart2011.jpg.
38 International Panel on Fissile Materials, Global Fissile Material Report 2015: Nuclear Weapon and Fissile Material Stockpiles and Production (Princeton, NJ: International Panel on Fissile Materials, 2015), 27.
39 For a good argument defending the proposition that Pakistan’s eventual nuclear arsenal is likely to be smaller than the maximalist numbers currently feared, see Naeem Salik, “Pakistan’s Nuclear Force Structure in 2025,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, June 30, 2016, https://carnegieendowment.org/2016/06/30/pakistan-s-nuclear-force-structure-in-2025-pub-63912.
40 “US embassy cables: US expresses fears over Pakistan nuclear weapon programme,” The Guardian, November 30, 2010, https://www.theguardian.com/world/us-embassy-cables-documents/181529.
41 “Excerpt from report by Pakistan TV on 19 March (2005),” quoted in Bhumitra Chakma, Pakistan’s Nuclear Weapons (London: Routledge, 2009), 59.
42 For an example of analysis that reflects such fears, see Mansoor Ahmed, “India’s Nuclear Exceptionalism,” (discussion paper, Managing the Atom Project, Belfer Center, May 2017), https://www.belfercenter.org/sites/default/files/files/publication/India%27s%20Nuclear%20Exceptionalism.pdf.
43 Malik Qasim Mustafa, “Pakistan’s Second Strike Capability: A Step Towards Deterrence Stability in South Asia,” Issue Brief, Institute of Strategic Studies, January 12, 2017, http://www.issi.org.pk/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Final-Issue_Qasim_dated_12-1-2017.pdf, and Emanuel Sarfraz, “Pakistan Enters Nuke Triad Club,” The Interpreter by the Lowy Institute, January 11, 2017, https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/pakistan-enters-nuke-triad-club.
44 Hans M. Kristensen, Robert S. Norris and Julia Diamond, “Pakistani Nuclear Forces, 2018,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 74, no. 5 (2018), 349.
45 For penetrating insights on this issue, see Michael Krepon, “Pakistan’s Nuclear Strategy and Deterrence Stability,” in Deterrence Stability and Escalation Control in South Asia, ed. Michael Krepon and Julia Thompson (Washington, DC: Stimson Center, 2013), http://indianstrategicknowledgeonline.com/web/Krepon_-_Pakistan_Nuclear_Strategy_and_Deterrence_Stability.pdf.
46 For a useful summary, see Sannia Abdullah, “Pakistan’s Full-Spectrum Deterrence: Trends and Trajectories,” South Asian Voices, December 13, 2018, https://southasianvoices.org/pakistan-full-spectrum-deterrence-trends-trajectories/.
47 See, for example, David Albright, Paul Brannan, and Robert Kelley, “Pakistan Expanding Dera Ghazi Khan Nuclear Site: Time for U.S. to Call for Limits,” ISIS Imagery Brief, Institute for Science and International Security, May 19, 2009, http://www.isis-online.org/publications/southasia/PakistanExpandingCPC.pdf.
48 Gregory S. Jones, “Do India and Pakistan Possess Boosted Nuclear Weapons? Tritium Supply Considerations,” Proliferation Matters, July 31, 2019,  https://nebula.wsimg.com/b2c3c9b49ad062fdf2c7a52be054c98c?AccessKeyId=40C80D0B51471CD86975&disposition=0&alloworigin=1
49 For an excellent overview, see Christopher Clary, Thinking about Pakistan’s Nuclear Security in Peacetime, Crisis and War (New Delhi: Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, 2010).
50 For useful details, see Mansoor Ahmed, “Pakistan’s Tactical Nuclear Weapons and Their Impact on Stability,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, June 30, 2016, https://carnegieendowment.org/2016/06/30/pakistan-s-tactical-nuclear-weapons-and-their-impact-on-stability-pub-63911.
51 Feroz Hassan Khan, “Nuclear Command, Control and Communications (NC3): The Case of Pakistan,” Tech4GS Special Reports, September 26, 2019, https://www.tech4gs.org/uploads/1/1/1/5/111521085/tech4gs_special_report_khan_pakistan_nc3_3.pdf.
52 For a thoughtful critique, see Air Commodore (Ret.) Ghulam Mujaddid, “The Next Decade of Nuclear Unlearning: Command, Control, and Management of Pakistan’s Nuclear Weapons,” in Feroz Hassan Khan, Ryan Jacobs and Emily Burke (eds.), Nuclear Learning in South Asia: The Next Decade (Monterey: Naval Postgraduate School, 2014), 102-110.
53 Naeem Salik and Kenneth N. Luongo, “Challenges for Pakistan’s Nuclear Security,” Arms Control Today 43, no. 2 (March 2013), 14-19.
54 Susan Turner Haynes, “China’s Nuclear Threat Perceptions,” Strategic Studies Quarterly 10, no. 2 (Summer 2016), 25-62.
55 For a thoughtful reflection on this issue, see Michael Krepon, “Safe Nuclear Weapons,” Arms Control Wonk, April 29, 2015, https://www.armscontrolwonk.com/archive/404598/safe-nuclear-weapons/.
56 Useful overviews of nuclear security in India can be found in Sitakanta Mishra and Happymon Jacob, Nuclear Security Governance in India: Institutions, Instruments, and Culture, Sandia Report, SAND2015-0233, January 2015, and Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, Rahul Krishna, Kritika Singh, and Arka Biswas, Nuclear Security in India, Second Edition (New Delhi: Observer Research Foundation, 2016). For Pakistan, see Clary, Thinking about Pakistan’s Nuclear Security in Peacetime, Crisis and War.   
57 Congressional Research Service, Pakistan’s Nuclear Weapons (Washington DC: CRS Report, RL34248, August 1, 2016).
58 For useful ideas on these issues and more, see Rajeswari Rajagopalan and Leon Ratz, “Strengthening the U.S.-India Nuclear Security Relationship,” Observer Research Foundation and Nuclear Threat Initiative, n.d., https://media.nti.org/documents/Strengthening_the_U_S_-India_Nuclear_Security_Relationship.pdf.
59 Clary and Narang, “India’s Counterforce Temptations: Strategic Dilemmas, Doctrine, and Capabilities.”
60 S. Paul Kapur, Jihad as Grand Strategy: Islamist Militancy, National Security, and the Pakistani State (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).

About the Author

More from Governance In An Emerging New World

More from Foreign Affairs & National Security