South Asia’s Nuclear Rejectionism

Agni-II missile at the 2004 & 06 Republic Day Parades in New Delhi, India. Photo: Antonio Milena.
This photo is under a Creative Commons-License

October 1, 2009
By Pervez Hoodbhoy
Although they may not be racing each other, India and Pakistan are in a full-fledged nuclear arms race. Today, they are the world’s only countries that are openly increasing their fissile material stocks. Swimming against the tide of global nuclear arms reductions, they fear possible international agreements. Before the inevitable happens, they want to push their nuclear programs forward as hard as possible. 

First, my country, Pakistan

Highly enriched bomb-grade uranium from thousands of centrifuges at the Kahuta Laboratory is now being augmented by three plutonium producing reactors at the Khushab site. The plutonium has no commercial purpose. Two reactors are already at work and a third is under construction. The goal is to produce lighter but deadlier bombs. Although the numbers of Pakistani warheads and delivery vehicles is a closely held secret, a former top official of the CIA is quoted in this month’s “Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists” as saying “It took them roughly 10 years to double the number of nuclear weapons from roughly 50 to 100”. Pakistan has successfully blocked efforts at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva to limit fissile materials. It says India’s nuclear weapons make this necessary.

This is bad news for those Pakistanis, like myself, who have opposed Pakistan’s nuclear weapons for over 25 years. My Indian friends and colleagues – who have opposed their country’s bomb with far greater vigor – have failed even more spectacularly in stopping their nuclear juggernaut.

India’s nuclear ambitions go well beyond mere uranium or plutonium bombs. It wants a full-fledged thermonuclear arsenal. As is well known, a thermonuclear (or hydrogen) bomb is far more complex, and can be a thousand times more powerful than the relatively simple fission weapon first tested by India in 1974 and by Pakistan in 1998. But advanced weapons needs fine tuning to achieve their full destructiveness – France had to test 22 times to achieve perfection.

Last week, pressure for new nuclear tests became visible in India. In a dramatic revelation, K. Santanam, a senior Indian official charged with important responsibilities at the 1998 Pokhran test, said that India’s hydrogen bomb test of May 1998 was not the fantastic success it was claimed to be. He essentially confirmed what experts around the world long knew. The bomb had not worked as designed.

Why blow the whistle eleven years later?

An irresistible urge to tell the truth, or moral unease, is scarcely the reason. Santanam’s “coming clean” has the stamp of approval of the most hawkish of Indian nuclear hawks. Among them are P.K. Iyengar, A.N. Prasad, Bharat Karnad, and Brahma Chellaney. By rubbishing the earlier test as a failure, they hope to make the case for more nuclear tests.

In the current pro-test environment being generated, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s moderate government will surely be faced with a difficult domestic environment whenever India’s signing of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) comes up for discussion. Santanam’s revelation has been spurred by the fear that if President Obama succeeds in his initiative to revive the CTBT – which had essentially been shot dead by the US Senate in 1999 – the doors on nuclear testing could be shut world-wide. So there is a race against the clock.

There are not the only ominous developments

India has begun sea trials of its 7000-ton nuclear-powered submarine with underwater ballistic missile launch capability, the first in a planned fleet of five. India became the world's 10th-highest military spender in 2008 but now plans to head even further upwards. In July 2009, Indian defence minister, A.K. Antony announced that for 2009-2010 India plans to raise its military budget by 50% to a staggering $40 billion, about six times that of Pakistan.

Stuck with an arms race that is fuelled by India’s new found economic strength, what should Pakistan do? And what can the West do? Before contemplating alternatives, one must calmly scrutinize India’s motives, and disaggregate the threats that Pakistan faces both externally and internally. 

Although Pakistanis do not want to admit it, India’s nuclear planners want to play in the big league, not with Pakistan. While nuclear Pakistan is indeed considered troublesome, it is a side consideration. India’s new-found aggressive and dangerous nationalism now actively seeks new rivals and enemies across the globe. This potentially includes its present allies, Russia and the US. But it is strongly focused upon neighboring China.

An example:

This month’s article by Bharat Verma, the hawkish editor of the influential Indian Defense Review, makes the preposterous prediction that China will attack India before 2012, leaving only three years to Indian government for preparation. He claims that a desperate Beijing is out “to teach India the final lesson, thereby ensuring Chinese supremacy in Asia in this century” and China is working towards an end game rooted in the “abiding conviction of the communists that the Chinese race is far superior to Nazi Germany”. Verma’s solution: India must arm itself to the teeth.
Pakistan should find reassurance in this kind of thinking, warped though it is. It indicates that India’s China obsession is doing most of the driving, not hostility to Pakistan or the Muslim factor. With an economy that is six times smaller, Pakistan cannot afford to react by following India. Instead it should focus upon dealing with urgent existential threats: a population growth that is out of control, terrorism that has changed the way Pakistanis live, and provincial tensions that are tearing the country apart.

Europe and the United States, while helping Pakistan in its internal struggles, must curb the enthusiasm of their defense industries in supplying military equipment to the two protagonists. India’s military expansion deserves a harsher condemnation than Pakistan. This unnecessary militarization naturally creates tension, as well as diverts critical resources away from the actual needs of India’s people. On the other hand, there is no need for Pakistan to fear an Indian invasion. Instead, it must focus upon destroying Islamic terrorist groups – some of its own making – that attack targets in India as well as inside Pakistan.

Pervez Hoodbhoy is professor of nuclear physics at Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad.