The Risks of Further Nuclear Testing in South Asia

By Walker, William | Arms Control Today, September/October 1999 | Go to article overview

The Risks of Further Nuclear Testing in South Asia


Walker, William, Arms Control Today


There is a puzzle about India's and Pakistan's policies on nuclear explosive testing. If the Indian and Pakistani governments are determined to establish convincing nuclear deterrents, and if India wishes to develop the triad of nuclear forces proposed in the recently published draft nuclear doctrine, why do they appear content to limit themselves to five or six tests apiece from which rather little of military value may have been gained? Why were the May 1998 tests followed by expressions on both sides of willingness to join the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), and by the Indian and Pakistani governments' joint commitment to moratoria on testing in the Lahore Declaration of February 1999?1 Why was their reaction to the U.S. Senate's rejection of the CTBT so muted?

The historical experiences of other states that have constructed nuclear deterrents, together with India's and Pakistan's commitment to deploying nuclear weapons, suggest that the international community should be wary of placing its trust in the existing moratoria and should be alive to the pressures that may build in India and Pakistan for a return to testing. Furthermore, the U.S. Senate's recent rejection of the test ban could provide a convenient rationale for India and Pakistan to resume testing.

However, the Senate's action, when combined with the recent elections in India and the military coup in Pakistan, can also be seen as having eased the pressures to resume testing. Paradoxically, this unexpected confluence of events may have actually made the return to testing in Pakistan and India less likely than it was before-at least in the short term. India's and Pakistan's current interests may encourage them to retreat from their aggressive postures. But this situation is, most likely, only temporary@ These events have brought an opportunity to bind India and Pakistan more tightly to the no-testing norm, and that opportunity needs to be seized, above all by the Indian and Pakistani governments, and seized soon.

Why Limit Testing?

During the Cold War, the importance of assessing new warhead designs through explosive testing was constantly emphasized by the scientists and engineers responsible for the U.S., British, French and Soviet weapons programs. Although performing tests was clearly in their professional self-interest, the scientists' claim was based on the reasonable contention that the performance of warhead designs could not be predicted with sufficient confidence if they were not test exploded. This applied especially to thermonuclear designs and to warheads that were being miniaturized for delivery by missiles. Without substantial numbers of tests, it was argued, armed forces would not trust the weapons. Equally important, an adversary might be prepared to gamble on a high rate of failure in a nuclear war.

Yet here we have two states embarking on ambitious programs of nuclear deterrence with the evidence gained from just five or six explosive tests, some or all of which may have been less successful than hoped. Furthermore, the Indian devices are claimed to have included thermonuclear and boosted fission designs, indicating that the Indians, if not the Pakistanis, have extensive technological ambitions.2 Concerns about those ambitions have been reinforced by the August publication of the National Security Advisory Board's Draft Report on Indian Nuclear Doctrine (hereinafter the Draft Report). It recommends that India's nuclear forces should be based on a "triad of aircraft, mobile land-based and sea-based assets." The report's appearance has been accompanied by statements elaborating on plans to deploy long-range missiles and build a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines.

Soon after the tests, the Indian and Pakistani governments announced their moratoria on further testing. Why should India and Pakistan, unlike other states that have developed military strategies founded on nuclear deterrence (Israel being the one exception), appear prepared to forego the knowledge that would be gained from conducting further series of explosive tests? …

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