What Is to Become of Pakistan’s Nuclear Arsenal?

The launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile.
This picture is in the public domain.

September 7, 2009
By Prof. Pervez Hoodbhoy
» Dieser Artikel ist auf Deutsch verfügbar

In 2004 Musharraf’s government was determined to retain and expand its nuclear capabilities. Yet it was shaken by the international reaction to the proliferation of Pakistani nuclear technology (A.Q. Khan, the founder of Pakistan's nuclear programme had admitted to exporting technology to Iran, Libya, and North Korea). Musharraf thus sharply reversed the earlier policy of keeping all nuclear matters under wrap. Following this turnaround numerous Pakistani officials visited Washington think-tanks and military colleges across the United States. A few years earlier this would have been unthinkable. U.S. visits from top officials of the Strategic Plans Division (SPD), which is charged with the possession, maintenance, and safety of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, became routine, and still continue.

Safety and security

Even the director general of the Strategic Plans Division, Lt. Gen. Khalid Kidwai, was invited to give a lecture at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. There he sought to debunk the notion that Pakistani weapons could fall into the hands of religious extremists, were on hair-trigger alert, or to be used irresponsibly. Other Pakistani military officers associated with the nation’s nuclear programme are paid for writing reports and papers for U.S. think-tanks and research institutes.

Safeguarding Pakistan’s “crown jewels” is a relatively recent preoccupation - it dates back to September 11, 2001. Although Pakistan’s military government insisted that there was no danger of any of its 25 to 40 nuclear weapons being hijacked, it did not take chances. Several weapons were reportedly airlifted to safer, more isolated locations within the country. This nervousness was not unjustified. Two strongly Islamist generals of the Pakistan Army (the head of Pakistan's ISI intelligence agency, Lt. General Mehmood Ahmed, and Deputy Chief of Army Staff, General Muzaffar Hussain Usmani), close associates of General Musharraf, had just been removed.

Widespread fears of instability

There are widespread fears that instability in Pakistan could make its nuclear weapons vulnerable to theft. As was to be expected, Pakistan's position has been one of emphatic denial: the Foreign Ministry claims that “our [nuclear] assets are 100 percent secure, under multiple custody”.

Soothing words, however, have not taken away a general sense of worry. Pakistan is in the grip of an Islamic insurgency. For some of the insurgents Pakistan’s nuclear weapons belong to the Ummah, i.e. the whole Muslim world, rather than to Pakistan alone. This has enhanced the feeling that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, fissile materials, and other nuclear components are all but safe. 

The dangers to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are potentially four-fold:

  • India and the US, separately or together, could try to gain control. Israel is a distant possibility but not to be ruled out (1).
  • Foreign Islamic militants could attack a nuclear storage site or facility and capture a nuclear weapon.
  • Islamic elements within the Pakistani army could try to gain control of nuclear sites or facilities.
  • There could also be collaboration between insiders and outsiders.

Only an extreme crisis could result in India or the US, jointly or separately, attacking a nuclear power such as Pakistan. Even massive use of force would be unlikely to neutralise all of the well-hidden and well-protected Pakistani nuclear weapons. Moreover, the job would be incomplete unless the major nuclear weapon facilities, reactors, and uranium enrichment plants were also destroyed. This would involve nothing short of total war.
On the other hand, Islamic extremists may try to get hold of a weapon to use it against a US or European target. Yet, should a nuclear weapon fall into their hands, it would be much easier form them to deploy it against an Indian or Pakistani city, thus provoking total war between Pakistan and India. This would be consistent with Al-Qaida's strategy of suicide bombings. In the extremist mindset, it is best if infidels are killed. Yet, if Sunni Muslims are killed, they will simply make it to heaven a bit earlier.
Security dilemmas

Defending against other nations as well as internal enemies poses a security dilemma: Pakistan would like to keep the location and details of its nuclear weapons secret in order to increase their chances in the event of a strike by India, the US, or Israel.  Army insiders, on the other hand, are already in the know. In collusion with Islamic groups they might be plotting a move to gain control of Pakistan's arsenal. How could such an attempt be foiled?
No matter what the technical fix, only partial safety can be achieved. One approach is to reduce the level of readiness. Pakistan is widely believed to store the fissile core and bomb mechanisms separately in safely guarded vaults. As early as December 1999, it had asked the U.S. for so-called Permissive Action Links (PALs), a technology directly integrated into the firing mechanism and electronics of a nuclear weapon, as well as for Environment Sensitive Devices (ESDs), in order to enhance protection against unauthorised use or accidental nuclear detonations. At the time, the US had declined for obvious reasons: These devices make it possible to keep the weapons safely on a higher state of alert, thereby increasing the threat to India. Yet, it is possible that after 9/11 the US changed its stance without requesting that Pakistan in return reveal the location of and details about its nuclear weapons.

According to an IISS report, after 9/11, US Secretary of State Colin Powell had offered assistance in nuclear protection to Pakistan. Pakistan found the offered technology to be quite rudimentary but nevertheless accepted it under the condition that the end point usage would remain secret. Other aspects of the assistance included training courses for Pakistani nuclear weapons personnel in US labs where they were instructed on nuclear safety and security issues.

David Albright, a US nuclear security analyst, recommended the following forms of additional assistance to Pakistan in the aftermath of 9/11:

Generic physical protection and material accounting practices; theoretical exercises; unclassified military handbooks on nuclear weapons safety and security; more sophisticated vaults and access doors; portal control equipment; better surveillance equipment; advanced equipment for materials accounting; personnel reliability programs; and programs to reduce the likelihood of leaking sensitive information. In addition, aid could focus on methods that improve the security of nuclear weapons against unauthorized use through devices not intrinsic to the design of the nuclear weapon or through special operational or administrative restrictions. Excluded assistance would include nuclear weapons design information aimed at making more secure, reliable or safer nuclear weapons or devices, PALs, coded launch  control devices, and environmental sensing devices.
David Albright: Securing Pakistan's Nuclear Weapons Complex, October 2001

While technical measures to reduce the chances of nuclear sabotage and accidents must be implemented, one fundamental contradiction will not go away: A perfectly safe nuclear weapon is one that cannot be used. Thus, in times of crisis and war, when passions run high, there will be a strong urge to weaken safety mechanisms.

Pakistan’s nuclear future

Looking at the next five to ten years, one can make reasonable guesses concerning the direction Pakistan's nuclear policy will take.
Unless a global freeze on fissile material production is somehow agreed upon and implemented, Pakistan's production of such materials, as well as of bombs and ballistic missiles, will continue at the maximum speed possible. A shift towards smaller plutonium weapons, or composite warheads, will accelerate as the Khushab military reactors are taken into service.

More warheads will need more delivery platforms. In spite of the introduction of JF-17 and F-16 aircraft, missiles will, by and by, replace aircraft as launching platforms for nuclear weapons. Flight tests and command post exercises will periodically take place. Pakistan will try to match India’s capabilities for outer space reconnaissance and early-warning systems but will not be able to do so.

Arms race between India and Pakistan

If India is successful in deploying an anti-ballistic missile system, a missile system with warheads aimed at independent targets (MIRVing), or submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), Pakistan will counter this by lowering the threshold for a nuclear strike, more widely disperse its mobile launchers, and by employing decoys and moving towards SLBMs, too.
In the past, Pakistan's nuclear policy has been closely linked to India. Pakistan had assumed that India’s status as a nuclear power would be sufficient to justify its activities. But the “de-hyphenation” of Pakistan from India – a term that gained currency after George W. Bush's 2006 visit to India and Pakistan – has now forced its nuclear policy to be more than a mirror image of India’s.

Presently new challenges are on the horizon. The Obama administration has set out on a joint U.S.-Russian initiative to reduce nuclear weapons. U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), something rejected during the Bush years, will put pressure on India and Pakistan to also sign the treaty. Will Pakistan go along? The chances are, it will. Unless India resumes nuclear testing, Pakistan will test no further. 
It is also certain that the U.S. will go ahead with talks on a “verifiable” Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT). Here, Pakistan is already seen as being obstructive. Would Pakistan be ready to negotiate? Sign the FMCT? And what about inspections?

Pakistan’s nuclear diplomacy

Although a client state of the U.S., Pakistan has so far resolutely rejected American pressure to abandon its nuclear weapons. Its diplomacy has reflected the desire within the military-civil establishment to ward off criticism, particularly that which followed periods of high tension between Pakistan and India. It has been particularly important to project the image of a state that is fully aware of its role and in control. 

In fact, Indian and Pakistani elites, both military and civilian, crave nuclear respectability. They want to prove that their nuclear weapons are handled responsibly, that they are strictly opposed to proliferation, and that they are victims rather than supporters of terrorism. Officials and experts from both countries regularly meet at arms control workshops, behave civilly (if not cordially) towards each other, and appear to be rational actors. The underlying mistrust and hostility is thereby effectively concealed.

Responsible actors?

Long before their Pakistani counterparts, Indian intellectuals had understood the value of creating the image of being a “responsible actor”. The closing of the 2007 U.S.-Indian nuclear deal owes much to that fact. Indeed, years earlier, the Indian strategic analyst C. Raja Mohan had observed that,

New Delhi and Islamabad should know that the willingness of the rest of the world to accept them as part of the official nuclear club depends on the ability of India and Pakistan to responsibly manage their own nuclear relationship…If  India and Pakistan want to be taken seriously, they must show results from their nuclear talks.
C. Raja Mohan: Beyond Nuclear Stability, The Indian Express, December 14, 2004

Pervez Musharraf’s predecessor as chief of army staff, General Jehangir Karamat, while ambassador to the United States, was also keen to show that Pakistan and India are not trigger-happy,

For those who observe South Asia from the outside it is considered a most dangerous place and a region in which a nuclear exchange could be a reality. It is thought that the India-Pakistan confrontations in 1987, 1990 and 2002, as well as the Kargil conflict in 1999, all had a nuclear dimension of some sort. This is not what most South Asians think”.
General (retd) Jehangir Karamat: “Nuclear Risk Reduction Centres in South Asia”, SASSU Research Report, 2005

Nevertheless, General Karamat did admit that during the Kargil crisis, as well as the crisis that followed the attack by Islamic militants upon the Indian Parliament in December 2001,  “statements and signaling through missile tests could have had unintended consequences”.

As I have argued earlier, once the going gets tough, the velvet gloves are rapidly discarded. The current politeness between India and Pakistan, while welcome, merely hides the visceral feelings that lie beneath the surface.

This is an extract from "Pakistan: Reality, Denial, and the Complexity of its State" to be published by the Heinrich Böll Foundation.


(1) There is concern in Pakistan about the growing Israeli-Indian strategic alliance, underscored by the supply of four Phalcon AWAC-type systems. These have the capability of tracking Pakistani aircraft. India has acquired two Israeli Green Pine radars, capable of tracking missiles at a distance of 400 km. These are normally used in conjunction with the Arrow II anti-missile system. These early-warning systems could be effectively used by Israel to launch a pre-emptive strike against Pakistan’s nuclear facilities, either with India’s direct assistance or by using India as a base.