A New Path to Accidental Nuclear War in South Asia?

Diversion isn’t the only danger confronting Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.

The entrance to Minhas Air Force Base, Kamra, Pakistan.
(Src: zameer36.com)

Speaking at the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul this past March, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh warned of the “potent threat” posed by nuclear terrorism. Mr. Singh went on to highlight the measures his country had taken to safeguard its nuclear arsenal and materials against diversion, and expressed his continued faith in United Nations Security Council Resolution 1540, which obliges all states to take steps to secure nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons and their means of delivery.

India is right to urge continued vigilance at a time when many nuclear weapon states are in the process of re-examining their deterrence priorities in the face of aging warheads and delivery systems and serious budgetary constraints. Recent events warn that the world’s nuclear weapons and materials may not be quite as well-protected as we would like to think. The July infiltration of the Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee by an octogenarian nun and two retirement-age peace activists caused no small embarrassment to the United States. More alarmingly, in August, a group of armed Pakistani Taliban militants attacked the Minhas Air Force Base, a large facility believed to house a portion of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. Though numbering less than ten, the militants were nevertheless able to tie up the base’s security forces in an engagement lasting at least two hours.

A Potential New Kind of Nuclear Terrorism

While the actual threat posed by the Minhas militants to Pakistani nuclear assets is open for debate, the attack does point to the increasing sophistication and ambition of Pakistan’s militant groups—and also to the potential for a different kind of nuclear terrorism. Nuclear terrorism is traditionally understood to take one of four forms: direct acquisition and deployment of a nuclear device, independent fabrication of a device using stolen materials, release of radiation by attacking nuclear facilities, or release of radiation through other means of dispersal. But the particular circumstances of the South Asian security situation raise the troubling possibility of a fifth scenario: a nuclear exchange intentionally provoked by terrorist activity that is not itself inherently nuclear. Considering the relatively high technical barriers to other forms of nuclear terrorism, this scenario may be attractive to an organization seeking the overthrow or destruction of a state.

The notion that a non-state actor might be able to incite a nuclear conflict has long been a staple of film and novel thrillers. In the film The Sum of All Fears, neo-Nazi extremists place a formerly lost nuclear bomb in a Baltimore football stadium, hoping to drive the United States and Russia to mutual annihilation and bring about a new world order. In the latest installment in the Mission: Impossible series, a former nuclear strategist acquires and uses Russian launch codes in the belief that a similar world-consuming conflagration would allow a united civilization to rise from the ashes. Within the trope, an initial nuclear explosion has always been the key to sparking the conflict; much exposition and dramatic tension flows from the terrorists’ acquisition of a device, and the authorities’ subsequent efforts to track it.

In real life, there have been several incidents in which early warning systems mistakenly identified an incoming nuclear attack. In 1995, for example, Russian early warning radars mistook a Norwegian scientific rocket for a US submarine-launched ballistic missile; the alert went all the way up to then-President Boris Yeltsin before the mistake was discovered. More recently, the explosion of a meteor over the Mediterranean Sea during the 2001-02 Operation Parakram crisis raised concerns that Indian or Pakistani early warning systems on high alert might mistake a similar natural explosion for a nuclear detonation. Several factors specific to the India-Pakistan nuclear dyad make it inherently unstable, and, as a result, particularly vulnerable to a mistaken identity incident or a malicious “spoofing” attack.

A Tense and Distrustful Relationship

The relationship between India and Pakistan—twin nations born a day apart from the tatters of British India—is fundamentally one of mistrust. In the 1940 Lahore address that set the wheels of Partition in motion, Pakistan’s founding fatherMuhammed Ali Jinnah argued forcefully for a separate Pakistani state, asserting that Hindus and Muslims belonged to two fundamentally different and immiscible civilizations, and could not therefore coexist in harmony. Sixty-five years, three major armed conflicts, and countless smaller-scale clashes later, India and Pakistan still regard each other as very much existential threats, as asserted by former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in a March 2011 interview. Predictably, Indian and Pakistani nuclear developments have historically closely mirrored one another: speaking in 1965, then-Pakistani Prime Minister Ali Zulfikar Bhutto famously stated that if India acquired the bomb, so too would Pakistan, even if the people had to “eat grass or leaves.” Following several decades of covert development, both countries tested mature weapon designs in 1998, only weeks apart. Having demonstrated their capabilities, both states then immediately declared self-imposed moratoriums on testing, and the subcontinent has lived in an uneasy standoff ever since. Historically cool Sino-Indian relations add an unwelcome third dimension to the puzzle; India finds itself in the unenviable position of having to offset Chinese capabilities without provoking Pakistan into a nuclear arms race.

Unable to go toe-to-toe with the conventionally superior Indian Army, Pakistan has historically turned to alternative means of achieving its foreign policy goals, chief of which has always been the resolution of the Kashmir territorial dispute. Having demonstrated a credible deterrent with the 1998 tests, Pakistan was then free to step up subconventional attacks on its neighbor. The 1999 Kargil War—sparked by the infiltration of Pakistani paramilitaries and Kashmiri militants into Indian-held Kashmir—marks only the second instance in which nuclear-armed states have engaged in direct conflict, the first being the Sino-Soviet border dispute of 1969. Just two years later, suspected Pakistani state involvement in a terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament led to a six-month standoff that was defused only with foreign mediation. The possibility of nuclear war was raised during both conflicts, at various levels and on both sides. Pakistan finds it difficult to erase the taint of its Intra-Services Intelligence agency’s decades-long association with groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba; in the days following an attack, suspicions are invariably leveled at Islamabad even in the absence of any discernible link. It is entirely possible that a future incident would push already strained India-Pakistan relations to the nuclear brink.

Geography is another factor. Close physical proximity makes for short flight times, and combined with the development of reliable, solid-fueled rockets such as Pakistan’s Shaheen and the Indian Agni series, the time elapsed between a launch decision and missiles striking Islamabad or New Delhi might very well be measured in seconds rather than minutes. Former British Director of Communications and Strategy Alastair Campbell recalls a senior Pakistani general boasting at a 2001 dinner party that Pakistani missiles could hit India in as little as eight seconds. With such dramatically compressed reaction times, the margin for error is greatly reduced.

All nuclear-armed states face what is known as the “always-never” dilemma—the stakes of using nuclear weapons demand that a device is always ready when called upon, but never used without positive authorization. While the latter criterion points to more centralized control, the former favors greater devolution of power. India seems to lean towards the “never” side of the conundrum; its Nuclear Command Authority chain terminates with Prime Minister Singh, ensuring that ultimate launch authority remains in civilian hands. However, Pakistan’s National Command Authority, while nominally also headed by the civilian prime minister, likely falls much more under the influence of the Pakistani armed forces. Given Pakistan’s counterforce deterrence priorities and lack of strategic depth, some degree of predelegation of authority to downstream commanders during times of heightened tensions is not improbable. To make matters worse, neither India nor Pakistan is known to employ the electronic locks known as permissive action links (PALs) that safeguard US weapons from unauthorized use. When individuals have their finger on the button, stated nuclear doctrine matters little. Knowing he might have only seconds to react, a Pakistani commander in control of nuclear weapons might easily find himself faced with a “use it or lose it” dilemma, and decide to deploy his weapons rather than risk their capture or destruction. Sheer geographical proximity makes the India-Pakistan powder keg particularly volatile; Cold War deterrence logic, in which oceans separated the main belligerents, may not scale very well to adjoining states.

A Growing Risk

This brings us back to the attack on Minhas Air Force Base in August. The militants who infiltrated the base were dressed as Pakistani Air Force personnel, but it is not so difficult to imagine a scenario where similarly-equipped assailants instead present themselves in Indian Army uniforms. If such an attack were to transpire during a time of already tense relations, when weapons might be raised to a higher readiness level for signaling purposes—as was suspected of India and Pakistan during Kargil—the consequences of an isolated, panicked Pakistani commander believing the weapons under his command were under surprise attack by Indian forces could be catastrophic.

The scenario examined here is not by any stretch likely, as it hinges on a very specific set of circumstances. But the risks are growing. Pakistan is becoming increasingly unstable; it continues to struggle with armed militancy, and there are indications that elements of its military are in danger of radicalization. If the current government were to fall, civilian control of the nuclear chain of command would most likely be compromised. Meanwhile, spurred on by India’s continued pursuit of its controversial Cold Start limited conventional war doctrine, Pakistan has increasingly turned to developing tactical nuclear weapons geared towards limited counterforce strikes to blunt an Indian invasion. Short-range, low-yield nuclear-capable weapons like the Hatf series of theater ballistic missiles and the Babur cruise missile require forward deployment away from population centers, leaving them more vulnerable to attack.

Efforts should be made to tighten up command, control, and communications, and reassert positive civilian control over nuclear assets. PALs or an equivalent system should be installed on all weapons, tactical and strategic, to ensure that ultimate firing authority remains at the highest levels of government. The New Delhi-Islamabad nuclear hotline established in 2004 should be maintained and continually upgraded, in order to facilitate real-time information sharing between national command authorities. Many of the confidence-building measures recommended in the 2011 Ottawa Dialogue are applicable here, in particular reaffirming the commitment to keep warheads de-mated, and strengthening the agreement prohibiting attacks on nuclear facilities.

The Y-12 incident and the Minhas attack were a wake up call to the world, a sign to take a long hard look at physical security in the twenty-first century. In the days following Minhas, Pakistan has stepped up protection of its nuclear facilities. But this year’s tests of the nuclear-capable Hatf 7 cruise missile and the Hatf 9 short-range ballistic missile, as well as India’s continued refusal to renounce Cold Start, mean the risk factors for an unintended nuclear exchange remain unacceptably high. India and Pakistan, nuclear neighbors with a history of miscommunication, would do well to consider that diversion may not be the only threat to South Asian nuclear security, and that the spark for a future conflagration may well come from one of their own arsenals.

Phil Lai is an undergraduate at Brown University and a Davis Fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

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