By Majid Mahmood
Estimating the size of Indian and Pakistani nuclear arsenal has been a recurring exercise by both regional and international watchers of South Asian security. A recent study by Pakistani experts titled ‘Indian Unsafeguarded Nuclear Program’ estimates India’s nuclear weapons production capability to be between 356 and 492 nuclear bombs. Similar studies by certain international experts have been conducted in regards to nuclear capability of Pakistan.
It is clear, however, that these estimates are educated guesses and no one really knows about the exact numbers and the nature of nuclear weapons program of either country. The debate on nuclear numbers sometime ignores an important policy question that how much is enough and when will it be enough?
‘Minimum credible deterrence’ is the official framework adopted after 1998 nuclear tests for defining deterrence requirements by both India and Pakistan and has since guided the development of nuclear weapons program in both countries. Although recently Pakistan has changed the official phraseology to ‘full spectrum deterrence’ which is perceived by some outsiders as a signal for greater nuclear arms buildup. On the other hand India has also embarked upon an ambitious program of modernization of conventional forces and high profile defense technology procurement from various international state suppliers.
In India, the strategic calculations for minimum deterrence have been influenced by factors such as Pakistan-China threat assessment, ballistic missile defenses and requirements of nuclear triads. While Pakistani calculations are influenced primarily by India, it’s conventional and nuclear advancements as well as its ballistic missile defense capability. Pakistan’s declaration of a policy of ‘full spectrum deterrence’ and is professed to be within the parameters of ‘minimum credible deterrence’ are reconciled by Pakistan in a single policy framework
Pakistani officials have stated that they don’t intend to engage in an open ended arms race with India in the nuclear domain. Moreover there are resource constraints in any case which can possibly affect the concepts of full spectrum and minimum credible deterrence.
It is a standard challenge for states as to how to draw and quantify strategic calculations and threat perceptions. From post 1998 nuclear tests, India and Pakistan have learnt different lessons precisely due to differing views on strategic calculations, and pressures of great power politics in South Asia. Pakistani lesson is that conventional wars cannot now be fought under a nuclear overhang while the Indian approach is opposite.
Meanwhile US rebalancing to Asia-Pacific, which has been evolving, has also complicated strategic calculations of India and Pakistan. The policy aims to bolster US regional alliance system of which India, Japan and Australia are key the pillars. Therefore in South Asia US seeks a new regional balance centered on India but not Pakistan. Resultantly Pakistani deterrence calculations and requirements are likewise affected.
With increasing Indian focus on its China problem and there are indicators that India is enhancing its existing strategic strike options deep inside China. The Agni V of 5,000KM range missile was tested in 2015 and reportedly new variants of higher range missiles to deliver nuclear warheads are in the process of being built. Though the long range Indian ballistic missile systems are of little concern to Pakistan but the developments in cruise missile technology and high tech conventional acquisition by Indian armed forces does have a dual impact.
Agni V and its upcoming variants of high ranges ballistic missiles hint at possible Indian intentions to increase its nuclear targeting options of Chinese cities. This can lead to to either of two conclusions. One, ‘minimum deterrent’ framework is made flexible enough to increase India’s warhead requirements or two; minimum deterrent is replaced by a new position but not declared to avoid international scrutiny.
Ballistic Missile Defenses are also important determinants of number of nuclear warheads a state would develop. There are serious issues with the efficiency of this expensive endeavor even in the US, Europe and Russia. While India and China in a different stage of development, are fielding a modest BMD system, there are concerns about their negative impact on nuclear deterrence. An array of conventional capabilities including highly effective cruise missiles can be employed to neutralize BMD. However, in Pakistan the calculation of nuclear warheads is effected by BMD development.
It is not yet clear, however, as to what exact mix of measures Pakistan has employed to reduce the perceived vulnerability and whether that includes increasing the number of nuclear warheads.
One factor for locking the nuclear number game in South Asia on the current levels will be an early conclusion of Fissile Material Cut Off treaty negotiations in the UN. But that will depend upon whether India and Pakistan do eventually sign the FMCT. Alternatively both India and Pakistan can declare a unilateral moratorium, in case they don’t sign FMCT, to not produce more fissile material once their deterrent requirements are met.
Regardless of FMCT, there will come, a stage in coming years, when both India and Pakistan may find a right mix of conventional and nuclear capabilities. The “when it will be enough” question regarding nuclear warhead numbers at this stage could only be a matter of conjecture. Many unknowns and spoilers can complicate strategic calculations in unpredictable ways.
Majid Mehmood is associate research officer in CISS. Views expressed are his own.