May 26, 2011

Understanding Pakistan's Nuclear Rationale

Three factors shed light on why Pakistan is rapidly increasing its nuclear weapons capabilities: India's fissile material stock; preference signaling; and the concept of moral hazard.

By Yogesh Joshi for ISN Insights

"Pak producing n-arms faster than anyone else", read one of the notes sent home by the US embassy in Islamabad as leaked by WikiLeaks. A recent study in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists on fissile material and nuclear weapons' inventory points in the same direction. Pakistan has more nuclear weapons than India, and its weapons-usable fissile material inventories are larger than those of its bigger neighbor. In fact, Pakistan today possesses the fourth largest inventory of nuclear weapons in the world. The increasing nuclear capabilities of a country mired in internal conflict and considered to be a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism is alarming.

Three factors shed light on why Pakistan is increasing its nuclear weapons' capabilities: India's fissile material stock; preference signaling; and the concept of moral hazard.

Offsetting India's fissile material stock

Pakistan's main concern regarding India's nuclear capabilities is India's 1,300 kilograms of reactor-grade plutonium accumulated through many years' worth of nuclear waste generated by India's Pressurized Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs). While PHWRs are the mainstay of India's (peaceful) nuclear energy program, the spent fuel that they produce is rich in plutonium-239 - a driving factor behind India's nuclear weapons program. After the 2005 Indo-US nuclear deal, India agreed to place a number of its nuclear reactors under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. However, India also vehemently negotiated safeguard exemption for some of the PHWRs considered vital to its military program. As a result, eight PHWRs still remain outside IAEA safeguards. India's insistence on keeping some of the reactors unsafeguarded emanates from the ongoing debate about how many nuclear weapons should be sufficient for India's national security. In light of Pakistan and China's evolving nuclear weapons capacities, India would like to retain the possibility to vertically increase its numbers of nuclear weapons.

India is the only country in the world besides Russia that has been consistently toying with the idea of developing Fast Breeder Reactors (FBRs), which are dependent on plutonium. India runs a small FBR of 13 megawatts at the Indira Gandhi Center for Atomic Research, Kalpakkam. However, a much bigger reactor with a capacity of 500 megawatts is under construction at the same location. According to Princeton University scientists Alexander Glaser and M V Ramana, if the scaling up of the FBR program achieves success (which they seriously doubt), it may lead to sharp increases in India's weapons-usable fissile material inventories. India's present FBR capacity is limited. According to the nucleonics calculations of Glaser and Ramana, the larger reactor once operational could produce more than 140 kilograms of plutonium with a 95 percent fissile material content, which could generate a wealth of fissile material for possible use in nuclear weapons production.

Historically, the production of fissile material has not automatically led to weapons production in India; indeed India's fissile material inventories and weapons capabilities are not directly proportional, suggesting that India has not converted its entire fissile material base into active nuclear weapons. India is said to possess 600-700 kilograms of weapon-grade plutonium-239, which means that India has the capability to produce between 120-150 nuclear weapons, but is estimated to only be in possession of 60-70. From a Pakistani perspective, India will always have an upper hand in developing a first strike capability should it decide to convert its fissile material inventories to usable weapons, a possibility that threatens Pakistan the most. To offset such a threat, Pakistan believes that it should convert most of its fissile material into weapons while it has the time and resources to do so - a motivation heightened by the growing global momentum to conclude a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty.

'Signaling preferences' to other states

Second, the rationale behind Pakistan's desire to increase its arsenal can also be understood through the prism of 'preference signaling'. States often use arms races as a way of declaring their latent or overt preferences regarding the outcomes of decisions being made by other states. Applying this conceptual framework, Pakistan may be trying to project its dissatisfaction with the Indo-US Civil Nuclear Agreement, which it believes has fundamentally altered the strategic environment in South Asia. To this effect, Pakistan has often rationalized its build up of nuclear weapons as a response to this new alignment. Furthermore, it is characterized as being a necessary deterrent in the face of India's growing hostility to terrorism emanating from Pakistan: India has been unable to punish elements within Pakistan for their intransigent behavior because any major conflagration on the border ultimately holds the potential for nuclear war.

The increase in Pakistan's nuclear capabilities may also be a signal to the West - especially the US - to intervene and cajole India to dampen its bellicose attitude. Pakistan may prefer for the international community to shift its attention to India's development of ballistic missile defense (BMD) as a destabilizing factor in the South Asian strategic balance, instead of focusing on Pakistani-based terrorism. Since Pakistan has no technological or economic wherewithal to pursue BMD, it can only counter India's move by increasing its number of nuclear weapons.

The 'moral hazard' of nuclear weapons

Third comes the idea of 'moral hazard', a situation often observed, for example, within the field of insurance: the argument goes that once people have taken out an insurance policy, they become more reckless when they engage in behavior covered by the policy because they know that they have a 'safety-net' to fall back on should something go wrong. Possession of nuclear materials can similarly generate a moral hazard, providing the ultimate safety-net for states, should other negotiations or threats not suffice. North Korea provides a classic example of moral hazard: it has often used its nuclear assets to create serious security dilemmas in East Asia. Since its neighbors and other power players have an interest in maintaining peace in the region, they have often been more than willing to accommodate North Korea's demands and interests. The moral hazard generated by North Korean nukes, and the willingness of the international community to negotiate the threats posed by Pyongyang, has made North Korea a shrewd bargainer with regard to attaining political and economic privileges.

In the past, Pakistan has sold the moral hazard of nuclear war in South Asia to the international community, especially the US. Following major terrorist attacks in India - on the Indian parliament in 2001, and the 2008 attack in Mumbai - domestic pressure to respond to the provocations coming out of Pakistan has been immense. However, whenever the clouds of war have appeared on the South Asian horizon as a response to supposed high-level Pakistani support for terrorist activities, Pakistan has resorted to the rhetoric of nuclear war. This has often led to diplomatic intervention by the international community in order to restrain India from using force against Pakistan. By redirecting the attention of the international community away from acts of terrorism toward the possibility of nuclear war, Pakistan was able to secure immunity from India's punitive action.

The rationale of moral hazard has also contributed to the Pakistani military's tendency to engage in more risky behavior in the sub-continent following its development of nuclear capabilities, since the threat of nuclear war means retaliation is less likely. The 1999 Kargil conflict provides a good example. According to Professor Scott Saganof Stanford University, the military planners in Pakistan only undertook operations in the disputed Kargil region because of the safety provided them by the nuclear umbrella. Sagan argues that rather than incorporating restraint into Pakistan's behavior vis-à-vis India, nuclear weapons have instead provided Pakistan with an insurance policy in its continuing belligerence with India.

The need for international recognition

Increasing Pakistan's nuclear capabilities would allow it to make economic and political gains. In the future, if the agenda for disarmament gains momentum, the larger a state's nuclear inventory, the better its bargaining position. The same is true of economic opportunities: The threat of economic collapse in a state that holds substantial nuclear weapons capabilities could make the international community more likely to come to the rescue. One of the reasons behind the US' continued financial aid to Pakistan is the necessity of keeping a nuclear armed state functioning as a viable political entity.

Ultimately, it is quite clear that Pakistan's motivations to proliferate vertically emanate from its security concerns vis-à-vis India. Therefore, if the spiral of vertical proliferation in the sub-continent is to be halted, India must be involved in a serious dialogue on arms control with its neighbor. However, it is also clear that nuclear weapons have become Pakistan's chief currency of recognition in a world where international prestige is increasingly being measured in terms of economic and social development. The statement by Pakistani Ambassador Zamir Akram to the 2011 Conference on Disarmament attested to these tendencies: not only did he relate increasing nuclear capabilities with deterrence, but also with India's growing recognition by other nuclear armed states.

Now that they have been incorporated as a fundamental aspect of Pakistan's identity, it is impossible to dislodge the hold of nuclear weapons over Pakistan's international politics. Therefore, India's unilateral efforts to contain the South Asian nuclear tinderbox can only go so far.

Yogesh Joshi is an MPhil student at the Center for International Politics, Organization and Disarmament (CIPOD), School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He is currently a CSIS-Pacific Forum Young Leader, and recently represented India at the second Global Zero world summit. He would like to thank Ali Ahmed, Dr S Kalyanaraman and Dr G Balachandran for their valuable inputs on this article.

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