India, Pakistan Remain Lacking in Nuclear Security

Obama-Sharif in Hague (Credit:
Obama-Sharif in Hague

As the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit gets underway in The Hague, Netherlands, world leaders and nuclear security experts will ponder the future of nuclear security in the Indian subcontinent. Nuclear-armed neighbors India and Pakistan both score poorly on several important indicators for the security of nuclear materials and their ability (or inability) to regulate their supply of both fissile material and weaponized nuclear systems is a continued cause of concern for nuclear security advocates.

The Nuclear Threat Initiative‘s 2014 Security Index, “a unique public assessment of nuclear materials security conditions in 176 countries, developed with the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU),” scored both India and Pakistan rather poorly for nuclear material security. The NTI’s ranking examines nuclear material security indicators among the 25 countries known to possess weapons-usable nuclear material and this year’s ranking put India in 23rd place and Pakistan in the 22nd place. Only Iran and North Korea — two nations largely ostracized by the international community for their nuclear programs — scored lower. Despite its higher internal instability, Pakistan came out ahead of India on the NTI 2014 Security Index.

India’s low score on the NTI Security Index is mostly due to a series of bureaucratic failures and delays. India remains a relative newcomer to the community of normal nuclear weapon states. Despite the fact that India never signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, its landmark 2006 civil nuclear cooperation deal with the United States and its eventual receipt of a waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers Group in 2008 made it the first nuclear weapon state outside of the NPT framework to engage in civil nuclear commerce.

India’s nuclear security problems are myriad. Despite having excellent multilateral compliance, including fully implementing UN Security Council resolution 1540, poor regulations and laws that merely suggest but do not require oversight keep India’s nuclear security provisions below optimal levels. Two years ago, at the last Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, India pledged to establish an independent regulatory agency for nuclear material security but has failed to do so. Other major shortcomings for India include a failure to hedge against insider threats to nuclear materials and protect materials during transport. While India’s threat environment is far less dangerous than Pakistan’s, terrorist groups have plotted to acquire nuclear materials in India.

According to India’s Economic Times, the Indian delegation to the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague will focus on “gaps” in the international nuclear security legal framework — an area in which India is rather exemplary — to avoid drawing attention to India’s enduring shortcomings in nuclear materials security. Given India’s looming elections and the probability of the incumbent coalition falling from power, it is unlikely that the institutional and legislative changes needed will occur anytime soon (P.R. Chari has a piece over at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace that examines the reasons for this in greater detail).

Pakistan, despite being ranked a notch above India on the 2014 NTI Security Index and winning the honor of “most improved nuclear-armed state,” comes short on nuclear security in several areas. Pakistan has the world’s fastest growing nuclear arsenal, a maturing tactical nuclear weapon program, a history of supporting insurgents against India, and a highly unstable internal threat environment. Pakistan scored the lowest for “Political Stability” on the 2014 NTI Index while taking first place for “Domestic Nuclear Materials Security Legislation” and “Independent Regulatory Agency” — scoring high on some of the areas where India has shortcomings.

Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program and nuclear security is fiercely independent of its national politics and alliance with the United States — for better and worse. Additionally, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence’s association with anti-India militant groups raises concerns of state-sponsored nuclear terrorism, even though state agents have very good reasons not to hand off a nuclear device to a terrorist group. Furthermore, we’ve seen the Pakistani Taliban and other insurgent groups within the country target military facilities in recent years — the potential of an attack succeeding against a Pakistani facility containing nuclear weapons or nuclear materials is remote but worth considering. The United States has contingency plans for precisely such an event occurring within Pakistan.

South Asia remains the world’s likeliest nuclear flash point given the high level of mutual mistrust and enmity between India and Pakistan. While the risk of an imminent strategic nuclear weapon exchange remains low given each nation’s deterrents, Pakistan’s development of tactical nuclear weapons could reduce barriers for a nuclear event in the subcontinent. Beyond nuclear weapons, the security of nuclear materials in both these countries remains inadequate. Given the multitude of variables involved in establishing a robust nuclear security architecture for these countries, domestic developments alone can do little to reduce the chance of a nuclear event. A general reduction in tensions between India and Pakistan — eventually leading to the normalization of bilateral relations — is just as important.

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