South Asian Proliferation Dynamics


By Dr. Richard Weitz

09/19/2011 – Last week, I attended a Trilateral Relations in Asia Conference in Phuket, Thailand that examined the political, economic, and security-related interactions among China, India, and Pakistan. Perhaps the most interesting dynamics occur in the nuclear realm.

The Triangular Dyanmic Among India, China and Pakistan as Key Global Driver (Credit: Bigstock)
The Triangular Dyanmic Among India, China and Pakistan as Key Global Driver (Credit: Bigstock)

The tensions between the members of the triangle is manifest in how even predominately bilateral arms races regularly affect, and are typically influenced by, the third party. The resulting triangular dynamic adversely affects regional security dynamics. To the alarm of many other governments, the reciprocal military modernization programs of the three countries both reflect, and contribute to, conventional, nuclear, and missile proliferation in neighboring countries. The most serious problem lies in the nuclear realm due to the interconnected nature of Asia’s nuclear programs.

After the Sino-Soviet split occurred in the late 1950s, the Chinese Communists redoubled their efforts to acquire nuclear weapons to counter the USSR’s superiority in nuclear and conventional force. The PRC’s successful development of an atomic bomb in 1964 in turn persuaded Indian leaders to pursue nuclear weapons. After India detonated a non-deliverable fission device in May 1974 at its Pokhran testing site in Rajasthan, China increased its sharing of nuclear material and nuclear technology with Pakistan, allowing Islamabad to reciprocate rapidly when India finally detonated several deliverable nuclear warheads at Pokhran in May 1998. Indian policy makers cited Chinese actions, including the PRC’s increasing nuclear weapons capacity and Beijing’s transfer of nuclear weapons and ballistic missile technologies to Pakistan, as the reasons for their tests. The Indian claim implied that New Delhi was seeking the capacity to target China with nuclear weapons. India’s growing nuclear potential in turn has stimulated Pakistani officials to strengthen their own nuclear deterrent.

China’s nuclear forces are more capable than those of India and Pakistan, but the PRC’s nuclear-armed missiles have many potential targets, including Japan, Taiwan, Russia, and the United States as well as India. While the PRC has an estimated 200-400 active nuclear warheads, India and Pakistan likely have half approximately half as many. China’s nuclear missiles are capable of reaching North America with their ranges of over 10,000 kilometers, though the PRC has modernized its nuclear missile fleet facing India, most recently replacing its older CSS-3 liquid-fuel ballistic missiles with CSS-5 medium-range missiles. Being solid fueled, these new missiles can be readied for launch much more rapidly than their predecessors, potentially providing China with preemptive options vis-à-vis India’s smaller nuclear force, especially if the PRC starts placing multiple warheads on a missile. The PRC’s military (and civilian) space program is also superior to that of India, with many more satellites in orbit and one of the most active space research programs of any country. China has also demonstrated a superior anti-satellite capability, confirming its capability by successfully destroying one of its own satellites in 2007. Along with Russia, the PRC is also considered to have the world’s most active military cyber program.

As a countermeasure, the Indian armed forces too are trying to enhance their C4SIR (command, control, communications, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) capabilities, which include cyber defenses as well as possible cyber-offensive options.

Another important asymmetry lies at the conceptual level. Whereas Indian strategists often consider the direct military balance between the military power of India and the PRC, most Chinese security experts focus more on the balance of power between the PRC and the United States or Taiwan, probably because they discount the prospects of a war with India, consider Pakistan’s nuclear forces capable of negating India’s deterrent, or because PRC planners treat a war with India as a lesser included case of China’s other security challenges because they would not expect India and another country to wage nuclear war with the PRC concurrently.

The trilateral arms racing also extends to the non-nuclear military realms (conventional for now but soon likely to encompass space, cyber, and missile defense). Although India has been increasing its military strength, and remains Russia’s preferred arms recipient and defense industrial partner, including for Russia’s new fifth-generation stealth fighter, Indian strategists realize that China’s military capability considerably exceeds their own. They have therefore called for strengthening India’s own conventional forces, reinforcing the border region with special forces designed for mountain fighting in the Himalayan highlands, bolstering India’s nuclear deterrent, and enhancing the country’s cyber defenses.

What impact is Chinese military modernization having on the triangular dynamic? (Credit: Bigstock)What impact is Chinese military modernization having on the triangular dynamic? (Credit: Bigstock)

The military gap between China and India could widen further should the PRC continue to develop its military capacities more rapidly, should Chinese policy makers cease worrying about other potential threats, if Indian policy makers confronted a greater threat from Pakistan, or if the PRC ever establishes control over Taiwan which, even if PLA forces do not establish a base there, would allow the Chinese Navy to focus on other missions such as developing its foreign presence and power projection capabilities.

The size of both India’s defense budget and its armed forces are less than half that of China, due largely to the PRC’s larger economy and greater population. While the PRC’s military-related spending is probably the second-highest in the world, India ranks several levels lower. Furthermore, a greater percentage of the Indian defense budget goes towards personnel and maintenance costs. The PRC pay its troops less and spends more on military modernization and procurement.

Despite the PRC’s general superiority in the nuclear and other military balances, India now has a sufficient portfolio of nuclear delivery systems to provide it with a probable minimum deterrence capability vis-à-vis China. India is working to expand its fleet of ground-launched ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons and has fighter aircraft that can perform this mission. The Indian government is also developing nuclear-capable ballistic missiles that can be launched from surface ships and submarines. In July 2009, India launched its first indigenous-built nuclear submarine, INS Arihant, placing India among those few countries having the capacity to manufacture nuclear-power submarines. The Indian military can now launch nuclear weapons from the air, land, and water since India has developed a variety of ballistic and cruise missiles. In February 2010, India began testing the Agni-5, a nuclear-capable missile having a range of 5,000 km. The Agni-III, the longest-range missile India has thus far successfully flight-tested, has an estimated range of 3,000 kilometers. Both Agni-III and Agni-V can deliver a nuclear warhead against vital Chinese targets, including Shanghai or Beijing. The shorter ranges of other Indian missiles, such as the Prithvi, Agni-I, and Agni-II, make them more suitable for use against Pakistan.

India is also collaborating with the United States to develop ballistic missile defenses, though these too are directed against Pakistan’s smaller and less advanced missile fleet, which is based on earlier Chinese military technology, rather than designed to intercept the PRC’s large number of sophisticated ballistic and cruise missiles.

Russia has also helped India build a supersonic cruise missile, the BrahMos, with both anti-ship and land-attack versions. China and India have historically been the Russia’s two largest arms clients, but Moscow was occasionally wiling to sell India its most advanced weapons systems, which it still denies China. In any case, during the past few years, Chinese orders of Russian weapons have declined dramatically due to the growing capabilities of the PRC’s own domestic defense industry. Meanwhile, India’s military industrial complex continues to suffer from various problems, requiring the Indian government to rely on foreign suppliers for its most advanced air and navy platforms.

China’s extensive assistance to develop Pakistan’s nuclear infrastructure concerns India as well as other countries. The PRC remains the only major nuclear weapons state willing to help Pakistan develop its civilian nuclear energy sector, providing technical and other dual-use assistance that could potentially assist Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. The official PRC position is that China’s aid is for exclusively peaceful purposes, meets Pakistan’s demonstrable need for more civilian energy, involves only legally permissible items, and escapes NSG restrictions because it began before Beijing joined that body. Unofficially, PRC representatives argue that, since the United States and other countries are waiving NSG rules to provide nuclear assistance to India, Beijing has the right to render comparable aid to Pakistan.

Several general factors make the nuclear competition between India and Pakistan, supported by China, especially dangerous.

First, active political disputes between the two countries have resulted in three past wars and additional conflicts waged by proxy. Pakistani leaders in particular have acted as if their nuclear arsenal will deter India from again using its conventional forces to attack Pakistani territory (as opposed to the insurgents operating inside India’s frontiers). As a result, their implicit nuclear doctrine presumes the possible first use of nuclear weapons. In addition, Indian analysts speak about the phenomenon of Nuclear Weapon Enabled Terror (NWET). According to this concept, with their nuclear shield, Pakistani officials feel more comfortable supporting terrorist attacks against India on the presumption that the Indian government would not retaliate with conventional military power for fear of deliberate or inadvertent nuclear escalation.

Second, the physical proximity of the two countries combined with their reliance on ballistic missiles as delivery vehicles means that early warning times of an impending nuclear attack might be as little as 5-10 minutes. Although it remains unclear whether India or Pakistan has mated the nuclear warheads with their delivery systems, such a precarious situation increases the risks of both accidental and catalytic war (i.e., a nuclear conflict between both governments precipitated by a third party, such as a terrorist group).

Third, Pakistan may find its own nuclear program increasingly inadequate as India seeks to achieve a situation of mutual deterrence with China. India’s attempts to develop a deterrent that is viable against Pakistan and China simultaneously will invariably cause strategists in Islamabad to elevate the nuclear capabilities they deem necessary to maintain rough nuclear parity with New Delhi regardless of the PRC’s nuclear posture.

Fourth, widespread political disorders in either country could encourage aggressive acts by the other to exploit the situation or foreign adventures by the competing political leaders of the afflicted country (i.e., to distract attention and rally domestic support). These outcomes could trigger, if not actual nuclear war, then at least a destabilizing arms race that would affect all three members of the South Asian triangle.

Finally, nuclear proliferation most anywhere increases the risk that a non-rational actor, whether a leader of a rogue state or a terrorist group, will acquire a nuclear weapon or dangerous nuclear materials. Everything being equal, moreover, the risk of nuclear accidents or nuclear weapons diversion to non-state actors rises with the increase in the number of nuclear weapons states.

Pakistan is often seen as the country presently most susceptible to these risks. In their 2008 report, the Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism describes Pakistan as “the geographic crossroads for terrorism and weapons of mass destruction” given the combination of so many Islamist extremists co-located with the country’s growing arsenal of nuclear weapons.

To these critics, Pakistan presents several proliferation challenges.

First, its successful development and retention of its nuclear arsenal encourages other governments to believe they too could acquire a nuclear arsenal and overcome the resulting international opprobrium.

Second, Pakistan could employ nuclear weapons in a war with India.

Third, the country’s political instability raises the risk of regime collapse followed by the transfer of Pakistani nuclear weapons to a less moderate government, domestic extremist groups, or foreign countries or non-state actors such as a terrorist group or transnational criminal organization. A related and final concern is that extremists could gain control of a Pakistani nuclear weapon even in the absence of regime collapse.

Pakistani officials reassuringly insist that they have stored their various nuclear warheads in multiple secure locations throughout their country, while keeping them separate from either their delivery systems or the conventional explosive devices used to trigger their detonation. According to some sources, however, Pakistani extremist groups have conducted several attacks on these supposedly secret nuclear storage sites at Sargodha, Kamra, and the Wah cantonment. Sites around the facility and within the city of Dera Ghazi Khan have also been attacked. Although separatist fighters from the nearby Baloch region and not the Pakistani Taliban were likely responsible for most of these incidents, there is evidence of Taliban involvement in at least some of the assaults.  While none of these attacks penetrated Pakistan’s nuclear facilities, the U.S. National Security Advisor, General James Jones, warned at the time that the Pakistani Taliban insurgency could compromise the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.

The larger Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, the more difficult it could become for Islamabad to secure all its weapons adequately.