The Bombs Work - Now What?
India and Pakistan are caught in an escalating nuclear rivalry - full of emotion and weak on stable command and control.
Last month's nuclear bomb tests by India and Pakistan have, ironically, failed to make either nation feel any more secure.
The two may have squared the number of tests at 6-all (if India's 1974 blast is counted). But as a cold war dawns in South Asia, both nations must decide whether to convert test bombs into warheads for missiles and then come up with a way of deciding when, if ever, to pull the trigger.
"The security situation must definitely get worse before it gets better," says India's former deputy chief of naval staff, Raja Menon. "We can see great danger in unbridled weaponization if the political will is not there to control it."
If the recent rhetoric of nuclear nationalism is anything to go by, that will is lacking. The war of words has turned into a war of nuclear nerves in a region with a history of disputes and animosity deeply rooted in religion.
"It might sound perverse but if there is to be any serious dialogue on the nuclear issue both countries have to weaponize," says Dr. Kanti Bajpa, an international affairs professor at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University.
"Unless you put nuclear warheads on top of your missiles and start 'bean counting,' what are you really going to talk about?" he adds. "The only other option is for both sides to open up their atomic estates for inspection and I don't see any chance of that."
Just how close the two countries are to having usable nuclear bombs is a highly contentious issue in New Delhi and Islamabad. The nuclear establishments of the countries are veiled in secrecy and their propaganda machines are aimed at keeping the other side guessing as to what their real capabilities are. Even the number of Pakistan's blasts is disagreed upon - India and some verification experts believe only two tests were completed at Pakistan's site.
"The possibility of a limited confrontation is very real," says strategic affairs expert Rifaat Hussain of Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad. "The leadership in both countries is very new to this nuclear game."
Adding to this game of blind man's bluff is the ambiguity surrounding the preparedness of delivery systems that could reliably aim warheads at each other's capitals and nuclear facilities. Neither India's top-of-the-range Agni missile, nor Pakistan's Ghauri, are in full production. That leaves a cluster of smaller missiles as well as a range of aircraft that could carry atomic payloads.
During the cold war the thousands of nuclear warheads possessed by the United States and Soviet Union superpowers were kept in a state of relative stability by a system of command-and-control procedures that had been fine-tuned for decades. But that is lacking in South Asia, says Islamabad-based defense analyst Talat Masood. "We don't have a doctrine of deterrence and we have very emotional leaders on both sides of the border. Its a very combustible situation," points out Mr. Masood.
"If the two leaders had any wisdom, they would use this opportunity for dialogue and not go in for a military solution," he adds. "Fifty years of history should have taught us that. But we seem to be going in the opposite direction."
For the time being atomic brinkmanship seems to be the main guiding force behind each country's nuclear strategy. "I don't see any clear strategic logic coming from Islamabad or New Delhi," says Raja Menon. "Nuclear instability comes from the lack of credibility and the lack of transparency and that is very evident here with secrecy and suspicion the order of the day in both capitals."
So can the two countries sit around the negotiating table and talk about confidence-building measures while simultaneously secretly building up their missile arsenals and progressing down the path of nuclear weaponization and deployment?
"Why not?" asks retired Air Commodore Jasjit Singh, who now heads the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses in New Delhi. "You can't automatically say its dangerous because it is still the political relationship that decides whether the differences between India and Pakistan can be resolved."
India's former foreign secretary J.N. Dixit agrees. "What we have here is no worse than the situation that prevailed in Europe during the 1950s and early '60s. Why does everyone assume that India and Pakistan will behave any more irrationally and irresponsibly than America and the Soviet Union did?"
Whether both countries can rise to the challenge and prove their critics wrong should be known in the next few weeks, as the world waits to see whether nuclear swords of the subcontinent can be turned into plowshares of peace.