Op-Ed: The Nuclear Risks of India-Pakistan Rivalry in South Asia

FILE - In this Wednesday, March 23, 2016 file photo, a Pakistani-made Shaheen-III missile is on display during a military parade in Islamabad, Pakistan.  (AP Photo/Anjum Naveed, File)
FILE - In this Wednesday, March 23, 2016 file photo, a Pakistani-made Shaheen-III missile is on display during a military parade in Islamabad, Pakistan. (AP Photo/Anjum Naveed, File)

Joseph V. Micallef is a best-selling military history and world affairs author, and keynote speaker. Follow him on Twitter @JosephVMicallef.

Over the last several years, the concern over nuclear proliferation has centered on North Korea and Iran's ongoing efforts to develop nuclear weapons and the missile capability to deliver them at intermediate and intercontinental ranges.

Pakistan's nuclear weapons program, however, which proceeded both those of Tehran and Pyongyang, and which supplied invaluable assistance to jumpstart both those programs, may prove to be just as dangerous and just as destabilizing as those of North Korea and Iran.

Pakistan is well on its way, within the next decade, to amassing the third largest stockpile of nuclear weapons. Moreover, its current focus on deploying theater nuclear weapons, so-called low-yield (5 to 10 kiloton) battlefield weapons, represents a dangerous new strategy that has wide-ranging impact on both the stability of south Asia and the threat that a militant jihadist organization will obtain a nuclear device.

For the last seventy-five years, the international politics of the Indian subcontinent, and, to a lesser extent, the broader south and central Asian region that surrounds it, have revolved around the continuing Indian-Pakistani conflict. That conflict, in turn, has often functioned as a proxy for the larger rivalry between China and India in Asia and the Indian Ocean basin. The military intervention by the United States and its allies to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the role of both India and Pakistan in that conflict, have added a further layer of complexity between the two countries.

India and Pakistan have fought four wars since their birth, following the partition of British India in 1947. These wars, fought in 1947, 1965, 1971 (which resulted in the loss of East Pakistan and the birth of the new state of Bangladesh) and 1999, all resulted in significant Indian victories.

The 1999 war, called the Kargil War, was fought in the Kargil district of Kashmir. This was the first Indo-Pakistani conflict following the deployment of nuclear weapons by both countries. At one point during the fighting, Pakistan's government ordered the arming of its nuclear missiles, potentially bringing the two countries to the brink of a nuclear conflict.

Although a truce was later negotiated, the fate of the original princely kingdom of Jammu and Kashmir, a legacy of the 1947 war, has to this day still not been resolved and continues to be a major source of conflict between the two countries.

Pakistan's past ties to militant jihadist groups like the Afghan Taliban, Tehreek-e-Jihad Islami, Jaish-e-Muhammad, Lashkar-e-Taiba or Hizbul Mujahideen, to name a few, and the emergence of al-Qaida affiliated Ansar Ghawzat-Ul-Hind, have added an additional element of conflict into Indian-Pakistani relations. They have also led to a significant deterioration in US-Pakistan relations.

Hizbul Mujahideen, for example, has been responsible for numerous attacks in Indian-administered Kashmir over the previous two decades, including the Pathankot raid in 2016. The attack brought India and Pakistan to the point of issuing nuclear threats against each other.

The Origin and Extent of Pakistan's Nuclear Program

The genesis of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program had several sources. In part, it was a response to the defeat in the 1971 Indo-Pakistani war. It was also driven by Pakistan's realization that India was going ahead with the development of its own nuclear arsenal. Neither country is a signatory to the U.N. sponsored Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Pakistan opted to try to develop both plutonium and enriched uranium-based weapons.

In 1985 the CIA warned of a Pakistani plan to build a "plutonium production reactor." Pakistan subsequently built, with Chinese help, the 40-50 megawatt heavy-water Khushab plutonium production reactor. The reactor went online in 1998. Three additional heavy-water reactors were also built and are currently operational at the same site. Pakistan also built a plutonium reprocessing plant at the New Laboratories facility at the Pakistani Institute of Science and Technology. An additional reprocessing facility was built at the same location and a third in Chasma is believed to have gone operational in 2015 or 2016.

Pakistan also began a program to produce highly enriched uranium (HEU) using gas centrifuge enriched uranium. The specially designed centrifuges spin uranium hexafluoride gas at high speeds to increase the concentration of the uranium 235 isotope. This is the same technology that Iran had been using in its nuclear weapons program.

The program got a significant boost A.Q. Kahn, a metallurgist working in the Dutch subsidiary of the British-based Uranium Enrichment Company (URENCO Group) returned to Pakistan in 1975. Khan brought with him blueprints for various centrifuge designs and a broad array of business contacts. By buying individual components rather than complete gas centrifuges, he was able to evade existing export controls and acquire the necessary equipment to build advanced gas centrifuges.

Khan would go on to establish an illicit nuclear weapons technology procurement and consulting operation, the "Khan Network," that would play a major role in the transmission of nuclear weapons technology to Iran, Libya and to a lesser extent, North Korea.

In addition, in 1998, and then in 2001, according to former CIA Director George Tenet, the agency obtained fragmentary intelligence that Osama bin Laden had dispatched emissaries to contact the Khan network, in order to discuss obtaining the equipment necessary for developing a nuclear weapons infrastructure, details of nuclear bomb design and information on how to construct radiological dispersal devices.

The Pakistani government has denied that it had any knowledge of Khan's illicit side business, but under American pressure arrested A.Q. Khan in 2004, sentenced him to house arrest, and dismantled his network. Khan was subsequently cleared of all charges that he clandestinely aided foreign nuclear development programs and was released in 2009.

There continue to be reports, however, that rogue elements of that network continue to operate clandestinely. According to unconfirmed media reports, as recently as 2014, the Islamic State (IS) reached out to former members of the Khan network for assistance in securing atomic weaponry.

While the design and construction of a nuclear device is very likely beyond the capabilities of al-Qaida, IS or any other militant jihadist group, the use of radiological dispersal devices, so called dirty bombs, is well within their capability.

The Pakistani nuclear effort also received considerable assistance from China. It is believed that, starting in the late 1970s, Beijing supplied Pakistan with a broad array of missile and nuclear weapons related assistance. This assistance included warhead designs, highly enriched uranium (HEU), components of various short and intermediate range missile systems, gas centrifuge equipment and technical expertise.

The A.Q. Khan network later transferred some of this technology to other countries, in particular Iran and North Korea.

According to various intelligence sources, Pakistan currently has between 140 and 150 nuclear weapons under its control. It is believed, however, that Pakistan has produced and stockpiled around 3,000 to 4,000 kilograms (6,600 to 8,800 lbs) of weapons grade HEU and about 200 to 300 kilograms (440 to 660 lbs) of plutonium. Pakistan's HEU based warheads utilize an implosion design that requires between 15 and 20 kilograms of HEU. The current stockpile is enough for an additional 200 to 250 weapons, depending on the warhead's desired yield.

The plutonium-based warheads need between six and eight kilograms of plutonium. The current stockpile would yield between 30 and 40 additional warheads. As of the end of 2017, Pakistan has enough HEU and plutonium to produce an additional 230 to 290 warheads. This number could be higher if Pakistan opts for smaller warheads intended for battlefield weapons.

This would raise the Pakistani nuclear arsenal to between 350 and 450 nuclear warheads. Pakistan is adding enough HEU and plutonium to its stockpile to produce around 10 to 20 additional bombs a year. As of the end of 2017, Pakistan has enough weapons grade material on hand to build the third largest arsenal of nuclear weapons.

India-Pakistan's Military Strategy and the Role of Jihadist Proxies

Since the late 1980s, Pakistan has used a variety of militant organizations as proxies in its ongoing struggle with India over Kashmir and elsewhere. This strategy may have been a direct result of its success with "Operation Cyclone," the CIA and Saudi funded program to arm the Afghan mujahideen during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

"Operation Cyclone" was also the code name for the terrorist attack in Mumbai. From November 26-29, 2008, ten members of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistani-based militant organization with long-standing ties to Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, conducted a series of 12 coordinated bombings and shooting attacks across Mumbai.

The attacks resulted in the death of 164 people and the wounding of at least 308. The fact that the Mumbai operation used the same code word designation is a disturbing parallel. It is hard to believe that its use was a coincidence.

Sponsored, organized, trained and funded by Pakistan's ISI, Lashkar-e-Taiba is only one of several jihadist organizations that the ISI has used as proxies in its covert military operations. Other militant groups with documented links to the ISI include: al-Qaida, Lashkar-e-Omar, Jaish-e-Mohammed, Sipah-e-Sahaba, the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), Jamaat-ud-Da'wah, Harkat-ud-Jihad al-Islami, the Haqqani Network, Jamaat-ud-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and of course its most famous creation--the Afghan Taliban.

Since 1990, given its record of defeat in conventional military conflicts with India, Pakistan's military strategy has relied on a threefold approach: use militant proxy organizations to strike at Indian military positions in Kashmir, specifically, and to attack Indian targets in general, rely on the threat to deploy nuclear weapons should India try to retaliate with a military invasion of Pakistan and rely on the U.S. and China, in particular, and world opinion in general, to restrain India from attacking Pakistan before the ponderously slow Indian Army can mobilize and be in a position to attack.

As U.S.-Pakistani relations have soured over Pakistan's covert support for Taliban militants, while correspondingly, U.S.-Indian relations have grown stronger, Pakistan has increasingly relied on China to deter the threat it perceives from India.

One of the lessons that India drew from the 1998 Kargil war was precisely that its slow mobilization and advance would give the Pakistani military plenty of advance warning of its intended strategy and military objectives. It would also give Pakistan, with likely Chinese help, plenty of time to mobilize world opinion to restrain India. Moreover, India found that it could not muster a strong enough offensive capability to do anything more than limited border incursions and low intensity attacks against border fortifications.

In response, the Indian Army undertook a comprehensive review of its military operations with the goal of developing a quick strike capability into Pakistan. The resulting doctrine, called "Cold Start," was designed to reorient India's military forces from their traditional defensive posture toward a more aggressive, offensive capability.

The doctrine called for the formation of several eight division-sized, integrated battle groups that would combine infantry, artillery and armor. They would be on a standby alert, ready at all times to thrust deep into Pakistani territory along several possible lines of advance.

These battle groups would receive air support from the Indian Air Force (IAF) and, where appropriate, support from India's naval forces as well. The rapid deployment of these battle groups would allow India to seize Pakistani territory before the international community could mobilize a consensus to restrain India.

For many years the Indian military insisted that there was no "Cold Start" doctrine and that the debate over military doctrine that had been swirling around India's Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses had been purely an academic exercise. In January 2017, however, India's newly appointed Army Chief, Bipin Rawat, acknowledged that the Indian military had adopted the Cold Start Doctrine. It's unclear, however, whether the proposed quick strike forces are actually operational.

The Pakistani response to the Cold Start Doctrine has been to emphasize the development of battlefield, so called "theater nuclear weapons." The strategy is to meet India's rapid deployment forces with a series of limited nuclear strikes against concentrations of troops and armor and then rely on international pressure to constrain India from escalating the confrontation to a full blown nuclear conflict.

Battlefield nuclear weapons pose a whole different level of security risks than conventional nuclear weapons. Islamabad's current Strategic Command Organization for Pakistani atomic weapons relies on a threefold structure consisting of the National Command Authority (NCA), the Strategic Plans Division (SPD) and the Strategic Forces Command (SFC). The NCA and the SPD have joint operational control over Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. The military's SFC has only day-to-day "administrative control" and provides technical support of these weapons system.

More importantly, Pakistan's nuclear weapons are kept disassembled, typically in three or four component parts with each of those parts kept in separate facilities. Thus, the nuclear warheads are kept separate from the delivery vehicles. Moreover, the fissile cores of the warheads are separated from the conventional, i.e., non-nuclear explosives. Even if a militant terrorist organization was to penetrate a facility where the nuclear components are stored it could not obtain a functioning nuclear weapon.

The one drawback of this approach is that unless very close inventory control is maintained it is possible for component parts to go missing without being noticed. The combination of a multi-branch command authority and the fact that the weapons are kept in a disassembled state makes it extremely difficult for rogue elements within Pakistan or for militant organizations to secure, divert or launch a nuclear weapon.

Battlefield weapons, on the other hand, by their very nature, are more at risk for theft, diversion or unauthorized use. As battlefield weapons, they need to be under the control of local commanders. While the decision to deploy them may still be under the national command authority, their actual use has to be left to the commander in the field.

Although most of them can be kept disassembled, it is likely that some portion must be maintained in a ready state if they are to prove useful in stopping an Indian incursion. Some number of the assembled nuclear devices would need to be deployed forward in anticipation of a possible Indian attack in response to a Pakistani operation.

Typically, these battlefield weapons have short ranges. Since the facilities where the components of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal are stored are well back from the Indian frontier, this means that the weapons would likely need to be stationed relatively close to the frontline in a ready state. It is unclear how the Strategic Command Authority would exercise its control over such battlefield weapons once they were deployed or who would be responsible for guarding them.

Ultimately, in the long term, the future direction of Pakistan's nuclear weapons policy is going to be a function of the state of Indian-Pakistan relations on the subcontinent. In turn, this will be shaped both by the state of U.S.-Pakistan relations over the ongoing conflict with the Taliban in Afghanistan, as well as the broader challenge to India of China's ambitions in central Asia and the Indian Ocean basin.

In the short term, however, Pakistan's rapid growth of its nuclear arsenal and its deployment of battlefield nuclear weapons adds one more factor of instability to the regions international politics and further raises the risk that nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of either rogue elements in Pakistan or international jihadist groups.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

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