While most nuclear weapons states around the world have reduced their nuclear weapons stockpiles in recent years, Pakistan has been rapidly expanding its nuclear arsenal. Current estimates place the country’s stockpile at 100-120 nuclear warheads, up from 70-90 in 2010. If this trend continues, the country will have a larger nuclear weapons stockpile than the United Kingdom, which has approximately 225 warheads, by 2021.
Of particular concern is the country’s build up of its short-range tactical nuclear missiles; a response to Indian conventional superiority. Due to their design and deployment, these tactical nuclear weapons could potentially aggravate an already dangerous decade-long standoff between Pakistan and India.
Firstly, tactical nuclear weapons are less destructive than strategic nuclear weapons such as intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) and, almost exclusively target an enemy’s conventional forces. Because of their lower-yield and designated deployment, they may be launched in the belief that they constitute a more legitimate use of force than more destructive higher-yield weapons. This risk is especially high if ground commanders believe the weapon will stop an enemy’s conventional advances. However, the conflict could easily escalate as states respond to the use of tactical weapons with strategic weapons.
Secondly, because tactical nuclear weapons are deployed on the battlefield, the risk of an inadvertent launch due to misperception and/or miscommunication is relatively high. A battlefield commander in charge of a tactical missile unit could receive wrong information or misjudge the overall situation, which could easily lead to a nuclear launch. Considering these weapons would be deployed along the already fragile militarized Pakistan-India border, the danger of misperception in the Pakistani context is particularly real.
These inherent risks of tactical weapons have the potential to further destabilize an already unstable region. Relations between Pakistan and India worsened considerably following the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks by Pakistani militants and little progress has been made in repairing the rift. Instead, both countries have developed new strategies and weapon systems primarily designed for a military conflict with the other side.
The Obama administration most likely realizes the dangers of Pakistan’s buildup; however it has remained largely silent on the issue. Following a recent meeting between President Obama and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif three weeks ago, both sides issued a joint statement outlining their agreement on an array of issues. Aside from a relatively vague section on Pakistani nuclear security, nothing was mentioned about Pakistan’s nuclear arms growth or the wider military situation in South Asia.
This silence is primarily due to concerns about the larger US-Pakistan strategic relationship. The administration is aware of the national prestige associated with Pakistan’s nuclear weapons along with the pervasive belief within wider Pakistani society that the US wishes to acquire and destroy Islamabad’s nuclear arsenal. Weary of this, and weary of its problematic relationship with Pakistan since the assassination of Osama Bin Laden in 2011, the administration has avoided the issue in an attempt to keep Pakistani support for more immediate U.S. strategic interests. Chief among these are Afghanistan and the wider war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
Going forward, it is unclear whether the US will maintain this ‘strategic silence’ policy towards Pakistan’s ongoing nuclear buildup. Next year, US forces are set to leave Afghanistan, which will entail a reduction in Pakistan’s strategic value to Washington. As the administration’s regional interest shifts from the immediate to the long-term, it may find it difficult to ignore Pakistan’s growing nuclear arsenal.
How exactly this problem will be tackled is a significant challenge if the US does indeed decide to take action. Issuing sanctions in a manner analogous to those issued against Iran is unlikely to be pursued. Previous US sanctions against Pakistan while it was developing a nuclear capability did not stop the country from developing a nuclear weapon. Instead, these sanctions damaged US-Pakistani relations and caused widespread resentment among its population.
A more likely policy would be one where the US attempts to bring Pakistan and India into formal talks with one another. The negotiating table would serve as a confidence building measure for both sides, while at the same time providing a forum in which a formal arrangement that dampens mutual concerns could be worked out. On the Pakistani side, this dampening could persuade it to limit its tactical nuclear buildup. At the same time, the US would play the role of mediator, thereby avoiding the potentially negative consequences of sanctions.
Whatever the policy response will be, it is clear that Pakistan’s build up demands some form of US action. The distressing implications of Pakistan’s policy will become too great for the current US silence to be maintained – or at least it should.