India and Pakistan: New Missiles Increase the Risk of Nuclear War

In May, Pakistan’s President Farooq Leghari blamed India for starting a new arms race in South Asia that would “endanger peace in the region.” He warned that Islamabad would not sit idle while India mass-produced nuclear missiles that could threaten Pakistan’s cities. And in an exclusive article for the Risk Report, Pakistani Ambassador to the United States Maleeha Lodhi says, “A hair-trigger situation has already been created by India’s ambitious program to manufacture and develop the Prithvi short-range missile, the Agni intermediate-range missile and intercontinental ballistic missiles. None of these missiles makes any sense without a nuclear warhead.”

These warnings underline the risks posed by the festering border dispute over Kashmir. As long as India and Pakistan cannot resolve their differences, South Asia will remain the most likely place on earth for a nuclear war.

America has had only limited success in stopping nuclear proliferation in South Asia. The new tensions over missiles could make any further progress impossible. “Missiles are the political motor now,” says a senior U.S. official. “This is where diplomatic energy is being expended in South Asia. A missile race is a real possibility, and it will be destabilizing.” The official says it could also distract from the more urgent nuclear challenge getting India and Pakistan to stop making A-bomb material.

A U.S. official told the Risk Report in February that “the difference in size between the Indian and Pakistani nuclear arsenals is not strategically significant.” Pakistan may have made up to a dozen bombs, while India probably has closer to twenty. So far, neither country is committed to capping its arsenal. Pakistan promised in 1993 to stop production of high-enriched uranium, the bomb fuel that destroyed Hiroshima. But if India continues to stockpile uninspected plutonium, the material that destroyed Nagasaki, Pakistan will probably renew its uranium production efforts. Pakistan has tried to follow India’s nuclear progress step by step.

Pakistan’s quest for the bomb began after its humiliating defeat in the 1971 war with India. After India tested a bomb in 1974, Pakistan mounted a worldwide campaign to acquire nuclear bomb components and production equipment through both open and clandestine means. Pakistan Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s words on the subject have become famous: “If India builds the bomb, we will eat grass or leaves, even go hungry. But we will get one of our own.” And Pakistan succeeded by turning to foreign suppliers, especially China. China’s shocking contribution to Pakistan’s effort was uncovered by U.S. intelligence in the early 1980s: China had supplied Pakistan with the complete design of a tested nuclear weapon. Indignant, U.S. officials made a model of the bomb about the size of a soccer ball and with detonators around its surface and showed it to Pakistani diplomats. Computer modeling of the weapon by U.S. experts showed it to be reliable.

U.S. officials also say China gave Pakistan weapon-grade uranium for bomb fuel. If, as reported, the design was the same as China’s fourth test device, it could yield the equivalent of 20 to 25 thousand tons of TNT, twice the power of the Hiroshima bomb. Pakistan has since improved the Chinese design, tested the parts one by one, and tested the whole design with a dummy fuel core. The most reliable current estimate is that Pakistan can build a workable warhead weighing just 400 pounds, using about 15 kilograms of high-enriched uranium.

Though Pakistan has done most of its nuclear shopping in China, Western firms also supplied crucial equipment, often in violation of export control laws. According to Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear program, Western suppliers were more than eager to sell: “They begged us to purchase their goods,” he wrote in 1986.

One of Pakistan’s first big purchases was from Germany in the late 1970s. In violation of German law, exporter Albrecht Migule sold an entire plant to convert natural uranium to gaseous form, an essential step in enriching it to weapon grade. To finally produce nuclear weapon material, Pakistan bought special steel, electronics and processing vessels. To make the internals of the bomb, Pakistan imported high-precision milling machines and special “isostatic” presses. All this equipment was on the “international list” of export items that Germany, like Japan and most NATO countries, had agreed to restrict for strategic purposes.

Smuggling has been the hallmark of Pakistan’s program. In 1982 and 1983, Pakistan illegally acquired U.S. oscilloscopes, which process data from nuclear weapon tests, and high-speed computers with nuclear weapon applications. At the same time, Pakistan bought nine flash X-ray machines from Sweden. These machines photograph the implosive shock waves used to detonate the fission reaction in the core of an atomic bomb. In June 1984, a Pakistani was arrested while attempting to smuggle out of the United States 50 krytrons, high-speed electronic switches used to detonate nuclear weapons. Documents linked the buyer directly to the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC). In July 1985, ABC News reported that according to the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency), Pakistan had successfully smuggled American-made krytrons, and that it had detonated a triggering package for a nuclear device in June 1985.

Climbing up the nuclear ladder, Pakistan revealed its interest in building more powerful bombs when it tried to buy beryllium and imported a tritium purification plant from Germany. These materials can be used to boost the yield of fission bombs. To prevent Germany from selling beryllium to Pakistan, the U.S. government told Germany unequivocally that the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) was conducting research on the use of beryllium “in nuclear explosives, with the aim of incorporating [beryllium] into a future nuclear weapons design.”

Then in 1987, Arshad Z. Pervez, a Canadian citizen born in Pakistan, was convicted of trying to illegally export beryllium and maraging steel from the United States. Maraging steel is a super-hardened metal used to make centrifuges for uranium enrichment. Pervez’s papers contained evidence that he was acting as an agent of the Pakistani government.

The same year, several reports said Pakistan had crossed the nuclear threshold. Then-President Zia told Time magazine, “Pakistan can build a bomb whenever it wishes,” and Britain’s Secret Service reportedly confirmed that Pakistan had “its own small” nuclear weapons. By early 1989, reports citing U.S. intelligence estimates said Pakistan had the components for four bombs. It also had the technology to machine enriched uranium into weapon parts, and might have built the needed fusing devices and weapon casings. By 1990, Pakistan had built a small arsenal and had begun work on a second generation of weapons, according to intelligence reports. The reports stated that Pakistan had “cold-tested” its first nuclear bomb in 1988 and was building a reactor to make plutonium for smaller atomic bombs.

Pakistan’s shopping has not stopped despite Western efforts to block sensitive equipment going to nuclear projects. Last year, German officials seized about 1,000 unfinished components for gas centrifuges destined for Pakistan.