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Indo-Pak nuclear arms race alarms US

May 28, 2009 18:30 IST

One of the lynchpins of US President Barack Obama's foreign policy agenda is to kick-start a worldwide movement towards nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament during the next four years.

Unfortunately for America's new commander in chief, on-the-ground realities are beginning to make this plan look less and less feasible.

For evidence, look no further than earlier this week--when North Korea apparently successfully detonated a nuclear bomb and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's blasted former President Mohammad Khatami for suspending the country's uranium enrichment programme in 2003.

But that's not the whole story, either. It seems that the White House is perhaps most concerned about developments taking place right now in South Asia, between India and Pakistan.

A Washington Post report, quoting both US officials and South Asian experts, says that the arms race between India and Pakistan 'has begun to take on the pace and diversity, although not the size, of US-Soviet nuclear competition during the Cold War.'

The reasons for concern are manifold.

While Pakistan claims only to be 'modernising' its facilities and both countries claim to be taking 'defensive' measures, the truth is that both countries have reportedly expanded their nuclear programmes.

Both countries, in building new weapons systems and using new materials, 'are doing everything you would imagine' in a nuclear build-up, said a former US intelligence official who spoke on the condition of anonymity, according to the Washington Post.

This means that there are more potential vulnerabilities in systems, more nuclear weapons in production, more nuclear material in transit and more experts trained in handling nuclear weapons; all this has lead to cries raised in the US that weapons could fall into the hands of terrorists or other non-state actors. Another concern is that a rogue scientist or military officer will attempt to sell nuclear material or expertise, similar to Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan.

This comes on the heels of the release of a recent US intelligence report, commissioned by outgoing Bush administration officials, that warned of the potential dangers associated with an attack on a nuclear weapons-related shipment or storage facility inside Pakistan.

The US Army's Michael D Maples, a Lieutenant General and the director of the Defence Intelligence Agency, told US senators before his retirement in March: "Pakistan continues to develop its nuclear infrastructure, expand nuclear weapons stockpiles, and seek more advanced warheads and delivery systems."

While Maples did not offer further details, many experts believe he was referring to work on Pakistan's second heavy-water reactor at its Khushab nuclear complex, 100 miles southwest of Islamabad, which will produce new spent nuclear fuel containing plutonium to be used in nuclear weapons. The Khushab plant is under US, Israeli, Indian and European satellite surveillance, according to a Pakistani newspaper report from earlier this month.

Experts say that when the Khushab plant expansion is done in 2010, Pakistan will have the capacity to make a significant number of new bombs. A third heavy-water reactor is also believed to be under construction at the facility.

Also alarming is that satellite images taken from 2002-2006 show that activity has increased at a Pakistani nuclear facity near Rawalpindi, where plutonium is separated from the fuel rods, in order to become usable in weapons. The report says that this reflects Pakistan's desire to replace enriched uranium-driven weapons with plutonium-based nuclear arms.

Alarmingly, Maples added in his warning to US senators that, 'although Pakistan taken important steps to safeguard its nuclear weaponsÂ… vulnerabilities still exist.'

The Post quotes former Indian government officials as saying that plans are in motion to test and improve a powerful thermonuclear warhead, even as the India unapologetically adds to a smorgasbord of aircraft, missiles and submarines that launch them. India maintains its nuclear arsenal is in safe, responsible hands.

Meanwhile, a senior Pakistani official is quoted as saying that, since Islamabad and New Delhi both tested nuclear weapons in 1998, the Pakistani government has opted not to test missiles that could carry nuclear weapons, because officials do not want to antagonise either India or the US.

The US government's response to this regional dilemma has been to think globally. It's aware that differences between Pakistan and India are unlikely to be resolved through narrowly focused de-armament efforts. The better bet, American officials have said, is to have both Pakistan and India participate in a global nuclear non-proliferation drive.

As for the risk of nuclear shipments being attacked, Pakistan maintains sufficient safeguards in place to prevent such an occurrence. But Abdul Mannan, director of transport and waste safety for Pakistan's nuclear regulatory authority, said in 2007 that Pakistan needed to upgrade its security measures. This before the Taliban's attacks pushed further and further into the heart of the country.

But while the security of nuclear materials and know-how in Pakistan remains a top concern, some experts are worried that India's actions too are contributing to the build-up. These concerns were magnified last year when the US and India signed the US-India Civilian Nuclear Cooperation Agreement, immediately following which Pakistani officials claimed an increased chance of an arms raise in South Asia.

Also, the report quotes nuclear non-proliferation expert Ken Luongo, who recently met with Pakistani officials, and who says that the US-India N-Deal 'exacerbated Pakistan's fears of losing a technological race,' and thus encouraged nuclear build-up.

Retired Pakistani General Feroz Hassan Khan corroborated this account by saying: 'Pakistan is compelled to rely more heavily on nuclear weapons to counter the threat. It would be highly foolish not to produce more and better weapons.'

Still, when speaking to the Washington Post, some Pakistani officials were quick to dismiss talk of an arms race. "If two are sufficient, why build 10?" Pakistani Brigadier General Nazir Ahmed Butt, defence attache in Pakistan's embassy in Washington, allegedly told the Post. "We cannot match warhead for warhead. We're not in a numbers game. People should not take a technological upgrade for an expansion."