Global fears grow as Pakistan expands nuclear capabilities

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    Sep 22, 2012
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    Islamabad: Pakistan is expanding its nuclear program, moving towards a sea-based missile capability and expanding its interest in tactical nuclear warheads, Pakistani and Western analysts say.
    The development of nuclear missiles that could be fired from a navy ship or submarine would give Pakistan "second-strike" capability if a catastrophic nuclear exchange destroyed all land-based weapons.
    However, the acceleration of Pakistan's nuclear and missile programs is renewing international concern about the vulnerability of those weapons in a country home to more than two dozen Islamist extremist groups.

    "The assurances Pakistan has given the world about the safety of its nuclear program will be severely tested with short-range and sea-based systems, but they are coming," said Michael Krepon, co-founder of the Stimson Centre, a Washington-based global security policy institute.

    "A cardinal principle of Pakistan's nuclear program has been: 'Don't worry; we separate warheads from launchers.' Well, that is very hard to do at sea."

    Western officials have been concerned about Pakistan's nuclear program since it first tested an atomic device in 1998. Those fears have deepened over the past decade amid political tumult, terror attacks and tensions with the country's nuclear-armed neighbour, India, with which it has fought three wars.

    That instability was underscored this month, as anti-government protests in the capital, Islamabad, appeared to push Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's government to the brink of collapse.

    The political crisis was unfolding as Pakistan and India continued lobbing artillery shells across their border, in a tit-for-tat escalation that illustrated the continued risk of another war.

    For more than a decade, Pakistan has sent signals that it's attempting to bolster its nuclear arsenal with "tactical" weapons: short-range missiles that carry a smaller warhead and are easier to transport.
    Over the past two years, Pakistan has conducted at least eight tests of various land-based ballistic or cruise missiles that, it says, are capable of delivering nuclear warheads.

    Last September, Mr Sharif, citing "evolving security dynamics in South Asia", said Pakistan was developing "a full spectrum deterrence capability to deter all forms of aggression".

    The next step in Pakistan's strategy includes an effort to develop nuclear warheads suitable for deployment from the Indian Ocean, either from warships or from one of the country's five diesel-powered navy submarines, analysts say.

    In a sign of that ambition, Pakistan in 2012 created the Naval Strategic Force command, which is similar to the air force and army commands that oversee nuclear weapons.

    "We are on our way, and my own hunch is within a year or so, we should be developing our second-strike capability," said Shireen Mazari, a nuclear expert and the former director of the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad, a hawkish Pakistani government-funded body.

    Pakistan's nuclear push comes amid heightened tension with US intelligence and congressional officials over the security of the country's nuclear weapons and materials.
    The Washington Post reported in September 2013 that US intelligence officials had increased surveillance of Pakistan, in part because of concerns that nuclear materials could fall into the hands of terrorists.

    State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki – when asked if the United States was concerned about a sea-launched Pakistani weapon – said it was up to Pakistan to discuss its programs and plans.
    However, she said: "We continue to urge all nuclear-capable states to exercise restraint regarding nuclear and missile capabilities.

    "We continue to encourage efforts to promote confidence-building and stability and discourage actions that might destabilise the region."
    During a visit to Washington for consultations with the Obama administration in July, Tariq Fatemi, Mr Sharif's senior foreign policy adviser, said the government had "no intention of pursuing" sea-based nuclear weapons.

    It is unclear how much direct knowledge Mr Sharif's government has about the country's nuclear weapons and missile-development programs, which are controlled by the powerful military's Strategic Planning Directorate.

    However, the Prime Minister is the chairman of the country's National Command Authority, a group of civilian and military officials who would decide whether to launch a nuclear weapon.
    Pakistani military officials declined to comment on the nuclear program.

    However, they noted that a January report by the Washington-based Nuclear Threat Initiative named Pakistan the "most improved" in safeguarding nuclear materials.
    In 2011, non-government experts interviewed by the Post estimated that Pakistan had built more than 100 deployed nuclear weapons.

    Now Pakistan's fourth plutonium production reactor is also nearing completion, and while most assessments of the country's warhead inventory have not changed much in recent years, analysts say Pakistan continues to produce weapons material and develop delivery vehicles, positioning itself for another spurt of rapid growth at any time.

    India, which experts say has 80 to 100 deployed nuclear weapons, has a stated policy of using them only in response to an attack.

    Pakistan has repeatedly declined to embrace a no-first-use policy.

    But concerns within Pakistan about India's growing nuclear ambitions are helping to fuel Pakistan's own advancements.
    India, too, has been stepping up research and development of offensive and defensive weapons systems.

    In 2012, India test launched its first intercontinental ballistic missile, which it said has a range of more than 5000 kilometres.

    In February, the Times of India reported that the missile, as well as the country's first nuclear-powered submarine, could be deployed as early as next year.
    In May, India also conducted its first test of a planned missile defence system.

    Much of India's ballistic technology appears aimed at boosting its defences against China, not Pakistan.

    However, the Pakistani military has been shifting the focus of the country's nuclear program over the past decade because of fears that Indian forces could use the threat of terrorism to launch a sudden cross-border strike.

    India has a sizeable advantage in conventional weapons, and its army is more than twice the size of Pakistan's force.
    Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, said the fact that Pakistani and Indian analysts even debated the outcome of a limited nuclear exchange was cause for alarm.

    "India and Pakistan have so many avenues into a conflict that could spin out of control, and such a history," Mr Kristensen said. "The development of these weapons systems lowers the point where you could potentially see nuclear weapons come into use."

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