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Pakistan Built Its Nuclear Arsenal From Scratch

June 3, 2021


Each year Pakistan’s armed forces stage a lavish show in their official parade ground for Army Day. Although the 2020 installment got cancelled because of the global pandemic the event continued this March 25, rather than the usual March 23, and lived up to its reputation. As far as regional military parades go, Pakistan’s army and air force have the best of the lot when it comes to advertising their latest kit along with the so-called “old standards” that are never getting phased out. These occasions are also useful for observing the army’s nuclear-capable weapon systems. Foremost at the 2021 parade was the Shaheen III, an intermediate-range missile able to deliver a nuclear warhead as far as the eastern Mediterranean, whose existence qualifies as Islamabad’s deadliest foreign policy option.

To think this entire missile arsenal, along with the elusive nuclear warheads they’re supposed to carry, was built over a very short span of two decades.

There’s a wealth of open sources available for learning about Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program that came to the world’s attention through multiple tests in May 1998. Islamabad and New Delhi detonated nuclear warheads just weeks apart as relations began to fray. The demonstrations by Pakistan, five of them under the codename Chagai-I and a final detonation under Chagai-II, allowed Islamabad to establish a deterrent versus its arch-rival, whose superior conventional forces might launch a full-scale invasion someday, even if Islamabad had to withstand international condemnation and US sanctions. This possibility almost came true the following year when the Kargil War erupted and Pakistan was roiled by its last defeat at the hands of India.

Almost a quarter century later Pakistan is the only Muslim country to possess its own nuclear arsenal with a viable delivery system through road mobile missiles and fighter aircraft. As far as the Arms Control Association (ACA) is concerned, Pakistan continues to assemble warheads at a modest pace and could possess 160 of these compared with India’s 150 warheads. By comparison, Iran’s own nuclear weapons program is an abject failure and hasn’t just tarnished its image but earned Tehran some of the world’s most difficult economic sanctions.

The consensus on why Pakistan decided to acquire nuclear weapons sees the disastrous 1971 war over East Pakistan–the country known today as Bangladesh–as the starting point. The actual program to assemble nuclear weapons spanned decades and revolved around one person: the metallurgist and physicist Abdul Qadeer Khan or A.Q. Khan. While employed by a Dutch nuclear engineering firm during the mid-1970s Khan took it upon himself to smuggle out blueprints and other sensitive media for equipment used in enriching uranium. It’s still unclear if Khan’s espionage was officially sanctioned by Islamabad or if he was motivated by patriotism and the encouragement of Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. It’s rather telling how Khan’s employer, and later the Hague, never brought him to justice when the Dutch whistleblower Frits Veerman provided enough incriminating evidence about Khan’s activities.

The US had sufficient knowledge of Pakistan’s nuclear program by the 1980s when the CIA found out it was producing highly enriched uranium in an engineering laboratory run by Khan. But Pakistan’s dictator at the time, Gen. Zia ul Haq, never took responsibility for these allegations despite his frequent contact with President Ronald Reagan. The general was also playing a double game with the White House; openly accepting billions of dollars in military assistance while the armed forces deepened ties with China. Perhaps it was useful not to press Gen. Zia since the CIA was allied with the ISI for training the anti-Soviet mujahideen. Besides, Zia died in a mysterious plane crash on August 17, 1988, and took whatever knowledge of the nuclear program to his grave. By all intents and purposes it continued without him.

By the 1990s the work of A.Q. Khan paid off thanks to persistence and generous funding. (Libya was considered a shadow investor and became one of Khan’s original clients along with Iran.) While stealing centrifuge designs from the Netherlands was the crucial first step, other strands came into play. Contacting suppliers of centrifuge parts in France, South Africa, and the UK proved effortless and attracted no unwelcome scrutiny. China and North Korea were just as instrumental in hastening the momentum of Pakistan’s nuclear program given India’s own remarkable progress. Beginning with civilian research in the 1950s India had successfully conducted a nuclear test at a military firing range in 1974 without a hitch. It was prudence that kept New Delhi from activating its nuclear weapons capability for the next 24 years but when it did the inevitable sanctions were easy to withstand. In fairness to Pakistan, the US lifted its sanctions over nuclear tests after the September 11 terror attacks.

The US always knew China was involved in exporting nuclear expertise and technology to Pakistan but the specifics are muddled. A Chinese nuclear test on May 26, 1990 in its Lop Nur site may have been arranged on Pakistan’s behalf. It’s possible Chinese technical assistance to Pakistan’s civilian nuclear energy program was established as early as the 1980s and carried on until the present. This bilateral agenda is very much alive and China is now helping its neighbor establish a nuclear power grid. How North Korea added to Pakistan’s knowledge base for nuclear weapons is just as ambiguous and the public record tends to frame Pyongyang as a customer–A.Q. Khan served as their consultant–rather than an ally. But the evidence tells a different story. Since the 2000s the ballistic missile technology of Pakistan began to evolve and improve at an astonishing pace. While China is often deemed the strategic ally that allowed Pakistan to manufacture large diameter rockets it was North Korea who helped enhance the size and range of the army’s nuclear-capable missiles throughout the 1990s.

A remarkable aspect of Pakistan’s semi-clandestine nuclear program and the nuclear missile arsenal it assembled from 1998 onward are the low costs incurred. The diplomatic fallout was short-lived and sanctions imposed on Islamabad were lifted before the end of 2001. Pakistan’s economy went on to enjoy strong nominal GDP growth for a decade, peaking at $177 billion by 2010 in a country of 180 million people. There’s little to no proof acquiring nuclear weapons had an adverse effect on Pakistan’s society and economic life or brought its political system to the brink of collapse. The financial burden of the nuclear program was just as marginal. As of 2020 the calculated annual defense budget of Pakistan reached a modest $10.4 billion. The exact budget outlay for its nuclear warhead stockpile isn’t found in any public record or research although some NGOs claim it’s as high as $2 billion a year.

If Pakistan had a doctrine to justify its nuclear arsenal this has never been announced nor explained at length. But experts agree that Islamabad embraces the idea of a “minimum deterrent” against India and upholds the right to deploy its nuclear weapons against another nuclear-armed state if the threat is manifest. A lingering US concern over Pakistan’s status as a nuclear-armed state is the country’s risk of civil war. American writers and officials are keen to point out the warhead stockpile may fall into the “wrong hands” if Islamists seize power. The flaw in this argument is hardline Islamists are indeed well represented among local political parties and Pakistan’s leaders encourage and endorse them on many occasions. There’s a minimal risk these parties shall overcome the state and subordinate the powerful armed forces to their ideology. As for the nuclear arsenal that’s managed by the secretive “Strategic Command Organization,” it’s a matter of national pride and the army does take pains securing it.

It will serve the reader to keep in mind how small Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is–an estimated 110 warheads in 2011 and an estimated 160 warheads by 2020–and these are meant for air-launched and road mobile delivery. Little else is known behind the numbers except when the military balance in South Asia is distorted by India’s emergence as a true global power Pakistan must decide how to adjust and live with the reality that an unwinnable war can break out sooner than it thinks.

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