A nuclear pact just right for India and Pakistan

Reagan and Gorbachev sign the INF treaty in 1987

By Daniel Painter, Research Assistant, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme

Twenty-five years after the signing of a landmark nuclear-arms agreement between the US and the Soviet Union, the world is facing a new atomic-weapons race in South Asia, where similar controls would be useful.

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty inked by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev on 8 December 1987 was the first such agreement to eliminate entire weapon systems, rather than to merely limit the size of nuclear arsenals. India and Pakistan, which both continue to increase their nuclear arsenals, have not engaged in arms-control negotiations. If they were, however, an INF-style agreement would be a good first step towards stabilising the region.

The INF Treaty, which is still in effect between the US, Russia and the other former Soviet republics, was a ground-breaking step for arms control. The treaty banned all delivery vehicles (ie. cruise and ballistic missiles) with a range of 500–5,500 km, as well as the missiles’ respective weapon-system infrastructures. Within four years, 2,692 weapons were destroyed under the treaty.

The binding agreement also established the most intrusive verification measures of its day, an achievement President Reagan alluded to at the signing when he quoted the Russian maxim ‘doveryai, no proveryai’ (trust but verify).

The treaty was especially remarkable given the climate in which it was negotiated. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1980 had brought an end to the détente of the 1970s and ushered in a period of renewed tensions. The political dialogue between Washington and Moscow grew cold. The Reagan administration adopted an aggressive posture, while Soviet leaders launched a massive spy operation, convinced that the West was planning a surprise nuclear attack. All of this erupted in 1983 into a war scare in the USSR, further antagonised by the launch of the ‘Star Wars’ anti-ballistic missile system in March, the downing of Korean Airlines flight 007 in September and NATO’s Able Archer military exercise in November.

Furthermore, the deployment from the late ’70s onwards of new Soviet military hardware – such as the MIRVed SS-20 Intermediate-Range ballistic missile (IRBM) and the Tupolev Tu-22M Strategic Bomber – re-established Soviet force projection in Western Europe. This development gave new momentum to the Cold War arms race, compelling the US’ deployment of ground-launched cruise missiles and Pershing II IRBMs.

The fact that preliminary INF talks that began in 1980 culminated in an actual treaty highlights the value of strategic arms-control dialogue in tempering relations between nuclear adversaries.

Since Pakistan revealed in 1998 that it had joined India in the nuclear club, both countries have sought the implementation of nuclear risk-reduction measures.  However, these efforts have mostly focused on hotlines and transparency measures. The South Asian rivals have not sought to curb the expansion of their nuclear-weapons programmes. What began with a nascent ability to air-drop nuclear bombs has developed into robust programmes including both ballistic and cruise missiles. They also continue to stockpile fissile material and increase their production capacity.

Neither Islamabad nor New Delhi keeps its nuclear arsenal on ready-to-launch, alert status. The missiles are held in secure storage facilities, with the delivery vehicles and nuclear components of the weapon systems separated and stored in different locations.  However, this safety catch will probably be removed as technological advances see the development and deployment of sea-based and tactical weapons.

In many regards, the situation in South Asia is more unnerving than the Cold War stand-off between the United States and Soviet Union. India and Pakistan’s geographic proximity, their history of military conflict, and the presence of various terrorist organisations add to the unabated regional arms race to create a volatile environment.

At least the two countries are talking to each other again and have agreed to resume the Composite Dialogue that was broken off after the 2008 Mumbai attacks, for which India blamed Pakistan. However, the issue of arms control has been absent from all previous confidence-building measures between the two countries. In this regard, the INF Treaty could serve as a model for future negotiations.

Most arms-control treaties have established numerical ceilings for weapons, but both Islamabad and New Delhi are reluctant to set limits for their arsenals, or even release data on their size and make-up. Therefore, focusing on a class of weapons is the more logical place to start – specifically, with short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs). These weapons have questionable military utility because their short ranges require their forward deployment, and they are especially unsettling because they can carry either conventional or nuclear payloads.

The first stage of negotiations should start with older SRBMs approaching the end of their life spans, essentially making a virtue out of a necessity. Reaching such an agreement would prove an ideal and verifiable first step for South Asian arms control.

Only Washington and Moscow have ever engaged in strategic nuclear-arms control. While their negotiations were not immune to the turbulence of military and political developments, their nuclear-arms control dialogue became a pillar of their diplomatic relations and was instrumental in ending their arms race.

The sizes of India’s and Pakistan’s nuclear arsenals are much smaller than the Cold War parallels. However, the dynamics of the South Asian arms race make the risk of nuclear escalation a serious threat. Even limited arms-control negotiations would be a significant move towards establishing long-term stability in the region.


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