Nuclear security regime in South Asia


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THE scourge of terrorism has devastated South Asia for several decades. While India and Pakistan have traded accusations for this outcome, terrorists have continued to strike with impunity in the region. The terrorists’ style in South Asia is to create mayhem and panic using sophisticated capabilities to surprise and penetrate secure areas and conduct spectacular attacks as demonstrated in Mumbai, Karachi, Islamabad-Rawalpindi, and across the region. Yet, both nuclear armed neighbours in South Asia have shied away from starting a serious conversation on the scourge of terrorism – which precludes a structured architecture to tackle this common menace.1

India and Pakistan have entered into the second decade after demonstrating their nuclear capabilities. Both states have operationalized their nuclear deterrent, arsenals are increasing, and fissile material production continues to grow. The introduction of new dual-use delivery means indicates that both states are now slated to field a triad of nuclear capability in the near future. At the same time, India and Pakistan are also searching for cleaner sources of energy in the face of energy shortages. In South Asia, therefore, civil and military nuclear facilities are expanding during a period where violent extremism has surged to an unprecedented high and not just in South Asia but also the extended Middle East.


As the South Asian threat matrix becomes more complex with concomitant progress in the nuclear field, the regional and global dynamics are rapidly shifting to offer new opportunities while compounding old challenges. India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan have a new leadership. Instead of getting bogged down in the familiar maze of cognitive biases, bureaucratic hurdles and political posturing, this is a historic opportunity for the new leadership to tackle the foremost challenge – regional violent actors. By tackling the immediate menace, the leadership would send a strong message to the terrorist organizations that states do not succumb to violent entities. More importantly, if they can demonstrate that it can be done without relying on outside powers, it will set a new precedence of bilateral cooperation and possible be a harbinger for resolution of other complex issues.

India and Pakistan have a greater responsibility to qualitatively alter the nature of their relationship. The United States is reducing its footprint in the region and focusing elsewhere in Asia-Pacific and Russia while new tensions have erupted in the Middle East.2 Under these fast changing circumstances and among the multitude of issues in the region, state leaders must prioritize and communicate to their populace the highest priority threat. India and Pakistan are left on their own to devise mechanisms to mitigate, if not eliminate, the regional risk of nuclear terrorism. Nuclear security discussions to develop a cooperative regime must rank high over other politically loaded and sensitive security issues.


This paper suggests a new approach because both states are focused on trading accusations of waging asymmetric or proxy wars at various periods in history. As the international environment has changed so has the nature of asymmetric threats of non-state actors. Sooner or later, both states will need to sit at the table to protect their sovereignty against the menace of non-state actors.

Asymmetric strategy was one of the many tools applied to weaken the ground and tie down the military forces of adversaries. As the history of such warfare informs, however, once unleashed, violent extremist groups develop a life of their own and, in the long run, only prove counter-productive to their once masters. Nowhere else in recent history is such a message more poignant than in South Asia. Religious zealots and sub-nationalists – once used to secure the security agenda against rivals – have turned back to bite the hand that fed them. India and Pakistan have suffered enough; it is time to eschew such a strategy and usher in an era of stability and détente.

In the pre-nuclear era, asymmetric strategies involved fewer risks. Revolutionary wars, secessionist movements, and fifth columnists were aided with traditional arms and weapons. Access to fissile material and other forms of radiological material was deemed difficult to obtain and maintain because of their toxic nature. Furthermore, secessionist movements have shown little interest in acquiring WMD technologies and perhaps considered them counterproductive to their cause. In the 21st century and especially after the September 2001 terror attacks in the US, the revelation of al-Qaeda’s interest in nuclear technologies has changed the paradigm of nuclear security and safety.

As responsible nuclear powers, acknowledged in the three global nuclear summits, India and Pakistan have acquired a high standard of nuclear security and adopted best practices. In recent non-governmental studies, such as the Nuclear Threat Initiatives Index (NTI Index) measures taken in both states are recognized, despite overall low scores. In South Asia, Pakistan ranked higher because it took strong, recognizable measures in nuclear security given the spate of terrorist threat.3 India and Pakistan should synergize their individual experiences and develop a cooperative nuclear security regime in the true letter and spirit of the visions set by the three global nuclear security summits.


Nuclear terrorism became a buzz-word in the post-2001 world, though such fears have existed throughout the nuclear age.4 Predictably, any buzz-word transforms into an imaginative and hyped preposition. A recent essay by this author and Emily Burke examined the spectrum of nuclear threats in the region by segregating realistic and probable threats from the more improbable ones. We argued that overestimating the threat perverts efforts and resources towards unlikely probabilities. Over time, it induces complacency and reduces incentives for constructive and forward thinking. Nuclear security and safety architecture in contemporary times are almost always a work in progress.5


While the threat from nuclear terrorism has largely mirrored many historical trends, the emphasis was always on the destructive power of the use of nuclear weapons by state actors. In the post-Cold War era, the rise of non-state actors has resulted in increased regulation of nuclear materials and sites in order to prevent the possibility of ‘loose nukes’ many had predicted.6 In India and Pakistan, ‘proliferation’ and ‘strategic stability’ have now become a focus of nuclear terrorism in the post-2001 world as terrorism continues to be linked to national security policies.7

The United States steered biannual nuclear security summits and developed a policy linking nuclear security to terrorism. It persuaded member states to work assiduously towards safeguarding nuclear materials in order to prevent transfer to terrorists, while recognizing the rise in demand for nuclear energy all over the world. The US and India signed an exceptional civil nuclear deal that has set a precedence and galvanized the potential for nuclear trade expansion. The expansion of nuclear energy facilities in South Asia raises concerns about vulnerability from natural or human-made catastrophes.8


Pakistan was not a beneficiary of the special status accorded to India, and the international community has rebuffed Pakistan’s quest for nuclear energy. The United States has given two main reasons for this apparent discrimination: the long shadow of proliferation courtesy the A.Q. Khan network, and the rising internal threats over non-nuclear issues. Pakistanis resent this discrimination, which has become a major source of friction in US-Pakistan relations, because the precedence set by the nuclear deal with India has incentivized other powers to cooperate with India, further alienating Pakistan. Although India has seen a greater expansion of civilian nuclear facilities, Pakistan is increasing its fissile and missile forces to balance India’s rising conventional and nuclear capabilities. A slow arms race in the region has thus commenced, alongside expansion of civil nuclear facilities in an era of increased terrorism and intolerance in both countries, which is why the outside world is concerned about the prospects of nuclear stability and nuclear security in the South Asian subcontinent.


Neither India nor Pakistan are immune to nuclear safety and security concerns, though Pakistan faces greater scrutiny for several reasons, given the greater probability of terror attacks. First, the threat environment in India is different from that in Pakistan today. Pakistan’s western borderlands with Afghanistan are significantly more porous than elsewhere in the region. Recently, terrorist organizations retaliated against military bases and other soft civilian targets, especially after the Pakistan military commenced operations in the tribal areas and elsewhere. Nevertheless, since June 2014, the Pakistan military has begun a comprehensive operation in tribal areas to eliminate terrorist sanctuaries.


Pakistan has a smaller geographical space as compared to India. This limits Islamabad’s choices in selecting secure and peaceful areas for sensitive nuclear facilities – not too close to the border and distant from internally disturbed areas. There are other security and technical considerations as well, such as invulnerability, proximity to resources like water, garrisons for protection, and other operational considerations. Thus, Pakistan has to carefully weigh several factors in assessing threats, responses, operational concerns, and safety considerations. For all of these reasons and conscious of the world’s focus, it is not surprising that Pakistan has taken significant steps to improve its nuclear security apparatus and architecture, introduce best practices, and step up vigilance. Understandably, it is sensitive to cynicism and undue criticism of its efforts.

In contrast, India is not subjected to the same level of scrutiny. It is under no pressure to make public its nuclear security arrangements, or to advertise its nuclear security best practices. India has obviously taken nuclear security measures based on its threat perceptions.

Western perception of nuclear terrorism in South Asia is compounded by a tendency to lump together nuclear safety, nuclear security and terrorism, whereas these are discreet domains with distinct characteristics and demand differing solutions. Prefixing ‘nuclear’ to ‘terrorism’ dilutes the complexity and makes it difficult to differentiate between a hyped and a realistic threat. Because terrorism is a key concern, its reduction and elimination requires different tools and measures. Nuclear safety management relates to technical steps needed to prevent nuclear accidents and ensure optimal and safe operations. Nuclear security pertains to prevention of unauthorized access, tampering, accounting, protection and hosts of preventive and reactive steps that require both technical and military security instruments and practices.

The tendency to use the term ‘nuclear terrorism’ somewhat loosely makes it difficult to find the correct responses. Most often it is defined as the flip side of ‘nuclear security’. When nuclear terrorism and nuclear security are used interchangeably, it becomes harder to find pathways to tackle the real prospects of the terror threat. It results in creating more hype and often serves as a propaganda tool by countries in adversarial relations with each other. At the same time, while taking nuclear security measures such as legislation and ratification enables nuclear armed states to adhere to the norms and requirements of nuclear diplomacy, it also relieves them from squarely examining the realistic threats and developing the right kind of responses.


Pakistani threat perceptions have evolved in a manner different from that of India. From the outset Pakistan faced obstacles and opposition to its nuclear weapons ambitions. Several incidents since the late 1970s forced Islamabad to focus on the external threat of a sudden attack to prevent the nascent build up of its capabilities.9 Consequently, the internal threat of nuclear terrorism did not figure until the past decade or so. Similar to other nuclear weapon states, an ‘insider threat’ was perceived to be a mole or spy of an external hostile intelligence agency that might infiltrate the nuclear facility. Pakistan had a special reason to focus on this because several attempts had been made in the past by western intelligence agencies to spy on its nuclear facilities, in particular its centrifuge facilities, at a time when the official Pakistani policy was to deny the existence of any military nuclear programme, both to escape the threat of nuclear sanction under US laws and to remain in the good books under an emerging nuclear non-proliferation regime.10


Overlaid with the above threat perceptions is another layer of insider threat: a radical religious person sympathetic to violent religious extremist organizations working inside a sensitive facility who might not just be selling secrets, but might pilfer sensitive fissile material, information, or even sabotage the facility at the directive of an extremist organization. The Pakistani nuclear security architecture combines external and internal threats in designing the responses and this has impacted nuclear security in Pakistan.

The extent to which security measures can be made public is yet another challenge. The security managers and analysts aim to measure the effectiveness of the system and showcase the measures to create a positive international image. However, access to knowledge and material is severely restricted. Five years back, there were only a few measures taken by the Pakistani team.11 Since then, Pakistan has systematically improved its security regime, especially following the occurrence of terror-based internal threats on civil airports and military installations. It has modernized nuclear security best practices by training with advanced countries through the Center of Excellence and is continually improving its security architecture through better human and technical capital. Overall, Pakistani strategic planners have assigned the highest priority to nuclear safety and security. By the next security summit in 2016, these measures are expected to become more public.


In my assessment, nuclear security in South Asia is reasonably robust as both states have taken significant measures to protect their crown jewels, despite considerable resistance from the West. Consequently, a lack of transparency on these matters is understandable, especially for Pakistan. Further, the threat matrix and urgency differs in India and Pakistan since the latter also faces more intense scrutiny by the international community and this forces it to be less transparent.

Most significant is the absence of a multilateral regional approach on nuclear security despite a promising beginning in the first year after the nuclear tests in 1999. Though the process was interrupted by crises and tensions, today India and Pakistan have more reasons than elsewhere in the world to create a regional nuclear security architecture. Unfortunately, there is no dialogue or exchange of confidence building measures (CBMs) or ideas and no major step has been taken since 2007 for a bilateral broad-based agreement. There have been no formal meetings to develop nuclear risk reduction architecture.

A meaningful response to the South Asian experience requires a military and political leadership committed to nuclear security. Regional bilateral engagements between the two chairmen of the Atomic Energy Commission and Nuclear Regulatory Authorities is a new CBM that could be formalized into an agreement to meet twice a year in each capital.12 Regular meetings of the scientific and technical heads would not only help bolster international confidence in regional nuclear security, but also allow exchange of new ideas that could develop into agreements, such as on exchange of radiation data around nuclear power plants and shared experiences of nuclear safety best practices. Additionally, both countries might consider establishing political and military contacts to foster other nuclear risk reduction measures. Most specifically, India and Pakistan should indefinitely extend the nuclear agreements on ‘Reducing the Risk from Accidents Relating to Nuclear Weapons.’13


South Asia generally rejects the Cold War experience as not applicable to the region. Still, the Cold War provides the principles and precedence of breaking gridlocks and developing best practices that can be sensibly applied to the regional environment. During the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to multiple CBMs to prevent situations where non-state actors gained control of the arsenal. These CBMs existed in an environment with limited internal terrorist threats and extensive nuclear security and safety systems to keep the arsenals secure. The intensity of threats in the subcontinent is characteristically different and in fact more virulent. Thus India and Pakistan have a far greater incentive to create a more robust security regime.


* Views expressed in this essay are the author’s alone and do not represent the views of his current or previous organizations or of any government.


1. A suicide terror attack on the India-Pakistan border at Wagah-Attari where innocent people watching the India-Pakistan border flag retreat ceremony were targeted on the Pakistani side of the border. The attack left around 100 dead at the time of writing and underscores the nature of common threats in the region that should spur a cooperative approach between the two states to find common cause in tackling the scourge of terrorism.

2. A new threat from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria/Levant (ISIS/ISIL) has metastasized along with and/or in competition with al Qaeda poses a new form of twin asymmetric threats. South Asia will not be immune to the impact of such threats and both states need to recognize the complications of such emerging threats.

3. The author has been an expert member of the Nuclear Threat Security Index (NTI Index) that is published every two years coinciding with the nuclear security summits. Though the NTI Index has placed India and Pakistan into the lower rungs of overall nuclear security over the last two years, the low score is because of the nature of factors assessed in the calculus of the overall criterion and not because it ignores the measures both states have taken to improve nuclear security. In fact, the Index credits them. Pakistan is ranked slightly higher because it took more measures in areas that carry greater weightage in the overall calculus of the Index.

4. For the purposes of this article, nuclear terrorism is defined as the use or threat of use of nuclear material in order to achieve a political goal. A full definition of nuclear terrorism is found in the 2005 International Convention on the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism: ‘The convention defines the act of nuclear terrorism as the use or threat to use nuclear material, nuclear fuel, radioactive products or waste, or any other radioactive substances with toxic, explosive, or other dangerous properties. The definition includes the use or threat to use any nuclear installations, nuclear explosive, or radiation devices in order to kill or injure persons, damage property, or the environment, or to compel persons, States, or international organizations to do or to refrain from doing any act. The unauthorized receipt through fraud, theft, or forcible seizure of any nuclear material, radioactive substances, nuclear installations, or nuclear explosive devices belonging to a State Party, or demands by the threat or use of force or by other forms of intimidation for the transfer of such material would also be regarded as acts of nuclear terrorism.’

5. For details see Feroz Hassan Khan and Emily Burke, ‘Tackling Nuclear Terrorism in South Asia’, Prism 1(5), October 2014. In order to analyze nuclear terrorism, we examine four variables: threat, probability, consequence, and risk. The threat of terrorism undeniably exists, but the risk of nuclear terrorism is determined by factoring both probability and consequence. And should the probability be near zero even if consequence is deemed high, the risk is either zero or near zero. Thus effort must be directed towards more probable ones where risks are higher even if consequence may vary. But greater effort towards the more probable ones will help thwart terrorist designs more effectively.

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7. The Obama Administration’s 2011 National Strategy for Counterterrorism states that, ‘The danger of nuclear terrorism is the greatest threat to global security.’ Preventing terrorists from acquiring WMDs and nuclear materials is ranked as one of the top over-arching counterterrorism goals.

8. Onslaught of terrorism has soured this view. After the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, nuclear energy facilities are seen in a new light as vulnerable to security threats from either natural disasters or man-made attacks. See

9. Such threat perceptions were reinforced after Israel successfully destroyed the Osirak reactor in Iraq in a counter-proliferation strike in 1981.

10. Nuclear sanctions were first applied on Pakistan in April 1979 by the Carter Administration. These were lifted after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and President Zia-ul-Haq negotiated a deal with President Reagan.

11. Feroz Hassan Khan, ‘Nuclear Security in Pakistan: Separating Myth from Reality’, Arms Control Today 39(6), July/August 2009.

12. Pakistani and Indian heads of atomic energy and regulatory authorities meet during IAEA board meetings and at other international forum.

13. The Agreement on Reducing the Risk from Accidents Relating to Nuclear Weapons was initially signed in 2007 and extended for an additional five years in 2012. See