Pakistan’s nuclear weapons inventory is tipped to be the fourth largest in the world. There’s a good reason why India isn’t losing sleep over it.
Pakistan is suddenly the epicentre of a lot of things – mostly bad. And now comes news that it is set to overtake France to become the world’s fourth largest nuclear weapons power. This is sending everyone into a collective swoon.
The Federation of American Scientists estimates Pakistan’s arsenal at 90 to 110 atomic bombs. The French stockpile is estimated at 300 nukes and Pakistan is said to be adding between 8 and 20 weapons per year. Assuming the higher figure is true, and also assuming that the French will not build more nukes, Pakistan will become the world’s fourth largest nuclear power by around 2021.
Now is that such a big deal? Perhaps to the Pakistanis it is. The dirt poor country, which survives on annual American handouts, has reportedly built a fourth nuclear weapons plant, which is amazing for a country that boasts little industrial or technological skills.
Indeed, for most Pakistanis their nuclear scientists are heroes who restored parity with favourite enemy India and finally entered Pakistan’s name in some Top-10 list even if it’s the doomsday list.
But anyone who thinks nuclear weapons bestow a macho image in the comity of nation is living under a rock. As a symbol of national virility nuclear weapons went out of fashion with the arrival of Pakistan. Once Pakistan became a member of the N-club, it became uncool to be a nuclear power.
The Soviet Union possessed over 40,000 nuclear bombs while the US cranked out 28,000 by 1991. The Soviets could have levelled every population cluster in the US and Western Europe with 1000 precisely targeted bombs, but the fact that they built 40 times as many was because of the arms race. They never knew they had enough megatons. Incredibly, the Soviets had amassed fissile material to build another 40,000 nukes.
However, that terrifying stockpile did not help the Soviet Union. On the contrary, precious resources of the world’s largest country were wasted in this race. No doubt the Cold War impacted the US as well, and its decline as a major industrial power is a direct result of that wasteful build-up. But it was the Soviet economy, being much smaller than the American, which was more severely impacted.
A similar fate awaits Pakistan. The Pakistanis, their former Prime Minister Z.A. Bhutto said in the 1970’s, “will eat grass” but match India’s nuclear weapons. The truth is, if the country’s American patron hadn’t been generous to the tune of billions of dollars, Pakistanis would have eaten grass a long time ago.
Many strategic experts say Pakistan might use the weapons in a war with India. Well, nuclear weapons are not like, say, chemical weapons that have horrible effects but have often been used by rogue nations. Crossing the nuclear threshold is so fateful a decision that American and Russian leaders have pulled back from an atomic exchange despite overwhelming pressure to “use them or lose them.”
The more likely scenario is that Pakistani nukes could end up with Islamic terrorists. This is scary because nobody knows how this could happen.
But while it is true many Pakistanis would like to see a few Western and Indian cities end up in a nuclear fireball, the reality is they are living in a fool’s paradise. Simply passing a few nukes under the table to their Talban or al-Qaida terrorist pals won’t accomplish much.
That is because atomic weapons are pretty hard to set off. N-bombs have accidentally free-fallen from America and Russian bombers and landed on terra firma without exploding. Nuclear armed submarines have met with horrific accidents without spontaneously launching their deadly loads.
The reason is the complex nature of these weapons, which may never be mastered by a smelly terrorist or even a freelancing rogue nuclear scientist in a Karachi basement.
Again, Pakistan’s weapons are not operationally deployed. Pakistan’s 100-odd nukes are kept in central storage under constant watch of American and Indian satellites. If you have wondered why India has a large constellation of spy satellites – euphemistically named Remote Sensing satellites – know you know.
But what about an arms race in the region? Look at it this way: If India wanted to reinforce its arsenal, you think it couldn’t? India knows that its 80-odd weapons are more than enough for deterrence purposes. At any rate, just five well aimed N-bombs are all it’ll take to send Pakistan permanently into the archive section.
The nuclear standoff is all about deterrence as was amply demonstrated during the Cold War. Even at the most dangerous point in the 20th century – the Cuban Missile Crisis – the superpowers stepped back from the brink.
Also, nuclear stock taking is never accurate. Except the United States, no country’s nuclear tally is exact. Russia frankly has lost count of how many working nukes it has. For all other countries, the modest size of their arsenals precludes transparency.
The FAS admits as much regarding its own estimates: “The exact number of nuclear weapons in each country's possession is a closely held national secret. While the estimate for the United States is based on real numbers, the estimates for several of the other nuclear weapon states are highly uncertain.”
Pakistani bombs have also never been mated to ballistic missiles because doing so would incur the full wrath of its American patron. No Pakistani general wants to eat grass. The rest of the world, therefore, has nothing to fear from Pakistan’s bombs, which are most likely destined to be locked up in central storage.
Because of the heightened alert post-9/11, the crude, albeit clever, ploy of converting fuel engorged aircraft into deadly projectiles may forever remain the high point of Islamic terrorism.
As for India, it has dealt with various forms and magnitudes of Islamic terrorism for over a thousand years. You can bet they’ll survive this one too.
About the author: Rakesh Krishnan Simha is a features writer with New Zealand’s leading media group.
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