Most public analyses of the South Asian nuclear stand-off have focused on the dangers of an arms race and the possibility that one side will launch a surprise attack to settle the Kashmir problem. These are serious concerns, but they are not the biggest danger.
Arms races are expensive and wasteful, but they are rarely dangerous in and of themselves.
And while the risk of a decision for deliberate use is not trivial, nuclear weapons are uniquely useful in making this kind of calculation seem unreasonable to the very leaders who would have to authorize it; the awful prospect of nuclear destruction means that even a small chance of failure makes a bolt-from-the-blue an unacceptable choice under most scenarios.
Rather, the biggest danger in the new situation is the uncertainty over how safe and secure the Pakistani and Indian arsenals will be against accidental and unauthorized use. In other words, what we really should worry about is that India or Pakistan might find themselves "using" the weapons whether they intended to or not.
Accidents can happen because the design of the nuclear weapon itself is faulty or because the systems and procedures used to launch or drop the weapons lack safeguards. Unauthorized use can happen if those who are tasked with using the weapons under authorized conditions have the ability to use them regardless of whether they are given an authoritative order.
All arsenals contain inherent risks of accidental or unauthorized use because it's expensive, difficult, and sometimes impossible to avoid risks without rendering the arsenal itself unusable under appropriate circumstances.
A nuclear command-and-control system that is optimized for use under authorized conditions is, of necessity, a system prone to accidental or unauthorized use. A system optimized against accidental or unauthorized use runs the risk of not being available for authorized use, especially after suffering a surprise attack.
This is the nuclear surety problem: making sure weapons are always ready for use when needed, but never detonated accidentally or by unauthorized personnel.
There's a silly theory fashionable in some circles that we don't need to worry about this. Pakistan and India will worry about nuclear surety themselves, optimists aver, and will naturally solve the problem.
Such wishful thinking shows astonishing ignorance of US and Soviet nuclear history. The cold war record of numerous near-accidents and close calls proves that military establishments will tolerate extraordinary risks of accidental and unauthorized use to ensure the weapons will be available for deliberate use, if needed.
These near-accidents were the direct result of compromises made on nuclear surety questions: Tolerating the risks of airborne alerts to achieve a maximum show of force here; failure to install nuclear safety devices for fear it would unnecessarily complicate a launch under duress there.
This is the root nuclear dilemma: Although a nuclear surprise attack is a very unlikely scenario, it is one against which military planners must prepare. To prepare against it, they must take steps that increase the likelihood of accidental or unauthorized use.
During 50 years of cold war experimentation, the US and the Soviet Union adopted technical fixes like coded-locks buried inside the warhead and administrative measures like the two-man rule. These steps went far to reduce the nuclear surety problem.
INDEED, ongoing concerns about nuclear surety, not fears of an arms race of deliberate use, are the primary impetus behind recent proposals to reduce US and Russian arsenals even further.
India and Pakistan have proven that they have the ability to detonate a weapon, but they are neophytes when it comes to nuclear surety. If the US and the Soviet Union engaged in risky behaviors, even though they had virtually unlimited funds and technical expertise to throw at the nuclear surety problem, how can we be confident that the cash-strapped Indians and Pakistanis will be more conscientious?
We can't be, and that is what people should really worry about.
* Peter Feaver, who has studied and written extensively on nuclear command and control, is an assistant professor of political science at Duke University, in Durham, N.C.