The stance and size of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal have been wrought with speculation. For the first time, the matter has found place in the annual report of India’s ministry of defence, according to which our western neighbour is “relentlessly" expanding its nuclear and missile capabilities. Reliable international estimates suggest that Pakistan now has at least 140 nuclear warheads, slightly more than India does. Given the destructive capacity of a single atomic bomb, the actual count on either side is irrelevant. The point of nukes is to deter enemy attacks, not use them, and that is done through “credible minimum deterrence", which India achieved in 1998, the year the country tested a series of explosive nuclear devices at Pokhran and spelt out its “no first use" doctrine. New Delhi’s position has been clear: These weapons are to be used only in retaliation to a nuclear attack, but strike back India certainly will. Today, the country is equipped to launch a nuclear-tipped missile from a chosen location on land, high in the air, or off the coast at sea. This “triad" is all it takes to keep adversaries away from any nuclear adventurism against us. The alternative would be mutually assured destruction, or MAD, which no rational player would want.
What should be evident from the above is that an expansion of a nuclear arsenal beyond the bare minimum requirement is irrational. So is participation in a race to stockpile such dangerous arms. Yet, rationality does not always attend every urge known to mankind; unfortunately, far too many countries remain susceptible to oneupmanship over warheads. The absurdity that such a game could go to was seen at the peak of America’s rivalry with the Soviet Union. We had the sordid spectacle of two superpowers trying to outdo each other on how many times either could blow up the world and end all life on the only planet known to have any. The US may currently have much of its attention focused on keeping Iran from going nuclear, the Islamic Republic having restarted uranium enrichment after Washington, DC, withdrew from the cap-and-inspect deal struck with Tehran in 2015, but its general disposition towards existing nuclear powers is significant for the signals it sends. If the US lets its nuke-control treaties with Moscow lapse, for instance, it could be taken as a licence for proliferation by countries keen on acquiring a more menacing war chest. This is no small risk, since the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty between the US and Russia seems decreasingly likely to be renewed. The US security establishment is reported to believe that this arms agreement dating back to the Cold War has outlived its purpose, now that China has emerged as a force to reckon with. Will a multi-country deal be proposed as a replacement? If so, among which countries? Nothing is clear. The best New Delhi can do under these circumstances is track Pakistan’s arsenal closely and deploy diplomacy to show Islamabad the futility of enlarging it.
In the meantime, the international talks that need to begin right away concern the potential militarization of outer space. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 is inadequate to the task of keeping the dark yonder nuke-free, and with the US keen on setting up a space force, the hope that no nuclear missile shall be aimed at earth from up there appears to be receding. On this, too, India ought to engage the world’s other nuclear powers in a dialogue.