Asia’s Nuclear Nightmare: The German Connection

The Washington Post
June 10, 1990, p. C1

Despite the summit’s rosy afterglow, the risk of nuclear war is higher now than at any time in the past decade — but not between the superpowers. The Pentagon and State Department now believe that there is a real chance of war in South Asia over the disputed province of Kashmir. That outcome is not inevitable. But if fighting does erupt between India and Pakistan, each side must assume that the other will deploy and possibly use an atomic bomb. If such a thing happens, West Germany will be primarily to blame.

A constant flow of German exports has brought India and Pakistan to the brink of nuclear deployment. As I learned in meetings in May with high officials in both countries, neither side has a clear nuclear strategy. And no one knows how to prevent the next Indo-Pakistani border conflict from becoming atomic.

Pakistan took its first big step toward the bomb between 1977 and 1980. To convert natural uranium to gaseous form — an essential step in enriching it to weapons grade — Pakistan bought a giant, multi-million-dollar plant from West Germany. Sixty truckloads of parts, in broad daylight, rolled out of Freiburg in violation of German law. The exporter, Albrecht Migule, was fined $ 10,000 and allowed to stay in business.

A few years later, Pakistan needed the special steel, electronics and processing vessels to finally produce nuclear-weapon material. Pakistan made the crucial purchases from other German firms, including Arbed Staarstahl, Leybold-Heraeus, NTG and PTB. To actually make the internals of the bomb, Pakistan imported high-precision milling machines and special “isostatic” presses — from still more German firms. All this equipment was on the “international list” of export item that Germany, like Japan and most NATO countries, has agreed to restrict for strategic purposes.

“You never hear anything, you never see anything and you never block anything”: That’s the motto of Germany’s export controllers, a member of the German parliament told Der Spiegel.

Not content to have mastered simple fission bombs, Pakistan decided to climb the nuclear ladder. To get tritium — a radioactive isotope of hydrogen used to produce fusion — Pakistan secretly bought the design for a tritium-making reactor from NTG. NTG and another German firm, PTB, even threw in the equipment for making the reactor fuel rods. To convert the reactor’s tritium output to nuclear-weapon grade, NTG and PTB also supplied a giant tritium purification plant and some tritium to test it. “A civilian use of the tritium gas produced by the plant,” said the German prosecutor who investigated the NTG export, “is not plausible.” Earlier this year, Germany charged the former directors of NTG and PTB with violating export laws.

With tritium-induced fusion, Pakistan could make its bombs five to 10 times more powerful. All of the exports were secret, few had any civilian purpose and most violated German obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. While Germany was supplying Pakistan, it was also supplying India. By 1982, India’s nuclear effort had limped to a halt. It was paralyzed by a shortage of “heavy water,” a rare form containing deuterium, a heavy isotope of hydrogen. It looks and even tastes like ordinary water but is used in reactors that convert uranium into plutonium — the fuel for nuclear weapons.

Fires and explosions at heavy-water production plants had cut India’s output to a trickle. There was only one solution to India’s problem: imports. That was easy if India agreed to international inspection, so that the plutonium its reactors made could not go into atomic bombs. The exporters of heavy water required such a pledge under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. But India wanted to import the water without the pledge, so it could keep the nuclear weapon option open. To do that, India needed a peculiar kind of supplier.

India found nuclear-materials broker Alfred Hempel, operating out of Dusseldorf. From 1983 to 1987, Hempel (an ex-Nazi who died in 1989) smuggled India enough heavy water to start three large reactors. Together, those facilities now make enough plutonium for 40 atomic bombs per year. Hempel’s secret heavy water shipments, which totalled at least 250 tons, allowed Indian reactors to escape international controls for the first time. India could finally build a nuclear arsenal and change the strategic balance in Asia.

But Hempel too had a problem: He needed protection. U.S. intelligence had caught wind of him in early 1981. In secret cables, the State Department began alerting German officials to Hempel’s shipments. In one cable to the German Foreign Office — which included flight plans and stopover points — American diplomats pleaded that “timely action by the Federal Republic is essential if the shipment is to be stopped.” But in an Economics Ministry internal memo, a German official observed that Hempel’s firm had been “developed with Russian capital” and dismissed the American plea as “politically motivated.”

Not until November 1983 did German auditors open Hempel’s books, in response to U.S. complaints. They found that for 46.5 million German marks, Hempel had already shipped 60 tons of Chinese-origin heavy water to Bombay in 1982 and 1983. This was exactly what India needed to start its first reactor free of inspection.

The German Economics Ministry did nothing. Its excuse was that, according to the audit, Hempel had made the deal through a Swiss subsidiary, beyond the scope of German law.

In 1985, the Swiss started complaining. Bonn’s embassy in Berne cabled the German foreign office in July to report that Hempel had just smuggled a shipment of Soviet-origin heavy water through the Zurich airport. In a second cable, the embassy reported that the Swiss were “convinced that misdealings occurred.”

German officials, however, still did not act. A bureaucrat at the Economics Ministry wrote in an internal memo that Hempel “is well known here,” and that under German law “there is no leverage in this case.” After Bonn did nothing, Berne cabled again in February 1986. Hempel had just tried to smuggle a second Soviet shipment through Zurich. This time, another Economics Ministry official was more specific: Hempel’s “consortium of firms enjoys extraordinarily good relations with the East (Soviet Bloc). In my opinion, this would constitute an additional reason not to subject his firms to a foreign trade audit.” With the 1985 and 1986 shipments, India started its second and third reactors free of inspection.

By 1988, even Norway was complaining. In May 1988 Norway discovered that Hempel had diverted 15 tons of Norwegian heavy water that was supposed to go to Germany in 1983. Hempel had flown the water instead to Switzerland, where he combined it with 4.7 tons of Soviet water secretly trucked in from Kiev, and sent the whole lot to Bombay. Norway complained that the deal violated pledges in German shipping papers it had received — documents that promised delivery to Frankfurt. German officials agreed, but explained in an Economics Ministry memo that Germany was blameless because the shipments “did not touch the national territory of the Federal Republic.”

In fact, the Soviet shipment spent several days rolling across West Germany illegally in December 1983. If German officials had followed up their November 1983 audit of Hempel, which revealed the secret Chinese shipments, they would have found the illegal December shipment and could have arrested Hempel in early 1984. Even under Germany’s weak laws, this would have prevented the hundreds of tons of secret heavy-water shipments that Hempel made from 1984 to 1987. But German officials, it seems, weren’t interested. Neither Hempel nor his agents were prosecuted. India and Pakistan must now decide what to do with their German imports. As I One senior official, describing India’s newest nuclear missile, told me last month that it “has no real strategic purpose.” India and Pakistan now realize that they, like the United States in World War II, built the bomb without knowing what they would do with it. America only wanted to get the bomb before Hitler did. No one thought of using it against Japan until events pushed that question forward. India and Pakistan also built the bomb defensively: India to counter China; Pakistan to counter India. But like the United States, India and Pakistan may find that the momentum of events can make the question of nuclear use very real.

In the most likely conflict scenario, India would try to destroy Pakistan’s air force in the first hours or days — the standard opening of modern war. With two or three times as many planes as Pakistan, India could hope to succeed. India’s superior army would also invade Pakistan’s long, hard-to-defend border. Pakistan does not seem to have a reliable nuclear missile, so its dozen or so bombs will have to be delivered with aircraft. The rapid loss of airfields and planes, coupled with invasion, could pose the nuclear question quickly. Pakistan’s leaders would have three choices: use the bomb, lose the bomb or move the bomb.

Using it would mean making a nuclear threat, and following through if the threat failed. This is a high-risk proposition that only a country being overwhelmed would entertain — meaning that Pakistan could entertain it. Pakistani leaders would have to communicate the threat in the chaos of combat, while reports of aircraft losses were pouring in — the worst time for reflection on either side. The second option would be for Pakistan to watch the last squadron of its planes succumb without making the nuclear threat. This would mean losing the bomb by losing the means to deliver it. The advantage would be the survival of millions of Pakistanis who could otherwise perish in the Indian response to option one.

Moving the bomb — probably to Pakistan’s ally, China — would be a compromise. It would put the bomb where it was safe, but couldn’t be used. China would probably take in Pakistan’s nuclear hardware but forbid its deployment from Chinese territory. The bomb, having failed to deter war, might someday return in peace to whatever was left of Pakistan after the conflict. These alternatives are grim. To improve them, one needs to lengthen the time for decisions. Both sides would be better off if a quick nuclear showdown could be avoided. They would have a chance to stop fighting before one of them dragged the other over the brink. More time would also allow other countries to intervene and broker a cease-fire.

There is one device that might buy a crucial amount of time. Pakistan and India have already signed an agreement not to attack each other’s nuclear plants. They could extend this idea by granting each other a sanctuary that neither would attack by air, and from which neither would launch an attack by air. The zone would be big enough to hide a squadron of aircraft. Each side could define its own zone’s boundaries — 100 or so square miles — and put whatever it wanted inside.

As long as the parties observed the agreement, both sides’ nuclear forces would be preserved. Each side could avoid forcing a hasty nuclear decision on the other; and if conflict ended early, or ended before either side’s national existence were threatened, neither Pakistan nor India would necessarily have to decide whether to use a nuclear weapon. Pakistan’s zone could be on its border with China, so removal would still be an option if Indian ground troops threatened to overrun the zone. The non-attack pledge would preserve the nuclear status quo in the early hours or days of war, when removal might seem less attractive or still have to be negotiated.

Would India refuse to join, hoping to knock out Pakistan’s whole air force at once? India could not count on doing that. If it failed, it would force Pakistan to weigh a nuclear threat — a risk that India should prefer to avoid. Would Pakistan refuse to join, hoping to save a few planes by hiding them well? If Pakistan failed to hide them well enough, it would be worse off than with a sanctuary covering its northern caves next to China, where it would probably hide the planes anyway. Would the agreement be too risky, because one side could break it without warning? Breaking it would be risky too, because neither side could be sure of getting all of the other’s planes, which would take off with whatever they were carrying when attacked. Their load probably would not be conventional weapons.

All this assumes that neither side would launch a first strike. India doesn’t need to because its vast army can handle Pakistan without the bomb. Pakistan wouldn’t be able to because India’s near-billion population (and larger nuclear force) could absorb a Pakistani attack and still retaliate. The greatest danger of a nuclear strike — absurd as it may sound — could be in a chaotic moment when the bomb itself was in danger of being lost.

Germany’s reckless acts have now brought two poor countries to the nuclear threshold. Because of a disputed border, India and Pakistan are about to learn whether nuclear deterrence really works. Germany should be condemned for producing this result. At this critical moment of its unification, Germany should admit its sins and lead the effort to pull South Asia back from the brink.

Gary Milhollin, a professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Law, is director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control.