India's edge puts heat on Pakistan Arms gap increases the pressure to test, raising Asia tensions

June 02, 1998|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The recent nuclear tests show that India is ahead of Pakistan in the size and sophistication of its nuclear-weapons program, possibly putting new pressure on Pakistan to catch up and making the standoff in South Asia even more tense, experts said yesterday.

The relative weakness of Pakistan will likely cause its scientists to keep testing, thereby prolonging the regional arms race, said David Albright, who heads the Institute for Science and International Security.

"Pakistan feels pressure to develop thermonuclear weapons," Albright said. "There's going to be pressure to continue testing."

India opened the latest round of the arms race May 11, when it staged its first test of a nuclear device in 24 years. Neighboring Pakistan followed suit last week. The Clinton administration believes the nuclear tests have added a dangerous dimension to the frictions and long-standing hatred between India and Pakistan.

"The situation has deteriorated significantly as a result of the tests of nuclear weapons," James Rubin, State Department spokesman, said yesterday.

With both countries having said they are finished testing, at least for now, nongovernment experts say India has been shown to have the more powerful and sophisticated weapons program.

"Overall, I would say that the Indian program appears to be considerably further along than the Pakistani program," said Thomas Cochran, a nuclear physicist who directs the nuclear program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmentalist think tank.

Foreign ministers from the United States, China, Russia, France and Britain plan to meet in Geneva on Thursday to develop a joint strategy aimed at halting the South Asian buildup.

While no one disputes the danger posed by the arms race, U.S. intelligence officials say both sides have exaggerated the strength of their nuclear explosions. One intelligence official yesterday put the yield from each country's initial tests at as low as 5 kilotons, lower than the countries have claimed and also lower than the estimates of outside experts.

Cochran said he could not rule out the possibility that both countries had roughly equal programs. But he said Pakistan had tested a weapon created with highly enriched uranium, a less-efficient fuel than the plutonium used by India.

India has also claimed to have tested a thermonuclear device, often referred to as a hydrogen bomb, which is more powerful than the nuclear devices exploded by Pakistan.

Cochran suggested that India's relative nuclear advantage over Pakistan made little difference to the region's already precarious security.

Jack Mendelsohn, deputy director of the independent Arms Control Association, said: "We're now talking about weapons of such massive destruction that slight differences in yield are not significant.

"It's much more destructive to have four small bombs on a city than one big bomb," he added.

Pakistan's nuclear scientists will build on what they learned from last week's tests, Albright said.

"These programs tend to generate more questions," said Albright, who has a background in theoretical physics. "It's a very intriguing science.

"India's nuclear weapons program is just bigger," he said.

India also has been developing such weapons for a decade longer than Pakistan, which relied heavily on China for help in developing its nuclear program.

Pakistan conducted what it said were five nuclear tests on Thursday in defiance of powerful international pressure and despite repeated pleas from President Clinton to Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Officials in Islamabad said they came under overwhelming political pressure after India conducted tests a few weeks earlier.

India's tests, carrying out a pledge by a new Hindu nationalist government, marked the first significant leap in the region's arms race since the 1980s, when Pakistan enlisted help from China in trying to catch up to New Delhi.

India already has a conventional-arms advantage over Pakistan, and its government yesterday proposed a major increase in the country's defense budget.

Before last month's tests by both countries, observers had considered Pakistan to be ahead in one respect: its ability to mount a nuclear warhead on long-range missiles capable of penetrating deep into its adversary's territory. But Albright said India may have caught up, compounding New Delhi's advantage in nuclear technology.

A leading Pakistani lawmaker, appearing at the National Press Club, did not dispute the experts' assessment that India has a more powerful and sophisticated nuclear program, but said the difference was marginal.

"Once you enter the weapons of mass destruction [field], a matter of a degree higher or a degree lower becomes less important or less significant," said Sen. Muhammad Akram Zaki, who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee in the Pakistani parliament.

Pakistan pursues what it calls a "war-prevention" policy and has developed nuclear weapons for deterrence only, Zaki said. If its weaponry is strong enough to deter Indian aggression, "we are satisfied," he said.

Rubin, the State Department spokesman, outlining plans for Thursday's foreign ministers' meeting, said the United States would not try to persuade the other countries to join in U.S.-imposed sanctions.

"The immediate focus of the meeting will be to consider ways to reduce tensions between India and Pakistan and to try to avoid the kind of provocative steps that have been taken in recent days and weeks," he said.

The meetings will also examine ways to bring greater stability and security to South Asia, Rubin said.

Pub Date: 6/02/98

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