'India-Pakistan nuke war not a realistic possibilty', says leading nuclear expert Ramamurti Rajaraman

Ramamurti Rajaraman, Emeritus Professor of Theoretical Physics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, believes that Pakistan's growing nuclear arsenal is a matter of grave concern for India. He points out that the development of their NASR tactical missile, which can be loaded onto trucks and lorries, is especially worrisome.

The co-chair of the International Panel on Fissile Materials and a member of the world scientists permanent panel on Mitigation of Terrorist Acts, Rajaraman elaborates on the alarming nuclear story unfolding across the globe, with special emphasis on the sub-continent.

The conflict between India and Pakistan has intensified in the last three years. If the situation worsens, is there a likelihood that India could launch a pre-emptive first strike against Pakistan if it feared an imminent nuclear strike? Of course, this could mean a marked reversal of our no-first use (NFU) policy. On the other hand, if India goes in for more surgical strikes, can Pakistan use a conventional attack as a pretext to attack India?

The conflict between India and Pakistan during the past three years has been limited to Jammu and Kashmir. These conflicts may continue and may also occasionally intensify. There may also be a lot of heated rhetoric from both sides. But I don’t think there is any realistic possibility of those conflicts developing into a full-scale war, let alone one with any serious chances of a nuclear strike by Pakistan.

File image of Rajamurti Rajaraman. Image courtesy: JNU

File image of Ramamurti Rajaraman. Image courtesy: JNU

Notice that there has been no mainland attack by Pakistan based terrorists since the 2008 Mumbai attacks. I feel that this is because Pakistan military and its Inter-Services Intelligence do appreciate the fact that the next time there is an attack of that magnitude, India would have to retaliate in a serious manner.

It is true that the Pakistan Army maintains a hostile posture towards India as a matter of policy. But that is done largely for domestic consumption and for maintaining its pre-eminence in the Pakistani power structure.

If push comes to shove, the leadership in both countries are too responsible to let matters go anywhere near a nuclear threshold. So, there is no question of India conducting a pre-emptive strike on Pakistan in anticipation of a nuclear attack from them.

I don’t think India will reverse its NFU policy, even though some analysts, for the want of anything better to write about, keep harping on it. That would be a very unwise thing to do diplomatically.

Pakistan has one of the fastest growing nuclear arsenals in the world. Is it receiving active help from China?

Yes, Pakistan is growing its nuclear arsenal fast. That is thanks to their four plutonium producing reactors at Khushab. The Chinese may have helped in the design and construction of those reactors. I don’t know one way or the other. But China is helping Pakistan in building a civilian reactor. That is official.

Pakistan's smaller nuclear weapons, including the NASR missile, are being mounted on trucks and lorries to escape detection by satellite imagery? Could these tactical weapons fall into the hands of terrorists?

Yes, the whole NASR program of Pakistan is fraught with new hazards. It represents a very unwise move which raises the level of nuclear danger in the subcontinent for two reasons. Because NASR is a battlefield nuclear weapon, its command and control are in danger of being less rigorous than those of the other 'normal' weapons.

It is not clear if, in order for it to be effective as a battlefield weapon, the field commander would be given some level of on-the-spot decision making on its launch. This also increases the probability of an accidental or hasty launch. In addition, there is also, as you mention in your question, an increased possibility of terrorists getting hold of it in transit or in the heat of battle.

The recent spate of attacks in Europe has highlighted concern about jihadis endangering nuclear facilities. How serious is this threat?

I expect that the Pakistani warheads are stored deep within their military bases and installations. Even if the jihadis knew where they are stored, I don’t think there is much chance of their overcoming the rings of security that must surround the nuclear assets of Pakistan.

It is one thing for terrorists to be able to breach the outer gate of a military base, as they have done once or twice, but an entirely different matter to be able to force their way deeper in and capture the weapons.

How much enriched uranium does Pakistan possess?

According to the latest available information from IPFM (The International Panel on Fissile Materials), the most reliable source I know of, Pakistan had about 3.1 ±0.4 tons of highly-enriched uranium and is continuing to produce more at its plants in Kahuta and possibly a new one at Gadwal.

Some strategists claim Pakistan has built an arsenal of over 200 nuclear warheads. Is that correct?

I don’t know which strategists said that, but I doubt it.

How serious is the nuclear threat from China?

The Chinese do make border incursions periodically and are generally aggressive towards India in a lot of ways. We have also had a war with them in 1962. There are reports that some of their intermediate range missiles are pointed towards India. Despite all this, I don’t think that there is any real danger of a nuclear threat from China, as things stand now.

It is unlikely that China would attempt anything remotely like that. After all, we also have nuclear weapons and are improving our ability to deliver them on to China. They are unlikely to go beyond constant pinpricks to a regular war, let alone one involving nuclear weapons.

India embarked on its biggest expansion of nuclear capability with the government clearing the construction of ten new nuclear power plants, each with a capability of 700 MW. At present, we have 22 operating nuclear reactors. How many of these can be used for military purposes?

As far as I know, they will be part of the "civilian sector" – in the language of the India-United States nuclear deal. But the deal also allows India to have a military sector which it will not be safeguarded and India is free to decide to place some of the new reactors in the military sector.

Our record of the functioning of nuclear plants can hardly be described as satisfactory. Official records confirm that the Kudankulam facility is functioning at 20 percent capacity. 

Yes, the Kudankulam Unit-I has had problems and had to be shut down longer than expected. But such teething problems can arise in the first year of operation. They don’t necessarily indicate a permanent problem with the reactor. As far as Kudankulam Unit-II is concerned, it is too early to judge its quality. These Kudankulam reactors are prestige symbols of India-Russian cooperation and I am sure that both sides will try to ensure that these reactors function well.

There is no transparency about the leaks that developed in the Kakrapar plant in Gujarat. Is being opaque a deliberate part of government policy? What is the situation like in Pakistan as far as providing information about their civilian nuclear facilities?

Yes, it is true that our nuclear agency is not famous for its transparency. That is true of some other countries too. The Fukushima reactor tragedy exposed similar problems with the Japanese nuclear establishment. The French have had serious problems with their famous nuclear agency, Areva. I would imagine that the Pakistan nuclear energy establishment is even more opaque than ours.

Published Date: Aug 01, 2017 12:30 pm | Updated Date: Aug 01, 2017 12:30 pm

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