India's Army Chief commented recently that vertical proliferation by Pakistan was a 'matter of concern'. In the zero-sum game that constitutes India-Pakistan relations, cornering Pakistan in any manner makes sense. Therefore, General Kapoor's negative view of Pakistan's expanding nuclear arsenal is understandable. But upon reflection, it should be clear that the increase in number of nuclear warheads, and the reported shift to plutonium-based weapons should not be a worry - at least for the moment.
The US Congressional Research Service report of 15 May 2009 has brought out that despite having an assessed 60 weapons, "Pakistan continues fissile material production for weapons, and is adding to its weapons production facilities and delivery vehicles". This has been explained as Pakistan's attempt at creating a second strike capability. If this contributes to nuclear stability by enhancing its deterrence against India, it may be a benign development. However, when taken in conjunction with India's own weaponisation, this could equally herald a nuclear arms race.
Who is deterring who?
Developments in India's nuclear posture inevitably impact the Pakistani nuclear program. The foremost is stockpiling of fissile material, so that more is available in case there is a negotiated cutoff via an FMCT (Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty), expected soon. It is estimated that India has enough material for 90 weapons and may be building an arsenal of up to a figure in the lower three digits. The numbers of weapons required has to take into account the size of China's arsenal, which is about 300-400 weapons. To ensure second strike capability with respect to China, India would require about 200 weapons, according to one estimate.
From the Pakistani perspective, such numbers imply that its own second strike capability has to expand too, to deny India an edge, and this may be Pakistan's motivation to further build up beyond its sixty weapons. Since neither country has spelt out the number considered 'minimum' in the doctrine of 'credible minimum deterrent' that both subscribe to, there is an impetus towards stockpiling ever-higher numbers of weapons and delivery systems. With the result that the strategic competition between the two states has the potential for an avoidable arms race.
The arms complexes in both nations would welcome the increase in funding that this would entail. Both states, though they deny any intent to seek parity with strategic competitors, would prefer arsenals that place them in the same category. In India's case it is China, and in Pakistan's case, India. Second strike capability is taken as sine qua non of deterrence. This is elastic, as it is dependent on the assessed numbers with the strategic competitor. Thus both countries will build up to the elusive, and classified, figure considered necessary. While this may of itself not be problematic, not exercising restraint thereafter would pose considerable problems.
In arms races not only are nuclear warhead numbers significant, but also the numbers of delivery systems. While the rate of turning out of missiles by the DRDO may be slower than that of military-directed Pakistan, the Indian Air Force adequately compensates with its much larger capability of delivering a nuclear payload, including state-of-the-art Sukhoi 30 and Mirage 2000 aircrafts. Acquisition of the AWACS capability with Russian and Israeli help last month, and building up anti-missile defences with the assistance of Israel are additional developments. The triad and IRBMs covering China would be available by mid next decade. Thus India's nuclear deterrent is expected to be in place fully by then.
Pakistan's apprehensions of a first strike threat are particularly incited by India's anti-missile defences. Since these defences would degrade its retaliatory second strike, it feels compelled to build up its numbers - not only for surviving an Indian first strike but also to have a capability of inflicting adequate damage in second strike despite India's missile defences. Incidentally, the US impetus in the Bush years for missile defences, supposedly directed at rogue regimes, is prompting China to increase its arsenal - which would in turn impact numbers in South Asia.
Such apprehensions must be addressed. Not only would Pakistan not be able to afford keeping up with India; but any attempt to do so would make Pakistan unravel faster. An unstable nuclear Pakistan is not in India's interest. To avert the possibility of further build up in both countries, political oversight of the strategic arms complexes in both states is needed, along with mutually negotiated avoidance of an arms race.
The FMCT and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) are back on the US agenda. President Obama, in his famous Prague speech of April this year, has even unfolded an ambitious disarmament agenda. Presently India is skeptical of these initiatives. It is not known whether India has managed to create the amount of fissile material necessary for the magic figure of warheads considered necessary. There would be thrust to keep the pressure off as long as possible so that India could create the necessary stocks to last it into the indefinite future.
India has promised to participate in the FMCT negotiations and would consider signing on to the CTBT - as indeed it once had seriously done in the late nineties before the treaty was up turned by the US Senate. Since neither of these would transpire any time soon, and the disarmament agenda having been already ruled out by Obama as unlikely in his lifetime, India is not pressured. The stocks created in the interim would be enough for its purposes of being reckoned as a power in league with China. The same logic applies to Pakistan, since it has declared it would follow India into the CTBT, FMCT and improbably indeed also into the Non-Proliferation Treaty!
With India focused on parity with China, the likelihood of an arms race with Pakistan receives less attention. But the nuclear dimension of the India-Pakistan dyad will likely spring a nasty surprise one day, in case any of the crises the two states periodically undergo turns into conflict. For citizens, the safest best would be pressuring the government towards championing the three treaties coming up for discussion in the international domain even while it opens up a meaningful strategic dialogue with Pakistan. This would combine India's current power status with the moral weight of the Nehruvian years at both the international and regional levels - a Great Power alright but with a difference.