Seven Years After the Nuclear Tests: Appraising South Asia’s Nuclear Realities

Seven Years After the Nuclear Tests: Appraising South Asia’s Nuclear Realities

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Gaurav Kampani

Senior Research Associate, The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies


In May 1998, India and Pakistan conducted tit-for-tat nuclear tests. The tests invited near universal international condemnation. They also produced grave prognostications about a nuclear arms race in South Asia. Proliferation and security experts claimed that South Asia was the likeliest site for a potential nuclear arms exchange in the future. In the wake of the tests, the United States, Canada, and Japan imposed economic and military sanctions to punish New Delhi and Islamabad for their nuclear transgressions. Simultaneously, the United States also began a serious bilateral dialogue with leaders in both countries to cap the nuclear arms competition in the region, to establish strategic stability, and repair the nuclear nonproliferation regime.

This issue brief provides a snapshot of South Asia's nuclear realities seven years after the nuclear tests. It appraises the outcome of the U.S. nonproliferation effort and state of the nuclear arms competition between India and Pakistan. It also outlines the structural factors that contribute to strategic instability in South Asia and fleshes out some of the safety and security issues concerning the nuclear weapons complex in both countries, which have implications for both regional and global security.

The Transition from Symbolic to Operational Nuclear Capabilities

Seven years after conducting nuclear tests, India and Pakistan are slowly but steadily moving toward building operational nuclear forces. U.S. diplomatic attempts at capping nuclear weapons development in South Asia by persuading both countries to accept qualitative and quantitative caps on their weapons development process and fissile material production have failed. India and Pakistan also continue to resist international entreaties to join the nuclear nonproliferation regime.

Prior to the May 1998 tests, India and Pakistan had a rudimentary nuclear weapons capability. Both countries were believed to possess small numbers of air- deliverable nuclear weapons. It was unclear at that point whether either country had succeeded in mating nuclear warheads to ballistic missiles. Even greater doubts existed about the nuclear command and control capability of either country, or the extent to which either country, especially India, had developed a nuclear use doctrine or actively involved the military in nuclear operations planning. In the absence of field tests of nuclear weapons, the integration of such weapons into the military, or the training of the military in nuclear weapons-related handling, storage, and use practices, Indian and Pakistani nuclear capabilities were considered more symbolic than real.

However, in the post May 1998 period, both India and Pakistan have initiated a series of intended steps at the technological, organizational, and doctrinal levels to transform their symbolic capabilities into operational and hence usable forces. These steps involve the development of rugged and reliable fission devices that can be mated onto both aircraft and short-and intermediate-range ballistic missiles. Armed forces in both countries are being trained in the safe handling, transport, storage, and use of nuclear weapons, including military exercises simulating nuclear weapons use on the battlefield. A parallel process has involved the institution of nuclear command and control arrangements with clearly delineated roles for civilian and military authorities. And at the doctrinal level, both Indian and Pakistani militaries have become actively involved in drawing up operational plans concerning the deployment and use of nuclear weapons in war. In addition the two military crises (1999 and 2001-2002) that followed in the wake of the 1998 nuclear tests have had a forcing effect on the operationalization efforts in New Delhi and Islamabad.

But despite surface parallels, there exist major differences between India and Pakistan's weaponization experiences. Pakistan's nuclear weapons program is exclusively India-specific. However, India's deterrent is aimed at both Pakistan and China. As a result, the scale and scope of India's nuclear weapons effort is much larger, as manifest not only in its efforts to develop more advanced weapon designs, such as boosted fission and thermonuclear warheads, but also in programs to develop long-range ballistic and cruise missiles and ultimately a sea-based nuclear arsenal. However, there are no indications in open-source literature of any Pakistani programs to rival or match India's efforts in any of the above areas.

Despite the differences in the scale and scope of their nuclear efforts, Pakistan is believed by many observers to be further along than India in the evolution of a nuclear command and control system and operational planning involving the use of nuclear weapons. This development is the result of the differences in civil-military and inter-military relations in the two countries. Historically, the Army has dominated the political process in Pakistan. It has also controlled the nuclear weapons effort since the early 1980s. Among the three armed services, the Pakistani Army enjoys a position of unrivaled supremacy. A lack of interference by rival civilian authorities or the Air Force and Navy has allowed the Army to proceed relatively unimpeded with addressing command and operational issues associated with nuclear weapons, in accordance with its own organizational preferences. In India however, civilian domination of the professional military and control over the nuclear weapons effort have made it difficult for the military to stamp its organizational preferences on the direction of country's nuclear weapons-related planning. Although successive Indian governments in recent years have proceeded with the creation of a national nuclear command authority with a clearly delineated role for the military and sought to streamline military decision-making by instituting a joint forces command, command and control of nuclear weapons remains divided between civilian political, defense-scientific, and military authorities. Equally significant, inter-service rivalry over custody issues, especially between the Army and Air Force, has also slowed down India's transition toward operational status.

Peace Time & Crisis Stability

Concerns about peace time and crisis stability in South Asia have also grown in parallel with the expansion of Indian and Pakistani nuclear weapons programs. These concerns precede the 1998 nuclear tests and are centered on India and Pakistan's lack of secure second-strike capabilities; their geographical proximity and Pakistan's lack of strategic depth; their sibling rivalry; the absence of sophisticated early-warning capabilities; and the problems of relatively weak command and control arrangements.

Many analysts fear that until India and Pakistan are able to develop secure second-strike forces that allow for assured retaliation in the aftermath of a first-strike, strategic stability will elude South Asia. Such fears are premised on the assumption that vulnerable arsenals of the sort that currently exist in India and Pakistan's inventories constitute tempting targets for pre-emptive attacks, presenting decision-makers with a potential "use-them-or-lose-them" dilemma early-on during a crisis or war. Under such conditions, the temptation to use nuclear weapons becomes much greater.

In addition, India and Pakistan's lack of sophisticated early warning and detection capabilities and command and control systems are some of the other factors that create strategic volatility and raise the risks of a nuclear exchange. The absence of advanced sensors means that militaries in either country, especially during a crisis or war, might misconstrue the alert status and movement of nuclear forces on the opposite side and in turn initiate a sequence of events that might result in a nuclear exchange either due to a false alarm or by accident. In this regard, the lack of invulnerable communications links creates incentives for highly centralized and sequentially delegative models of authority; a condition that raises the possibility in which military commanders at relatively junior levels might initiate a nuclear exchange either out of panic or by misreading strategic signals. Pakistan's lack of geographical depth, the location of key Pakistani urban and communication centers close to the Indo-Pakistani border, the inferiority of its conventional forces, and nuclear 'first-use' doctrine, all compound the difficulty of stabilizing the South Asian nuclear arms competition.

Unlike the intercontinental distances that separate the United States and the former Soviet Union, a condition that allowed decision-makers in Washington and Moscow greater time to respond to events during Cold War rivalry years, India and Pakistan share common borders. Short missile and combat aircraft flight times, often below 10 minutes, provide decision-makers in New Delhi and Islamabad very little time to respond to events, creating greater room for errors of judgment. Further, unlike the Cold War examples of the United States and the former Soviet Union where policy makers in the post-1962 Cuban Missile Crisis period were committed to détente and agreed to abide by a host of confidence building and nuclear risk reduction measures, India and Pakistan, were until very recently engaged in a low-intensity war in the disputed Kashmir region, periodically confronted one another in an eyeball-to-eyeball standoffs, and are yet to negotiate a set of interlocking confidence building and nuclear risk reduction measures on the scale of the former superpower rivals. The dangers of a potential nuclear exchange were highlighted during the two Indo-Pakistani military crises in 1999 and 2001-2002. During both of these crises, Indian and Pakistani political and military leaders openly engaged in nuclear saber rattling and traded threats. The readiness and alert levels of nuclear forces and their associated delivery systems were raised, all of which added to concerns about crisis stability in the region.

To an extent however, nuclear dangers on the subcontinent are mitigated by India and Pakistan's peace-time postures of 'recessed deterrence'. Recessed deterrence ensures that nuclear forces are not actively deployed; that nuclear forces are not maintained on high-alert; that nuclear warheads are stored separately from their delivery vehicles; and that the 'physics package' is separated from the non-nuclear assembly. These features reduce the likelihood of a nuclear accident. However, in the absence of a political settlement on Kashmir, the danger of a nuclear exchange remains.

Safety & Security Issues

But more than any other issue, the safety and security of nuclear arsenals in South Asia and especially Pakistan has assumed paramount importance in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States; in the face of evidence that terrorist organizations such as al-Qai'da whose top leaders presumably remain in hiding Afghanistan and Pakistan, have sought to acquire weapons of mass destruction; that top Pakistani nuclear scientists had contacts with the al-Qai'da leadership; and that other leading Pakistani nuclear scientists such as Dr. AQ Khan actively proliferated nuclear weapons-related technologies and material to states such as Iran, North Korea, and Libya. Although nuclear weapons related safety and security concerns are not entirely absent in India's case, they pale in comparison to some of the problems that have come to light in Pakistan.

Until very recently, Pakistan's nuclear weapons program was believed to be a secular enterprise. However evidence discovered in the wake of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan suggests that senior Pakistani nuclear scientists such as Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood and Majid Ali have Islamist leanings; that they discussed basic information concerning weapons of mass destruction and provided Usama bin Laden and his top lieutenants with preliminary information on such weapons and their use; that they were probably approached to try and recruit other scientists in Pakistan's nuclear establishment to help Al Qadea in its nuclear quest; and that they professed their desire to help other Islamic regimes develop nuclear weapons. Pakistan's support for the Taliban regime in Afghanistan prior to joining the U.S. global war against terror in the fall of 2001 and the promotion of Islamization laws and cultural practices within Pakistan starting in the 1980s have also raised concerns that the security of the country's nuclear arsenal might have been compromised by Islamist sympathizers in sensitive positions within its military and intelligence agencies. Some of these concerns were highlighted by the assassination attempts on the Pakistani President and Chief of Army Staff General Pervez Musharraf himself, and suggest the existence of insider collaboration.

More damning information that Pakistan was also the center of an international cartel supplying uranium enrichment technologies, nuclear materials, and nuclear weapon designs to Iran, North Korea, and Libya since the late 1980s has raised even greater doubts about the whether Pakistani government agencies can be trusted with the safe management of the country's nuclear arsenal and sensitive technologies. The available evidence suggests that from the late 1980s until late 2003, senior Pakistani nuclear scientist Dr. AQ Khan and some of his top civilian and military colleagues actively proliferated fissile material enrichment starter kits, materials, and the blueprint of an actual warhead. They also arranged for troubleshooting and training services for their Iranian, Libyan and North Korean clients. Even while admitting to the nuclear transactions, the Pakistani state has denied involvement; it has described Dr. AQ Khan as a rogue individual and sought to assign him exclusive responsibility for what is perhaps the greatest proliferation scandal in history. However, the evidence suggests a more complicated picture and indirectly implicates Pakistani state functionaries and by implication the government in at least some of the transfers.

In response to the embarrassment caused by the revelation of the association of some of its senior nuclear scientists with senior al-Qai'da functionaries as well as in nuclear proliferation, the Pakistani government has initiated a series of measures to exercise tighter management of its nuclear arsenal and sensitive technologies and personnel. The new measures include improved physical security, implementation of a personnel reliability protocol, removal of individuals tainted by recent events from sensitive posts within the nuclear establishment; arrests and detention of key individuals; the bringing of sensitive nuclear facilities under strict government management and tight auditing of their accounts and activities; and the passage of stringent export control laws to prevent future technology leaks.

Safety and security concerns also abound in India's nuclear complex. Former Indian defense and nuclear personnel have reportedly been employed by Libya and Iran, although none in any WMD-related activities. The Indian government has also prosecuted private sector companies for illegal sales of WMD-related dual-use equipment and technologies to Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq. In addition, there exist concerns that several Indian nuclear power reactors and nuclear waste storage and handling sites are vulnerable to theft and sabotage. Although the allegations against Indian scientists in Libya and Iran remain unsubstantiated, New Delhi recently tightened domestic administrative procedures governing the conduct of government scientists seeking employment abroad. More recently, the Indian parliament passed legislation to strengthen export control laws designed to prevent the transfer of WMD and their associated technologies from India. In response to fears concerning potential terrorist attacks, the Department of Atomic Energy has begun reviewing the safety of major nuclear facilities and begun implementing measures to enhance their security.


India and Pakistan are now slowly but surely developing operational nuclear forces. This development makes it unlikely that either will participate in the nuclear nonproliferation regime as a non-nuclear weapons state. Both countries are also likely to conduct nuclear tests in the future in view of the operational requirements for warhead reliability. Although New Delhi and Islamabad are committed in principle to a universal fissile material cut-off treaty in the future, they continue to accumulate fissile material and oppose any immediate regional ban on fissile material production in the interim.

However, India and Pakistan's nuclear models vary from the U.S. and Soviet examples of the high Cold War years. The scale of their effort is much smaller. Nuclear forces are maintained in a recessed mode and are not characterized by the alert and ready-to-fire postures that raised the risks of a nuclear exchange to dangerously high levels during the Cold War years. No doubt, the absence of secure second-strike nuclear forces, advanced early warning sensors, and invulnerable command, control, and communications systems, creates room for strategic instability, yet the multiple military standoffs and limited conventional war between India and Pakistan have not resulted in a breakdown of nuclear deterrence.

Nonetheless, these factors have not eliminated the security risk posed by nuclear weapons in the region. These risks, largely a consequence of safety and security concerns, are much higher than thought earlier. New evidence of senior Pakistani nuclear scientists' Islamist leanings and involvement with al-Qai'da has raised the prospect of nuclear terrorism. Further revelations concerning Dr. AQ Khan's nuclear transactions and indirect evidence that links Pakistani state functionaries to these proliferation activities raise even more grave concerns about the long term safety and security of Pakistan's nuclear assets and technologies. The poor oversight of sensitive personnel and the weak enforcement of export control laws and regulations in Pakistan, though to a far lesser degree in India, also makes South Asia a potential second-tier source for sensitive WMD technologies.


  • CNS Regions: South Asia,
  • The Henry L. Stimson Center: Regional Security in South Asia,
  • Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: South Asia,
  • Institute for Science and International Security: Country Assessments – India and Pakistan,


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