I’ve heard back from colleagues in Pakistan who object to my analysis. One basis for complaint is that I lack sensitivity by comparing Pakistan to a hare. I did not mean to offend; my purpose in writing was to shed light on how hard Pakistan is competing. My op-ed suggested the not-so-novel recommendation of greatly expanded cross-border trade with India to help defuse this competition.
The second basis for complaint is that I have mischaracterized India as a tortoise. The message I’ve heard – not for the first time — is that India is forcing the pace in both nuclear and conventional capabilities, compelling Pakistan to run this race.
We lack a forum in which a rising generation of strategic analysts on the subcontinent can discuss this and other security issues. The Stimson Center is working to set up a website for this purpose. Since the website is still a work in progress, I’m posting below a well-informed critique of my op-ed by Mansoor in hopes of prompting further discussion.
Since overt nuclearization in 1998, South Asia has been embroiled in a clearly palpable arms race wherein the declaratory “minimum” credible deterrent postures are in name only. Pakistan might appear to be the hare in a regional competition steeped in enduring rivalry, but India is no tortoise, as is shown by developments on the ground.
Pakistan’s characterization as the hare stems from a widely held view that it has the fastest growing nuclear arsenal based on a supposedly exponential increase in existing fissile material [plutonium] capabilities. These assessments have further led to claims that the country possesses more warheads compared to India.
Firstly, how can it be ascertained with a degree of reliability that Pakistan has x and India y number of warheads, or how much of their respective fissile stockpiles has been converted to weapons? The exact fissile material inventories of both countries are primarily based on guestimates of the respective efficiency of production facilities and any additions to them.
Pakistan is seen as the hare largely due to the expansion in plutonium production capabilities at the Khushab Nuclear Complex and the recent commissioning of the Chashma reprocessing plant. There are several estimates as to the net effect of this growth on Pakistan’s ability to produce more plutonium (which has become an operational necessity now). Each 50 MWt Khushab reactor produces between 9 and 12 kg/yr of weapon-grade plutonium, operating at 70% capacity. The fourth reactor is rumored to have a thermal capacity of 50-100 MWt. So cumulatively, Pakistan will be able to produce about 45-50 kg/yr weapon-grade plutonium with all the four Khushab reactors combined. Currently, Pakistan’s plutonium stockpile, primarily from Khushab-1, is estimated to be only around 150 kg compared to India’s 700-1000 kg. So it would take ten years for Pakistan to make it to 450 kg.
There is no evidence to suggest that Pakistan has conducted a qualitative (gas-centrifuge design) or quantitative expansion of its gas-centrifuge program with the production and installation of the Kahuta plant. If that were so, it would have witnessed a horizontal expansion, which could not be hidden, akin to India’s Rare Materials Plant. Installation of new generation gas-centrifuges would also require a corresponding expansion of the Chemical Plants Complex, D.G. Khan, which is the center for uranium processing and conversion and produces uranium hexafluoride gas (UF6)—the feedstock for the centrifuges—and uranium oxide and metal for fabricating natural uranium fuel for the Khushab reactors. Given the anticipated natural uranium restraints, any expansion at CPC would be geared towards supplying additional feedstock for the natural uranium metal fuel required for the production reactors at Khushab. These natural uranium constraints would limit Pakistan’s ability to expand its UF6 production facilities for feeding a more ambitious uranium enrichment program while continuing to produce sufficient fuel for the Khushab Complex, which has seen an expansion from one to three production reactors in the past decade.
If India is the tortoise, it is surely one that is outpacing the hare when it is already far ahead in the race. It is working on a 100-125 MWt Dhruva-II production reactor; has commissioned its fourth 100 ton/yr commercial-scale Power Reactor Fuel Reprocessing Plant-2 or PREFRE-2/Tarapur-2 in January 2011. The other three reprocessing plants, 50-ton/yr Trombay, 100-ton/yr Tarapur-1, and another 100-ton/yr at Kalpakkam KARP. All three plants are un-safeguarded with the Trombay facility dedicated to separating plutonium obtained from production reactors and the rest from power reactors, although they too have a potentially dual function. Moreover, India is known to be working on another large reprocessing plant at Kalpakkam with plans for additional facilities in the next decade with a 500 ton-yr reprocessing capacity. So long as these plants remain outside safeguards, claims that they would be used to separate plutonium earmarked as start-up fuel for India’s breeder reactors would force Pakistan to factor in all unsafeguarded capacity as a potential source of fissile material production.
India is also doubling its uranium enrichment program for making HEU for submarines and possibly weapons and plans to develop another “Special Material Enrichment Facility,” in Chitradurga district in Karnataka. This would also be kept outside safeguards thus keeping it open for producing weapon-grade HEU. Its Rare Materials Plant is also undergoing rapid expansion with the planned addition of another 3000 gas-centrifuges.
On the other hand, in the current decade, Pakistan is estimated to have a combined capacity of 150-200 MWt with all the four production reactors at Khushab; a 80-100 ton/yr reprocessing capacity from both New Labs and Chashma; while India will have 100-225 MWt production reactor capacity from Dhruva 1 and 2; more than 350 ton/yr reprocessing capacity from its existing and planned un-safeguarded reprocessing plants; and its 500 MWe capacity unsafeguarded breeder reactor is expected to be completed in the near future. With eight heavy water power reactors kept outside safeguards, India retains the capacity to produce 1250 kg of weapon-grade plutonium annually and 140 kg of the same from its breeder reactor (with four more in the pipeline).
Pakistan has zero stocks of un-safeguarded reactor-grade plutonium; India has 5-10 tons of it which is weapon usable and India claims to have carried out at least one nuclear test in 1998 that used this material. At present, Pakistan is compensating for its growing conventional inferiority with increasing its reliance on nuclear weapons and is diversifying its delivery systems with nine different types of ballistic and cruise missiles (and a hypothetical allocation of existing fissile stocks among these nine systems along with a few left for non-strategic battlefield weapons (Nasr) shows that current stocks are barely sufficient even for today’s immediate requirements).
India is working on ICBMs, SLBMs, SLCMs, BMDs, SSBNs and has an ambitious space program. Pakistan is only developing systems such as cruise missiles for its triad, and has no SSBN, or SLBM or an ICBM and has no plans in sight for a military space program.
Pakistan will never have the fissile material production capacity to develop battlefield nuclear weapons for war-fighting even on a modest scale. Its existing stocks are only good enough for a few weapons for battlefield use mainly for deterrence purposes. When it comes to finding the finances to develop and run a growing nuclear weapons program, the tortoise is much faster than the hare, but the hare is adept at improvising and finding solutions from within its limited resources without actually raising the defense budget (which has been practically frozen in the past decade if inflation is accounted for). So how is Pakistan expanding its plutonium program which has attracted so much attention and is seen as the basis of supposedly the world’s fastest growing arsenal?
The PAEC did not build its plutonium production and reprocessing infrastructure in a few years, especially not after the Indo-US nuclear deal, as is widely believed. This effort began in 1973 with work commencing on the unsafeguarded New Labs reprocessing plant, followed by the completion of a fuel fabrication plant in 1980, launch of the 50 MW Khushab-1 reactor, along with a heavy water plant in 1986 and following their commissioning in a decade, another three reactors at the same site in the past fifteen years, which like K-1 and indigenous. While this was going on, it also began establishing the infrastructure required for achieving indigenous capability for building production reactors for the future and a 350 million dollar program (approved in early 1987) was launched to set up design, fabrication and manufacturing capabilities for future reactors and fuel cycle facilities. This can be seen in the shape of HMC-3 several nuclear equipment workshops. That has helped Pakistan design and produce its own production reactors at low cost.
The recent commissioning of Chashma reprocessing plant again was a logical outcome of a half-completed plant which was waiting to be equipped and commissioned since 1978! Having said that, Pakistan cannot be expect to continue fissile material production indefinitely since the 40 ton/yr natural uranium ore production is only good enough to meet the fuelling requirements for three Khushab reactors. Therefore, for the foreseeable future, plutonium production will have to be prioritized and the limited uranium reserves allocated to it rather than to the enrichment program.
Nevertheless, Pakistan will also continue to reduce to yawning gap in existing stockpiles of fissile material, especially plutonium, to whatever extent it can. These trends are likely to continue till 2020 where after domestic uranium constraints begin to affect production. Therefore, with almost no chance of securing any unsafeguarded fuel or uranium from outside unless new reserves are discovered in large quantities at home, the hare will surely turn into a tortoise moving at very slow pace, which also provides an insight into Pakistan’s current stance on the FMCT.
In sum, Pakistani decision-makers have quantified the number of warheads they need before having confidence in having sufficient survivable forces required for an assured second strike capability and a credible deterrent whose upper limit would be determined by developments across the border but also influenced by domestic production capabilities and resources. Pakistan has clearly shifted its focus on a nuclear arsenal consisting of lightweight warheads based on plutonium which is the key to achieving a triad-based credible minimum deterrent capability, given the limitations associated with miniaturizing warheads with HEU, hence the expansion at Khushab. But again, this is seen as a rush and not the product of a technological imperative resulting from decades of investment in the plutonium program. Nevertheless, Khushab-1 and 2 can be explained in this context, but Khushab-3 and 4 appear to be the product of external security dynamics stemming from the Indo-US nuclear deal.
Therefore, in the absence of any international concessions from the NSG, and exacerbating conventional and nuclear asymmetries in the shape of ballistic missile defense, growing ISR capabilities, ballistic missile submarines and MIRVed ICBMs, Pakistan will have no choice but to seek indigenous solutions within the available resources to deter a much larger neighbor which in its view is a hegemon seeking great power status at the cost of strategic stability in the region.