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How Many Nuclear Warheads Does Pakistan Have?

June 16, 2021

This year’s Army Day parade on March 25 more than compensated for its absence in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Of course, Pakistan’s missile arsenal was well represented as these are the most sophisticated weapon systems manufactured by the military-industrial sector. Aside from the Nasr large diameter rocket artillery system and the Babur cruise missiles, the Ghaznavi SRBM and the Shaheen III IRBM drove by the VIP pavilion amid glowing commentary from state-owned media. It matters that these road mobile missiles are shown to the public because at some point in the future they will likely be used against India. This begs the question: As a nuclear armed state and the only Muslim country with a nuclear arsenal, how many warheads does Pakistan have?

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) settled the question in its latest yearbook that includes the World Nuclear Forces assessment. SIPRI acknowledges non-proliferation is now crumbling as Russia and the USA modernize their respective arsenals. Unfortunately, the same is happening on a smaller scale with other nuclear-armed states such as Pakistan whose nuclear arsenal is now measured at 165 warheads. This sum adds five warheads to the earlier assessment of the Arms Control Association (ACA) that claimed Pakistan had between 150-160 warheads. The ACA is also convinced Pakistan’s military is eager to form a “nuclear triad” by developing homegrown sea-launched missiles to complement its road mobile and air-launched missiles.

This makes the public appearances of the Ghaznavi SRBM (pictured above), also known as the Hatf 3, extremely relevant. The Ghaznavi is suspected of being developed from a Chinese missile supplied to Pakistan in the 1990s. The earliest analysis of the missile indicated its range was estimated at 400 to 500 kilometers, comparable to the Iranian Zolfaghar and the Russian Iskander-M, and the expert view on its role leaves no doubt it can be armed with tactical nuclear weapons. India does have a missile arsenal of its own and the Ghaznavi’s closest rival is the Prithvi II. There are actually multiple global treaties that seek to curb advances in nuclear-capable missile technology–Pakistan isn’t bound by any of them and the Ghaznavi’s test history indicates it’s among the most advanced SRBMs in use today.

For comparison, NATO militaries have no comparable SRBMs matching the range and payload of the Ghaznavi SRBM. Turkey’s Roketsan does manufacture large diameter guided/unguided rockets and short-range ballistic missiles such as the Bora Khan–both are results of Chinese technology transfers–but neither match the Ghaznavi’s range. The few NATO militaries that have old Soviet vintage Tochka or Scarab missiles are no doubt aware these are antiquated. The US Army’s own MGM-140 ATACMS, which has been exported to several allies, doesn’t match the Ghaznavi either unless it’s upgraded to the Block 1A variant. No wonder the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) scrutinized the Ghaznavi and its history of tests from 2014 onward. At the time the missile was estimated to have a range of just 250 km. This figure has been adjusted over time and in 2020 the ISPR, the official news agency of Pakistan’s armed forces, revealed the Ghaznavi can be armed with “multiple warheads” (conventional or nuclear) and reach 290 km.

The twin pressures of another large-scale conflict with India the its financial constraints (the defense budget for 2020 was a modest $10.4 billion) mean Pakistan’s military is always looking to maximize its existing inventory. This explains why the past two decades of ballistic missile development were so bountiful as multiple programs were advanced and refined. Besides the Ghaznavi SRBM, for example, its older sibling the Shaheen I (itself based on a Chinese missile design) remains in service with its own upgrades. The ISPR never kept the Shaheen I’s role a secret–it too is nuclear-capable and has an impressive range of 750 km. The two-stage Shaheen II is even more potent and enjoys twice the range.

Pakistan’s greatest deterrent versus India, at least in the eyes of Western nuclear proliferation experts, is the Shaheen III. As the newest and most advance nuclear-capable missile in Pakistan’s arsenal since its public tests began in 2015 the FAS are convinced it was envisioned to strike all of India’s cities and military infrastructure. The FAS took Pakistan’s own generals at their word when they claimed the Shaheen III could hit India’s outlying islands in the Bay of Bengal. The Shaheen III’s range is 2,750 km and this allows Pakistan to put the eastern Mediterranean under its nuclear umbrella if the Shaheen III is deployed in Balochistan. There’s no doubt Pakistan’s missile technology will keep evolving this decade as its inventory of nuclear warheads grow little by little.

According to SIPRI both India and Pakistan are working to accurize and expand their nuclear warheads. India is estimated to have 156 warheads compared to Pakistan’s 165 warheads. China still has the largest nuclear warhead stockpile of just 350 (with several hundred nuclear-capable missiles) among Asian countries although this has remained modest when stacked against Russia’s 6,255 warheads.

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