The Nukes of Challakere

While Western powers have been focused on the menace of Iran developing nuclear weapons and a subsequent nuclear arms race in the Middle East, the danger of nuclear proliferation in yet another region of the world has been largely obscured.

India and Pakistan are now engaged in a race to obtain not just nuclear weapons, but thermonuclear weapons. That is, hydrogen bombs, with far more destructive force — hundreds of times more — than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

The two countries have had atomic weapons for many years, but it has come to light that they are currently investing heavily in clandestine projects to upgrade their weapons of mass destruction. In a scenario that has become all too familiar, each one seeks to ensure that its rival across the border does not attain nuclear superiority and that its own deterrent capability is maintained.

Just this week, a report coming out of India tells of an entire city being built in high secrecy in Challakere, about 1,500 miles south of New Delhi. Although details are closely guarded, former senior Indian officials and experts in Washington and London say that the massive project will not be dedicated for civilian purposes exclusively. Besides research and development for fuel for India’s nuclear reactors and to help power the country’s fleet of new submarines, uranium for thermonuclear weapons is also on the agenda.

The reason given for such a program is, as usual, defensive. India, as always, is worried about Pakistan, which it believes is also expanding its nuclear arsenal to include hydrogen bombs. Such worries are understandable, given credible reports about Pakistan’s nuclear activities and the fact that the two countries have been perennial enemies. War between the two is an ever-present concern. They have already fought four major wars and engaged in numerous border skirmishes.

However, the formula for catastrophe is more complicated than the two-state rivalry makes it appear. There is a third player involved — namely, China. In fact, the ratcheting up of India’s nuclear program may be more in response to the threat from China than from Pakistan.

Gen. Balraj Singh Nagal, who from 2008 to 2010 ran India’s Strategic Forces Command within its Nuclear Command Authority, confirmed this:

“It’s not Pakistan we are looking at most of the time, like most in the West presume,” Nagal said. “Beijing has long managed a thermonuclear program, and so this is one of many options India should push forward with, as well as reconsidering our nuclear defense posture, which is outdated and ineffective. We have to follow the technological curve. And where China took it, several decades before us, with the hydrogen bomb, India has to follow.”

Gary Samore, the White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction 2009–2013, concurs: “I believe that India intends to build thermonuclear weapons as part of its strategic deterrent against China,” said Samore. How soon that will be done remains a question, he said, but “they will.”

To be sure, neither India nor Pakistan can be compared to Iran, a rogue state, notorious sponsor of terrorism, and avowed enemy of the U.S. and Israel. The focus on Iran over India and Pakistan has been entirely justified.

But the growing potential for out-of-control nuclear conflict in the India-Pakistan-China theater demands the urgent attention of the international community.

There is no doubt that they have the capacity to bring down upon one another horrific destruction. An estimate released by the independent Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) gives us an idea of the scale of the arsenals: India possesses between 90 and 110 nuclear weapons, Pakistan’s estimated stockpile is up to 120. China is thought to have approximately 260 warheads.

The concept of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) — that a nuclear strike by either the U.S. or the Soviet Union would have triggered devastating retaliation by the other — has been credited for the great caution with which leaders of the two superpowers approached the possibilities of conflict. Knowledge that a serious miscalculation could cause the certain deaths of tens of millions of innocent people usually kept both nations from the brink.

But that was a miracle. Aside from the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, there were various other close calls and false alarms that could easily have led to nuclear war.

We thank Hashem that the Cold War ended without such a catastrophe, but we cannot rely on such miracles for the making of policy.

The U.S., which in 2007 signed an agreement to lift the embargo on the import of nuclear fuel to India and to expand cooperation in such matters, did so on the premise that as then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice& told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the balance of power in the region was such that it would not trigger an arms race.

On Monday, it was reported that India’s prime minister will be in Moscow in a few days to finalize major deals for, among other things, the construction of Russian nuclear reactors on Indian soil.

What will come of all this unbridled nuclear weaponization cannot be predicted, but what is clear is that the Indians and Pakistanis have not been building such weapons by themselves. Those who helped them to enter this frightful situation bear the responsibility for helping them find a way out. All the parties involved — India, Pakistan, China, the U.S. and Russia — must sit down and begin talking seriously about how to bring it under control.