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Opinion: Undisclosed costs of nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan

23 January 2022

Whenever analysts or researchers dwell on the threat of nuclear war, the United States, Russia, China and North Korea dominate the discourse. The nuclear threat in South Asia, where India and Pakistan have pursued an active nuclear weapons program for decades, is much less talked about while the expenditure of their nuclear weapon programs rises.

From the year 1998 onwards, both India and Pakistan have clocked a steep rise in the number of nuclear warheads, but official numbers are lacking.

Neither India nor Pakistan releases official information regarding the size of their nuclear arsenals, but based on estimates of the country’s production of fissile material (highly enriched uranium and plutonium), the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimates that in 2021, India and Pakistan’s nuclear warheads number 156 and 165 respectively. Two years earlier India was estimated to have 130 to 140 and Pakistan between 150 and 160.

Military escalation

The rise in nuclear warheads is problematic because of India and Pakistan’s long history of wars and “military crises” since 1947.

The most recent bout of skirmishes transpired in 2019 when 40 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel were killed in an attack by Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) in Kashmir’s Pulwama district. JeM is a “Pakistan- based terror group” according to India’s representative at the United Nations Security Council.

In response, India launched airstrikes on Balakot town in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Pakistan retaliated with airstrikes in the Indian part of Kashmir and captured an Indian pilot.

The most recent tension led to fears of a wider conflict between the two nuclear-armed states.

Shortly after the Balakot strikes, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan convened a meeting of the National Command Authority which manages the country’s nuclear arsenals.  The Indian Navy said in a statement that major combat units of the Indian Navy including nuclear submarines, ships and aircraft had been “swiftly transited from exercise to operational deployment mode”.

Later India’s Defence Minister Rajnath Singh declared that India’s nuclear weapons policy which comprises a ‘no first use’ principle depends on circumstances.

This time, the two countries avoided escalation though. The scholar Vipin Narang points out there could have been serious escalation, especially if missile strikes had taken place.

Similarly, there are always risks of “unintended outcomes between nuclear-armed rivals” warns Moeed W. Yusuf, a national security adviser at the Pakistan government. Yusuf points to “the ease” with which Kashmir, the contested region between India and Pakistan, could transform into a nuclear flashpoint.

Hidden costs

While the nuclear arms race between the two countries started roughly in the 1970s, both have refused to officially declare the size of their arsenal or the involved costs.

The Indian government has repeatedly refused to divulge its expenditures on nuclear defence systems, I previously wrote at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. For example, in recent times, the government has refused to share the costs of various ballistic missiles or the cost of repairing damages to its nuclear-powered submarine.

The last comprehensive estimate of the costs of India’s nuclear program was performed in 2003 by the economist C. Rammanohar Reddy who calculated that India would spend roughly 0.5 percent or more of its gross domestic product over the following decade.

As information released by the government on its nuclear weapons spending has steadily declined over the years, it has become increasingly difficult to arrive at similar estimates in recent years.

Still, if one looks at the expenditures of Indian government departments known to advance the use of nuclear energy, including nuclear weapons, the significant rise in spending is immediately evident. The budget of the Department of Atomic Energy increased from $1.62 billion in 2010 to $2.43 billion in 2020 (after adjusting for inflation).

Similarly, from the financial years 2013/2014 to 2019/2020, the budget for India’s Defense Research and Development Organization, which produces weapons systems and defence technologies, increased 33 percent from $1.86 billion to $2.47 billion (after adjusting for inflation)

Since the budget documents do not provide a breakdown of expenditure by program, it is not possible to determine how much is allocated to nuclear weapons specifically.

Pakistan too fares poorly when it comes to transparency about its nuclear weapons expenditure. Pakistan spends the equivalent of around 10 percent of its total military budget on its nuclear weapons programme, according to Zia Mian, a physicist and Princeton University nuclear policy expert.

However, the cost of Pakistan nuclear weapons programme is difficult to estimate with any reliability, he cautions. “Secrecy prevents access to details about the history and scale of the nuclear weapon and missile programmes, the extent of external technical and material support,” Mian says.

While India and Pakistan expand their nuclear arsenals and spend undisclosed amounts of public funds, the risks associated with nuclear militarisation continue to rise.

Article by Urvashi Sarkar.
Editing by Anrike Visser.

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