Pakistan's Nuclear Past as Prologue

The chances of limits or reductions are remote.

Feroz Hassan Khan, Eating Grass: The Making of the Pakistani Bomb. 520 pp., $28.46.

The rivalry between India and Pakistan continues to be cause for serious concern. Since partition in 1947, the two countries have fought one another in three major wars and clashed in a number of more limited military engagements. Disputes over territory and a host of other issues persist. Earlier this year, skirmishes on the “line of control” in Kashmir reportedly left three Pakistani and two Indian soldiers dead. Political leaders in both New Delhi and Islamabad predictably responded with angry rhetoric. It is after all an election year in Pakistan—and campaigning is practically a year-round activity in India’s huge federal system.

Because both India and Pakistan are nuclear-armed states, the stakes of any armed conflict between the two countries are potentially enormous. Scholars disagree on the extent to which the very existence of nuclear weapons on the subcontinent may have lowered the prospects for all-out war during the past decade or so. Yet, even if nuclear weapons have had a deterrent effect, the potential for interstate violence nevertheless remains—and, with it, the ever-present possibility that some future crisis could escalate out of control regardless of what national leaders might actually intend. The consequences could be horrific not only for the region, but for the entire world.

Both India and Pakistan espouse a policy of “minimum deterrence”—though neither side has precisely defined what this actually means. Today, they each possess a stockpile of roughly one hundred nuclear weapons—with Pakistan having slightly more than its neighbor. While these are relatively modest numbers compared to those of the United States and Russia, the two countries are currently expanding their respective nuclear capabilities beyond their existing nuclear-capable fighter aircraft and medium-range land-based missiles. India is now conducting sea trials for its first indigenously produced nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarine (the Arihant). Less than a year ago, it also tested a ballistic missile (the Agni V) capable of reaching Beijing. For its part, Pakistan is said to be developing tactical nuclear warheads to mount atop a new, sixty kilometer-range mobile missile, the Nasr. Both sides are also reportedly taking steps to expand their capabilities to produce fissile materials.

These new programs reflect differing assessments of the threat each country faces. China’s economic rise and growing ability to project military power beyond its borders loom large in India’s strategic calculations. While both China and India have a “no-first-use” policy regarding nuclear weapons, Indian strategists have for years cited China’s nuclear capability as the principal rationale for developing Indian nuclear weapons—though perhaps they would be as much a symbol of national power as a deterrent force. Pakistan, on the other hand, seems most concerned about mitigating the imbalance in conventional military power created by India’s advantages in manpower and resources.

The Relevance of History

But weapons-development programs are not just a function of perceived threats. The momentum of past decisions also plays a role. This has certainly been the case in the United States. Choices made a half-century ago concerning the size and nature of the American nuclear forces, as well the complex of nuclear-weapon laboratories and production plants, continue to affect and constrain U.S. nuclear-weapons policy today. The same no doubt holds true for India and Pakistan. Their separate nuclear legacies will influence the course of the arms competition between them, as well as the prospects for confidence-building measures that could help avert a nuclear confrontation.

For this reason, an understanding of South Asia’s nuclear past is essential to assessing its nuclear future. The history of India’s nuclear-weapons program has been well documented. Though first published over a decade ago, George Perkovich’s India's Nuclear Bomb, remains essential reading for its comprehensive and compelling account of India’s often ambivalent pursuit of nuclear weapons. More recent works, especially retired Vice Admiral Verghese Koithara’s Managing India’s Nuclear Forces, provide informed and insightful updates on the current status of India’s nuclear forces. Until recently, however, one would have been hard pressed to find a full account of Pakistan’s nuclear-weapons program between the covers of a single book. While several studies have dealt with specific aspects of the story, such as A. Q. Khan’s notorious nuclear-proliferation network, or provided details on current policies and capabilities, a single, comprehensive history had yet to be written.