SVI Webinar / Panel Discussion Report – Assessing the Latest Risks to the Global Moratorium on Nuclear Testing

SVI Webinar / Panel Discussion Report – Assessing the Latest Risks to the Global Moratorium on Nuclear Testing

Compiled by: Irfan Ali

Reviewed and Edited by: S. Sadia Kazmi

 

Strategic Vision Institute (SVI) organized a webinar on “Assessing the Latest Risks to the Global Moratorium on Nuclear Testing” on 11th June 2020. The webinar was chaired by Dr. Zafar Iqbal Cheema, President/Executive Director SVI. The guest speakers included Mr. Kamran Akhtar (Director General Arms Control and Disarmament, Ministry of Foreign Affairs), Amb. (R) Zamir Akram (Former Permanent Representative to CD/ United Nations, Geneva) and Air Commodore (R) Khalid Iqbal (Former Assistant Chief of Air Staff, Pakistan Air Force).

Dr. Zafar Iqbal Cheema formally inaugurated the session with a warm welcome to the participants and expressed his gratitude for their attendance. Talking about the Webinar topic he said it is important to assess latest risks to the global nuclear testing moratorium as the arms control between Russia and the US faces expiration. With the abrogation of the ABM treaty and INF treaty, there is a need for renegotiation between Russia and the US. However, even if the negotiations start, the chances of an outcome are quite bleak owing to the fact that both states have different positions on the subject. From an electioneering perspective there is a possibility that the US administration might go for nuclear testing posing a setback to the moratorium. This might encourage North Korea and India, which are always at the brink of violating the moratorium on nuclear testing. Therefore, this is an opportune moment to assess the current status of the moratorium from a global perspective. This also holds significance for Pakistan which conducted nuclear tests 22 years ago in response to India’s and was able to restore strategic stability in the South Asian region. India’s nuclear tests had unequivocally tilted the regional balance in favour of India threatening the deterrence equilibrium in the South Asian region. Most importantly Pakistan’s national security came under a direct siege from Indian nuclear tests.  Ever since then India has made several technological advances in its naval and air weapon systems. Pakistan has perforce responded for the sake of its national security and integrity. It is a fact that India’s technological and missile development has considerably disturbed the deterrence equilibrium in South Asia posing continuous threat to Pakistan. Thus in light of these developments, this Webinar is aimed at assessing these high risks.

After his introductory remarks, Dr. Zafar Iqbal Cheema handed over the session to the first speaker Mr. Kamran Akhtar who presented his views on the ‘Current Trends Effecting the Global Moratorium on Nuclear Testing and its Impact on Strategic Stability’. He stated that the US’ desire to resume nuclear testing would be detrimental to global nuclear norms even though these norms are not considered strong or effective as compared to the nuclear moratorium being practiced. Talking about the latest developments that are undermining the moratorium he mentioned that new technologies are being procured and tested by different countries in view of their national interests. Global non-proliferation regime and norms are often overlooked when it comes to national interest. However, this trend may create space for other countries such as India to benefit from and follow suit especially when the US has given waiver to India and is supporting its entry into the NSG. Mr. Kamran Akhtar suggested that there is a need to distinguish between a norm and moratorium. He believed that there has never been a strong norm against testing. Even CTBT bans only those tests which have above zero-yield. This shows that the intension to stop the development of nuclear warheads as long as they have the means to conduct sub-zero testing or zero-yield testing, is largely missing. So, basically the norm against testing was never that strong. CTBT, just like any other element of the global non-proliferation regime, only sought to freeze the advantage of those already processing technologies for sub-critical testing. The US had already conducted the one thousand tests, and therefore, they were very sure about the data that they had collected, so there was no technical necessity for testing. Hence the CTBT was developed and it stopped those states which were entering the global nuclear order rather the states which were already in global nuclear order. So that was aimed at freezing the advantage while allowing the countries with technologies for sub-critical testing to still go ahead and develop and improve their warhead designs. Often countries have been able to exploit this in their favour. For instance France, when needed some testing, went ahead and conducted tests and then later on signed the CTBT. In this sense it is just a practical moratorium on nuclear testing and has never been a norm. This is also evident by the fact that in 2008 India was granted an exemption from NSG guidelines. CTBT was not put as one of the conditions and there was no mention in the NSG decision against India refraining it from nuclear test in a legally binding manner. The subsequent bilateral treaties for the supply of Uranium to India through the international market did not feature CTBT or legally binding requirement to adhere to non-testing forever. This further establishes that it is a moratorium and not a norm on testing. A moratorium has practical reasons rather than altruistic reasons or any concern for the global non-proliferation regime. Coming to the latest developments which are undermining the moratorium against testing, he mentioned that there are several odd events and statements from the US that should be taken into account In this regard. The NPT had been in a turmoil for quite some time and there were not many expectations from the NPT Review Conference. In any case questions are already being raised about the global non-proliferation regime and how things are further deteriorating. The world has witnessed the demise of ABM and INF treaties and the US pulling out of the arms trade treaty and the open sky treaty. This points to the fact that arms control is largely being challenged and there is a whole new range of weapons which are being developed.

The second speaker Amb. (R) Zamir Akram spoke on ‘India as a Leading Threat to South Asia’s Moratorium on Nuclear Testing’. His presentation focused on three broad areas. Initially, he discussed the background and stated that it is important to recall that India single-handedly opposed the adoption of CTBT when it was negotiated in the Conference of Disarmament. Due to Veto power of India, as CD works on the basis of consensus, the treaty could not be adopted in the CD but was sent to the United Nations where it was voted upon, and India was one of the countries that did not vote for CTBT. This was then followed by the tests that India carried out in May 1998. After its earlier single test in 1974, five tests were carried out in 1998. Among all the tests one was recorded as 12 to 15 kilo Tons and one of them was supposedly a hydrogen fusion bomb. The secondary explosion did not take place, so the bomb did not work. The third test was fissile, and the remaining two tests conducted couples of days later were meant for experimental purposes. India claimed that data and outcomes needed to be confirmed which required conducting of more tests. However after 1998 nuclear explosion India came under an immense pressure from the international community especially from the United States and a unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing was declared.  This was further coupled with an agreement with Pakistan, followed by the talks on peace and security with a declaration from both sides to continue to observe a unilateral moratorium on both sides. This was and still continues to remain the part of CBMs and agreements in the Lahore Declaration of February 1999.

In the second part of his presentation Amb.  Zamir Akram discussed the need for testing mostly because of the unsatisfactory results of earlier test and in particular its ambition for the development of fusion hydrogen bomb. Ample literature is available about India’s nuclear facility in the South. India is producing highly enriched uranium which it claims is being used by Nuclear power submarine. But the fact is that India has only two nuclear power submarines and the enriched uranium is more than the need for submarine usage. So the logical conclusion is that it is probably producing the sufficed amount of Highly Enriched Uranium for detonating a hydrogen bomb and acquiring a hydrogen bomb capability. If this conclusion is right then there will be a need for India to test the capability. This puts a question mark on India’s commitment to continue to observe its own voluntary moratorium. Referring to Mr. Kamran Akhtar’s point where he talked about the conditionalities that were imposed on India or the commitments that India undertook for the extension of the NSG waiver, he further elaborated that under these conditions India was not required to sign the CTBT and their unilateral voluntary moratorium was considered to be sufficient as an assurance against further testing by India. George Perkovich, an authority on Indian nuclear program wrote after the waiver given to India that Indian objective would be to develop a strategic reserve of fissile material through this facility. After the development of a strategic reserve of fissile material India may conduct the test again because it would have enough material. It will not be dependent on the import of fissile material anymore. This raises the concern that whether India has developed such kind of strategic reserve or not. It has also been observed that during the Indian application of NSG membership some countries raised the question on criteria of a requirement to sign the CTBT in order to qualify for NSG membership. This has been strongly rejected by the India and some of its sponsors, e.g. United States has not insisted on the signing of CTBT and said that India already qualifies owing to its alleged good behaviour.

The last point discussed by Amb. Zamir Akram was the current development where according to some public reports there has been a rethinking within the official circle of United States about the resumption of tests. CTBT allows zero yield tests and the US has the technology to conduct zero yield tests. Hence there is no reason as to why would the US go beyond and conduct a real or hot test. US has also accused Russia of conducting zero yield tests. However, Russia strongly denies the US allegations.  So there is a possibility that the US might conduct the underground tests but may be not in the near future as it will take time for the US to actually conduct those tests.  From the election point of view also, there is no benefit that President Trump could gain in his reelection campaign and if in case the US does conduct the tests, India would be happy because it is also quite keen to conduct the test. If the US conducts test, it will be quite convenient for India to argue that there are no strong norms against testing.  In such a situation, Pakistan needs to think about how it would react because India may not even have to face any international pressure.  For now, Pakistan needs to wait and watch carefully how things will take place, while calculating its possible response.

The third speaker Air Commodore (R) Khalid Iqbal, while deliberating upon ’Nuclear Testing and Strategic Stability in South Asia’, stated that the currently prevailing anarchic politico-economic world order is leading to ultra-nationalist sentiments and weakening of traditional diplomacy along with the erosion of UNO legitimate mandate. Under these circumstances, anybody can do anything and get away with it.  That is why the likes of Donald Trump and Narendra Modi are taking steps which they would not have been able to otherwise.  In this backdrop if the US decides to go against the already fragile international non-proliferation regime and go ahead with the nuclear testing, it will start the season of open testing. Under this situation, the US’ morality regarding non-proliferation will also erode.

Talking about the strategic stability he explained that the term usually refers to the state of affair in which countries are confident that the other state would not be able to undermine their nuclear deterrent capability. It is generally believed that if nuclear deterrence potentials are secure, nuclear powers will not feel the need to build up their strategic arsenals. Most importantly strategic stability removes the pressure from countries to launch their nuclear missiles in crisis. However, strategic stability has fundamentally changed in the 21st century. At the global level in 2002, the US withdrew from the ABM Treaty, and as a reaction Moscow developed strategic offensive weapons to overcome weaknesses in its missile defences. The INF and open sky treaty have panned out and the fate of a New Start is uncertain.  Moreover, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action commonly known as Iran nuclear deal has also become ineffective and the world has reconciled with DPRK’s nuclear status. India has been cherry-picked by the anti-China global coalition for larger than strategic life projections and to use India to fulfil US ambitions to contain China.

Talking about South Asian region he said that there exists a linear parity between nuclear warheads of India and Pakistan. India has qualitative and quantitative superiority in the conventional inventory and this gap is increasing as India is spending about US $120 billion in up-gradation and modernization program. India possesses exclusive capabilities such as nuclear submarines, aircraft carriers to complete its nuclear triad, mushrooming space militarization program along with anti-satellite weapons etc. India’s No First Use (NFU) doctrine is ineffective due to added ifs and buts making it evident that India is trying to wriggle out of it. Moreover, India’s Cold Start doctrine added to the instability which Pakistan timely and efficiently countered by developing tactical nukes. Elaborating on the purpose of nuclear testing he said, the first purpose is military oriented. It provides information on how well the nuclear weapon works and how it will behave under different conditions along with how different structures react to nuclear explosions. Second is the political objective. For both President Trump and Prime Minister Modi, the political objective is very important. Furthermore, the ‘nuclear weapons related tests’ are designed to know how well the weapons work. Sometimes the purpose of testing is to gain information on weapons effect on structures and are termed as ‘weapon effect tests’. There are also other nuclear tests which are part of anti-ballistic missile testing. Nuclear weapon-related testing which purposely results in no yield is known as sub-critical testing referring to the absence of mass of fissile material; such tests are not considered a nuclear test by CTBT. The US state department define it as an explosion that produces a self-sustaining chain reaction; in other words, states can conduct such experiments.

Both India and Pakistan along with DPRK are non-signatory of CTBT. The US, China, DPRK, Israel and Iran have not ratified the CTBT yet. Hence testing by the US will open the way for other countries, especially those who have not ratified CTBT. This will impact the US’ stance on nuclear non-proliferation. It would open a testing season against the CTBT regime. The treaty has been signed and ratified by 168 states but it will not come into force unless states like the US, China, Iran, Israel and Egypt have ratified it too. India, Pakistan and North Korea have also neither signed nor ratified it. Talking about the options related to the nuclear test, he said that if India does not test a nuclear weapon in the future then Pakistan should also not test unless testing gives a significant boost to its nuclear program. If India conducts a nuclear test and Pakistan does not test then public morale will suffer a severe setback. India and Pakistan’s bid for NSG membership will suffer a setback at least for the time being. Both countries’ non-proliferation image would be further tarnished. If in case India conducts the tests and Pakistan decides to respond to these tests then technical and operational capabilities of the test should be at least at par with India.  Pakistan also may choose not to respond to Indian test and in that case it must have a strong narrative to support it and must have domestic and international buyers for such a narrative.

Talking about the advantages and disadvantages of nuclear testing, he said that boosting public morale, demonstration of nuclear parity with India, and boosting of a stance of simultaneous entry to NSG and NPT could be identified as the major advantages of testing. The disadvantage of nuclear testing is apparently none. Moreover, the advantages of not testing for Pakistan or India whoever does not test, would be that they will have higher non-proliferation credentials though this advantage will not serve any practical purpose. The disadvantage would be that India would further convince the world that India belongs to the nuclear club and Pakistan is only a nuclear pygmy.

The way forward would be that Pakistan must conduct a nuclear test only in response to India’s. However, Pakistan’s testing should be of matching or higher capability than Indian nuclear test. In case India does not conduct a nuclear test, then Pakistan also should not conduct a nuclear test. He concluded by stating that appeasement seldom works in the anarchic world order and it never works with India.

Observations and Questions/Answers session:

Dr. Tariq Rauf (Member Board of Directors, Atomic Reporters Austria) joined from Vienna and stated that there wasn’t enough time to carry out an underground test by the US at the NTS. It will require several months to install the cabling in order to gather various data parameters for a technically viable test. If the objective is just to shake the ground, then a detonation possibly could be carried out earliest by November. An atmospheric test could be possibly done by November but Congress could try to put a brake by denying funding, but this is not certain. US military chiefs at present do not support a test. The SBSS program has repeatedly certified that the stockpile is safe and secure under the moratorium. But some DoE scientists are eager to carry out a round of tests to check on the reliability of ageing plutonium pits. The concern is about flaking and forms of erosion on the inside of the pits that can result in failure of multipoint simultaneous ignition upon firing signals.

The first question was posed by Mr. Zawar Haider Abidi (Senior Research Fellow at Center for International Strategic Studies (CISS), Islamabad) about Pakistan’s option if in case India conducted the tests following the US?  Responding to the question, Air Commodore Khalid Iqbal reiterated that if India goes for test Pakistan must also carry out a test of matching or higher capability. Pakistan must demonstrate its higher operational capability that it possesses with respect to the nuclear weapons program.

Lt. General Naeem Lodhi (former Defence Minister of Pakistan) asked what is zero testing and what could be the purpose of such tests? Amb. Zamir Akram explained that zero testing is a type of test where there is no release of nuclear fission. In other words, there is no highly enriched fissile material such as Uranium or Plutonium that can carry out a blast and create radioactivity. That substance either Plutonium or highly enriched Uranium is not in the test. It simply is a means of testing the mechanism whether it is able to explode but there is a zero-yield of fissile radioactivity, so it is not a bomb in that sense.

Ms. Hananah Zarar (Research Associate, SVI) asked a question with respect to the trilateral arms control propositions by the US that include China in any future arms control accords, whether it would be prospective or would pose new challenges to the global moratorium on nuclear testing? Air Commodore Khalid Iqbal responded to the question and mentioned that President Trump desires to have China included in a trilateral arrangement. This may be a political statement and China will not agree to the offer although there has been an initial indication that China may agree.  Reason for this is that there is a huge difference between the weapons stockpiles of the US and Russia vis-à-vis China. China has only 298 warheads whereas the US and Russia have about 1500. China has none of them deployed while Russia and the US have almost half of their strategic warheads actively deployed. In this backdrop it does not suit China at this stage to join any kind of an arrangement. If in case it does join and the talks do materialize, it will at least take seven or ten years for the talks to bear fruit. By then China may build up its own arsenals. However, in such a case, India may use it as an excuse to build more warheads, which in turn will prompt Pakistan and a chain reaction will begin.

Dr. Zafar Zafar Iqbal Cheema asked what are the chances for India to go for nuclear testing in the near/mid-term future even if there is no independent violation of the moratorium by the US, Russia and any other country? Amb. Zamir Akram answered by explaining about two possible scenarios, one, if the US does not test then India will not resort to conducting its own tests. The second scenario would be where India would have been able to build up strategic reserves of fissile material through the NSG waiver. This would give it a confidence where it will no longer need to depend on international commerce and nuclear materials. At that point, India could consider conducting a test. It would very much like to conduct a test particularly of a hydrogen bomb. The incentive is certainly there but the counter pressure at the moment on India not to test is quite considerable.

Dr. Zafar Iqbal Cheema further asked if India carried out a nuclear test without any other country doing so would its NSG waiver be revoked? Amb. Zamir Akram replied that there would be a very strong move to revoke or withdraw the NSG waiver. If in case the international opposition is missing, some countries which are involved in nuclear trade with India may react strongly and unilaterally cancel trade linkages.

Dr. Zafar Iqbal Cheema posed yet another question about the policy of government of Pakistan if India carries out the nuclear test. Air commodore Khalid Iqbal stated that the government of Pakistan might be double-minded initially as it would first like to see the response from the international community. Nonetheless, there will be immense public pressure just the way it was back in 1998 to conduct tests. The leadership may have to finally give in to the pressure and if India conducts two tests, Pakistan might have to announce four tests.

Ms. Farzana Jalil (Senior Researcher, ISSI) asked about the possible way forward for Pakistan in case India conducts the tests. Is there any significant technological advantage to Pakistan if it conducts tests or would it just conduct tests because India is testing? Amb. Zamir Akram answered that from strategic as well as political perspective there would be a lot of pressure on the Pakistani government to match the Indian tests. Another important perspective to consider here is that of the nuclear scientists. For a nuclear scientist the testing is essential as it provides valuable data about the bomb design and about other technical factors of the yield. So, from the perspective of a nuclear scientist, there is always a desire to conduct tests in every country. Second, Pakistan also needs, like any other nuclear power, to be sure of the reliability of its own designs. Pakistan conducted six tests in 1998; these were not enough to give satisfaction on the designs. Particularly since 1998 to the present time, the bomb designs, the weight, and the whole amount of fissile material involved whether it is low yield nuclear weapons, whether it is tactical, whether it is larger nuclear weapons, all these are factors that need to be tested for reliability by the nuclear scientists, so there is always a desire to go for tests.

Mr. Malik Qasim Mustafa (Director, Arms Control & Disarmament Centre (ACDC) at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad) asked that although the moratorium on nuclear testing is a voluntary commitment but over the years it has become a norm. If the US conducts the nuclear tests in future how it is going to impact the credibility of such moratorium for the other nuclear states? Amb. Zamir Akram explained that if the US or any nuclear power conducts the nuclear tests, this norm and whatever is left of it, will disappear. There is a desire among several countries particularly India to conduct the nuclear tests. So the norm will be severely damaged if something of this sort happens.

AVM Zulfiqar Ahmed Qureshi (Commandant, Air War College Karachi) implored whether the US and India are creeping towards nuclear warfighting doctrine? Amb.  Zamir Akram agreed with the assertion and stated that if one looks at the US national security strategy as well as non-official sentiments being voiced in India by the Indian retired officials both (civil and military) and by academics talking about conducting a so-called splendid first strike/disarming first strike, leads to the impression that these countries are actually thinking about developing the capacity for nuclear warfighting. While responding to the same question, Air Commodore Khalid Iqbal opined that countries are facing big dilemma with respect to the doctrines.  The doctrines which Russia and America have, support their environment because there is a factor of geography i.e. long-distance involved, they have some little bit warnings about the launch, and they will be able to react and able to verify. Pakistan and India have also tried to adopt those doctrines with modifications and thinking that suit their arrangements. But the adjacent location of both nations makes these doctrines slightly impracticable. There is no early warning and the gap between the conventional capabilities of these two countries is also alarming. The more the difference between the conventional strategic balances between the two countries the lower would move the nuclear thresholds for the weaker country because it will reach to that kind of political points where it perceives thresholds will be overrun by the stronger conventional adversary. So there are dilemmas which leave one with no easy answers. Still hopefully nuclear weapon will remain the weapon of deterrence not for warfighting, but it is difficult to say how this thin line will be protected.

AVM (R) Faaiz Amir (former VC Air University, Islamabad) while presenting his observations highlighted an important aspect of cyber warfare. He explained that the growing reliance and expertise in artificial intelligence and cyber warfare have direct implications for one’s nuclear capability and testing as well. It is a fact that this new domain of warfare has rendered the weapons of mass destruction, command, control and communication setups of nuclear states vulnerable. Because these are not included in bilateral or multinational treaties, these also threaten the deterrence in a manner that states could interfere into the testing level facilities of other states by impacting command, control and communication. Coming to South Asia, this particular skill of artificial intelligence and cyber warfare is available at the individual level also. So, hackers could also be involved in such kind of threats.

Lt General (R) Syed Muhammad Owais HI (M), (former Secretary Defence Production, MoDP) asked about the zero-yield testing and simulated aspects of it? Dr. Tariq Rauf answered that the US signed the Science Based Stockpile Stewardship (SBSS) Program which is now already about 25 years old.  It was started after the US congress cut off money for President Bush senior in 1992 to carry out test after President Gorbachev had declared a moratorium on Soviet testing in 1990. So, the SBSS Program relies heavily on big data to simulate the behavior particularly of nuclear material in a warhead. The non-nuclear part of a weapon, the fusing etc. can be tested and replaced with modern materials which are smaller in size, have greater reliability and are cheaper. But it is the behavior of the nuclear material in the pit that is of concern and what that can be simulated to a great extent. Moreover, some of the nuclear scientists who previously worked on weapon programs believed that still the ultimate confidence would come from random warhead of operational status and taking it and detonating it. But for the time being the SBSS is the one that is working and this is what opponents to the CTBT and the US are beginning to attack i.e. the SBSS is not sufficient and given the progress made in developing a new types of delivery system nuclear weapons by Russia and China the US needs to rethink its position on SBSS.

In the end Dr. Cheema concluded from the views of the panelists that recent developments were definitely a concern but so far there was no threat to the ‘Global Moratorium’ on nuclear testing.

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