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Will Pakistan stabilise? It's anybody's guess, says this report

Catch Team | Updated on: 27 November 2017, 23:48 IST

Pakistan's role in the geopolitics of South Asia has been under scrutiny repeatedly. Now it has come under scanner again in a recent report by think tank Atlantic Council, according to which “the future stability of Pakistan remains a wildcard".

The report, Asia In the second nuclear age, notes how over "the last four decades, the Pakistani deep state’s pursuit of Low intensity Conflicts in Afghanistan and India, via the vehicles of radical jihadi non-state actors, has produced terrible blowback effects on Pakistan itself.”

India's nuclear neighbour has often been accused of using terrorism as state policy. The latest report says: “The greatest threat in the region comes not from the development of large, sophisticated, and diversified nuclear arsenals, but from the continued stability of the institutions guarding them."

Under the looking glass

Flagging the danger of such attacks, the report says: “Some of the attacks have occurred, with insider help, on sensitive military bases where nuclear weapons are likely stored. The possibility that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons could be stolen - or that schisms in Pakistan’s military might cause nuclear command-and-control failures - is not as fantastic as it once seemed.“

The report, based on a series of seminars in New Delhi, Islamabad and Beijing, made several interesting statements.

“By the middle of this century, three nuclear powers (India, Pakistan and China) will field arsenals, each possibly the size of France’s or the UK’s, and well in excess of Israel’s. Each will also possess a diversified nuclear arsenal in terms of delivery systems, but not in warhead types, with the exception of China.

Pakistan has the fastest expanding nuclear arsenal

“According to reliable open-source assessments, Pakistan’s enriched-uranium stock holdings are estimated at 3,080 kilograms, with an estimated expansion rate of forty tons annually from 2009. With four research reactors now operational at Khushab, Pakistan is also accumulating seventy kilograms of weapons grade plutonium annually, with an estimated stock of 170 kilograms. In theory, this means that Pakistan could possibly build a total of approximately 220-250 warheads by 2025, a figure that comes close to rivaling the size of the French and British arsenals, and possibly exceeds China’s.”

"Pakistan is rapidly accumulating fissile material, which could increase to four hundred and fifty kilograms of plutonium, sufficient for ninety weapons, and more than 2,500 kilograms of highly enriched uranium (HEU), sufficient for one hundred simple fission warheads by 2020."

"India is accumulating approximately 16.6 kilograms of fissile material annually, sufficient for a force of approximately 150-200 warheads, though all fissile material is probably not converted into nuclear warheads. China, however, is no longer producing fissile material. It is only modestly increasing the size."

"Pakistan’s tactical nuclear-weapons program is dangerous for safety and security reasons, and also because it is the surest route to escalating conventional war to the nuclear level. However, Pakistan does not appear to have operationalised its tactical nuclear-warfare plans yet. More significantly, there is little clarification on the nature of Pakistan’s emerging tactical nuclear warfare capabilities, beyond references to the Nasr short-range ballistic missiles, proposed nuclear artillery systems, and low-yield weapons. Few in Pakistan are publicly willing to explain how Pakistan proposes to operationalise tactical nuclear warfare, in light of the collateral damage from such weapons and the command, control, and logistical challenges they pose. Nor is evidence shown to back up the Pakistani military’s claims that its tactical battlefield capabilities are more than paper exercises and staff planning."

Why the risk of a war between India and Pakistan is at its lowest levels since 1980s

"There are other sophisticated options available to India, including covert attacks using special forces, diplomatically isolating Pakistan, and legal sanctions through the United Nations. This new Indian approach is also driven by the conviction that Pakistan is in secular decline, and that, above all else, state failure in Pakistan would constitute the greatest threat to Indian security. This suggests that tensions between Pakistan and India have likely plateaued."

Why India and Pakistan are novice developers of nuclear weapons

"The weapons in their inventory are first-generation fission weapons. Likewise, their delivery systems are the first in the cycle of acquisitions. Their hardware acquisitions generate outside concern because of the scope of their ambitions. Both nations plan to deploy a triad capability. Nonetheless, this ambitious goal and the selection of technologies underline the central lesson of the nuclear revolution, which is force survival (to enable an assured second-strike capability).
On a more positive note, neither India nor Pakistan is conducting nuclear tests to develop or improve designs for nuclear warheads. The same holds for China."

"Three technical developments, however, are causes for concern. These include Chinese exploration of Multiple Reentry Vehicle and Ballistic Missile Defence technologies, India’s exploration of the same, and Pakistan’s development of tactical nuclear weapons. MRV and BMD are destabilising in principle, as they could pave the way for splendid first-strike options in the future."

Hurdles to the first strike capabilities

"In the Chinese and Indian cases, however, BMD programs appear exploratory. Both states’ MRV programs also appear to be motivated by a desire for developing technical means to defeat missile defenses and achieve better counter strike options. In addition, China and India lack real-time ancillary intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) systems necessary to execute splendid first-strike attacks. capabilities, which are the key to successful first strikes. More significant, with all three states investing in mobile solid-fuel missiles designed for rapid launch, the propensity for first strike options is further reduced."

Issues with India’s nuclear strike capabilities and likely solutions

"At the operational level, former officers of the Strategic Forces Command (SFC)—the military agency tasked with the custody functions of the nuclear force—identify technical reliability and force reconstitution as the agency’s greatest challenges. Technical reliability remains a concern because of India’s very limited number of nuclear tests and the public controversy surrounding the success of those tests, particularly its purported boosted-fission and thermonuclear weapon designs. These doubts, Indian analysts claim, cannot be addressed in the absence of further testing. In the case of delivery systems, however, the SFC is gradually forcing the issue of a greater number of field tests for missiles under more realistic operational conditions."

"Force reconstitution is also considered a challenge, because the bulk of the Indian arsenal is maintained in a de-mated form during normal peacetime conditions."

"However, senior Indian military leaders suggest that new procedures allow the co-location of nuclear warheads with aircraft. In the case of ballistic missiles, warheads will very likely be mated to the missiles during emergency flushing-out routines. It is also hinted that a small number of missiles may be kept permanently mated with warheads, to deal with a bolt-from the-blue scenario."

First published: 27 November 2017, 23:48 IST