Pakistan doubles its nuclear arsenal: Is it time to start worrying?

By Alexander H. Rothman | February 11, 2011

According to recent reports in the New York Times and Washington Post, Pakistan has nearly doubled its nuclear arsenal to more than 100 weapons and appears on track to soon surpass Britain as the world’s fifth largest nuclear power. While Pakistan’s nuclear buildup may be jarring at first glance, it is important to take a moment to examine what this development means and what it does not. Pakistan’s entry into the “nuclear 100 club” does little to change the strategic situation in South Asia, nor does this determined pursuit of nuclear weapons signal a major policy shift in Pakistani behavior. In fact, Pakistan’s nuclear buildup is unlikely to affect US, Pakistani, or global security in the short term. Instead, Pakistan’s growing nuclear stockpile is simply the latest reminder of a problem of which experts and policymakers have been long aware: The outdated Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) has become increasingly ineffective at combating proliferation in the twenty-first century, and the international consensus and political will necessary to update the treaty remain out of sight.

Pakistan’s jump from an estimated 60 to 110 nuclear weapons is unlikely to shift the balance of power vis a vis India. With 60 warheads, Pakistan possessed enough weapons for a viable nuclear deterrent and second-strike capability against India or any other nation. While the jump to 110 weapons may put Pakistan’s arsenal slightly ahead of India’s in numerical terms, it does not increase the effectiveness of Pakistan’s deterrent.

In fact, Pakistan’s focus on nuclear buildup appears unlikely to improve the country’s security in any way. While relations between Pakistan and India are far from cordial, the most immediate threats to Pakistani stability are domestic. Heavily reliant on foreign aid, Pakistan faces severe economic problems as well as an armed, extremist insurgency. Additional nuclear weapons are unlikely to help the Pakistani government solve either of these internal problems — particularly considering the fact it’s almost impossible to think of a situation in which it makes sense for a government to use nuclear weapons domestically.

In working to double the size of its already substantial nuclear arsenal, Pakistan continues to place a disproportionate focus on its nuclear program ahead of other key security concerns. This behavior is far from new. In 1972, Pakistani President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto famously proclaimed, “even if we have to eat grass we will make nuclear bombs.” Four decades later, Pakistan continues to pursue this strategy of nuclear buildup at any cost, thereby diverting resources away from other programs that could attempt to address the country’s internal security and economic threats.

In trying to explain Pakistan’s relentless pursuit of nuclear weapons, Terrence P. Smith of the Center for Strategic and International Studies speculates that for Pakistan, nuclear weapons have become a “psychological equalizer.” That is, while Pakistan cannot match the strength of India’s economy or its conventional military capabilities, its nuclear arsenal provides an opportunity for Pakistan to one-up India, even if this victory provides negligible security benefits.

Whatever Pakistan’s motivations may be, in the near term, this nuclear buildup is unlikely to threaten US security. The Pakistani government, which receives billions of dollars each year in American aid, has a generally positive relationship with the US, and, should this relationship change, Pakistan’s nuclear delivery vehicles would still lack the range necessary to reach American shores.

Moreover, taken in isolation, a 50-warhead increase is unlikely to significantly alter the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. Whether Pakistan has 60 or 110 weapons, the Pakistani government and military as well as the international community still want them all to be safe. Last week, the White House reiterated that it remained “confident” about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear stockpile, and, as I wrote in 2009 the Pakistani military — the strongest institution in the country — has strong incentives to maintain control of its nuclear arsenal, which it views as its main protection against India’s conventional and nuclear military strength.

When viewed as part of a larger trend of nuclear buildup, however, Pakistan’s jump from 60 to 110 warheads becomes more worrisome. In the long run, the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and weapons-usable material presents a major national security issue for the United States. Pakistan has a history as ground zero for the illicit sharing of nuclear technology, most significantly through the rogue A. Q. Khan network. In its 2008 report, the bipartisan Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism referred to Pakistan as “the intersection of nuclear weapons and terrorism.” And, of course, the more weapons that Pakistan has, the greater the chances that one will fall into the wrong hands.

Furthermore, the growing size of Pakistan’s nuclear stockpile provides additional evidence that the NPT, the foundation of the global nonproliferation regime, is ill-equipped to handle what President Barack Obama has called the most critical threat of the twenty-first century: the threat of nuclear terrorism. The prospect of a South Asian arms race or continued Pakistani buildup over the long term significantly increases the risk of a nuclear weapon or weapons-usable material falling into the hands of a terrorist group. Neither India nor Pakistan, however, are signatories of the NPT and as a result, face little to no legal obligations with regard to building or sharing nuclear technology. Even worse, the George W. Bush administration’s ill-advised nuclear deal with India legitimized India as a de facto nuclear power despite its decision to proliferate in defiance of the international community, thereby undermining the global nonproliferation regime and also giving Pakistan an incentive to further its own nuclear program.

Regulating the behavior of the nuclear non-signatories of the NPT (Pakistan, India, and Israel) will likely be the defining nonproliferation challenge of the twenty-first century. As these countries begin to surpass NPT signatories in arsenal size, the nonproliferation regime’s current mechanisms for managing the global production of nuclear weapons will become entirely inadequate.  Revelations about the size of Pakistan’s nuclear stockpile, coming the same week that the New START treaty entered into force, illustrate that the gravest nuclear threat facing the United States can no longer be considered to come from Russia, but rather from South Asia. As a result, bilateral arms control agreements between the United States and Russia cannot be the only diplomatic efforts for the US to halt the spread of nuclear technology and production of nuclear weapons.

It may be too soon to panic, but it is not too soon to be proactive. For the Obama administration, winning sufficient Republican support to ratify the New START treaty was a struggle. However, the only viable options to regulate the spread of nuclear technology and materials and combat the threat of nuclear terrorism require further international cooperation. To fill the gaps in the global nonproliferation regime, the Obama administration can take two steps. First, it can submit and spend political capital to get the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty ratified by the Senate. Second, the administration should promote international efforts to negotiate and sign a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty. In doing so, President Obama will strengthen American security, bolster the country’s nonproliferation credentials, and maintain the moral high ground he reclaimed with his 2009 speech in Prague.

Editor’s note: Lawrence Korb was the lead author of this Analysis piece.

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