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South Asia: Investigating The Nuclear Arsenals And Policies Of India And Pakistan

  • Ron Synovitz

Russian President Vladimir Putin has compared the current tensions between nuclear-capable India and Pakistan to the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. As the dispute over the divided region of Kashmir continues, RFE/RL examines the nuclear policies of India and Pakistan, as well as conflicting estimates made by experts about the nuclear arsenals of each country.

Prague, 5 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The gravity of tensions between India and Pakistan over the disputed region of Kashmir was put into historical context by Russian President Vladimir Putin on 4 June after he failed to bring the leaders of the two countries together for face-to-face talks at a security summit in Kazakhstan.

Putin compared the potential for nuclear war between India and Pakistan to the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, a standoff that brought the United States and the Soviet Union to the very brink of a nuclear war that eventually was defused through diplomacy.

"When U.S. President [George W.] Bush and I talked about the India-Pakistan conflict, we couldn't help recalling the Caribbean crisis [Cuban Missile Crisis] between the U.S.S.R. and the U.S.A., when the entire world was on the edge of a disaster. The presidents of the two countries took enough responsibility [on themselves] to find a way out of that dangerous confrontation," Putin said.

As with the Cuban crisis, Putin said world leaders will have to work hard to avert a nuclear tragedy. And Putin is not the only one making comparisons to Cuba. Last week, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute warned that the Kashmir conflict poses the worst nuclear threat in the world since the Cuban Missile Crisis.

In the earliest days of the Cuban crisis, U.S. intelligence services did not provide any direct information about the Soviet introduction of offensive ballistic missiles into Cuba. That information became available to then-U.S. President John F. Kennedy in October 1962 when an American U-2 spy plane photographed newly constructed missile sites on the island.

Similarly, while it is known that both India and Pakistan have nuclear warheads and missiles that can deliver them, there is disagreement among military experts about the exact size of the nuclear arsenals on the Asian subcontinent.

A U.S. official at the Pentagon said last week that Pakistan is thought to have "several dozen" nuclear warheads while India has "a couple dozen." The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, refused to be more specific.

A report published last week by Jane's Strategic Weapons Systems estimates that India now has from 50 to 150 nuclear warheads while Pakistan has 25 to 50 nuclear warheads.

"Jane's Strategic Weapons Systems" is a technical report put out by the London-based Jane's Information Group, the same group that publishes "Jane's Defense Weekly."

But that estimate is being questioned by other Western defense experts. Ian Kemp, the news editor for "Jane's Defense Weekly," told RFE/RL today that many experts think the estimate of 50 to 150 Indian nuclear warheads is too high. "I have to be honest. Most people don't give any credence to anything like 150 [Indian warheads]. Most estimates tend to be 20 to 50 for each side," Kemp said.

Although both sides have said they don't want a nuclear war, there are growing fears that a conventional war in Kashmir could escalate.

Intelligence leaked last week from a classified U.S. Defense Department report predicts that as many as 12 million people would be killed and some 6 million injured if both India and Pakistan use all of their nuclear weapons against each other.

And calculations announced last month by nuclear researchers at Princeton University say that a "limited" war with 10 nuclear explosions in the major cities of each country would kill more than 3 million people in the immediate blasts and from radiation.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said in an interview published today that as many as 20 million could die in a nuclear war between India and Pakistan. His estimate was based on a calculation of more than 12 million immediate deaths and more than 7 million deaths from radiation.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said it is those grave scenarios that have led Washington to launch what he called a "full-court diplomatic press" -- an all-out diplomatic initiative -- aimed at preventing the Kashmir conflict from escalating to a nuclear war. Speaking on 3 June at an antiterrorism conference in Barbados, Powell said there has been some progress as a result of diplomatic efforts. But his remarks also included a warning to India and Pakistan.

"I'm pleased that both sides in the last several days have once again discussed the non-use of nuclear weapons, that both sides realize this is a threshold we do not wish to see crossed. It would be absolutely horrible in the year 2002 for any nation to use nuclear weapons in a situation such as this," Powell said.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld -- who is due to meet with both the Pakistani and Indian leadership during a visit to the Asian subcontinent next week -- said today in London that the situation remains tense. "War being what it can be, it can be unpredictable. And therefore I think it is important that we all recognize that they recognize and may very well be looking for ways to tap things down rather than see things escalate," Rumsfeld said.

But British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon said today that the international community does not have any formula to de-escalate the tensions. "There is not a formula, because there cannot be a formula in what is a rapidly changing situation. What we do have are arguments that we can put to both sides to prevent that first step from which we are concerned there can be a very significant escalation," Hoon said.

Analysts are questioning whether yesterday's Asian security conference in Almaty resulted in an escalation of tensions rather than an easing of the situation. Heavy-artillery exchanges are continuing on both sides of the Line of Control in Kashmir. The cross-border shooting today also involved armored units from both sides for the first time.

Both Vajpayee and Musharraf have launched a fresh round of accusations against each other over Kashmir and the military standoff along their common borders, where some 1 million troops are now deployed.

When asked by reporters in Almaty yesterday to describe Islamabad's nuclear policies, Musharraf initially hesitated to comment. "I do not even want to discuss the use of nuclear weapons because this is a rather irresponsible thought even. But let me say that Pakistan's stand is much deeper than this issue: We are for denuclearizing South Asia altogether. We are for signing a no-war pact. We are for a reduction of forces," Musharraf said.

However, the journalists in Almaty continued to ask Musharraf why Pakistan will not renounce the strategy of being the first to use nuclear weapons. Musharraf responded by saying, "The possession of nuclear weapons by any state obviously implies they will be used under some circumstances."

An interview with Pakistan's General Jehangir Karamat published today in the Italian newspaper "La Stampa" provides more insight into Pakistan's refusal to rule out a first-strike nuclear policy.

Karamat explained that the Indian Army and Air Force outnumber Pakistani forces by five to one. He told the Italian newspaper that "in an emergency, it is our survival that could be placed in jeopardy."

For its part, the Indian government has repeatedly said it would not use nuclear weapons first in any conflict. But Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes warned this weekend that New Delhi would retaliate against any country that launches a nuclear attack against India. "India's nuclear-weapons capability is meant only for self-defense and seeks to ensure that India's independence and integrity are not threatened by any misconceived plan of nuclear aggression. India will not get drawn into a nuclear-arms race," Fernandes said.

In fact, Vajpayee first renounced the idea of a first-strike nuclear policy in May 1998 after India conducted five nuclear tests and declared itself a nuclear-armed state. Pakistan responded by conducting its own nuclear tests.

Less than a year later, the governments of India and Pakistan met in Lahore and signed a declaration promising to notify each other about missile tests in order to prevent an accidental nuclear war.

Within months, India successfully tested a missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead deep inside Pakistan. Pakistan responded by testing a similar missile of its own.

India's latest missile tests were in January. Pakistan conducted a series of short-range and medium-range missile tests last month.

Duncan Lennox, the editor of "Jane's Strategic Weapons Systems" who estimates India now has as many as 150 nuclear warheads, said he does not think Islamabad will use its short-range missiles against targets in India and Indian-administered Kashmir because a large amount of radioactive fallout would likely spread back into Pakistan.

That's a view Pentagon officials agree with. The classified U.S. Defense Department report that was leaked last month says Pakistan would probably deliver its nuclear weapons aboard F-16 aircraft or on medium-range ballistic missiles. It says India would likely use Russian-built MiG-27 aircraft, French-made Mirage 2000 combat jets, or medium-range missiles to deliver nuclear warheads to Pakistan.