The evolution of South Asia’s nuclear powers

Henry Srebrnik
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While much of the world’s attention these days is focused on Iran’s nuclear program, it should not be forgotten that its eastern neighbours, Pakistan and India, South Asia’s two largest countries and long-time enemies, both are nuclear-armed states.

India is not a party to the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and tested what it called a “peaceful nuclear explosive” in 1974. The test was the first after the creation of the NPT, and India’s secret development of nuclear weaponry, using civilian nuclear technology, caused great concern and anger from nations such as Canada, that had supplied its nuclear reactors for peaceful and power generating needs.

Indian officials had rejected the NPT in the 1960s on the grounds that it created a world of nuclear “haves” and “have-nots.” The Indian position asserted that the NPT was in many ways a neo-colonial regime designed to deny security to post-colonial powers.

Even after its 1974 test, India maintained that its nuclear capability was primarily “peaceful,” but in 1998 India tested weaponized nuclear warheads, including a thermonuclear device. Today, India is estimated to have up to 100 nuclear warheads.

In 2008, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) approved an agreement with India under which the agency gained access to India’s civilian nuclear reactors. As a result, India was granted a waiver allowing it to access civilian nuclear technology and fuel from other countries, including the United States. Both President George W. Bush and his successor Barack Obama have agreed that the world’s largest democracy is a responsible nuclear power.

The IAEA’s Director General, Yukiya Amano visited India last March to hear from Indian policy makers, scientists, researchers and engineers on developments in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

But India is also expanding its ability to produce highly enriched uranium for military purposes, including more powerful nuclear weapons, according to a U.S.-based think tank that cited satellite imagery taken last April of a gas centrifuge facility under construction at the Rare Materials Plant near Mysore in Karnataka.

The Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) published a report in 2013 stating that this new facility “could significantly increase India’s ability to produce highly enriched uranium for military purposes, including more powerful nuclear weapons.”

Pakistan, too, is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and built its first nuclear power plant near Karachi with equipment and materials supplied mainly by western nations in the early 1970s. Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto had promised in 1965 that if India built nuclear weapons then Pakistan would too, “even if we have to eat grass.”

In 1998, Pakistan conducted its first six nuclear tests at the Chagai Hills, in response to the five tests conducted by India a few weeks before. In 2004, the Pakistani metallurgist A.Q. Khan, a key figure in Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, confessed to having sold gas centrifuge technology to North Korea, Iran, and Libya, though he denied complicity by the Pakistani government or army.

“Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal probably consists of approximately 90 to 110 nuclear warheads, although it could be larger,” according to a report released last year by the Congressional Research Service (CRS), an independent research wing of the U.S. Congress. “Islamabad is producing fissile material, adding to related production facilities, and deploying additional delivery vehicles. These steps could enable Pakistan to undertake both quantitative and qualitative improvements to its nuclear arsenal,” the report said.

Given Pakistan’s chronic instability there is always the danger that such weapons could conceivably fall into the hands of Islamist extremist groups should the country implode.

As Robert Kagan noted in his book “The Revenge of Geography,” published in 2012, “A state like Pakistan can have weapons of mass destruction, even as it can barely provide municipal services and protect its population from suicide bombers.”

As well, any conflict with India over disputed Kashmir could easily touch off a major conflagration.


Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.

Organizations: Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Institute for Science Congressional Research Service U.S. Congress University of Prince Edward Island

Geographic location: India, Pakistan, South Asia United States Canada Mysore Karnataka Karachi North Korea Iran Libya Islamabad Kashmir

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Recent comments

  • James
    January 27, 2014 - 11:10

    Clearly, India’s global and regional ambitions are pushing South Asia to an unstable and dangerous nuclear standoff. Washington bears part of the responsibility, having encouraged and prodded Delhi to assume the mantle of a global power. But the US is also uniquely in a position to help South Asia save itself from a deeply hazardous nuclear competition.

  • Hadi
    January 27, 2014 - 11:08

    Although Pakistan is not engaged in a nuclear arms race with India and is only interested in maintaining minimum credible deterrence, India’s plans for conventional and nuclear build-up have put Pakistan’s desire for nuclear restraint to a severe test.

  • Sameer
    January 27, 2014 - 11:07

    Shortly after the nuclear tests of May 1998, Pakistan proposed a Strategic Restraint Regime to India. India has expressed no interest in the proposal. Instead, it has pressed ahead with its plans for a ‘triad’ of land, air and sea platforms for its nuclear deterrent, which it hopes will give it a place at the top table with the five nuclear powers recognised by the NPT.

  • Nicholas
    January 27, 2014 - 11:05

    Pakistan’s commitment to nuclear security is clear from reports that its nuclear weapons are not assembled but are stored in component form, with the fissile cores being kept separately from the non-nuclear explosives packages, and the warheads separately from the delivery systems. In addition, Pakistan has taken a number of steps for the improvement of the command and control system and for the screening of employees at its nuclear installations.

  • Toby
    January 27, 2014 - 10:58

    India's test created an untenable situation for Prime Minister Mohammad Nawaz Sharif. In the wake of India's tests, Pakistan felt an urgent need to demonstrate its own prowess in a similar manner for many reasons - to deny India unilateral technical advantage it might have gained from conducting tests; to restore a sense of a balance-of-power with India in the eyes of itself, India, and the world

  • Robert
    January 27, 2014 - 10:51

    Asian Parliamentary Assembly (APA) in its Sixth Plenary Conference affirmed the inalienable right of every country to acquire, develop and use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes under IAEA safeguards. So please mind your own business.

  • Frank
    January 27, 2014 - 08:49

    Pakistan has developed its nuclear weapons for defence purposes. South Asia has been indulged into nuclear arms race by India soon after its 1974 nuclear test. Pakistan felt serious threats from Indian nuke capability that's why It developed its nukes.

  • Frank
    January 27, 2014 - 02:21

    Pakistan did not want a conflict with India but that if it came to war between the nuclear-armed rivals, he would "respond with full might." Since its nuclear explosion Whatever Pakistan did was a reactionary responce to the actions taken by India either in making nuclear weapons or TCNW's as one cannot ignore its security interest when you have an arch rival in your neighbours and who believe in power projection.

  • Frank
    January 27, 2014 - 02:15

    the current and projected trends in West-assisted Indian military build-up, the existing asymmetries between India and Pakistan shall exacerbate and may force Islamabad to rely more on nuclear weapons are balancers. The onus of this growing instability partly lies on the West, which wants to make the best use of the Indian market. Every state has a right to pursue trade, but also has the responsibility to maintain peace. Therefore, the larger issue affecting South Asian stability is growing Indian militarisation and its offensive doctrines.