The Stimson Center and the Carnegie Endowment published a 20,000-word essay on Pakistan’s nuclear program and diplomatic ambitions last week. My co-author Toby Dalton and I did not write this assessment to cause harm to Pakistan. We support Pakistan’s quest to be viewed as a normal state that possesses nuclear weapons, and we support Pakistan’s desire to gain entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group. We also agree with Pakistan’s view that the entry of new members that possess nuclear weapons ought to be criteria-based. Where we disagree with the Government of Pakistan – as well as the Government of India – is on the criteria to be met by new members.
It’s striking to us how little media coverage there is of the nuclear competition between Pakistan and India, compared to the nuclear programs of North Korea and Iran. We pay attention when firing across the DMZ on the Korean peninsula occurs for a day or two – and rightly so. Firing across the Kashmir divide now occurs every week. The trend line is up, which is worrisome.
We pay a great deal of attention about the possibility of Iran accumulating enough weapon-grade fissile material to build a bomb within a year or seven months – ten or fifteen years from now. In contrast, Pakistan has the capacity to manufacture around twenty warheads annually. This number, based on unclassified sources, could be somewhat less or more.
For the last seven years, there have been no concerted, sustained efforts by leaders in India and Pakistan to improve bilateral relations – not since the Lashkar-e-Toiba sent young recruits by boat to kill people in Mumbai. High-level diplomacy is dead in the water. A one-topic agenda for talks – terrorism – is bound to fail, as was evident by the recent disruption of a scheduled meeting between the national security advisers. All of the warning lights on the subcontinent are now blinking yellow. We are one major terror attack by the LeT or a like-minded group away from another nuclear-tinged crisis.
The nuclear competition on the subcontinent is very unusual. Pakistan faces grave economic and social challenges. It is deeply engaged in a military campaign along the Afghan border. And it is out-competing India, a country whose economy is about nine times larger, on several important nuclear weapon-related metrics. Pakistan appears to be producing annually around four times as much fissile material dedicated for weapon purposes as India. Pakistan has four plutonium production reactors in operation; India has one. Another might begin construction in perhaps two years. India appears to be producing around five warheads annually, compared to Pakistan’s 20. After a late start, Pakistan has caught up with India’s stockpile of nuclear weapons, and now appears to have exceeded it.
This differential will grow in the near-term unless New Delhi decides to sacrifice electricity for warheads. Pakistan has, in effect, decided to make this trade-off by investing in four plutonium production reactors instead of power plants. India’s leaders have so far been unwilling to accept this trade-off.
India is nonetheless competing, and competing seriously – albeit far below its capabilities. Like Pakistan, it has flight-tested many new nuclear-weapon-capable delivery vehicles. New Delhi has two big-ticket items – a new class of nuclear-powered submarines and a longer-range missile. Both are geared toward China, although the submarine will initially carry short-range missiles until longer-range ones are available.
India’s leaders might decide to pick up the pace of their end of the competition, but for now, they appear to remain committed to their stated nuclear doctrine of credible, minimum deterrence. We see no evidence that India is engaged in a nuclear arms race. Political leaders of both major parties view nuclear weapons as political, not militarily useful, instruments.
Pakistan’s military leaders view nuclear weapons differently. They take nuclear requirements very seriously, and they think hard about the use of nuclear weapons in the event deterrence fails. Since the U.S.-India civil nuclear agreement, which opens significant pathways for New Delhi to increase future fissile material production, Rawalpindi has adopted a nuclear posture of “full-spectrum” deterrence, which suggests greater requirements for nuclear weapons, including short-range missiles and perhaps other kinds of tactical nuclear weapons, as well as longer-range systems.
The stewards of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal have told us for many years that they are almost within sight of meeting their nuclear weapon requirements. But they continue to block negotiations on a fissile material cut-off treaty, and they have invested significant sums in plutonium production reactors of recent vintage. Kahuta continues to enrich uranium. We see no evidence, as yet, that Pakistan’s nuclear requirements are tailing off.
Arms competitions feed off of asymmetries, and the asymmetries in the Pakistan-India competition are extremely marked. India has to deal with two nuclear-armed neighbors; Pakistan plans against one. This asymmetry negates nuclear arms control as practiced during the Cold War. India has far greater potential to out-compete Pakistan, especially on fissile material for weapons, which is why Rawalpindi appears to be manufacturing more new warheads than any other country. Pakistan looks at India’s stocks of reactor-grade material, its breeder program, and it’s highly-enriched uranium program for naval nuclear propulsion, and sees bomb-making potential – even as it is out-producing India on fissile material dedicated for weapons by approximately four-to-one.
Pakistan is not now a normal state with nuclear weapons. It’s not normal for a state with a weak economy and pressing domestic needs to produce perhaps 20 warheads annually. Members of NSG, with the exception of China, are unlikely to view Pakistan’s quest for membership favorably under these circumstances. Even Beijing is likely to be unhappy with the pace of Pakistan’s new warhead production, which reportedly outpaces its own. China appears to have stopped producing fissile material dedicated for weapons before joining the NSG.
Toby and I argue that Pakistan will not be able to duplicate India’s path toward nuclear normalcy as it has neither the market nor the geopolitical clout that gained India the NSG’s stamp of approval on a civil-nuclear deal. Only China will sell power reactors to Pakistan on generous, concessionary terms.
To our way of thinking, only nuclear-weapon-related initiatives offer a chance for Pakistan’s quest to gain entry into the nuclear mainstream. We suggest five initiatives for consideration: pulling back from full-spectrum deterrence, especially requirements for short-range systems that raise significant concerns for nuclear safety and security and that can foil a homeland, conventional defense by Pakistan’s Army; reconsidering Pakistan’s veto on FMCT negotiations and fissile material requirements; separating civilian from military nuclear facilities; and signing the CTBT – but not ratifying it – before India. We suggest that a CTBT signature be accompanied by a statement that, in the event India tests, Pakistan would exercise the Treaty’s supreme national interest clause and resume testing, as well.
All of these steps would be extremely hard for Pakistan’s military and political leaders to accept – none more so than a CTBT signature without waiting for India. They would mark a significant departure from Pakistan’s long-standing policies and penchant for transactional bargaining. Pakistan will not, however, gain anything in trade because Pakistan is not amenable to trade: Requirements are set by Rawalpindi; unless Rawalpindi reassesses its requirements, our suggestions will fall on deaf ears. No political leader in Pakistan can make these decisions without the public support of Pakistan’s military leaders.
So why might our suggestions receive a thoughtful hearing? Why might some of them even be adopted over time? Because they would serve Pakistan’s national, social and economic security interests. Because more nuclear weapons do not translate into stronger deterrence. Because they would advance Pakistan’s quest to be viewed as a normal state possessing nuclear weapons. And they would change views of Pakistan, energize its diplomacy, and facilitate Pakistan’s entry into the NSG, while setting the criteria for India’s membership.