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World: Delivering A Nuclear Bomb Requires Technology

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Prague, 4 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- India and Pakistan, by carrying out their recent series of atomic tests, have demonstrated their nuclear potential to each other and to an alarmed world.

But exploding basic devices at underground test centers is one thing. Having the capability to deliver that same blast to a distant target represents still another level of expertise.

Neither India or Pakistan have so far completely mastered that skill, as far as is known. But the sad logic of an arms race means that both countries will now be striving for that capability. If there is going to be a balance of terror on the Indian sub-continent, neither side can afford to have the scale dipping against them.

There are two basic aspects to the delivery issue. One is that the missiles themselves must have sufficient range and reliability. The other, and technically more complicated aspect, is that the atomic bombs must be miniaturized into warheads capable of fitting the missiles.

British missile technology expert Paul Beaver (of Jane's defense publications company) told RFE/RL from Paris that the advantage in missile production capabilities lies with India, not Pakistan.

The major problem which Pakistan has is that it does not possess an integrated aerospace industry like India does. India will have no problem at all in manufacturing whatever it wishes, as it has a highly competent aerospace industry, coupled with good metallurgical skills, good materials handling capability, and good electronics integration. Pakistan, on the other hand, would probably have to work in concert with Iran, China and North Korea to get its technology right, for example in fuel handling and combustion techniques.

A senior Pakistani scientist claimed this week that his country has developed a new medium-range missile called the Shaheen 1, which he said is capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. However this claim has been greeted with skepticism by Western analysts. It's certain though that Pakistan carried out tests in April of its Ghauri mid-range missile. Beaver describes the Ghauri as basically a copy of the North Korean Nho Dong missile.

For its part India is developing the Agni mid-range missile, which is thought to be capable of hitting any Pakistani city. Beaver says that like the Ghauri, the Agni will probably be able to launch from a mobile gantry. As mobile launchers are easily concealed, they make very elusive targets, thus give a country good counter-strike capability. Beaver notes that during the Gulf war, the allies found that the Iraqi mobile launchers were almost impossible to locate and destroy.

Beyond the missiles, the real difficulty facing both sides is to miniaturize the nuclear payloads.

It's all very well to have nuclear devices, to make nuclear bombs. The main concern you have in these operations is to try to miniaturize and make stable the weapons systems which must fit into a very small space in a ballistic missile and will take the pressure of 35 to 60 times the weight of gravity on launch: you must be able to make the triggers and other areas work.

Beaver concurs with other analysts in saying that he thinks both sides will be capable of this miniaturization within two years, and that therefore by about the turn of the century both India and Pakistan will be fully-fledged members of the nuclear club.

One extra concern about the growing nuclear skills of Pakistan is the close proximity of Iran - a country which the United States suspects is seeking to develop its own weapons of mass destruction. Beaver says there are indications of a strong interchange of knowledge between Iran and Pakistan.

There is a memorandum of understanding between the two governments on missile work: it is known that a number of Pakistani technicians have been working in Iran's main missile program office, which is located in the south-western suburbs of Teheran. It is also known that Iranian experts have been holding talks with Pakistani officials In Rawalpindi and Islamabad, so there is a close relationship. The Pakistani test sites are close to the Iranian border, so it is easy for the Iranians to monitor what is going on.

There's little hope that Indian and Pakistan will refrain from a nuclear arms race in the months and years to come.