Pakistan, with an estimated 90 to 120 warheads, is now believed to be churning out more plutonium than any other country on the planet -- thanks to two Chinese-built reactors that are now online, a third that is undergoing trials, and a fourth that is scheduled to become operational by 2016. It has already passed India in total number of warheads and is on course to overtake Britain as the world's No. 5 nuclear power. Pakistan could end up in third place, behind Russia and the United States, within a decade.
This April, Pakistan tested a short-range ballistic missile, the Hatf IX, a so-called "shoot and scoot" battlefield nuclear weapon aimed at deterring an invasion by India's conventional forces. This development carries two disturbing implications. First, Pakistan now has the know-how to build nuclear warheads compact enough to fit on the tip of a small missile or inside a suitcase (handy for terrorists). Second, Pakistan has adopted a war-fighting doctrine that does not preclude nuking its own territory in the event of an Indian incursion -- a dubious first in the annals of deterrence theory.
India, meanwhile, has just tested its first long-range ballistic missile, the Agni-V, with a range of 3,100 miles. In April, the Indian Navy added a new Russian-made nuclear-powered submarine to its fleet and is now building its own nuclear subs. One has already been launched and will enter service next year, and India is determined to add submarine-launched ballistic missiles to its arsenal. This puts India on the verge of joining the elite nuclear "triad" club -- states with the ability to survive a first strike by an adversary and deliver a retaliatory strike by land, sea, or air.
India has also said that it has successfully tested an anti-ballistic missile shield that could be deployed "in a short time" to protect New Delhi and Mumbai. The downside of this defensive measure -- putting aside the question of effectiveness -- is that it invites an adversary to build many more warheads in the hope that a few will be able to slip through the shield.
India claims that it is not really engaged in an arms race -- or that, if it is, its opponent is not Pakistan, but China, a nuclear-armed superpower and economic rival with which it shares a disputed border. The Agni-V was dubbed the "China-killer" in some overheated Indian headlines. China's nuclear ambitions are geared toward deterring the United States and Russia, but it obligingly stirs the pot in South Asia by providing Pakistan with plutonium reactors -- in flagrant violation of its obligations as a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group.
Meanwhile, through a 2008 deal negotiated by George W. Bush's administration, the United States has given India access to nuclear fuel on the international market. In the past, India had been barred from such trade because the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty does not consider its nuclear weapons program legitimate, and its limited supplies of domestic uranium forced it to choose between powering its reactors and building more nuclear weapons. "Power production was the priority; now they can have both," explained Toby Dalton, deputy director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
With both sides armed to the teeth, it is easy to exaggerate the fears and much harder to pinpoint where the real dangers lie. For the United States, the nightmare scenario is that some of Pakistan's warheads or its fissile material falls into the hands of the Taliban or al Qaeda -- or, worse, that the whole country falls into the hands of the Taliban. For example, Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a former CIA officer now at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, has warned of the "lethal proximity between terrorists, extremists, and nuclear weapons insiders" in Pakistan. This is a reality, but on the whole, Pakistan's nuclear arsenal appears to be reasonably secure against internal threats, according to those who know the country best.
To outsiders, Pakistan appears to be permanently teetering on the brink of collapse. The fact that large swaths of the country are literally beyond the control of the central government is not reassuring. But a weak state does not mean a weak society, and powerful internal dynamics based largely on kinship and tribe make it highly unlikely that Pakistan would ever fall under the control of an outfit like the Taliban. During the country's intermittent bouts of democracy, its civilian leaders have been consistently incompetent and corrupt, but even in the worst of times, the military has maintained a high standard of professionalism. And there is nothing that matters more to the Pakistani military than keeping the nuclear arsenal -- its crown jewels -- out of the hands of India, the United States, and homegrown extremists.
"Pakistan struggled to acquire these weapons against the wishes of the world. Our nuclear capability comes as a result of great sacrifice. It is our most precious and powerful weapon -- for our defense, our security, and our political prestige," Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani lieutenant general, told me. "We keep them safe."
Pakistan's nuclear security is in the responsibility of the Strategic Plans Division, which appears to function pretty much as a separate branch of the military. It has its own training facility and an elaborate set of controls and screening procedures to keep track of all warheads and fissile material and to monitor any blips in the behavior patterns of its personnel. The 15 or so sites where weapons are stored are the mostly heavily guarded in the country. Even if some group managed to steal or commandeer a weapon, it is highly unlikely the group would be able to use it. The greater danger is the theft of fissile material, which could be used to make a crude bomb. "With 70 to 80 kilos of highly enriched uranium, it would be fairly easy to make one in the basement of a building in the city of your choice," said Pervez Hoodbhoy, a distinguished nuclear physicist at Islamabad's Quaid-i-Azam University. At the moment, Pakistan has a stockpile of about 2.75 tons -- or some 30 bombs' worth -- of highly enriched uranium. It does not tell Americans where it is stored.
"All nuclear countries are conscious of the risks, nuclear weapons states especially so," said Gen. Ehsan ul-Haq, who speaks with the been-there-done-that authority of a man who has served as both chairman of Pakistan's Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee and head of the ISI, its controversial spy agency. "Of course there are concerns. Some are genuine, but much of what you read in the U.S. media is irrational and reflective of paranoia. Rising radicalism in Pakistan? Yes, this is true, and the military is very conscious of this."
Perhaps the most credible endorsement of Pakistan's nuclear security regime comes from its most steadfast enemy. The consensus among India's top generals and defense experts is that Pakistan's nukes are pretty secure. "No one can be 100 percent secure, but I think they are more than 99 percent secure," said Shashindra Tyagi, a former chief of staff of the Indian Air Force. "They keep a very close watch on personnel. All of the steps that could be taken have been taken. This business of the Taliban taking over -- it can't be ruled out, but I think it's unlikely. The Pakistani military understands the threats they face better than anyone, and they are smart enough to take care it."
Yogesh Joshi, an analyst at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses in New Delhi, agrees: "Different states have different perceptions of risk. The U.S. has contingency plans [to secure Pakistan's nukes] because its nightmare scenario is that Pakistan's weapons fall into terrorist hands. The view from India over the years is that Pakistan, probably more than any other nuclear weapons state, has taken measures to secure its weapons. At the political level here, there's a lot of confidence that Pakistan's nuclear weapons are secure."