Nuclear Weapons Still Shape India-Pakistan Relations

Nuclear weapons have prevented war, but their safety cannot be taken for granted.

Fourteen years ago this May, India and Pakistan overtly conducted nuclear tests and declared themselves nuclear powers.

India conducted its first test in 1974 and termed it a “peaceful nuclear explosion” while by the late 1980s, Pakistan had acquired the technological capacity to produce a bomb as well. Although many opposed and still oppose the tests due to various reasons and on many grounds, at least the two countries let the world and each other know that they had the bomb.

Nuclear weapons played the role of deterrent and helped in the deescalation of tensions which could otherwise have resulted in war.

For the first time in a war against Pakistan, in 1999 at Kargil, the Indian army did not cross the Line of Control. Even after the attack on the Indian parliament in 2002 and the Mumbai massacre that was carried out by militants based in Pakistan, war was averted. The regular exchange of fire along the Indo-Pakistani border has not resulted in an escalation of hostilities.

As it is, India and Pakistan are nuclear powers and this cannot be reversed or changed despite anti-nuclear protests and a global push for denuclearization. Hence, it’s better to adapt to the situation.

The two countries have taken many measures to prevent accidental use of their atomic weapons. Chief among them is that India and Pakistan since 1988 are regularly exchanging information about their weapons. They also inform the other side before carrying out military exercises near the border areas or testing their missiles.

The real challenge is to prevent nuclear weapons from falling into the hands of terrorists. Whereas states behave in a rational and responsible way, this cannot be expected from nonstate actors.

The weapons in both countries are kept in disassembled form and physically apart. They have each set up commanding hierarchies to take decisions about its assemblage and use. Any effort to steal or capture even a single part cannot go unnoticed by the security agencies nor the political leadership. To take possession of a nuclear weapon, a terrorist group would help from the inside, as Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, had.

The presence of Taliban and other Islamic extremists in Pakistan complicates the challenge of securing the nation’s nuclear weapons. To check this, the credentials of defense staff and scientists responsible for providing security and maintenance of nuclear technologies must be properly scanned.

The bomb has acted as deterrence but that does not mean it will always be that way. High escalation of bilateral tension may become a reason to trigger nuclear war. Hence, as responsible nuclear powers, India and Pakistan must continue to build confidence between them, if only to avert the accidental use of a nuclear weapon.