Building confidence in India and Pakistan

For the past two years, VERTIC has been running a project on South Asia under a grant from the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This project was set up to identify confidence-building and transparency measures that the two countries could explore and perhaps undertake in the arms control field. It has involved several trips to the sub-continent, as well as engagement in several other meetings with participation from across the region. This article summarizes the outcome of our consultations.

Politics on the sub-continent is mired down in a dangerous cocktail of strategic competition, neighbourly misgivings, resource shortages, and qualms about Western intentions. Policy seems entangled in ways that inhibit prospects for effective arms control. While exchanges between India and Pakistan are happening at the political level, their respective military establishments are not communicating nearly as much, or as effectively, as they should.

While India and Pakistan are still struggling with the legacy of their 1947 partition, the rising strength and influence of China increasingly complicates matters even further. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that the people of India and Pakistan are witnessing a slow and steady acceleration of ‘a regional arms competition’, to quote Michael Krepon of the Washington-based Stimson Center. Fuelled by decades of wars, suspicion and mistrust, both India and Pakistan have chosen to develop nuclear weapons. In the process, both countries have developed an extensive nuclear industry. Some of it is dedicated to producing nuclear weaponry; other parts are devoted to electricity production.

The SIPRI Yearbook 2010 estimates India’s nuclear arsenal as comprising of around 60-80 weapons. The Pakistani nuclear arsenal is estimated to comprise some 70-90 weapons. These estimates, however, are conservative. It is impossible to determine how much weapons-usable heavy metal each country has produced to any degree of exactness. What is known is that both countries have produced material for decades, and that they have possessed nuclear devices for at least 20 years.

While the arsenals of the two countries have matured, their policies have remained tainted by brinkmanship. Indeed, both India and Pakistan may even have considered using their nuclear weapons during the last few decades. At the height of the bloody Kargil conflict during the summer of 1999, Pakistan’s then foreign secretary, Shamshad Ahmad, reportedly said that his country reserved the right to use ‘any weapon’ in its arsenal. But former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf later wrote in his memoirs that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons were not ready at the time. His country would have been at an immediate disadvantage in a nuclear exchange, he argued. Nonetheless, whatever actually happened, many in the region feel that the recurrent conflict between the two has on occasion been pushed right to the edge of the nuclear abyss.

Both countries have a rough idea of the other’s nuclear capabilities. This is intentional. Military establishments on both sides of the border know that there are benefits to be had from hiding their true capabilities and misleading their opponents. As Musharraf hinted in his memoirs, India might have deployed its own arsenal had they conclusively known that their opponent was weak. Even if strength is lacking, both sides have an interest in faking it.

The introduction of nuclear weapons in the region has given rise to intense speculation that strategic stability—the impossibility of full-scale war—has fuelled smaller conflicts. If this interpretation is true, increased transparency in nuclear capabilities might not be so desirable because any confirmation that the countries have strategic parity could escalate smaller-scale conflicts. And, of course, if transparency measures reveal that one state or the other is vulnerable to a first strike, the other may be tempted to go on the nuclear offensive. On the other hand, the inherent uncertainty that results from low levels of transparency inevitably forces politicians to base assumptions on worst case scenarios. Production of fissile material—the critical ingredient of nuclear weapons—will only stop when the two countries feel confident that they have more than enough material to satisfy their defence needs. Increased transparency could contribute to hastening an end to fissile material production in the region.

A number of transparency arrangements are already in place between the two countries. The Stimson Center maintains a well-populated webpage detailing these instruments, which include a number of ‘hotline’ and notification agreements. The idea behind these initiatives is to clearly communicate intentions in times of military tension. However, none of these agreements have the potential to significantly reduce these pressures. And none of these agreements, moreover, allow the other party to increase their knowledge of the other’s strategic capabilities. Decision-makers on both sides of the border are left to plan and react largely on the basis of conjecture and worst-case assumptions.

The availability of fissile materials
India and Pakistan have carried out research on military and civilian uses of nuclear energy since the 1950s. In addition, both countries have several decades experience in manufacturing fuel for use in nuclear weapons. Despite this, it is difficult to find reliable information on their weapons manufacturing capabilities in the public domain. All estimates of how much fissile material each country possesses, and how much of that is used for military purposes, are therefore subject to considerable degrees of uncertainty.

In India, fuel for weapons was produced in the 40 megawatt-thermal CIRUS reactor. This reactor went critical on 10 July 1960 and was operational for over 50 years. It was shut down between 1997 and 2005 for refurbishment, and shut down again on 31 December 2010. Presently, there are no plans to permanently decommission it. The reactor could have produced up to around 15kg of weapons-usable plutonium per year (enough, it is generally thought, for one nuclear device at least), although anecdotal evidence suggests that it has not operated optimally throughout its lifespan.

In addition, India has operated its 100 megawatt-thermal DHRUVA reactor for since 1985. How much plutonium this reactor produces is uncertain. Any estimate will depend on several factors, such as availability and burn-up. Conservative estimates put the reactor’s production capacity at about 16-26kg a year.

India also operates a uranium enrichment plant at Mysore. According to the Institute for Science and International Security, this plant, referred to as the ‘Rare Materials Project’, is believed to have become operational around 1997. This plant is known to be undergoing expansion. But, in general, great uncertainty surrounds India’s enrichment programme.

The International Panel on Fissile Materials estimates the Indian stockpile of weapon-usable uranium to be around 600 kilograms, with a 50 per cent uncertainty. It is not entirely clear what this estimate, or the uncertainty, is based on. Likewise, the Indian stockpile of weapons-usable plutonium is estimated at around 700 kilograms, with a 20 per cent uncertainty.

Pakistan is running one unit for the production of weapons-grade plutonium, the 50 megawatt-thermal heavy water moderated Khushab-I reactor which went critical some time in 1998. This reactor reportedly may produce some 10kg of weapons-usable plutonium per year, and has been operating for 12 years.

Pakistan has also been running a uranium enrichment plant in Kahuta since the early 1980s. According to some sources, the country produced enough material for its first nuclear device by 1984. It is widely assumed that Pakistan upheld a moratorium on the production of fissile materials for weapons purposes during the 1990s (although this was never verified). It is likewise assumed that production started again after India’s second round of nuclear testing in 1998. All production estimates on this plant are old, however, and exceptionally uncertain. To add to the confusion, it is not known if the plant was damaged by the earthquake that struck the country in October 2005. Pakistani officials claim that it escaped unharmed.

The International Panel on Fissile Materials estimates that the Pakistani stockpile of highly enriched uranium stands at some 2.1 tonnes of material. The Pakistani plutonium stock is estimated at 100 kilograms. Both estimates are, according to the panel, 20 per cent uncertain. Again, it is not clear what these estimates, or the uncertainties, are based on.

Using these numbers, SIPRI estimated in 2010 that Pakistan possesses 70-90 nuclear weapons that can be delivered by aircraft or ballistic missiles. It estimates India’s arsenal to be 60-80 weapons.

State of verification
Neither India nor Pakistan are members of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). They are therefore not bound by the treaty’s prohibition on the development and manufacture of nuclear weapons. Nor are they required to sign comprehensive safeguards agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), as Article III of the NPT requires. In addition, there are few restrictions on their ability to conduct nuclear tests. India joined the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty in October 1963, and is thus prohibited from conducting surface tests. Pakistan joined the same treaty in March 1998. But since neither country has signed the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, let alone ratified it, they are not restricted by this agreement from conducting underground tests should they so desire.

Both countries have, however, joined the IAEA—in 1957—and are bound by the organization’s statute. Both have also agreed to a number of facility-specific safeguards arrangements. IAEA safeguards in Pakistan cover the country’s two power reactors (Chasnupp-1 and KANUPP) as well as two research reactors (PARR-1 and 2). In 2007, Pakistan also entered into agreement with the IAEA to apply safeguards on a 325 megawatt-electric pressurized light water reactor supplied by China (Chasnupp-2). This reactor may start up some time in 2011.

IAEA safeguards in India are applied to three power reactors, three fuel fabrication facilities, and, in addition, the Power Reactor Fuel Reprocessing (PREFRE) facility, dedicated to reprocessing CANDU reactor fuel. In 2010, India offered a larger selection of facilities to be safeguarded. As a result, IAEA safeguards are now applied on the majority of India’s civilian nuclear infrastructure.

Confidence-building in South Asia
Some progress has, therefore, been made in placing more of each country’s nuclear fuel cycle under international safeguards. This is a good development, as it verifiably excludes these facilities from India or Pakistan’s weapons efforts. As noted, however, several key facilities remain devoted to the military-industrial complex, and continue to stand outside the safeguards system. What further efforts can be made to promote stability between these two adversaries?

In recent years, the relationship between the two countries has been tainted by outbreaks of violence and terrorism. Any diplomatic effort between the two faces an uphill struggle, and one weighed down by a complex, and often interconnected, set of issues. Even suggestions of relatively simple, purely technical, collaborations are met with acute unease, sometimes even ridicule and scorn. To some degree, this is a matter of attitude. As Michael Krepon wrote in August 2010:

‘Indian strategic analysts tend to be extremely confident, which often results in a dismissive attitude toward Pakistan. Indian government leaders have been proud about their ambivalence toward the Bomb, while being optimistic about the benefits of minimal nuclear deterrence. In Pakistan, on the other hand, deterrence pessimism reigns. This helps explain why India has been so relaxed about nuclear weapon-related issues, while Pakistan takes them so seriously’

In June 2008, VERTIC staff travelled to Islamabad, Pakistan, for a workshop on confidence building measures in the region. The seminar was hosted by the South Asian Strategic Stability Institute and featured prominent members of Pakistan’s nuclear industry, both military and civilian. The meeting was informative, and highlighted the difficulty of getting the two countries to agree on further steps. Nevertheless, a number of possible areas where confidence can be built were raised:

• Proposals that increase the strategic warning time. Strategic warning cannot be ignored in nuclear warfare, and especially so in South Asia. There, flight times are short, which means that officials will have to reach a decision on any counter-strike in a very short space of time (if they have any time at all). Proposals that enable the strategic warning time between the two countries to be increased may help reduce the risk that decision-makers launch a nuclear counter-strike in response to false alarms or miscommunications.
• Non-deployment of nuclear weapons. Any forward deployment of nuclear weapons will increase the psychological strain on decision-makers. Measures that ensure short-range weapons are not deployed within striking range may decrease tension.
• Nuclear risk reduction centres. These could help to increase communications between the two countries’ military establishments, and may also help to increase the strategic warning time.
• A force limitation zone. Any such zone along the border would lower armament levels in forward positions and eliminate the threat of surprise attack, thereby reducing the danger of miscalculation.
• Other qualitative restraints, such as on missile technology, could also be explored.

The majority of participants at the Islamabad meeting felt that India and Pakistan can cooperate on the civilian applications of nuclear energy. Both countries face acute energy supply problems. Both countries are planning far-ranging investments into nuclear power. Participants thought, however, that attempts at bilateral fissile material control—perhaps along the lines of the bilateral arrangement between Argentina and Brazil—would be a step too far for the two countries.

If Pakistani officials were cautiously optimistic, Indian officials were pessimistic about the prospects for concrete confidence-building measures. Some officials were even outright dismissive of the idea.

In November 2009, VERTIC staff travelled to New Delhi, India, for discussions with senior Indian officials. The meeting was hosted by the United Service Institute of India. The discussion was frank. Many participants agreed that there was practically no good faith between the two countries, and that the fragile security dialogue attempted between the two was not working. ‘Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are used to shield the country’s terrorist activities,’ said one senior former official, illustrative of the deep mistrust felt toward the country.

There was quite some animosity toward the West also, especially the way in which the West had handled Pakistan’s illicit nuclear procurement network. ‘It only stopped when [the West] wanted to stop it’, argued one former senior official, adding that, ‘the lesson to be learned is that one first needs the permission of the US to be proliferative’. Some participants claimed that Pakistan’s nuclear programme receives active support from China. One senior participant, associated with India’s intelligence apparatus, even claimed that ‘India has evidence of Chinese transfers of [weapons-grade] uranium to Pakistan’.

In February 2010, VERTIC again travelled to New Delhi, this time to participate in a meeting organized by the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. The meeting focused on broader Indian foreign policy. At present, India has very little interest in confidence-building measures, as their strategic orientation is more toward China. From an Indian perspective, any proposed confidence-building measure ‘has to be pitched very low’.

In June 2010, VERTIC staff travelled back to Islamabad to participate in an International Pugwash meeting, for which VERTIC provided part funding. This meeting confirmed many of the impressions gathered in the previous two consultations. For instance, that both countries lack a solid definition of what constitutes a minimum deterrent. They also have differing threat perceptions. Pakistan’s main concern is India, whereas India’s main strategic concern seems to be directed toward China. Some participants highlighted fears that a low intensity arms race may be occurring in the region, with the development of low-yield nuclear weapons, the further development of new types of tactical nuclear weapons and, worryingly, the introduction of submarine-based weapons systems. Among suggestions raised at the conference were those to the effect that:

• India and Pakistan should have a meaningful dialogue on the consequences for the two countries of a fissile material cut-off treaty;
• India and Pakistan could both reaffirm that they have no intention to conduct future nuclear tests;
• peaceful uses of nuclear energy could further be discussed by the two countries;
• progress on limiting or eliminating short range systems could also be discussed as a confidence-building measure;
• greater transparency on nuclear doctrines should be pursued;
• non-deployment and/or de-alerting agreements should be explored;
• that the consequences of potential nuclear use should be explored also;
• that further confidence-building could be arranged for nuclear risk reduction and nuclear crisis management.

At present, there is no room for ambitious confidence-building measures between India and Pakistan. Any proposals on bilateral fissile material controls, for instance, are likely to be rejected outright. For the foreseeable future, both countries are likely to consolidate their military nuclear fuel cycle, and continue the production of fissile materials. Since neither country has a clear view of what constitutes, in their mind, a minimum credible deterrent, such production may continue for many more years.

This does not mean, however, that exploratory talks on confidence-building measures and other issues cannot be held. In particular, both countries should, at least internally, start to discuss how a fissile material cut-off will affect their defence needs. More urgently, they may also need to discuss whether signing up to the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty will, in fact, be detrimental to their security. Once the five major nuclear-weapon states have signed up to the test ban, India and Pakistan will be left outside. This development may be damaging to both countries’ relationships with the other nuclear-weapon states.

Non-deployment of delivery vehicles is an especially interesting concept, particularly if such an arrangement could be found for the retirement of short-range ballistic missile systems. Most of these systems are ageing, and will be withdrawn from active service anyway. Withdrawing the weaponry under bilateral supervision would increase confidence that the systems are indeed out of active service. It could also act as a platform for future arms control and disarmament measures.

Andreas Persbo
Executive Director, VERTIC