On May 11, 1998, India tested three nuclear devices including a
thermonuclear device and a low yield (less than one kiloton) device. Two days
later India tested two more devices, both in the subkiloton range. With this
string of highly successful tests, India not only demonstrated its nuclear
capability, but also leapfrogged several established nuclear powers — China,
Britian and France. The world order was changed forever.
Seventeen days later, on May 28 to be precise, Pakistan also announced
the successful detonation of five nuclear devices, thereby seemingly joining the
nuclear club. But for reasons that I will soon make clear, the reality is quite
different: Pakistan’s tests are more an exercise in public relations than a
demostration of technological or military prowess.
First let us look at the Indian tests. The thermonuclear device
demonstrated India’s capability in producing strategic weapons. This may not
be immediately relevant to Pakistan. But the subkiloton devices, going as low as
200 tons can be converted into tactical battlefield weapons and pose an
immediate and insurmountable threat to Pakistan. This means that a bomb no
larger than an artilery shell, but with the equivalent power of hundreds of tons
of conventional explosives can be used against specific Pakistani targets. More
importantly, the technology and the nuclear materials are entirely indigenous.
What about the Pakistani tests? The first point to note is that its
claims are highly exaggerated. Seismic centres in India, the United States,
Australia and Britain detected a single explosion in the 5 to 10 kiloton range,
that is, much smaller than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Evidence also suggests
that the trigger mechanism for the exposion was provided by China just before
the test. This means two things: first, Pakistan’s claims are highly
exaggerated, and, more seriously, without the capacity to design and fabricate
the trigger mechanism, Pakistan has no bomb. It is entirely dependent on others
for the most crucial component of the bomb.
Here is the scenario that can be determined on basis of information from
knowledgeable sources. Immediately after the Indian tests, Pakistan realized
that its nuclear bluff had been called. Indian as well as American and Chinese
experts knew all along that Pakistan was incapable of producing a bomb, but the
government had assured its people that they could explode a nuclear device any
day. The Indian tests sent the Pakistani foreign minister Mr Gohar Ayub
scurrying to China begging them to help Pakistan explode a bomb; domestic
pressures were getting intense and the government could fall any day. China sent
its technicians with a pre-fabricated trigger mechanism. This allowed Pakistan
to blast a primitive device.
If there are any more tests by
Pakistan, we can expect the pattern to be similar: exaggerated claims made on
the basis of an explosion using a pre-fabricated Chinese trigger mechanism. In
summary, Pakistan not only has no bomb of its own, but unlikely to have one for
the foreseeable future unless the crucial components like the trigger mechanism
are supplied by the Chinese.
This was confirmed by the top
Israeli expert Professor Gerald Steinberg who observed soon after the Pakistani
test that the ‘Islamic Bomb’ was still far from being a reality. (No one
except the Pakistanis referred to Indian devices as ‘Hindu Bombs’! One of
its architects is Dr Abdul Kalam.)
This means that the idea of an arms race in the subcontinent is largely a
myth created by Pakistan to blackmail its Western allies — particularly
America — into giving it both money and weapons. After the Cold War ended,
Pakistan lost much of its relevance to the West, but some old friends steeped in
Cold War thinking remained in the US Government willing to humor Pakistan. But
now the argument was changed: it was no longer a bulwark against Soviet
expansion, but a safeguard against an ‘arms race’ in the subcontinent.
This arms race is a myth. Even after the 1974 Pokharan blast there was no
arms race even though Pakistan was economically in a much better position than
it is today. Also, the Cold War was very much alive. Soon Pakistan received a
bonanza when Russia invaded Afghanistan. People do not realize how great has
been Pakistan’s dependence on the US for its very existence. With the end of
the Cold War, Pakistan had to find another rationale. It was then that arguments
like stability in the subcontinent, and preventing an arms race were concocted.
To make it more dramatic, a propaganda campaign was mounted suggesting that
Pakistan was on the verge of becoming a nuclear power, the implication being
that Pakistan had to be humored or else it would go nuclear. This was blackmail
pure and simple, but the US at first was prepared to go along. The Pressler
Amendment put an end to it.
Pakistan has no industrial or even the economic infrastructure to become
a nuclear power. So, instead of expensive and technologically demanding nuclear
path, Pakistan took the inexpensive and low tech path of sponsoring cross border
terrorism. This was accompanied by narcotics trafficking, a major industry.
Soon, Pakistan became a terrorist state, and a center for the training of
Islamic terrorists like the Taliban. So it had found a new identity: from being
a bulwark against Communist expansion, it began to define itself as a frontline
state in the expansion of Islam. The world by and large has still not caught on
to the changed identity of Pakistan — as a theocratic terrorist state.
With the declaration of India as a nuclear weapons state Pakistan
realized that it had lost the strategic game. It now finds itself confronted by
a threshold superpower. To make matters worse, it is fully aware of its
indefensible record of terrorism against India, which it now fears could come
back to haunt it. Although the world knows that Pakistan is no nuclear power,
the government has to maintain its pretense simply to control its own turbulent
people. Further, it is engaged in a desperate game of bluff with the hope that
it can gain at the negotiating table what it has lost militarily and
Pakistan’s economy is in a mess. Its military and interest payments
consume 85 percent of its budget. In addition, it has a deficit of 3 billion
dolars which has to be made up by foreign aid. It has now recognized that it
cannot expect much from the West. Militarily it has been totally outclassed by
India. This has made Pakistan gamble with its nuclear test — with Chinese help
— hoping that it can gain recognition as an equal in its negotiations with
India. Note that Mr Nawaz Sharief has said that he is now willing to negotiate
So here is the clue to Pakistan’s thinking. With its one weak test and
inflated claims, its leaders hope to negotiate with India from a position of
strength. So its nuclear test had two goals: to quiet domestic unrest, and
improve its negotiating position with India. Its hope is that it can repeat its
success at the Shimla Agreement when Indian politicians lost at the negotiating
table what its armed forces had gained in the field.
Pakistan is not unjustified in its belief. There are already noises that
we should go back to the framework of the Shimla Agreement. But that would be a
very great error. History has shown that Pakistan will not honor any agreement.
Further, the conditions have changed. The Shimla Agreement gave Pakistan an
opportunity to engage in cross border terrorism. Any new agreement must include
enfoRcement mechanisms for ending terrorism and
solving all outstanding problems. A ‘NO FIRST USE’ AGREEMENT WILL BE OF
NO VALUE SINCE PAKISTAN WILL VIOLATE IT WHEN IT SUITS.
In summary, Pakistan is no nuclear power; the arms race is a myth; and Pakistan is now engaged in a game of bluff to gain maximum negotiating advantage out of a nuclear test of no military significance. Most importantly, India’s political leaders should not throw away the victory gained by its soldiers and scientists in return for false promises on a scrap of paper. This is what they did in 1948, and again in 1971. This is what Pakistan hopes they will do again.