The India-Pakistan Nuclear Arms Race


The 70th anniversary of the first and only use of nuclear weapons, when the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, has prompted yet another global debate on the dangers of nuclear proliferation. While Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) during the Cold War may have avoided a catastrophic third world war, some nine nations are now known or believed to possess nuclear weapons, and not all of them are signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Two notable exceptions to the 191 states that have joined the NPT, are arch enemies India and Pakistan.

Pakistan’s new JF-17 Thunder is capable of carrying tactical nuclear weapons.
Pakistan’s new JF-17 Thunder is capable of carrying tactical nuclear weapons.

In 1998 India tested weaponized nuclear warheads under Operation Shakti, including a thermonuclear device. A few weeks later Pakistan conducted its first six nuclear tests at the Ras Koh Hills in response to the five tests conducted by India under Operation Shakti. Pakistan is the Islamic world’s only nuclear-weapons state, and its nuclear weapons give it reassurance that it will never be humiliated the way it was in 1971, when Indian forces decisively defeated Pakistan in a two-front war that lead to the independence of east Pakistan as Bangladesh. Pakistan conducted peaceful nuclear research from the time of its independence in 1947 and establishment of its first nuclear power plant near Karachi with equipment and materials supplied mainly by western nations in the early 1970s. Pakistan claimed that it only began developing a viable nuclear weapons program after India tested what it called a “peaceful nuclear explosive” known as Smiling Buddha, in 1974 and rejected proposals for a nuclear free zone in South Asia. The Indian government refused to sign the NPT in the 1960s on the grounds that it unnecessarily restricted “peaceful nuclear explosives”, and that India would not accede to international control of its nuclear facilities unless all other countries engaged in unilateral disarmament of their own nuclear weapons.

Pakistan also is not a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and ‪the United States continued to certify that Pakistan did not possess such weapons until 1990, when sanctions were imposed under the Pressler Amendment requiring a cut off of U.S. economic and military assistance to Pakistan. In contrast, the United States signed a civilian nuclear trade deal with India in 2008, then seen as a rising economic power with a huge need for energy. President George W. Bush was eager to use this agreement as the centerpiece of a new India-America relationship that did not have to limit India’s nuclear weapons programme or forsake nuclear testing.

India is currently seeking membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), a 48-nation body established 40 years ago to ensure that civilian trade in nuclear materials is not diverted for military purposes. Membership would greatly enhance the acceptance of India as a nuclear weapons state and give it a say in how countries trade in nuclear-related exports. The application, however, should not be granted until India proves itself willing to take a leading role in halting the spread of the world’s most lethal weapons. One way to do that would be by opening negotiations with Pakistan and China to end the dangerous regional nuclear arms race. India already has a partnership arrangement with the NSG, and full membership would advance its status as a nuclear weapons state, even though it has not signed the NPT. Moreover, since the group operates on consensus, membership would give India a veto over decision-making, including any decision involving Pakistan, which is not being considered for membership. To enhance its membership bid, India recently said it was ratifying a long-promised agreement that lets the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to monitor its civilian nuclear program but this agreement carries fewer obligations than those agreed to by other major states, and there would still be no verification or check on India’s growing military-related nuclear program. India’s NSG membership may be a distant possibility and although the Obama administration has been committed to supporting the bid, this is not considered a priority foreign policy issue.

Pakistan remains opposed to India’s inclusion in the Nuclear Suppliers Group and it fears that the country’s growing nuclear co-operation with the United States could harm deterrence efforts in South Asia. Meanwhile, Pakistan, which reportedly has the world’s fastest growing nuclear arsenal, with an estimated stockpile of around 100–120 warheads in early 2013,‪ and in November 2014 it was projected that by 2020 Pakistan would have enough fissile material for 200 warheads.‪

With India estimated as having more than 100 nuclear weapons and a nuclear doctrine that includes the building and maintaining of a credible minimum deterrent, it remains to be seen as whether a Cold War-style Mutual Assured Destruction doctrine of military strategy will ensure peace between these potentially volatile Asian neighbors.