How China, India and Pakistan have shifted the Doomsday Clock forward

Tom Hussain examines the data on the nuclear arms race

The Doomsday Clock, as represented last year, has been charting the nuclear-weapons threat since 1947. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images / AFP
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At the end of 2015, the science and security board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists decided that “the undeniable threats to the continued existence of humanity” posed by the world’s nuclear arsenals had increased significantly since 2012.

It changed the time on the symbolic Doomsday Clock to three minutes to midnight, a two-minute adjustment reflecting the board’s assessment that the chance of a nuclear conflict was at its highest since 1984, when relations between the United States and the erstwhile Soviet Union were at a historical low. At the end of last year, the Bulletin upheld this worrisome assessment.

A handful of missile tests in South Asia conducted over the past few weeks clearly suggest that the hands of the clock will not move in an assuring direction for the foreseeable future.

On December 26, India conducted the first full-range test of its Agni-V intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), confirming the success of its efforts to develop the capability to propel nuclear warheads to prospective targets within 5,000 kilometres.

India’s ICBMs have been specifically developed to match the nuclear-strike range of China, with which it fought a war in 1962 over a disputed border. China is closely allied with Pakistan, which has had numerous conflicts with India over the past 70 years.

The Agni-V is now ready for trials by the Indian army’s strategic force command, after which it will be inducted into its operational arsenal. At that point, India will join the exclusive ICBM-operating club of nations, currently comprising the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.

Before that, India would have made operational the Agni-IV, an intermediate-range ballistic missile capable of striking targets within 4,000km, or most of China. On January 2, the strategic force command conducted its third successful trial of the Agni-IV, paving the way for its serial production and induction into the military.

Meanwhile, Pakistan on January 9 test-fired the first Babur-3 submarine-launched cruise missile, capable of delivering nuclear warheads some 450km to land-based targets located in India. Pakistan was believed to be developing missiles for deployment on the eight Chinese Type 041 submarines it has ordered. They are scheduled for delivery in 2023 and 2028.

The Babur-3 test suggests that Pakistan has acquired the capability by modifying the torpedo-launch system on its French-designed Agosta 90-B submarines that had previously been altered to accommodate US-supplied Harpoon anti-ship missiles. They only needed a minor upgrade for a cruise missile system.

It also showed how Pakistan worked towards completing the triad of air-, land- and sea-based delivery platforms for nuclear weapons. The trial was in response to India’s commissioning last August of the Arihant, its first nuclear-powered nuclear-armed submarine.

Since 2010, the United States has actively promoted India’s membership of the four multilateral groupings that regulate the transfer of technologies with applications for weapons of mass destruction. The US argues that India has demonstrated it is a responsible nuclear-weapons state. As such, it should be granted waivers on key conditions, especially with regard to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). India won’t sign the treaty as it has been developing a full-spectrum deterrence to China.

In doing so it will become a strategic counterweight to China, which the US and its western allies have been trying to establish. They have demonstrated that they are prepared to bend the rules of nuclear non-proliferation where it serves their interests.

Another example is India’s recent missile tests. The Indian media noted that the government had postponed the tests for a year or more to avoid diplomatic opposition to its membership application to Missile Technology Control Regime, a 34-nation group established to prevent the proliferation of missiles capable of carrying a 500-kilogram warhead more than 300km. The group accepted India into its ranks in July last year.

Similarly, a US campaign for India’s membership to the 48-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group, which regulates access to nuclear technologies, has been increasingly gathering global support. However, its proposal for a one-time change in membership criteria was vetoed by China, which said that it would only agree to a waiver if it were equally inclusive of India and Pakistan, its key ally.

In stark contrast, the US slapped sanctions on seven Pakistani entities involved in its ballistic missile programme on December 31, five days after the Agni-V test. It treats Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme differently to that of India, citing heightened risks of proliferation.

Historically, this idea is based on the black-market activities of Pakistan’s former nuclear- weapons programme chief, Dr AQ Khan, who is accused of acquiring uranium-enrichment technology from North Korea. However, Pakistan shut down the AQ Khan network 13 years ago and brought all strategic weapons under the protection of the army’s strategic forces command – a force that has been expanded to 20,000 soldiers. Since then, there has been no complaint of black market proliferation.

The West also cites concerns that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons could be stolen by jihadists who have waged war against the state for more than a decade. That scenario is hypothetical. While global jihadists have discussed the idea of acquiring weapons of mass destruction, there has been no known plot to steal a Pakistani nuclear weapon.

The scenario was visualised in the early days of the Taliban insurgency between 2007 and 2009. The jihadist threat to Pakistan has since been drastically curtailed by counterterrorism operations.

Pakistan’s nuclear assets are managed by a command and control system comparable to those operated by other nuclear powers, including India. Both countries have refused offers of technical cooperation or information sharing about their systems on the ground of sovereignty. Nonetheless, India and Pakistan possess equally efficient and sophisticated security mechanisms.

America’s discrimination is thus driven by geopolitical interest, as is China’s support for Pakistan. The transactional narrative of this diplomatic rivalry is typical of the global powers’ indifference to the consequences of proliferation. It has been 45 years since any country developed ICBMs and more than 35 years since it completed the nuclear triad – China in both cases.

Another historical comparison is provided by the timekeepers of the Doomsday Clock. The first time it read three-to-midnight was in 1949, when the Soviets first tested a nuclear device. Only once, in 1953, when the US tested its first thermonuclear weapon, have nuclear scientists ever thought the world to be any closer to the “unthinkable”.

Tom Hussain is a journalist and political analyst in Islamabad.