Pakistan has cranked up the production of nuclear weapons in a bid to pull ahead of India in the South Asian version of the nuclear arms race. In its latest tally, the somewhat Orwellian sounding Stockholm International Peace Research Institute puts the Pakistani arsenal at a maximum of 120 warheads — 10 more than India.
Currently, China, India and Pakistan are the only three nations expanding their nuclear arsenals. According to the International Panel on Fissile Materials, an independent group that estimates worldwide nuclear production, “Pakistan may have a stockpile of material sufficient for more than 200 weapons and could currently be producing material for about 12-21 weapons per year. It has a capacity to increase this production rate to 14-27 weapons per year when two under-construction reactors become available.”
Judging by the pace at which Pakistan’s doomsday stockpile is growing, the Islamic country could overtake France to become the fourth-largest nuclear-weapons State by around 2024.
Since the raison d’etre of the Pakistani nuclear weapons programme is to counter India’s conventional might, should India be worried?
A difference of 10 or 20 nuclear weapons is hardly alarming. Even if Pakistan overtakes France’s total of 300 warheads and the Indian tally is, say, 200, it will matter little in a nuclear exchange. Even 100 is overkill — for, there just aren’t enough targets in all of Pakistan.
From Pakistan’s point of view, the dilemma is bigger. It can keep producing as many nuclear warheads as it wants to, but whether it can actually use them is a totally different matter. While the Indian strategic forces can erase Pakistan off the map with a dozen well-aimed warheads, India is too big to be decapitated by a first strike.
“Nuclear warfare is not a commando raid or commando operation with which Pakistan is more familiar,” says Subhash Kapila, an international relations and strategic affairs analyst at the New Delhi-based South Asia Analysis Group. “Crossing the nuclear threshold is so fateful a decision that even strong American presidents in the past have baulked at exercising it or the prospects of exercising it.”
Islamabad cannot expect New Delhi would sit idle and suffer a nuclear strike without massive retaliation. So basically, if Pakistan goes for the nuclear trigger first, it commits suicide. If India goes for first-use, Pakistan still ceases to exist. It is a lose-lose proposition for Pakistan in every situation.
As US strategic analyst Ralph Peters, the author of Looking for Trouble, explains, “Pakistan’s leaders know full well a nuclear exchange would leave their country a wasteland. India would dust itself off and move on.”
In fact, New Delhi called Islamabad’s nuclear bluff during the 1999 Kargil War, when it launched a ferocious offensive to push back the Pakistanis from the Himalayan heights. The Pakistanis had assumed India would not dare to risk nuclear war, believing they would use nuclear weapons early on in a conflict.
According to Kapila, the myth of Pakistan’s low nuclear threshold is planted by US academia or probably officially inspired to keep India’s political leadership in awe of the fearful consequences of a nuclear war.
But India isn’t buying that anymore. In January 2000, the then defence minister, George Fernandes, observed that in precipitating the Kargil War, Pakistan “had not absorbed the real meaning of nuclearisation — that it can deter only the use of nuclear weapons, but not all and any war”.
Ironically, the biggest threat from the Pakistani nukes is not to India, which has developed adequate counter measures, but to the West, which winked at Islamabad’s clandestine nuclear programme during the Cold War.
There is a possibility that radicalised Pakistani military officers with access to nuclear weapons could collaborate with the Pakistani Taliban, al Qaeda or even members of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to launch a nuclear attack on the West or Israel. A compact Pakistani battlefield nuke smuggled into New York, Riyadh or Tel Aviv is the ultimate jihadi dream.
The ease with which terrorists are able to penetrate well-defended strategic targets in Pakistan such as military bases, ports and airports highlights the threat that these extremist groups might even launch an assault against nuclear weapons depots.
The Pakistani nuclear bomb was labelled the ‘Islamic Bomb’ by none other than its founder, Abdul Qadir Khan, for a good reason. The ‘Islamic Bomb’ was massively financed by Saudi Arabia, which even provided Pakistan with discounted oil. The Pakistanis made a Faustian bargain with Saudi Arabia, thinking the oil-soaked sheikhs were happy to let the Pakistanis control the arsenal.
But like all Faustian bargains, there comes a time to pay up. The Saudis, seeing the humiliating US retreat from the region, are now paranoid about both a rising Iran and the rampaging jihadis, who want to rid the Middle East of pro- American sheikhdoms.
In this backdrop, the Saudis may want the transfer of nuclear weapons for which they have paid for. According to Israeli intelligence, which knows every rabbit in the Middle East and which way it is moving, the Saudis want the nukes and want them now. The Israelis believe the Pakistanis certainly maintain a certain number of warheads on the basis that if the Saudis were to ask for them at any given time, they would immediately be transferred.
Even if the Israelis are ratcheting up the fear levels, it doesn’t change the fact the real owners of the Pakistani nuclear bombs are the Saudis. A senior Pakistani official confirms the kingdom’s stake in the ‘Islamic Bomb’. “What did we think the Saudis were giving us all that money for? It wasn’t charity,” he told the BBC.
The India-Pakistan arms race is driven by the same set of fears and misinformation that sparked the ruinous arms race between the Soviet Union and the US during the Cold War.
The Manhattan Project scientists estimated 100-200 nuclear weapons would have been more than enough to defend America. But driven by the fear its own deterrent was not enough and that the Russians had more, the US went on a nuclear build-up, peaking at 31,255 warheads in 1967. Not to be outdone, the Soviets decided they must overtake the US in both conventional and nuke weapons. Their arsenal stood at an astounding 45,000 nuclear warheads in 1986.
The Soviets were ahead by miles, and yet all that firepower couldn’t help them when an internal revolution broke up the country. It wasn’t the arms race per se that weakened the Soviet Union’s economy; rather it was the desire to overtake the US — whose economy was several times bigger — that exhausted the Soviets.
The deleterious effects of that arms race are also being felt by the US economy, which has now become a war economy — dangerously dependent on wasteful armaments production.
Pakistan is making the same strategic mistake. Its plan to achieve at least nuclear parity with India and then overtake its giant neighbour will only spell doom for its economy. For, Pakistan is a dirt poor country, which is dependent on handouts from the West and the Gulf States. Producing nuclear fissile materials is an extremely complicated and expensive process. Unlike India, Pakistan cannot sustain production without driving itself into bankruptcy.