The year 2015 was a tense one for the relationship between India and Pakistan. The two countries shot at and shelled each other across their border, canceled bilateral talks, and suffered multiple terror attacks. Though Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi raised hopes for improved ties with a surprise visit to Lahore in December, the risk of more bloodshed between India and Pakistan remains frighteningly high.
Of the dangers, none is greater than the threat of some kind of nuclear attack. Both India and Pakistan possess large nuclear arsenals. And both aim them at the other. While the possibility of all-out Armageddon can therefore never be ignored, these massive armories represent an even greater, more imminent peril: that terrorists will somehow take control of a warhead or nuclear materials to launch a catastrophic attack. According to the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nuclear nonproliferation watchdog, both countries score poorly on their Nuclear Security Index, which assesses the security of nuclear materials around the world.
Fortunately, President Obama’s final Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) beginning today provides an opportunity for high-level political engagement to find a bilateral solution that finally addresses South Asia’s nuclear dangers. Former U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry recently warned that nuclear conflict is more likely now than at the height of the Cold War. Now is the time for Modi and Sharif to prevent the unthinkable by signing a deal that could actually keep the region safe.
India and Pakistan maintain nuclear-weapon arsenals that are similar in both size and composition, and both countries have threatened to launch a nuclear strike against the other if provoked. Of the two countries, Pakistan is the more likely to actually act on such rhetoric, since the threat of war with India could amount to an existential threat. New Delhi’s army is much larger than Islamabad’s, making Pakistan more likely to resort to a nuclear strike in the event of a conventional war. This isn’t just conjecture: In October 2015, Aizaz Chaudhary, Pakistan’s foreign secretary, said that his country was in the process of formalizing its plans to use low-yield nuclear weapons in the event of an Indian invasion.
But a state-sanctioned attack isn’t the biggest threat posed by South Asian nuclear arsenals. Both India and Pakistan suffer from regular acts of terror. Pakistan is currently at war with the Pakistani Taliban, and the group has already proven itself capable of attacks against the Pakistani Air Force base, as they did through attacks on other military facilities and equipment. Meanwhile, nuclear energy plants are generally less secure—and thus more vulnerable—than military facilities. But terrorists might not even need to launch an attack to get their hands on a nuclear weapon or radioactive nuclear material; at some point, radicalized workers or soldiers at either type of facility could decide to voluntarily execute or abet an attack or theft. While such a situation is unlikely, it is not unimaginable. Last month, a Pakistani commando in the Elite Police was executed for going rogue and murdering the Governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, for criticizing Pakistan’s blasphemy law in 2011.
To keep its weapons secure and reduce the danger of an unauthorized launch, Pakistan has enacted an assertive, centralized peacetime command and control system under the civilian-led, civil–military National Command Authority. In a crisis, however, analysts fear that the military will take complete control over Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. This could result in field commanders being given the authority to launch a nuclear weapon on their own, without input from their commanders or civilian officials. Just last week, Islamabad ratified the 2005 Amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, which mandates specific punishments for offenses related to mishandling nuclear material. Yet Pakistan, unlike India, has not signed the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism, which criminalizes acts of nuclear terrorism.
Despite making substantial progress in the last several years, India also has key nuclear security challenges it must overcome. And it too has received low grades from international monitors for its nuclear stewardship. The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative journalism organization, has documented cases in which India has mismanaged the disposal of its nuclear waste materials and has failed to secure its nuclear facilities. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has also expressed concern that New Delhi is unprepared to deal with a nuclear emergency. And unlike Pakistan, India has still not established an independent nuclear regulatory agency. It should come as no surprise, then, that thieves managed to successfully steal Indian uranium in October 1994, June and July 1998, August 2001, and February and September 2008.
The good news is that both countries could still act to prevent a disaster. Dialogue is key, and the NSS is an ideal platform for Modi and Pakistani representatives to initiate a discussion on bilateral cooperation. Specifically, the NSS meeting provides an opportunity to hammer out a bilateral agreement that could reduce the risks of nuclear terror and unintended war. Such a pact could create procedures for sharing intelligence in the event of an attack on a nuclear facility or if nuclear materials are stolen by terror groups. Establishing direct, redundant lines of communication between prime ministers and army chiefs would bolster response management in the event of a nuclear incident. Further, a bilateral nuclear task force to facilitate civilian–military cooperation in the event of an attack on a nuclear facility or the theft of nuclear materials should be established. Such a task force could meet periodically to develop plans to handle the consequences of a nuclear security incident, and conduct shared nuclear forensics exercises, which are used to determine the source of nuclear material in the event of an emergency.
To craft these measures, India and Pakistan could draw on precedent. In 2007, India and Pakistan signed the Agreement on Reducing the Risk from Accidents Relating to Nuclear Weapons, and renewedthe deal in 2012. Under this deal, India and Pakistan promise to “notify each other immediately in the event of any accident…[with] radioactive fallout...[or that might trigger] an outbreak of a nuclear war between the two countries.” Since 1998, both India and Pakistan have also exchanged lists of their nuclear facilities, in accordance with a 1998 deal to “refrain from undertaking, encouraging or participating in” attacks on one another’s nuclear facilities. The problem with such agreements is that they fail to establish agreed upon response plans for how they will manage an incident of nuclear terror on a facility, or one that involves a stolen nuclear weapon or nuclear materials.
Since becoming India’s prime minister in May 2014, Modi has taken steps to safeguard the region from natural and man-made disasters, He has committed political and material support to the proposed South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) specialized response force for natural and man-made disasters, which is a step in the right direction. In this final NSS meeting, India and Pakistan have an opportunity to expand the SAARC initiative, allowing it to tackle the risks of nuclear security threats, particularly nuclear and radiological terrorism. The time for the two countries to demonstrate that they take the issue of nuclear safety and security seriously is now.