Michael KreponWill Pakistan and India Break the Fissile Material Deadlock?

Pakistan is ramping up fissile material production capabilities for military purposes while vetoing a fissile material cut-off treaty negotiation at the Conference on Disarmament. India is also increasing production capacity, but the FMCT’s problems extend well beyond these two states. Non-aligned members at the CD believe a cut-off treaty isn’t ambitious enough, and it’s hard to gin up much enthusiasm from Russia and China.

There is, however, some forward movement. Useful discussions have begun in March in a newly-convened Group of Governmental Experts chaired by Canada. India has a seat at this table. Pakistan, which voted against the establishment of the GGE, is not among its 25 members. Pakistan has now felt obliged to engage more substantively on these issues in parallel, informal discussions at the CD. For the first time ever, two diplomatic channels are wrestling with the challenges of dealing with fissile material production for weapons.

Pakistan has long held the view that existing stocks should be covered under a treaty – hence its use of the acronym FMT, as opposed to FMCT, to broaden the agreement’s scope. Pakistan’s veteran Ambassador to the CD, Zamir Akram, argues for an expanded scope “because of the asymmetry existing in our region – that has been compounded by the discriminatory civil nuclear cooperation agreements and NSG waivers.” The object of Pakistan’s nuclear diplomacy is to constrain India’s nuclear capabilities without placing any constraints on its existing stocks. Failing this unlikely outcome, Rawalpindi has sought, so far successfully, to compete effectively with Indian nuclear weapon capabilities.

The utility of serious discussions on fissile material was demonstrated at the CD on June 5th, when Ambassador Akram clarified Pakistan’s stance regarding how to deal with existing stocks:

“We propose that this weaponized fissile material may not be touched by the treaty, and be dealt with in the future Convention on Nuclear Disarmament.

“[Regarding] fissile material that has not been weaponized as yet, but set aside either for new warheads or for the replacement and refurbishment of existing warheads, [including] irradiated fuel and reactor-grade separated plutonium produced from any unsafeguarded reactor – military or otherwise, [w]e propose that this non-weaponized fissile material should be brought under the verification coverage of the treaty and placed under safeguards to ensure its non-diversion for nuclear weapons manufacturing. The transfer of this material to safeguarded civil and non-proscribed military use may be permitted… A second option would be to reduce this sub-category of fissile materials to the lowest possible levels necessary for the safe maintenance of nuclear arsenals through mutual and balanced reductions on a regional or global basis.

…Material assigned for nuclear weapons including the fissile material released from retired warheads and those in the dismantlement queue, including such material that is already in waste disposal sites… should also be brought under safeguards in accordance with the principle of irreversibility to preclude its re-weaponization. Its transfer to safeguarded civil and non-proscribed military use would be permitted.

“…[As for] fissile material not assigned for nuclear weapons [e.g.,] material designated for civil purposes; excess material for military purposes; and material for non-proscribed military activities like naval propulsion etc., we propose that each of these three sub-categories of fissile material should be brought under safeguards – both the future and past production – to ensure their exclusive use for non-prohibited purposes only. Leaving the past production of these types of material outside of safeguards would provide a potential source for thousands of nuclear weapons.

These are useful distinctions that can be discussed in detail, but none of the other states possessing nuclear weapons will accept Pakistan’s positions that fence off its own previous production while capturing the stocks of others or incentivizing the weaponization of existing stocks. Pakistan cannot hold its own against an economic powerhouse like India if New Delhi decides to crank up fissile material production for military purposes. So why would Pakistan insist on provisions that would only extend the timeline for an FMCT during which it could fall increasingly behind India?

One possible reason is that Pakistan’s nuclear stewards feel relatively comfortable about the nuclear competition, at least in the near-term. When Pakistan feels more concerned about its relative position, or when it feels it has sufficient stocks, it will change its stance on the FMCT. Another possibility is that Pakistan truly believes its worst case scenario, in which India’s eight unsafeguarded nuclear power plants are applied to bomb-making instead of electricity and that India’s fast-breeder reactors will somehow operate far more efficiently than those in the United States, Russia, Japan, France, Germany and the United Kingdom.

There are now diplomatic fora to unpack and discuss these assumptions, including Pakistan’s worst case, which is completely over the top. In the meantime, progress will remain slow while Pakistan and India gear up their bomb-making capacity.


  1. krepon (History)

    My thanks to Toby Dalton and Zia Mian for helping me work through these issues.

  2. nukeman (History)

    let’s have a discussion about both Pakistan and India’s use of AVLIS for enrichment. Pakistan is using AVLIS for lithium-6 enrichment and possibly low level uranium enrichment. India has used AVLIS for uranium-233 enrichment and maybe lithium-6. Funny how there is no serious talk about AVLIS being used for lithium-6 enrichment even though I pointed this out about five years ago in a bibliography that is available on the FAS website. I even commented about a journal article by Pakistani scientists that partially focuses on uranium spectroscopy for isotope separation.

  3. Anjaan (History)

    Meanwhile, India’s nuke security focus has shifted towards much bigger threats and potential threats around the world … and the nuke powered subs and sub launched nuke missiles is India’s top priority now … not Pakistan …

  4. bob (History)

    Pakistan will do whatever the Saudis pay them to do.

    You think Saudi bought those Chinese ballistic missiles for nothing?

    • George William Herbert (History)


      Pakistan will do whatever the Saudis pay them to do. You think Saudi bought those Chinese ballistic missiles for nothing?

      While this is quite possible, there are a wide variety of nations (quite a large number in that neighborhood) with SRBM/IRBM weapons systems; one of whom has nukes (Israel). Libya, Egypt, Syria, (formerly Iraq,) Iran do not. And I left a few out because I’m lazy and don’t want to check if Yemen still has Scuds or if we should include various Storm Shadows in the count, etc.

      One can hold an opponents’ cities at risk without having to hold them at risk of annihilation. Lesser strikes are of deterrent and warfighting use.

  5. bob (History)


    You are correct. However given the accuracy (or lack therof) of the system in question, such lesser strikes would be of minimal warfighting use. Just my opinion of course.

    It seems to me that the implicit image projected is equivalent to the German Airforce deployments of Pershing.

    As we all know, in that case direct command and control of the nuclear warheads remained in the hands of the U.S. army. So it was all completely ‘legitimate’. Nuclear sharing is NATO doctrine after all.

    I am sure Pakistan will ‘share’ with Saudi what has already been bought and paid for.

  6. Bradley Laing (History)


    The article, “Why Eliminate Nuclear Weapons?,” appeared in the journal Survival: Global Politics and Strategy, which is published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies in the UK…

    Doyle’s piece wasn’t an anti-government rant, but a lengthy argument that nuclear weapons had lost their strategic utility and value as a deterrent, that getting rid of them would enhance international security, and that this was an ideal point in time to get serious about global disarmament. In fact, Doyle praised President Obama’s vision:

  7. Bradley Laing (History)


    concerns as warheads moved around the country prompt fresh calls to cut transports and scrap Trident Exclusive by Rob Edwards Environment Editor
    Sunday 3 August 2014
    Convoys carrying nuclear bombs and hazardous radioactive materials by road through Scotland and across the UK have suffered 70 safety lapses in five-and-half-years, according to the Ministry of Defence

  8. Bradley Laing (History)


    The Labour Party is promising to reinstate the Minister of Disarmament as a Cabinet position if elected to government.

    Labour’s disarmament and arms control spokesperson Maryan Street said New Zealand once led the world with its anti-nuclear stance and promotion of disarmament in international forums.

    She said reinstating the ministerial position would prioritise helping to create a nuclear weapons-free world.
    “There’s a lot more happening internationally now, people are turning to a new agenda for disarmament and New Zealand needs to be at the forefront of that.”

    Ms Street said the humanitarian consequences of any nuclear conflict were too horrific to contemplate.

  9. Bradley Laing (History)

    U.S. Pacific Command on Monday kicked off a multi-national training exercise in interdicting and defending against weapons of mass destruction without the participation of the two major regional powers – China and India.


    Fortune Guard was part of the international Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) aimed at stopping the trafficking of WMD, including the weapons’ precursors and delivery systems. The effort was launched in 2003 by the U.S. and 10 other nations and now includes 104 nations, but neither China nor India are signatories…

    “We would be thrilled to have China,” a senior DoD official said at a Pentagon briefing on Fortune Guard last month. “They have received multiple invitations,” the official said of the Chinese…

    The official said that the nature of the WMD threat “has evolved substantially” since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In the past, the WMD threat was more likely to involve the weapon itself, but “today the focus is much more on dual use items” that can be assembled into a weapon, the official said.

    Read more: http://defensetech.org/2014/08/04/u-s-leads-wmd-exercise-without-china-india/#ixzz39U8cbVIo

    Read more: http://defensetech.org/2014/08/04/u-s-leads-wmd-exercise-without-china-india/#ixzz39U8HOZiK

    Read more: http://defensetech.org/2014/08/04/u-s-leads-wmd-exercise-without-china-india/#ixzz39U85HxM6

  10. Bradley Laing (History)


    At the same time, the Navy claims it is making progress with efforts to lower costs for the Ohio Replacement Program…

    Tofalo also added that the Navy has identified a 12-ship class cost reduction of $500 million in construction and $130 million in operation and sustainment costs.

    Overall, the Navy needs to make more progress if it hopes to meet its goal of producing the Ohio Replacement Submarines for $4.9 billion each in 2010 dollars.

    Working with ORP-builder Electric Boat, a subsidiary of General Dynamics Corp., the Navy has finished the ship specifications for the boat and made progress with a few cost-cutting initiatives.

    The Navy is only building 12 Ohio Replacement submarines to replace 14 existing ones because the new submarines are being built with an improved nuclear core reactor that will better sustain the submarines, officials have said. As a result, the Ohio Replacement submarines will be able to perform a greater number of deployments than the ships they are replacing and not need a mid-life refueling in order to complete 42 years of service.

    Also, Navy officials point to a “bankers score card” which catalogs every cost-saving measure identified in the Ohio Replacement program development. The program looks for savings in construction, saving in operation and support and design savings.

    For instance, Ohio Replacement program developers saved millions in developmental costs by removing a technology called Salvage Air, a mechanism to bring air into the tank in the event of catastrophe or disaster, service officials said.