Call Of Duty: Pakistan’s Nuclear Weapons, Dangerous Portents

With a stockpile of approximately 160 warheads and a projected number of 220 to 250 warheads by 2025, Pakistan is reported to have the fastest-growing nuclear arsenal in the world. Lt Gen (Retd) Philip Campose examines the salience of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and the threat it poses to its neighbours as also to the world at large.

With a stockpile of approximately 160 warheads and a projected number of 220 to 250 warheads by 2025, Pakistan is reported to have the fastest-growing nuclear arsenal in the world. The weapons are seen by many military planners in Pakistan as a low-cost option – to make up for the lack of conventional symmetry as compared to India. But for a small, unstable, economically weak and terrorist-infested country, Pakistan’s ever-increasing capacity, quantities, range and diversity of nuclear weaponry and delivery means have startling portents, and thus are a matter of grave concern for India and the global community.

Pakistan is the only country in the world which has both nuclear weapons and terrorists. More importantly, terrorist organisations have been nurtured and developed by their governmental agencies, especially the Army. For the US Administration, this presents a recurring nightmare as it believes that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are susceptible to theft by terrorists and they increase the likelihood of nuclear exchange in the region. In 2016, the then Director, of United States Defence Intelligence Agency, Vincent Stewart, told the US Senate Armed Services Committee, “Pakistan’s growing nuclear arsenal and its evolving tactical nuclear weapons doctrine pose an increasing risk of an incident or accident”. Yet, the arsenal continues to grow. So, why exactly does Pakistan need all these nuclear weapons? And, who is paying for them, and why? These are questions that the international community would need to answer and correctly predict the related future course of events affecting regional and global security.

Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program had its origins in then Foreign Minister ZA Bhutto’s famous statement following the India-Pakistan war of 1965, “If India builds the bomb, we will eat grass and leaves for a thousand years, even go hungry, but we will get one of our own”. 

Subsequently, in early 1972, in the aftermath of the defeat in the India-Pakistan war of the previous year, Prime Minister ZA Bhutto directed Pakistan’s scientific community to build a nuclear bomb within three years. The job was initially given to the country’s Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC), which had been set up in 1956 ‘to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. As part of this program, uranium was being mined from the Dera Ghazi Khan district. Pakistan’s first nuclear reactor had been commissioned in 1965.

It is well known that much of the technology and material for developing the weapons and associated delivery systems were acquired at various points in time from its all-weather friend in breach of international conventions. Furthermore, it is also well known how Pakistan bartered nuclear technology secrets with North Korea in exchange for nuclear delivery systems and their technology.

The steely determination to acquire the weapons, combined with a  ‘beg, borrow or steal’ approach, helped along by P5 acquiescence, resulted in Pakistan developing, by 1978, the requisite centrifuge technology at Khan Research Laboratories (KRL) at Kahuta and being capable of moderate enrichment of uranium for the production of fissile material. The late AQ Khan, reportedly with state blessings, also ran an atomic proliferation network from Pakistan to various countries, especially North Korea, which he reportedly visited thirteen times during this period.  Concurrently, Pakistan did not forego the plutonium route, and PAEC and its  Chairman Munir Ahmad Khan, who was AQ Khan’s rival, succeeded with this route too by the early 1980s.

Ostensibly, Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, when first developed, were meant to counter India’s superior conventional power, in the context of being militarily weaker. However, by 1984, when Pakistan developed its nuclear weapon capability, using highly enriched uranium as fissile material, produced under Mr AQ Khan’s supervision at KRL, it provided President Zia-ul-Haq with an opportunity to muddy the waters in the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir by fomenting an insurgency in Kashmir using the state policy of “applying the so-called ‘thousand cuts’ to India through the instrument of terror”.

Accordingly, post-Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, Pakistan reoriented the infrastructure created for recruitment and training of the Afghan/ Islamist Mujahideen during the Soviet occupation, for this purpose. As part of this insidious plan, which continued even after Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif and General Pervez Musharraf came to or took over power, the nuclear weapons were now also meant to provide cover for the terror attacks on Kashmir and the Indian hinterland. This became apparent from the repeated reference to its nuclear capability by the Pakistani leadership during the Kargil intrusions of 1999 and the numerous terror attacks unleashed on Kashmir and other parts of J&K thereafter even to other parts of the country.

Manifestations of the spreading ‘arc of terror’ were the communal massacres of non-Muslim civilians in J&K in 2000, the cross-border terror attacks on the J&K State Legislature and Indian Parliament in 2001, the attacks on Raghunath temple and Kaluchak cantonment in Jammu and also the Akshardham temple, Gujarat in 2002, the Sanjuwan and Tanda army camp attacks and the Shopian Kashmiri Pandit massacre of 2003, all these terror attacks actively abetted by the Pakistani Army, through its ISI.  

Concurrently, nuclear ‘sabre-rattling’, aimed at India and the wider global community, was honed to a fine art by the Pakistani government and military, to dissuade the Indian government and Army from launching a punitive conventional response to its continuing state-sponsored terror attacks.

In the meanwhile, the Indian Army had realized, after its year-long mobilization (Operation Parakram), which it had undertaken throughout 2002, in response to the Parliament attack of December 2001, that there was a need for a more robust and pro-active response to manifestations of the Pakistani policy of terror. Hence, in what can be described as an appropriate counter-move, the Indian Army leadership developed its new pro-active doctrine, colloquially called the ‘Pro-Active Doctrine’, to let the Pakistani Army know that the Indian military would respond strongly in case the terror attacks continued. From 2004 onwards, this Doctrine was honed to perfection, notwithstanding Pakistani nuclear coercion. The Cold Start Doctrine appeared to be in step with the Indian nuclear doctrine. 

The Pakistani Army tested the waters by launching the Mumbai terror attack of December 2008 and knows how close it was to getting hit by the ‘Pro-Active Doctrine’, in its aftermath.
Significantly, in 2011, Pakistan responded to India’s Cold Start Doctrine by launching the Nasr short-range missile, also known as Hatf IX, and making claims of developing tactical nuclear weapons or TNWs, ostensibly, as a counter to India’s ‘Pro-Active Doctrine’.

Subsequently, once the Hatf IX and TNWs officially entered service two years later, Pakistan recommenced cross-border terror attacks into the Indian hinterland, beyond Kashmir, with the ISI-controlled LeT and JeM launching terror attacks on a number of security forces’ targets in the Jammu region and Pathankot, under the cover of the TNWs.  But with patience in India running thin, especially after the Pathankot airfield attack, it was a moot point whether this cover would work for long.

In fact, based on subsequent counter-moves by India, more specifically the surgical strike of September 2016 and the cross-border air strike of February 2019, in response to cross-border terror attacks, it appeared that the development of TNWs could well end up in the nature of Pakistan having “cut its nose to spite its face”. And such an assessment is not only related to what India may do in response to continued terror attacks but what may happen in Pakistan itself as a result of the “incidents and accidents” that the US Director DIA had spoken about in 2016.

More recently, the Trump administration’s South Asia strategy urged Pakistan to stop sheltering terrorist organisations and also noted the need to prevent nuclear weapons and materials from falling into the hands of terrorists. Further, it was noted that the new types of delivery systems that Pakistan is developing will introduce new risks for escalation dynamics and security in the region.

But more importantly, the more weapons Pakistan makes, the more the possibility that its ‘non-state actors’ like TTP would step up efforts to lay their hands on them.  Thus, beyond a point, it comes under ‘the law of diminishing returns – the production of nuclear weapons becomes a self-defeating game. And it needs no guesses to judge as to whom the “incidents or accidents” is likely to affect the most. Pakistan may then have to pay a very high cost for its ‘low-cost option’.