Under the Radar: Nuclear Expansion in South Asia

As the threat of a nuclear Iran dominates the nonproliferation arena, India and Pakistan are quietly, but significantly, expanding their nuclear weapons arsenals. A new report released this month on India’s nuclear forces by Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris in the Ploughshares-supported Bulletin of Atomic Scientists underscored the fast pace of India’s nuclear modernization.

A quick comparison between the last report written in late 2010 and the new edition is startling. The September/October 2010 edition began, “Fighter bombers constitute the only fully operational leg, backed by short-range ballistic missiles.” This month’s report includes details of India’s successful 2012 test of the Agni-V long-range ballistic missile, upgrades to three types of aircraft, a contract for 126 new fighter-bombers, and its first nuclear submarine set to undergo sea trials this year.

Although most of these initiatives are not yet fully operational, Pakistan considers this build-up highly destabilizing and has countered with several recent nuclear expansions of its own. Pakistan tested a medium-range ballistic missile called the Shaheen-IA in response to the Agni-V test. In 2012, the Pakistan Navy opened a new Naval Strategic Force Headquarters. In the press release announcing the inauguration, the Navy hinted at future sea-based nuclear capabilities. Pakistan has also tested two new stealth cruise missiles, the Babur and Ra’ad in the last few years.

More worrying, both countries are considerably expanding their capacity to produce weapons-grade plutonium. India plans to build two more reactors, including a fast breeder reactor, and Pakistan is working on two new plutonium reactors and a reprocessing plant. If built, these facilities would greatly increase both countries’ ability to quickly increase their warhead stockpiles.

While Iran is certainly of concern to the international community, the rapid expansion of nuclear assets in South Asia should also be on the agenda. The bigger and more sophisticated these arsenals become, the greater risk of their use from accident or miscalculation, especially in a conflict as tense and active as India and Pakistan’s.  

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