Sometimes, It Helps to Add a 'Rogue State'

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Reports that Pakistan's nuclear capability far exceeds India's are likely to be taken with a pinch of salt among observers of South Asia's arms race — and among missile-defense skeptics. According to a number of unnamed military and intelligence sources cited by NBC, the U.S. now believes that far from being the region's nuclear underdog, Pakistan may have up to five times as many warheads as India and is way ahead of its rival in developing missile systems to carry them. Whereas it had originally been believed that Pakistan had between 10 and 15 nuclear devices while India had between 25 and 100, the NBC report suggests India's capability had been overstated and that Pakistan was more likely to have between 25 and 100 devices.

"Given the history of Pakistan's nuclear program, these figures will certainly raise a few eyebrows," says TIME U.N. correspondent William Dowell. "Pakistan struggled unsuccessfully for decades to develop nuclear weapons, and half of their devices failed to go off in their 1998 tests, which created the impression they were still battling to perfect the technology. Pakistan's nuclear program is generally assumed to be heavily dependent on Chinese assistance, and it sounds a little far-fetched that Beijing would allow them to develop a nuclear program on that scale."

Military and intelligence leaks to the media, of course, are not always inadvertent. "At a time when we're trying to promote a 'Star Wars' missile defense against rogue states, it always helps to have a few more potential threats out there," says Dowell. "Somebody may have a reason for encouraging looseness with this information." To be sure, advancing the notion that a state as unstable — and as prone to Islamic fundamentalist pressure — as Pakistan is developing an arsenal of nuclear warheads and a fleet of converted intermediate-range Chinese and North Korean missiles on which to carry them underscores the dangers cited by missile-defense advocates. It makes little difference, however, to the balance of nuclear terror on the ground in South Asia. Pakistan is a lot smaller than India, both geographically and in population, and would need a larger nuclear capability to annihilate India than vice versa. Such economies of scale, though, may be irrelevant to the language of nuclear deterrence. Says TIME Pentagon correspondent Mark Thompson, "Once you have one or two that you're capable of using, it makes no difference whether you have five or 500."