Despite ISIS, does the biggest threat to peace come from a nuclear-armed South Asia?
Imagine a Dr Strangelove plot with a modern Lashkar-e-Taiba twist. Terrorists attack India, prompting New Delhi to threaten Pakistan with war, which in turn encourages Islamabad to mate its nuclear warheads to missiles and make them visible in an offensive posture. And then the same terrorists pull off a heist, and steal the nuclear material.
This is one of the scenarios laid out by Gregory D Koblentz, co-author of Tracking Nuclear Proliferation and an assistant professor at George Mason University, who described South Asia as the world’s most dangerous region from a nuclear point of view.
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi and leaders of the world’s other nuclear powers – Russia aside – gather in Washington, DC for the Nuclear Security Summit, the fact remains that one of the biggest threats to the world comes from all the nuclear material floating around South Asia.
“South Asia is “most at risk of a breakdown in strategic stability due to an explosive mixture of unresolved territorial disputes, cross-border terrorism, and growing nuclear arsenal.”
— Gregory D Koblentz, Strategic Stability in the Second Nuclear Age
The Nuclear Threat Initiative, a watchdog organisation, published a Nuclear Security Index earlier this year in an attempt to evaluate the relative security of nuclear material. Predictably, India and Pakistan find themselves at the bottom of this index, with both occupying the 36th spot on a list of 44 countries that have nuclear materials.
The index features the following sentence to describe both India and Pakistan. “[Its] security conditions are adversely affected by its high levels of corruption among public officials and presence of groups interested in and capable of committing acts of nuclear terrorism.”
A paper of the Council for Foreign Relations, an American think-tank, from November 2015 sketches out the same concerns for the region.
“Despite repeated claims by Pakistan that its nuclear facilities are secure, fears persist that a regional terrorist attack will escalate violence, prompting nuclear exchange, or that Pakistani-based or affiliated militants will acquire nuclear weapons,” wrote Eleanor Albert. “Experts warn of intensified nuclear risks, especially in an age in which non-state actors can develop cybersecurity capabilities to exploit nuclear security.”
Pakistan’s situation is the most precarious, considering its past with nuclear proliferation as well. Koblentz lays out that potential Dr Strangelove scenario in his paper.
“One of the most worrisome risks introduced by Pakistan’s deployment of tactical nuclear weapons, especially acute during a crisis, is what Scott Sagan calls the ‘vulnerability-invulnerability paradox’: measures that allow a state’s nuclear forces to withstand a first strike, such as mating warheads to mobile missiles and dispersing them, also make them more vulnerable to theft or terrorist takeover.”
Indeed, the Nuclear Threat Initiative’s index also points out that India and Pakistan have been increasing their amount of nuclear material, contributing to an arms race that brings in a third player: China.
Although the development of nuclear weapons on either side of the Line of Control between India and Pakistan has acted as a deterrent, restraining the two countries from all-out conventional war, the addition of China adds an extra dimension of instability. With India hoping to live up to its sense of being an equal to the Chinese behemoth, it will increasingly seek to match its northern neighbour, an approach that will disturb the balance on the western border.
“What is credible toward China will likely not be minimum toward Pakistan; and what is minimum toward Pakistan cannot be credible toward China,” wrote Vipin Narang in the Washington Quarterly.
Not all of the concerns for Indians come from the neighbourhood. Some of it is homegrown. Specifically, the lack of an overarching nuclear regulator was one of the key issues noted in the Nuclear Threat Initiative’s index, acknowledging a bureaucratic oversight that few Indians would find unusual.
The broader community, while acknowledging India’s growing nuclear ambitions on the civil energy front, will expect to see movement from New Delhi on securing the material that it looks over at home.
“India has a long record of being a leader, of being responsible, and it is particularly important right now at a time when we see some choices being made in the region that may accelerate possible arms construction, which we have serious questions about,” said US Secretary of State John Kerry after meeting with Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval ahead of the summit. “India has a very important role to play with respect to responsible stewardship of nuclear weapons and nuclear materials.”
In a statement before heading to Washington, Modi said that he hoped the summit would see leaders working toward improving the global nuclear security architecture to ensure non-state actors don’t get access to material.
In the aftermath of the Brussels attack, much of the focus might remain on the Islamic State and the dangers of terrorism in the Western world. But when it comes to nuclear worries for New Delhi, the concerns remain much closer to home.