Sunday, October 24, 2004

Pakistan: Are its nuclear-weapons large enough to rival India?


Pakistan was already known to have been moving fervently to outmatch India's nuclear weapons and missile capacity. Today it has five functional ballistic missiles, while India has a single Prithvi battlefield ballistic missile. Pakistan also has a defined nuclear command authority, while India is still groping to define its slogan of "minimum nuclear deterrence". The ISIS assessment seems to confirm a similar presentation made recently in Washington by well-known Pakistani physicist and anti-nuclear peace activist Pervez Hoodbhoy. He claimed that Pakistan is producing and stocking up weapons-grade nuclear material "as fast as the centrifuges would operate". India, too, is producing bombs as fast as it was humanly possible, he said. Albright and Kramer have also concluded that "nuclear military stocks in India, Pakistan and Israel are continuing to grow".

India and Pakistan in nuclear dead heat
Sultan Shahin

NEW DELHI - A new assessment by a Washington think-tank released on Monday claiming that Pakistan's nuclear-weapons arsenal "now appears large enough to rival that of India" has revived the controversies and debates surrounding India's nuclear policy and its objectives.

In a paper on the world's fissile-material stocks, David Albright and Kimberly Kramer of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) estimate that Pakistan now has between 55 and 90 nuclear weapons compared with 55 and 110 in India. Israel and North Korea, listed among other current de facto weapons states, have between 110 and 190 weapons and between two and nine weapons respectively.

ISIS's estimates, published in the latest issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, are based on the production of fissile material in "nuclear" countries. India, whose nuclear-weapons program is mostly plutonium-based, is estimated to have between 300 and 470 kilograms of plutonium stocks. Having clearly ramped up its plutonium production, Pakistan is believed to have been producing more plutonium per year than India for several years, and now has between 20kg and 60kg of plutonium. But Pakistan, whose weapons program is mostly uranium-based, has between 1,200kg and 1,250kg of highly enriched uranium. Though a smaller arsenal does not matter much in the case of nuclear deterrence, Pakistan, being in possession of more atomic bombs, will make it that much more difficult for India to negotiate a fissile-materials cutoff treaty.

To add to India's dismay, Pakistan test-fired an intermediate-range, nuclear-capable ballistic missile on Tuesday as part of its efforts to boost defenses against India, in spite of recent peace talks. The test came just ahead of two days of talks between Pakistani and Indian border officials in the Indian city of Chandigarh, their second meeting this year since regular contacts were revived to discuss frontier issues.

The Pakistani military said Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz witnessed the test of the surface-to-surface Hatf V, a type of Ghauri missile with a range of 1,500 kilometers - capable of hitting most Indian cities and carrying a nuclear payload of 900kg. It said the test had been successful.

Nuclear-armed Pakistan conducts regular missile tests. The last time it test-fired a similar missile was on June 4. India did not immediately comment on the firing of the Pakistani missile this week, but both countries follow a policy of informing each other in advance of such tests.

The ISIS assessment seems to confirm a similar presentation made recently in Washington by well-known Pakistani physicist and anti-nuclear peace activist Pervez Hoodbhoy. He claimed that Pakistan is producing and stocking up weapons-grade nuclear material "as fast as the centrifuges would operate". India, too, is producing bombs as fast as it was humanly possible, he said. Albright and Kramer have also concluded that "nuclear military stocks in India, Pakistan and Israel are continuing to grow".

Pakistan was already known to have been moving fervently to outmatch India's nuclear weapons and missile capacity. Today it has five functional ballistic missiles, while India has a single Prithvi battlefield ballistic missile. Pakistan also has a defined nuclear command authority, while India is still groping to define its slogan of "minimum nuclear deterrence".

The question India must now answer is whether it should be satisfied with its conventional military superiority and allow Pakistan to maintain the parity it has achieved in the nuclear field or instead raise its nuclear and missile capacity citing a threat from China as the major justification. (India had claimed it was trying to counter the Chinese threat when it tested its weapons in May 1998.)

But several strategic analysts, particularly those with a military background, dispute the ISIS assessment and say that India has not been building bombs since the 1998 tests and has been practicing a moratorium not only on testing weapons, but also on building them, though they are not happy with the situation. Indeed, in their view, New Delhi allowed itself to be persuaded by the US to practice "strategic restraint", though under another name, "defense posture".

These analysts go to the extent of saying that under the previous administration of former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, India mortgaged its national security interests vis-a-vis China to the US in return for empty promises of the transfer of sensitive dual-use technology. They think that the idea of developing a "strategic partnership" between two "natural allies" by virtue of both being democracies is just a delusion. India needs to be far stronger militarily and economically for it to start dreaming of becoming a "strategic partner" of the US.

These US promises, they say, simply cannot be realized. Under the present circumstances, the United States cannot allow the balance of power in South Asia to be disturbed. The US cannot transfer to India any weapons technology that it is not giving simultaneously to Pakistan, which was recently granted major non-North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally status and remains a front-line state in Washington's "war on terror".

To buttress their point, analysts cite a strong demand for "an intense engagement of Pakistan" made in the bipartisan, consensual and hence authoritative report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks on the US, commonly known as the 9-11 Report. It was compiled by five senior congressional members from the Republican and Democratic parties. The report has found that there is a constant refrain among Pakistanis that the "United States long treated them as allies of convenience". Thus these senators strongly recommend that "as the United States makes fresh commitments now, it should make promises it is prepared to keep, for years to come".

Analysts cite another reason for their pessimism: the presence of restrictive US laws. Certain US laws would block any significant transfer of technology, even if a future US administration were well disposed toward India and wanted to change the present equation under a set of different circumstances. These restrictive laws can be changed, but for that to happen the situation would have to be vastly different. A major country with a billion-plus population, and a confirmed democracy at that, India does not have the flexibility either to obey or defy the US diktat in the way that, say, a small and vulnerable country such as Pakistan under a military dictatorship can.

One can cite in this context a report making waves in strategic circles in New Delhi in which Timesofindia.com claims to be in possession of documents "detailing the unshakable grip of a million American tentacles that have an all pervading grip on Pakistan's present and future". According to the newspaper, these documents reveal how the US has mapped Pakistan's year-wise targets and details of various schemes that would give the global superpower an unhindered influence over Pakistan. "Put together, they read like the British crown's annual plans for one of its colonies from a bygone era," Timesofindia.com comments.

The website claims that its investigations reveal that the US has free run over almost every aspect of Pakistan's national life, including sensitive national records and data.The US is said to have Pakistan wired up in a highly sophisticated network of software systems, with direct access to information, including that of everyone entering or leaving Pakistan.


The Personal Identification Secure Comparison Evaluation System (PISCES), an automated border control system, is being implemented in 20 ports of immigration in Pakistan. According to the latest information, all points of entry and exit in Pakistan would have a PISCES system installed by December 31. Believed to have been developed by Virginia-based consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton for the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) before September 11, 2001, PISCES uses biometric details to match facial images, fingerprints and biographical descriptions with the CIA's data bank in the United States. PISCES at Pakistani ports is believed to be linked to a central server in the US through a high-speed network where US officials monitor and analyze details of passengers, comparing them with suspects' data.

Timesofindia.com claims to be in possession of detailed US plans showing that PISCES is being linked up to Pakistan's internal national information, making the situation much more complex. According to the mission performance plan set by the US Embassy in Islamabad, the United States is currently involved deeply in prodding and forcing Pakistani authorities to develop national intelligence and criminal databases that did not exist until 2001. Surprisingly, this database is linked to the PISCES border-control system, which is in the hands of US officials. Among the mission document targets is an aim that by 2004 end the PISCES system would be "fully operational and integrated with National Crisis Management Cell's intelligence and investigative database".

Only in 2005 will Pakistan assume "responsibility for continued operation of PISCES system". Until then, the US counter-terrorism officials will have control over the sophisticated system that not only records details of every person leaving or entering Pakistan, but will also transmit these details to the central servers of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the CIA back in the US. Timesofindia.com also claims to have the mission-performance plan for 2004, prepared about a year after September 11, 2001, that contains details of the PISCES installation.

While Pakistan can on the one hand be servile enough, if the price is right, to hand over the running of its border security to a superpower, it can also defy the same power's threats and ignore its blandishments and go ahead with testing nuclear weapons under watchful US satellites, and indeed sell nuclear technology to enemies of the same superpower. Former Pakistani army chief General Jahangir Karamat told his then US interlocutor, an astonished deputy secretary of state Strobe Talbott, in 1998: "Pakistan would look out for its own defense." He had been apparently asked to do something that would in his view compromise his country's national interest without bringing in sufficient dividends for the Pakistani security forces.

India cannot afford either to defy or kowtow to the US in the manner that Pakistan has. It can also not be a full partner until it is strong enough to command US respect. If it decides to let go of its US-dictated "strategic restraint", if indeed it was practicing it in the first place, it will have to cite a reason for that. Now, officially, India has stopped citing China as a nuclear threat, even though it feels that Beijing is doing everything in its power to keep India boxed in as a mere South Asian power at par with Pakistan. Even the US, which was at one time thought to want to use India as a counterpoint to China, has also started playing the same game. The hyphenation is back, if indeed it had ever gone away.

India is impatient to break out of this paradigm. The relatively new Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government is being advised by strategic analysts not to compromise India's national security in the same manner the previous government had and balance its relations with the US, the implication being that it should revive its nuclear program and develop minimum deterrence vis-a-vis China rather than merely competing with Pakistan. But New Delhi would also not like to jeopardize the ongoing peace talks, including negotiations for resolving territorial and other disputes with both China and Pakistan. Not everyone in the government, in any case, equates national security with more nuclear bombs and missiles - or for that matter conventional military hardware, though that is the dominant trend.

It will be interesting to watch how New Delhi reacts and which way it turns. But the indications available from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's formulations in the past four months of his governance suggest that India will, at least for the moment, focus on setting its own house in order while normalizing relations and developing better trade ties with its neighbors.

Sultan Shahin is a New Delhi-based writer.

Asia Times Online 16/10/2004