The new nuclear threat: India and Pakistan

The new nuclear threat

India and Pakistan are building up their arsenals, and one terror attack could ignite an all-out war



Last week was supposed to offer a noteworthy moment in the history of nuclear disarmament. Iranian negotiators met in Vienna with leaders from the United States, Russia, France, China, the U.K. and Germany, and got down to the tricky business of finding a way out of a growing nuclear standoff. It was touted as the most promising opportunity in years to reach a deal that would, once and for all, put the brakes on what many fear are Iran’s secret plans to build a nuclear bomb.

That deal, however, never materialized. When the talks ended on Nov. 24, the best U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry could offer was some promising rhetoric: “Today, we are closer to a deal that would make the entire world . . . safer and more secure,” he said.

But while the world’s major powers fretted over Iran’s “breakout” potential—the time it would take to produce enough fissile material to build one nuclear device—a report by the Council on Foreign Relations, timed to come out during the Vienna talks, warned that other countries have not only broken out, but appear to be running wild. This is the reality of the “second nuclear age,” the report stated. Even as the traditional nuclear powers reduce their stockpiles, emergent states in Asia—Pakistan and India, in particular, but also North Korea and China—are becoming increasingly tangled in a new arms race, one that is much more complex and difficult to control than what the world witnessed in the second half of the 20th century.

According to the report, Pakistan currently has the world’s fastest-growing nuclear arsenal, with enough fissile material to build 120 bombs and the potential to build at least 80 more by 2020. India has the ability to build 110 nuclear devices, but is also reported to have ramped up its production capacity.

Iran, according to the report, is only one piece in an increasingly complex nuclear puzzle. There is reason to be concerned about its nuclear program, of course. A brooding Middle Eastern Cold War pitting Shia-led Iran against Sunni Saudi Arabia poses some serious international security threats. If Iran does “break out,” the experts say, the Saudis will be sure to follow, igniting another nuclear arms race in what is the most unstable region in the world. (Pakistan’s nuclear program, reportedly, owes its success to Saudi funding.)

More worrying for the near term, however, is the existing arms race. While Indian and Pakistani arsenals are paltry compared to the word’s nuclear powerhouses (Russia and the United States have thousands of strategic warheads deployed), the threat they pose to global security is more dire, considering the geopolitical challenges of the region. The potential for nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan has hovered over the world since 1998, when Pakistan first entered the nuclear club. The two rivals have fought three conventional wars since 1947 and have come dangerously close to a fourth.

Over the past 15 years, the environment has shifted dramatically. Pakistan’s struggle with Islamist extremism and its consequences for India, including a devastating 2008 shooting rampage in Mumbai, are redefining the military landscape. India has moved away from its defensive posture and embraced a more “proactive strategy,” says Walter Ladwig, assistant professor in the department of war studies at King’s College London. “Their new military doctrine, originally called Cold Start, has been evolving since 2003,” he says. “It remains the foundation of India’s military procurement, including modernizing its conventional capabilities to allow for a more mobile and offensive response against Pakistan in the event of another attack inside India.”

Pakistan, concerned by the fact that it cannot compete in conventional military terms against a much richer India, has responded by developing its nuclear capability to include tactical warheads, giving it the ability to strike back with precision nuclear weapons targeting advancing Indian troops, without resorting to all-out nuclear war. “India’s strategy has created a lot of consternation in Pakistan,” says Ladwig, who has written extensively on the evolution of India’s military. “The U.S. has put pressure on India to back away from the Cold Start strategy.”

While Indian authorities have disavowed the Cold Start name, the strategy itself remains intact, Ladwig adds, but will take many years to reach operational levels. The Indian army, he says, is still too outdated to achieve the desired goals of a Cold Start offensive at the moment, but, 10 or 15 years down the road, things could change dramatically.

If that happens, which appears likely, considering India’s current rate of weapons procurement, it would push the nuclear Armageddon clock forward significantly, warn experts such as Ladwig and the authors of the Council on Foreign Relations report. The chain of events that could lead to a nuclear confrontation are relatively straightforward: In the event of a large-scale terrorist attack in India blamed on Pakistan-based militants, Indian authorities would demand action (as they did following the Mumbai attack). Pakistan would almost certainly deny involvement. Under Cold Start, India would (unlike after Mumbai) launch a military strike inside Pakistan. The goal would be to disorient the Pakistanis and, before they could recover, control a buffer zone inside Pakistan 10 to 15 km wide—providing it a strong position for any negotiations.

But, as Ladwig points out, “an operational Cold Start capability could lead Pakistan to lower its nuclear red line, put its nuclear weapons on a higher state of readiness, develop tactical nuclear weapons or undertake some equally destabilizing course of action.” For Pakistani generals, Cold Start might not look like a limited operation, but rather a prelude to a wider invasion or a tactic to subjugate Pakistan to India’s will. Neither side would want to use its nuclear weapons, but the trigger could be as simple as an overzealous Pakistani artillery commander armed with a tactical nuke, or a miscommunication on the Indian side.

For the time being, the potential for that scenario to play out remains low, says retired colonel Baseer Malik, a military analyst in Islamabad. “India knows it outmatches Pakistan in conventional terms,” he says. “But, in terms of nuclear, it is a different story. India would not be so short-sighted as to provoke Pakistan in this way. They know how quickly things could escalate.”

The threat of escalation now has as much to do with advances in conventional weapons as it does with nuclear imbalances. “Strategic stability is no longer just a product of the interaction between comparable nuclear forces,” the Council on Foreign Relations report says, “but, increasingly, between nuclear forces and non-nuclear technologies, such as missile defences, anti-satellite weapons, conventional precision-strike weapons, and cyberweapons.”

Thankfully, the worst-case scenario for India and Pakistan is not likely to play out any time soon. India’s modernization of its conventional arsenal is still in its infancy, says Ladwig. But as long as it aggressively pursues advanced weaponry, Pakistan will feel threatened and respond with the expansion of its nuclear option. With no end in sight to the animosity between the two countries, the end result can only be bad.

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The new nuclear threat

  1. History shows that Pakistan’s army is in the business of making money. They’re certainly not suicidal. When faced with the possibility of serious punishment, they will quickly surrender as they have every time in the past. Pakistan has somehow managed to give everyone an impression that they have nothing to lose. The generals have everything to lose… their wives and kids (not to mention they themselves) have expensive tastes. The only people they can fight are unarmed Pakistani citizens. Maclean’s readers may be interested in reading about the ongoing kill and dump operation in Sindh and Balochistan provinces, where bodies of secular aboriginal rights activists are being discovered every few days. Here’s a link to Noam Chomsky’s latest message about it: This while they coddle Islamic extremists. If only Indians weren’t so terrified of Pakistan, the threat could have been contained long ago.

    • Another Pakistan bashing article, or shall I say Muslim bashing article. So the writer fears a threat from Pakistan, which is 5 times smaller, and a victim of constant Indian agression. In 1947 India grabbed Kashmir which rightfully should have gone to Pakistan under the rules of partition, all muslim majority area to go to Pakistan and hindu areas to India….then India grabbed land south in Juagarh and Manvader, quickly grabbed Sir Creek area because it has oil, etc, then it grabbed Siachen in a no mans land. Then in 1971 it took advantage of mistakes by Pakistani politicians to break East Pakistan away, so seems like Pakistan has a real case for being afraid of India and not the other way around, as for Pakistani generals and I know many including in my family, yes some would love luxury but the majority are ordinary simple folk who would love nothing more to sacrifice their own lives for the defense of the nation, basing your opinion or story on innuendo and hearsay may be a easy way out, do some real journalism, travel to Pakistan visit the soldiers there, stay and travel with them, and find out the truth. Yes, the world should have no doubt, the situation between the two countries is extremely volatile, especially now that India has elected a known serial murderer Narendra Modi who was not even allowed visa to the US till recently, is the real fear. Pakistanis have at least never elected killers amongst them, but of course being Muslim, we are the usual suspects.

      • This is typical of irresponsible pakistani politicians who are not matured at all.Yapping nonsense about nuclear weapons without really knowing it will destroy not only india -Pakistan too cause and rest of the world.India will retaliate cause now they have different leaders not like the old f.. leaders.who were too kind.Now the whole world knows Pakistan leaked nuclear secrets to many dangerous countries just for money and support so selfish.America is one bloody country to be blamed for giving infonaut nuclear and military and cash aids thinking Pakistan will use it against Islamic terrorrists instead they use all the free weapons and money to destroy India while supporting radicalized muslim terror camps. Islam is one thing we can blame.Islam his not a peaceful religion cause muslims will do anything crazy in the name of Islam there are millions of good moderate muslims who are not so radicalized but do nothing to educate these new brand of the whole world knows judging by whats happening in all muslim countries and nonmuslim countries.muslim bring Islam into everything be it a innocent game of cricket or the olympics and make themselves different from the rest of the communities existing in the world.They oppose Anything and everything non islam. Pakistan never existed before was only india and indians (The new young generation does not know that only their elders know it but refuse to educate them,that they have the same D.N.A of Indians not arab blood only few who were raped by invaders during war or some traitors who converted for money,ne leaving ones Religion is like selling their mother but muslims will coverted but will not allow muslims to do so cause it will be death sentence if they do so . ) Pakistan was india until Muslim invaders came to India through the back door and managed to convert millions of Hindu indians to islam by force .From that moment India’s fate changed for ever.Hindus who see Islam as Foreign and strong still accepted it cause they were the same people (brothers and sisters) it as india and hinduism always meant peaceful and accepting but the way Islam treats badly fellow human beings specially to nonmuslim belevers was shocking Now after The peaceful leaders like Ghandhi and Nehru behaved like big brothers even when Pakistan was created and even when Pakistan just like the recent attacks by pakistan on army camp in India where 18 people were killed even when bombay attack where many hundreds died even before in early 60s when Pakistan had fought 3 wars and india won Behaved like a big brother and didn’t take the action like taking over whole of Pakistan including Kashmir would have been Indian territory cut off pakistan from the world and ruled it with iron fist and any muslim country could have done after winning 3 bloody because of the stupid indian politicians like nehru who (ho ha muslim blood) went to the U.N without consulting the rest of indian leaders and gave away many parts of indian territory to china and Pakistan and sri lanka .Now the this generation Of indians are feeling the the blunder their leaders did by pardoning Pakistan very time they attack india has leaders who are different form the old ones .they have no right to defend themselves?Its Pakistan who always pock India by attacking the Pakistani Army fire along the line of control so muslim terrorists can infiltrate into Indian soilThe bombay attack was one of many such because of stupid pakistani leaders who just for votes say stupid things.its just matter of time before some crazy unresponsible Pakistani who will go crazy and fire nuclear weapon and india will retaliate which will be the end of the world.
        America has to stop sending weapons and money to Pakistan cause all that money goes into the destroying Indis rest goes to into the pockets of the corrupt politicians.
        wake up america and rest of the world a grave situation is in the horizon because of the stupid people of Pakistan.

  2. There are numerous hazardous nuclear installations in India that could lead to a major disaster with extraordinary bearing on the lives of large populations around these facilities. According to an Australian newspaper (The Age), there is no national policy in India on nuclear and radiation safety. Despite all this, India has never made an effort to adopt world standards and best practices for nuclear safety. Radioactive waste disposal in Indian rivers is an undocumented environmental tragedy in India.

    • And Australia wants to be Indias supplier of uranium, great! add more fuel to the fire…..then as you sow, so shall you reap one day.