The acquisition of nuclear weapons since the beginning of their existence has been a prime objective that many countries have sought to achieve. The glamour they offer in combination with the geopolitical upgrading of their owner convinced many leaders to acquire or construct them.
During the Cold War, the US nuclear monopoly ceased when the USSR constructed its own atomic bomb. However, the development of nuclear programs “escaped” from these two countries and in the above period other states developed their own remarkable nuclear weapons programs. One of them was Pakistan.
The beginning: 1956- 1972
Pakistan, with the onset of the Cold War and its independence, engaged in conflict with India for a series of border disputes with the most prominent the control over Kashmir. India launched its own nuclear program as well this period. That development alarmed Pakistan, that decided to implement a similar program of its own. In 1956, the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) was founded to head the program. Its leader was Nazir Ahmed. Nuclear power was originally intended to be used to meet the country’s energy needs and not to build weapons.
Pakistan in the midst of the Washington-Moscow confrontation was an ideal ally for the first because of the India-USSR approach. It was a counterweight to communism. It is not accidental that in 1962 the US delivered the first research reactor to the Pakistani authorities. The first practical step had taken place. The new director of PAEC, Ishrat Usmani, was ambitious and insightful, so he decided to step up the Pakistani program. He devoted his efforts to educate the next generation of scientists. In 1965 he founded the Pakistan Institute of Nuclear Sciences and Technology to develop research, and many scientists left for training abroad.
The Indian-Pakistani war of 1965, coupled with Pakistan’s defeat and its international isolation, shook Islamabad and persuaded the Pakistani leadership that the acquisition of nuclear weapons might have been imperative so as to act as deterrents by offsetting India’s power. At the same time, information from Pakistani scientists reported that the Indian side continued to develop its nuclear program. Pakistan could not be in worse position in all sectors than its competitor.
In 1971, a new Indo-Pakistani war broke out. Pakistan’s leader was one of the nuclear program supporters and a nationalist politician, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. He was the one who, in 1965, following the successful development of the Indian program, said that since Christians, Jews and Hindus have a bomb, why not Muslims have one. The new conflict ended with a crushing defeat of Pakistan. Not only was it defeated in the battlefields, but also it lost much of its territory, which became independent- the country of Bangladesh. The shock was huge. The weakness of Pakistan had proved once again. The Pakistani leadership had been isolated diplomatically and militarily. Although the country was financially desperate, nuclear weapons needed to upgrade its status. Scientists’ reports confirmed that nuclear weapons could be built. In 1972, the government agreed to build such weapons systems and launched the “Project-706” that aimed at the acquisition of a uranium bomb. Chairman of PAEC was Munir Ahmad Khan.
The peak 1974- 1998
In 1974, the Pakistani authorities suffered a new shock. India tested its own nuclear weapons. This action also shook the international community. The power balance was completely disrupted and it was more than a vital need for Pakistan to build nuclear weapons. The threat had now been transformed into existential. The Bhutto’s government maintained its temper and moved on two axes. The first concerned efforts to avoid a nuclear arms race in South Asia between India and Pakistan. The second concerned the acceleration of the acquisition of nuclear bomb procedures.
Since 1975, the Pakistani government began inviting scientists to work on the nuclear program. One of those who responded to the call was the metallurgist A.Q. Khan. It would be the “father” of the Pakistani atomic bomb. He was working for the URENCO Company in the Netherlands dealing with nuclear materials. Returning to his country, he brought centrifugal generator designs as well as other information that would contribute to the completion of the program. Still, he set up a network to purchase construction departments in order to avoid restrictions on nuclear material traffic that had been imposed since India’s nuclear testing. Suppliers included, among others, North Korea, Iran and China that helped Pakistan because of its confrontation with India.
In 1977, a political change took place in the country. The Bhutto’s government was overthrown by Zia ul-Haq and in 1979 Bhutto was hanged. So his influence on the nuclear program was over. The new leader continued developing the program. Also, the army undertook supervision and guidance of it. However, the initiatives were of limited scale due to the international pressure that had been imposed on Islamabad.
The development that would change the environment was the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan in 1979. Suddenly, Pakistan was a bastion for Washington to halt communism in central and southern Asia. So, the government of Ronald Reagan allowed the Asian country to continue its program. In the early 1980s, Pakistan had the necessary uranium reserves to build nuclear weapons. However, in 1985 the American stance changed again. Sanctions were foreseen if the country proceeded to produce enriched uranium and build a bomb. The Pakistani government was not in panic. Not only did it conducted some preliminary tests, but also approached North Korea and gained know-how to develop missile technology.
At the beginning of the 1990s, Pakistan was preparing fiercely to carry out nuclear testing. The Cold War had ended, but another one was “alive” with India. The Pakistani geological service after surveys, concluded that the province that was suitable for conducting the nuclear tests was Baluchistan. There were isolated areas which were offered for nuclear testing. At the same time, Pakistani engineers had also developed missiles called Ghauri who could carry nuclear warheads. At the end of the decade, everything was ready.
Nuclear competition in the region had worried the international community, especially the Americans. Calls were made to stop the programs but in vain. In mid-May 1998 the Indians made new nuclear tests causing anxiety to Pakistani people. The pressure on the Nawaz Sharif’s government was intense. Such a challenge could not be left unanswered. The country had nuclear weapons and that should have been perceived by the global and especially the Indian community. Despite the international pressure, the Sharif government mandated nuclear weapons testing. At the end of May, testing operations Chagai-I and II demonstrated globally that Pakistan was also officially a nuclear power. The answer to New Delhi was given. However, the reactions were intense both by its partners and by the IMF that imposed sanctions on it along with other states. Countries such as Turkey and Iran on the other side, hailed this success. In the year that the tests were carried out, the country also acquired a plutonium processing plant, a proof of the development of the program.
The Pakistani nuclear program during the 21th century
The advent of the 21st century was supposed to be optimistic for Pakistan. It was now part of the nuclear powers club and it had acquired the know-how to further develop nuclear technology. Moreover, it was not seriously affected by the sanctions. After 11 September 2001, when Pakistan entered the War on Terror campaign, American and international confidence was restored. Additionally, it also adopted a nuclear doctrine. This is evidenced by the words of Prime Minister Pervez Musharraf that nuclear weapons target India and will only be used when the country faces an existential threat. It is clear that it is a doctrine of “second strike”. It aims to prevention.
The development of other types of weapon systems also allowed the Pakistani Armed Forces the military capability of conducting a nuclear warfare. Airborne and floating military means can carry nuclear weapons and the development of ballistic missiles of all kinds that can carry nuclear warheads make the Asian state a particularly fierce opponent. At the same time, they increase its deterrent power. It is possible to argue that the Pakistani leadership can withstand a nuclear war. Nowadays, the army not only ensures the progress of research in the natural and technological sciences, but it is also able to avoid a conventional military equipment race. Still, relations with its main ally, the US, have not been disturbed by the nuclear program. Already, new research centers and laboratories are being built.
Geography plays an important role at studying the Pakistani nuclear program. Its role concerns the areas the main activities are taking place. The headquarters of the project is in Punjab Province. This province includes the capital (Islamabad) and Lahore and is on the border with India. It was not chosen at random. On the one hand, it is close to the country’s administrative center, the capital, so it is closely controlled by the authorities. On the other hand, it is far from the Afghan border that it provides security against the threat of the Talibans (see below). In addition, in this area there are the richest and hence the most uranium mines. Plutonium and heavy water plants also exist there. As far as the reactors and the main research centers are concerned, they are mostly based in Islamabad. An exception is a research center based in Karachi. The test fields are located in the Baluchistan province in the Ras Koh Mountains and the Kharan Desert. The fact that they are isolated on inaccessible areas ensures free field of testing and eliminates the humanitarian risk of a possible accident.
The advent of the new millennium was not only accompanied by optimism about Pakistan’s nuclear future. Security issues arose. In Afghanistan, but also in some areas of Pakistan, the Taliban had and still have some influence and control. When their leadership collaborated with Al-Qaeda, fears were born that the secrets of the nuclear program could have leaked or even worse, nuclear weapons fall into the hands of the jihadists. In addition, the leadership of the terrorist organization said it intended to capture Pakistani nuclear weapons. Also, concerns were expressed about the faith of Pakistani scientists in the work of the government. It was not excluded that there might be Al-Qaeda sympathizers among the country’s scientific community and that Osama bin Laden’s agents could acquire crucial information for the program. Another concern was the case of abducting Pakistani scientists from the Islamist organization in order to study its possibility to construct nuclear weapons. The Pakistani governments perceived and perceive the above risks and for those reasons they took and continue taking a series of measures. They transferred the main facilities of the program to Punjab province and put thousands of army and counter-intelligence agents to guard weapons and facilities and oversee the area. At the same time, a new system for checking the personality of the scientists who are going to be placed in the program was introduced in order not to appoint persons friendly to terrorist organizations. Finally, Pakistani governments are also taking care to hide some of the data of the program.
Concerns are also expressed for another reason. This regards the relationship between Pakistan and the international conventions and committees. Pakistan has not ratified some nuclear arms non-proliferation agreements on the grounds that the Indian nuclear program does not allow it. At the same time, IAEA has no right of access to and control of the plutonium reactor, with the result that many Islamabad’s plans are not known.
What the attitude of the governments? The Pakistani governments have shown with their stance that they do not have an aggressive purpose. As has been understood, Pakistan has developed its nuclear program for self-protection. Its doctrine is defensive. In 1999, the Sharrif government signed the Lahore Agreement with the Indian government, whose provisions were concerning the establishment of confidence-building measures. However, due to the 1999 crisis and the fall of Sharrif by Musharraf, the deal was set in the calves. However, the new government that adopted an official doctrine was not aggressive. In the Indian-Pakistani crisis of 2001, the two countries remained calm and the same happened during the February 2019 crisis.
Pakistan is nowadays the only Muslim state that has acquired nuclear weapons and is a nuclear power. It has about 150 nuclear heads, although the exact numbers are not fully known. Its program began to meet the Pakistani energy needs, then evolved into a process of acquiring weapons for self-protection and prestige against the clearly superior in all sectors India. Now, its program is one of the fastest growing nuclear ones.
The development of the nuclear program was not easy. The obstacles were many and the process was slow. But the persistence of the governments coupled with the high level of foresight and the organization of some important people and their patriotism, made the Asian nation a nuclear power and upgraded its geopolitical value. Now, it can continue to upgrade its nuclear program.
Regarding the risk of a nuclear war, there isn’t any danger as neither Islamabad nor New Delhi want to get there. As far as the safety is concerned, there is no risk since all the necessary measures are taken.
1)NTI, Pakistan, April 2016, access: 04 February 2019, https://www.nti.org/learn/countries/pakistan/ . In this site there is the interactive map that shows the nuclear facilities of Pakistan.
2)Federation of American Scientists, Pakistan nuclear weapons, 11 December 2002, access:05 March 2019, https://fas.org/nuke/guide/pakistan/nuke/
3)Atomic Heritage Foundation, Pakistani nuclear program, 23 August 2018, access: 06 March 2019, https://www.atomicheritage.org/history/pakistani-nuclear-program
4)The National Interest, Kylie Mizokami, Forget North Korea: Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program is truly terrifying, 26 December 2019, access: 04 March 2019, https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/forget-north-korea-pakistans-nuclear-weapons-program-truly-terrifying-45632
5) CIA- Directorate of Intelligence, Pakistan’s Nuclear Weapons Program: personnel and organization, September 1999, access: 07 March 2019, https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/docs/DOC_0000252646.pdf
6) Federation of American Scientists, Hans M. Kristensen, Robert S. Norris, Status of world nuclear forces, (update: November 2018), access: 10 March 2019, https://fas.org/issues/nuclear-weapons/status-world-nuclear-forces/