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Trickle-Down Nuclear Armageddon

Why the threat of a traffic accident in Pakistan terrifies US intelligence officials — and has led to a more robust Indian nuclear program.
January 24, 2014, 2:38pm

Following a third and final test launch of the Indian Agni IV ballistic missile on Monday, Indian officials announced that the missile will now go into regular production. The test itself, which is part of the larger Indian effort to upgrade its nuclear capabilities, was successful, but its timing has proven somewhat unfortunate.

The Agni-IV missile is a short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) that can drop a nuke on a target up to 2,500 miles away. That’s nowhere near enough to hit the United States or even Moscow, but it is enough to ruin everyone’s day in Beijing. One important feature of the Agni IV is that the missile and launcher are mobile, so its crew can drive it from location to location to hide it from enemies. The launcher can stop anywhere and launch the missile in a matter of minutes, the sort of system popular in Russia, China, Pakistan, and elsewhere. Despite a very brief flirtation with the idea in the early 1980s, the United States has never deployed any road-mobile strategic nuclear missiles. Most Americans first witnessed the advantages of this kind of missile system during the 1991 Gulf War, when Iraq launched a number of Scud missiles at Saudi Arabia and Israel. As advertised, the Scud launchers proved to be extremely difficult for the US to track down, despite the fact that the US military had complete control of the air.


Nations often have to plan their strategic capabilities (especially WMD) around the threat posed by their peers, and a main driver behind India’s decision to build this missile has been China’s own nuclear arsenal. Relations between the two countries have been touchy for decades, marked by regular border skirmishes. While India and Pakistan openly hate each other, India’s nuclear program need only be large enough to convince Pakistan that using nuclear weapons wouldn’t be worth it. By contrast, China’s own nuclear program poses a very real strategic threat to India.

The same day that India conducted its test, China published photos of its own advanced road-mobile ICBM, capable of hitting the US. China often sends the world strategic messages by publishing photos and videos through official online sources. What makes this release hard to figure out is that it coincided with the arrival of a senior US diplomat to Beijing on a visit intended to, among other things, defuse regional tensions. It may be that China is telling the world to back off, but it’s hard to tell because China often cultivates uncertainty as part of its deterrence strategy.

Meanwhile, Pakistan has been going nuts with its nuclear program. They currently have a nuclear arsenal of at least 100 warheads and are producing 10 to 15 more each year—and they hope to increase that rate to 14 to 27 warheads per year. Because of all the regional instability and the close ties between Pakistan and the Taliban, US security officials are extremely nervous about this rapidly growing stockpile and have reportedly been developing contingency plans to send Special Forces into the country and seize a warhead if it gets stolen.

Pakistani officials have interpreted US preparations slightly differently; in a nutshell, they fear the US might swoop in and take all of their nuclear weapons. In response, Pakistan has taken several steps to prevent such a thing from happening, including moving the warheads from location to location on a regular basis, in the spirit of road-mobile launchers. The most cringe-inducing aspect of this practice is that sometimes Pakistan has moved the warheads in unescorted, unmarked delivery vans. Which could, of course, be easy pickings for any militant group with the right intelligence and some guns.

Not surprisingly, the risk of nukes getting into the hands of al Qaeda via a traffic accident keeps US planners on edge. And when US planners are on edge, the Chinese get tense. And when the Chinese get tense, India gets uncomfortable. And when India gets uncomfortable, they improve their nuclear missile capabilities.