NEW YORK - India and Pakistan have in recent months adopted duelling steps to test new nuclear weapons aimed at gaining strategic advantage over each other, according to a US media report.
“The nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan is intensifying, with new weaponry and more aggressive doctrines that are stoking tensions between two powers at growing risk of confrontation,” The Wall Street Journal reported from Islamabad.
Each has more than 100 nuclear warheads and new ways to deliver them from land, air and sea, with India appearing to be considering changing its nuclear doctrine to allow a first strike against Pakistan, correspondent Saeed Shah said, citing analysts.
Among rival developments, India tested interceptor missiles twice this year as part of its plan to develop a ballistic missile-defence shield, the report pointed out. Pakistan in January tested a missile with multiple warheads capable of evading it.
India said last year it began testing its first homemade nuclear-powered submarine at sea and a nuclear missile capable of striking all of Pakistani territory from far offshore. Then Pakistan this year said it had tested its own undersea nuclear missile capable of carrying out a retaliatory strike, the report said.
India’s army chief said for the first time this year that it devised a plan for a rapid, shallow, conventional invasion of Pakistan that some analysts say could be unleashed in response to a cross-border terror attack like the Mumbai assault of 2008.
India has calibrated such an invasion so as not to provoke Pakistan to retaliate with its big, strategic nuclear weapons, the report said citing current and former officials from both sides.
Pakistan, in response, has developed a capability to strike such an advance with tactical nuclear weapons-which have a smaller detonation-that it calculates wouldn’t trigger a massive retaliation from India, it said.
“We assess that these types of attacks and the potential reactions increase the likelihood for miscalculation by both countries,” warned the head of US Central Command, Gen. Joseph Votel, in congressional testimony in March. “A significant conventional conflict between Pakistan and India could escalate into a nuclear exchange.”
The US State Department declined to comment, the report said. The foreign ministries of Pakistan and India didn’t respond to requests for comment. Both countries say they are developing a “credible minimal” nuclear deterrent.
While Pakistan races to keep pace with India, India is vying with the larger nuclear programme of Pakistan’s ally China, according to the report. China, meanwhile, is in competition with the US, which has drawn close to India in recent years.
International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, an advocacy group, said even a limited nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan would have such a devastating impact on global climate that it would put two billion people at risk of famine.
Pakistan says the driver of the current round of nuclear competition is the US move in 2005 to legitimize India’s nuclear programme and allow it to buy fissile material on the international market. The US claims the deal strengthened non-proliferation.
That accord was intended to cement US ties with India to help contain a rising China, it said, citing analysts. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s relationship with the US has suffered as the two nations blamed each other for chaos in Afghanistan.
“With the US closer to India and an untested president in the White House, some nuclear strategists question whether Washington can still play its former honest-broker role to defuse India-Pakistan tensions,” correspondent Shah wrote.
Pakistan is increasingly relying on its nuclear deterrent against a neighbour that has a five-time bigger defence budget and twice the military manpower, it was pointed out. Pakistan is out producing India’s nuclear weapons by four to one, according to the Stimson Center, a Washington research group. Islamabad disputes that assessment.
India’s bigger stockpile of nuclear fuel and new reactors set to soon start producing substantial amounts of plutonium give New Delhi the potential to overtake Pakistan’s production of nuclear weapons in the future, it said, citing experts.
Pakistan’s recent development of tactical devices raises the risk of a nuclear weapon being used and of them falling into the hands of militants, the report cited “some experts” as claiming.
Another risk, they say, is India’s stated belief that a limited conventional war with Pakistan is possible despite nuclear arms on both sides.
India seems to be rethinking its declared policy of not using nuclear weapons first, Vipin Narang, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was quoted as saying.
If India believes Pakistan is about to use its tactical weapons, it would need to hit them first-and take out Pakistan’s strategic arsenal with nuclear strikes before Pakistan could retaliate against Indian cities, the report said.
To destroy Pakistan’s arsenal, India would need many more nuclear weapons; Pakistan would need to dramatically increase numbers to have a good chance of some weapons surviving an Indian first strike.
“Pakistan would have to go first and with everything because it can’t afford to lose. And the Indians would have to go even earlier. Iteratively, it is very destabilising. No side could afford to go second,” Prof Narang said.
India, now led by a Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government, will respond to any terror attacks in a more determined manner, as demonstrated with its special forces [so-called] incursion into Pakistani territory after an attack against an Indian base at Uri last year, Rajeswari Rajagopalan, a former Indian National Security Council official now at the Observer Research Foundation, a think tank in Delhi, was quoted as saying.
As neighbours, India and Pakistan would have just 10 minutes to react to the launch of a missile by the other side and judge whether it is nuclear armed.
Though the two have diplomatic ties, no dialogue exists to rein in the nuclear rivalry, the report said.
“If this kind of arms competition continues between India and Pakistan, the rhetoric continues to increase, and non-state actors continue to run amok, sooner or later we’ll have a crisis,” Feroz Khan, a former senior official in Pakistan’s nuclear programme, who now teaches at the Naval Postgraduate School, California, said. “South Asia sits on a tinderbox.”