Apocalypse soon?

Expressing concern over Pakistan’s rapidly expanding nuclear arsenal, General Deepak Kapoor, India’s chief of army staff, recently called on the international community to prevail on Pakistan to cap its warheads at present levels. He was reacting to reports that Pakistan is building two new heavy water reactors at Khushab with Chinese help, to produce weapons-grade plutonium for additional nuclear warheads. Pakistan has also been reported to be developing a “second strike” capability by placing some of its missiles in deep silos with concrete protection.

Unlike India’s completely indigenous nuclear weapons and missile development programme, Pakistan has received considerable external help and, in turn, has itself been a proliferator. Pakistan’s nuclear weapons — warheads and delivery systems — are India-centric and have been acquired with Chinese and North Korean help. While India follows a “credible minimum deterrence” doctrine and has declared a “no first use” policy, Pakistan follows a “first use” nuclear doctrine and seeks to convince India that it has a low nuclear threshold. 

India’s nuclear weapons are political weapons whose sole purpose is to deter the use and threat of use of nuclear weapons against India. The Pakistan army believes that its nuclear weapons are its first line of defence. Pakistan banks on its nuclear weapons to negate India’s conventional military superiority and is fighting a ‘proxy war’ against India under its nuclear umbrella.

Though Pakistan’s nuclear warheads are based on a Chinese design that uses highly enriched uranium as the fissionable core, it is known to be gradually switching over to Plutonium 239 for future nuclear warheads. Peter Lavoy, a well known nuclear expert, has written: “Assuming that Pakistani scientists require 5 to 7 kg of plutonium to make one warhead, and 20 to 25 kg of weapon-grade HEU (highly enriched uranium to produce a bomb, then Pakistan would have accumulated enough fissile material to be able to manufacture between 70 and 115 nuclear weapons by the end of 2006.” 

Estimates of Pakistan’s nuclear warheads stockpile vary according to the source. However, Pakistan is generally credited with the capability of having stockpiled 60 to 70 nuclear warheads by the end of 2008. Like India, Pakistan does not have any tactical or battlefield nuclear weapons in its arsenal, but is known to be working towards miniaturising its nuclear warheads for use on the Babur cruise missile. 

As and when this capability is acquired, Pakistan will be able to develop tactical nuclear warheads for its short-range missiles as well.

Pakistan has been testing its ballistic and nuclear-capable cruise missiles at the rate of one every two months on average. It is apparently engaged in improving the accuracy of its Chinese and North Korean missiles. 

Now that India has operational Agni-I and II intermediate-range ballistic missiles and Pakistan has the Ghauri-I and II and the Shaheen-I and II, an excellent India-Pakistan nuclear risk reduction measure would be for both the countries to eliminate their short-range ballistic missiles — Prithvi in India’s case and Pakistan’s Hatf-I, II and III — from the nuclear arsenal as these are inherently destabilising. 

Pakistan’s nuclear command and control passed into army hands when General Zia-ul-Haq overthrew Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in a military coup d’etat on July 5, 1977 and has remained with the army ever since. With Taliban and jihadi terrorism having taken hold of large parts of Pakistan’s polity, there are serious doubts whether Pakistan’s nuclear warheads are safe from falling into jihadi hands. 

As long as the warheads are under the custody of the Pakistan army, such reservations are misplaced. However, in case there is ever a successful coup led by radical extremists with the support of disgruntled elements in the Pakistan army, or a colonels’ coup, it will be necessary to either capture the nuclear warheads or bomb the suspected nuclear storage sites to render the warheads ineffective. 

For this contingency, India must consider providing military and logistics support to the US and it allies.

The ideal course of action for the international community would be to either buy out Pakistan’s nuclear warheads in exchange for military and economic aid, or gain custodial control over them temporarily and provide iron clad guarantees that no country will be allowed to take advantage of Pakistan’s present situation of extreme vulnerability. 

However, in the real world, such an option will never be acceptable to the Pakistanis as Pakistan is still a sovereign state that is seemingly still in control of its destiny. The world has no option to but to wait with bated breath and hope that Pakistan will eventually tide over its complex challenges, which are mostly of its own making.

The writer is director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi