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Pakistan nukes outstrip India’s, officials say

U.S. reverses assessment of South Asia nuclear balance

By Robert Windrem and Tammy Kupperman

MSNBC.com NBC NEWS 06 June 2000

WASHINGTON, June 6 — Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is vastly superior to that of rival India, with up to five times the nuclear warheads, say U.S. military and intelligence officials now reassessing the South Asian balance of power. Interviews with senior U.S. officials in the past week revealed the view that Pakistan not only has more warheads than its longtime adversary, but has far more capability to actually use them.

NUCLEAR WEAPONS TESTS by India and Pakistan in May 1998 caught American intelligence off guard. While U.S. agencies long had known about weapons-development research in both countries, the decision by both to go public with their capabilities shocked policymakers.

Since then, U.S. intelligence and diplomacy has focused on South Asia with a new intensity. Until recently, for instance, Pakistan was considered to have somewhere between 10 and 15 nuclear weapons and India between 25 and 100.

But after two years of intelligence gathering, officials now believe those figures overstate the capabilities of India’s home-grown arsenal and understate those of Pakistan, whose program has relied on generous Chinese assistance. One official said the Pakistanis “are more likely to have those numbers [25 to 100 weapons] than the Indians.”

Perhaps most important, the official said, is that Pakistan appears far more capable than India of delivering nuclear payloads. “I don’t think their [the Indian] program is as advanced as the Paks,” the official said, speaking particularly of ballistic missiles.

Marine Corps Gen. Anthony Zinni, commander of the U.S. Central Command, said longtime assumptions that India had an edge in the South Asian strategic balance of power were questionable, at best.

“Don’t assume that the Pakistani nuclear capability is inferior to the Indians,” said Zinni, the senior U.S. officer responsible for the Middle East and South Asia.

Other military and intelligence officials, as well as an intelligence analysis of South Asia’s nuclear balance obtained by NBC News, shed more light on the revised view. NBC News is the broadcast partner of the MSNBC.com joint venture.

“They both have a capability,” said one senior military official. “Pakistan’s may be better than India’s, with more weapons and more capability.

“You can’t underestimate the Pakistani program,” said the official. Like most of the officials NBC News contacted, this one would speak only on condition of anonymity.

DOCUMENTS SUPPORT REVISED VIEW

These officials believe India understands that it is behind. A recent Defense Department analysis of the Indian program obtained by MSNBC.com states that India is moving to address its shortcomings.

Quoting India’s recently publicized draft nuclear doctrine, the Defense Department report said that “India announced its plans to develop a minimum nuclear deterrent force comprised of a triad of nuclear delivery systems — air, mobile land-based launches and sea-based platforms. The air component of its triad is the only one that may be in place already.”

The U.S. report also states that “India probably has a handful of nuclear bombs,” meaning about five. With regard to delivery systems — the missiles and bombers needed to launch a nuclear strike — U.S. officials now believe Indian capabilities to be seriously lagging.

According to the Defense Department document, which is unclassified, India has no nuclear-capable missiles and fewer aircraft capable of delivering a nuclear payload than Pakistan does. India has twice tested a new intermediate-ranged missile, the Agni, which may eventually provide the basis of a nuclear missile force. However, current U.S. analysis suggests the Agni will not be fielded with nuclear warheads for another 10 years. Additionally, India appears to only have begun work on missile warhead design and on the miniaturization of weapons — two critical hurdles to the actual use of weapons.

The U.S. assessment of Pakistan, on the other hand, has been greatly upgraded.

A U.S. official stated that Pakistani air and missile delivery systems are now believed to be “fully capable of a nuclear exchange if something happens.” Other officials noted that Pakistan’s air force, with its U.S. F-16’s and its French Mirage fighter-bombers, are superior at penetrating enemy airspace than India’s Soviet-designed MiGs and Sukhois.

Most importantly, Pakistan is now thought to possess about 30 nuclear-capable missiles: the Chinese M-11 short-range missile and its Pakistani variant, the Tarmuk, as well as the North Korean Nodong intermediate-range missile (known locally as the Ghauri).

HAIR-TRIGGER CONCERN

The mystery that shrouds both of these growing nuclear arsenals has become a major cause for concern among U.S. policymakers, who even before the 1998 tests had deemed South Asia the most likely site of a nuclear war.

According to one analysis done by the U.S. Air Force, more than 150 million Indians and Pakistanis could perish in an all-out nuclear exchange — three times the total number of people who died in World War II.

One frequently cited fear among U.S. intelligence officials is an accidental nuclear war in which Pakistan mistakes the firing of an Indian missile bearing a conventional warhead as a nuclear strike.

Despite what appears to be a healthy fear of the other on both sides, the United States still fears there could be a series of crises that lead to something worse. Last year’s Pakistani incursion in the Kargil area of Kashmir, the disputed Muslim territory controlled by India, is a good example of the region’s unpredictability.

“Kargil scared both sides,” Zinni said. “There is usually a gentleman’s agreement to keep conflict around the Line of Control,” he said, referring to the U.N. cease-fire line set after the two nations’ 1947 war over the region. “It escalated with mobilizations on different fronts — tit for tat. Both sides are now very concerned about how escalation works and how it could happen very quickly.”

Zinni said the United States intervened in the “nick of time” with Kargil. The United States doesn’t exert much influence on the daily level of fighting, but a senior military official does believe that Washington has some sway in terms of escalation because neither side really wants an all-out war, despite some hard-liners on both side who publicly claim they want to bring the issue to a head.


NBC News’ Tammy Kupperman is based at the Pentagon. Robert Windrem is an NBC News investigative producer based in New York.

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