WASHINGTON, D.C. --- Two South Asian nations, Pakistan and India, have had a sometimes tense relationship since they were created nearly 60 years ago. Now both countries are nuclear capable, raising the stakes to a far deadlier level.
In 1998, Pakistan joined the small group of nuclear-capable states, 24 years after its neighbor, India, exploded its first nuclear device. Now both countries are watching each other warily as each works to expand its atomic arsenal.
Both countries have been secretive about their nuclear weapons stockpiles. But the Federation of American Scientists estimates that India has 30-to-35 nuclear bombs and warheads, while Pakistan has between 24 and 48 made from enriched uranium and perhaps three-to-five more powerful plutonium-based weapons.
Pakistan's strategic nuclear program was recently spotlighted in a report by researcher David Albright at the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security. He says his study of satellite photos of Pakistan's Khushab nuclear facility now under construction indicates that it could become a major source of material for nuclear weapons.
"The analysis came to the conclusion that Pakistan was building a [nuclear] reactor [containment] vessel, the basic structure that defines its size, and that it's quite a large reactor to hold nuclear fuel," says Albright. "And therefore, if they do that, then their [reactor] power is going to be quite substantial."
Albright contends that the Khushab facility could produce more than 200 kilograms of plutonium each year, enough for Pakistan to build at least 40 nuclear weapons.
Immediately after Albright released his analysis, others discounted it. U.S. National Security Council official Frederick Jones says the U.S. government thinks the Khushab reactor will be smaller and less capable than Albright contends.
But nuclear weapons analyst Paul Leventhal, at the independent Nuclear Control Institute in Washington, agrees with Albright's contention that the Khushab facility could be used for military purposes.
"David Albright's information, while it was off by a substantial margin in terms of the size of the reactor, did nonetheless reveal that there is a new plutonium production reactor that Pakistan is working on to significantly increase Pakistan's ability to produce plutonium for weapons," says Albright.
Relations with India
Pakistan's tensions with neighboring India go back nearly 60 years, and the two nations have spent considerable resources maintaining robust military forces to deter each other. And that, according to Corey Hinderstein at the Nuclear Threat Initiative monitoring group in Washington, is what motivates Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's quest for a larger atomic arsenal.
"The Pakistanis have been behind India in their strategic arsenal of nuclear weapons. And they've been trying to catch up. Part of that is to achieve some sort of strategic [weapons] parity. But also, there are domestic and regional audiences, and the Pakistanis need to show their own population that they're not falling behind India," says Hinderstein.
If a nation's nuclear weapons are to serve as a deterrent against an attack, there has to be a way to make good on the threat to use them. India has weapons-capable aircraft and several types of ballistic missiles, including one that can carry a one-thousand kilogram payload some 2,500 kilometers.
But Michael Levi, with the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, says that in contrast, Pakistan's nuclear weapons delivery systems are more limited.
"Pakistan is certainly capable of attempting to deliver a nuclear weapon by aircraft. As far as missile delivery goes, it's unclear what their capabilities are, but they are probably not able to have a significant missile delivery," says Levi. "It probably has the capability to deliver something by truck, though that's a bit trickier to do."
Analyst Levi adds that part of Pakistan's nuclear war strategy might be to detonate atomic weapons on its own soil to slow or halt an advance by India's army.
The United States has forged a cooperation pact with India that would assist New Delhi in building nuclear power plants. But India's military nuclear program is not covered by the agreement, enabling it to avoid international scrutiny. Pakistan has expressed strong concerns about the U.S.-India agreement.
Command and Control
Islamabad's quest to build a bigger nuclear arsenal has raised the issue of Pakistan maintaining control of not only its weapons, but also the technology used to build them. Central to that concern are the activities of Abdul Qadeer Khan, often called the "father" of Pakistan's atomic bomb, who has shared nuclear information with North Korea, Libya and Iran.
Corey Hinderstein at the Nuclear Threat Initiative says the United States needs to make nuclear safeguards a top priority in its relations with Pakistan.
"Pakistan has been reluctant to turn over all of the information about the A.Q. Khan network. [For this and other reasons], proliferation is the biggest threat we face. When it comes to Pakistan, it has never been the first item on the agenda [between Washington and Islamabad]," says Hinderstein. "And unless it is, we [i.e., the United States] are not going to be able to exert influence on [Pakistani President Pervez] Musharraf, or on any Pakistani regime, to take seriously the risk of leakage or theft of their nuclear materials."
Hinderstein and other analysts also voice concern that the military, which protects Pakistan's atomic arsenal, could be weakened from within its own ranks by members aligned with extremist groups. Many analysts say that President Musharraf could also be driven from office in a coup, opening the possibility of a radical Islamist government which might use Pakistan's nuclear weapons to threaten or blackmail others. And that, they say, could make the country a source of global nuclear terrorism.