Pakistan's Nuclear Weapons Program: 5 Things You Need to Know

Pakistan’s nuclear program has created a bleak security environment in South Asia.

While the world continues to focus primarily on the threat of Iran’s nuclear weapons program, a potentially much greater nuclear threat has emerged just to its east: Pakistan, the Islamic world’s only nuclear-weapons state.

Pakistan is one of the world’s only eight declared nuclear powers and probably the one that causes the most mischief. Pakistan sponsors and harbors militant groups that carry out attacks in all of its neighbors: India, Afghanistan, Iran, and even China.

Although Pakistan argues that its nuclear weapons are well-guarded, many experts are not so sure, pointing out that the Taliban and other militants have frequently struck at supposedly secure military bases with impunity. More worrisome, though, is Pakistan’s history of proliferation, which increases the chance that one day some element or the other in the Pakistani military will provide nuclear materials to an even more dangerous third party—or even to a stable country like Saudi Arabia, which could set off an arms race in the Middle East.

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Also troubling is the steady radicalization of Pakistani’s military, which could at some point turn into the ideological equivalent of the Taliban. American lawmakers who constantly fret about the irrationality of the Iranian government should take note of the continuous Islamization of Pakistan’s military. Here are five things you need to know about the world’s most dangerous nuclear weapons program.

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Why does Pakistan have Nuclear Weapons?

At first glance, it may seem strange that Pakistan has nuclear weapons, as it maintains close relations with China and the United States, neither of which would allow it to be dismembered. Even its rival India does not wish to see it collapse, but that doesn’t stop Pakistan from having nuclear weapons largely for one reason—India.

This is not only because India itself has nuclear weapons (ostensibly because China has them), but also to achieve parity with a rival that is many times larger than it in terms of size, population, and economic prowess.

Ultimately, however, nuclear weapons give Pakistan reassurance that it will never be humiliated the way it was in 1971, when Indian forces decisively defeated Pakistan in a two-front war that lead to the independence of east Pakistan as Bangladesh. If Indian forces were to ever enter Pakistani territory in such force again, it is likely that Pakistan would compensate for its conventional military inferiority by using battlefield nuclear weapons to prevent a repeat of its total defeat in 1971. This plan makes India’s Cold Start military doctrine—a swift incursion into Pakistan that would capture vital territory before Pakistan could retaliate—hard to implement.

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Nuclear weapons also help Pakistan continue to bleed India. Pakistan’s possession of nuclear weapons are considered its “shield” to guard against retaliation from any punitive strike in response to attacks conducted by terrorists based in Pakistan. This gives Pakistan significant leeway in making mischief in India.


Pakistan conducted peaceful nuclear research from the time of its independence but began a nuclear weapons program in earnest only after its defeat by India in 1971. India itself conducted a nuclear test in 1974 and rejected proposals for a nuclear free zone in South Asia. Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program began in 1972 under Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who had always been a proponent of going nuclear. Bhutto famously declared: “If India builds the bomb, we will eat grass or leaves, even go hungry, but we will get one of our own.”

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Indeed, it was Pakistan’s poverty that held it back from pursuing a nuclear program in the 1960s, despite reports that India was secretly working on nuclear weapons. To compensate for this, and to accelerate the development of its own program, Pakistan resorted to subterfuge, deceit, and help from generous friends in order to go nuclear.