The possibility of a nuclear flashpoint between India and Pakistan appears in virtually every discussion on international relations in the Indian subcontinent. In recent times, the thunder has been stolen by Pakistan’s claim that it has developed tactical nukes to counter India’s conventional force advantage. This has in turn triggered discussions on whether the current Indian nuclear doctrine is credible enough to deter Pakistan.
While we try to figure out responses to the nuclear challenge, it would make sense to look at the current levels of India and Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities. The compilation by Hans Kristensen and Robert Norris of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is of great help in this regard. This article visualises and explains the data presented in their articles Pakistani nuclear forces, 2015 and Indian nuclear forces, 2015.
The first data point is the amount of fissionable material available with both countries.
Figure 1: Stockpile of fissionable materials with India and Pakistan
While Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme relies largely on highly enriched uranium, India’s nuclear arsenal depends on weapons grade plutonium. This difference in approach is because India opted for a three-stage nuclear fuel cycle, which produces plutonium-239, otherwise naturally absent, as one of the outputs.
Though the aggregate fissionable material available with Pakistan looks much larger than that of India, the difference in the number of nuclear weapons is not necessarily proportional, as Figure 2 shows.
Figure 2: Number of nuclear weapons with India and Pakistan
The current nuclear weapon stockpiles closely match each other. This is because considerably less plutonium in comparison to uranium, is required to make a simple fission weapon.
Moreover, as Kristensen and Norris remind us, “how much plutonium or uranium is needed for a nuclear warhead depends on many variables, but three are particularly important: warhead design, desired yield, and the technical capabilities of the scientists and engineers.”
Compare these numbers with the number of nuclear weapons that US and Russia have — 7100 and 7700 respectively. This comparison immediately clarifies why the word Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) does not apply to the India—Pakistan conflict. Rather, the deterrence relationship is better explained by the metaphor Mutually Unacceptable Damage (MUD).
What is the nature of the nuclear weapons of both states?
Capability and intent are two factors that determine the level of deterrence. Capability is further determined by factor such as nature of nuclear warhead delivery systems and the geographical reach of nuclear delivery systems. How do India and Pakistan compare on these fronts?
Gravity bombs delivered by air squadrons constitute a large chunk of nuclear weapons delivery systems of both states. Though this method of delivery gives the two states a range of up to 2000 kilometres, the effectiveness is dampened by the fact that ground forces of the adversary can easily target such aircrafts.
Land based ballistic missiles are the most preferred delivery system by both states. Pakistan has also nuclear tipped cruise missiles while India’s BrahMos cruise missiles do not have any reported nuclear capabilities. Cruise Missiles suffer from shorter ranges and smaller payloads when compared to their ballistic counterparts. India is also in the process of developing sea based ballistic missile systems.
Another factor for assessing the capability of nuclear deterrence is the range of nuclear weapons. Figure 4 shows the classification of nuclear delivery systems according to their ranges.
Pakistan having an India focused nuclear deterrence, has not invested in systems with a range greater than 3000km. At the same time, it has invested in short-range, small-yield weapons, which it prefers to market as ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons.
India on the other hand has a nuclear deterrence that focuses on both Pakistan and China. Hence, India has invested on delivery systems with ranges higher than 3000km.
In summary, the nuclear capabilities of both states have not reached maturity. They are still evolving, though in different directions. India’s perspective has been that any nuclear exchange will result in horrendous consequences to both countries, and the eventuality that Pakistan may suffer much more damage than India will, is no consolation. Considering that any such nuclear exchange will be a big dent in India’s larger growth narrative, it has been India’s approach to keep pushing its nuclear threshold higher.
On the other hand, Pakistan is attempting to push its nuclear threshold down through the threat of employing low-yield nuclear weapons.
Figure 4: Delivery systems classified by rangess
Photo: “Flags of India and Pakistan” by Tore Urnes