Atomic Nightmare: Welcome to Pakistani Nuclear Weapons 101

Five things you need to know regarding one of the world's fastest-growing nuclear weapons programs. 

Could Pakistan be more of a nuclear security threat to Israel than Iran? Conventional wisdom suggests that a nuclear-armed Iran is the most pressing potential nuclear threat to Israel. It’s a country run by a Shia theocracy espousing invective for Israel on a daily basis. Indeed, Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ranted about the possibility of Israel’s forthcoming destruction as recently as this week. However, Azriel Bermant, a research associate at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies, offered a different take earlier this year in a column he wrote for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz: the real threat might come from Pakistan.

Bermant postulated that despite the worries of both Israeli and American policymakers alike, Iran may not be the nuclear threat that Israel should focus on. After all, Tehran doesn’t have a single nuclear weapon at its disposal. Further, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action signed in July will forestall the Iranians from the nuclear threshold for the next fifteen to twenty-five years.  Rather, Bermant argues, “one could argue that Islamabad poses more of a threat to Israel than Tehran does.”

It’s worth considering because the Pakistani government possesses a fairly large nuclear arsenal. Over the years, President Barack Obama has expressed reservations about the continuing growth and stability of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. Only three months into his first term in April 2009, President Obama voiced his concerns: “We have huge…national-security interests in making sure that Pakistan is stable and that you don’t end up having a nuclear-armed militant state.”

Here is why the United States likely continues to have those worries, nearly seven years later:

1.    Pakistan’s Growing Arsenal

There are thousands of nuclear weapons in the world today.  According to the latest count from the Federation of American Scientists, the five original nuclear powers have a combined 15,465 nuclear weapons between them, most of which are divided amongst the United States and Russia.  Yet the fastest growing nuclear arsenal in the world is not included in this number.  While Pakistan has a range of 100-120 nuclear weapons in its possession — a figure that pales in comparison to the United States or Russia — Islamabad has devoted a tremendous amount of its military budget to growing its arsenal and procuring the associated delivery systems that are needed to launch them.

More alarming than Pakistan’s current stockpile is the projected growth of its arsenal over the next decade.  In a wide-ranging report for the Council on Foreign Relations, professor Gregory D. Koblentz of George Mason University assessed that Pakistan had enough highly enriched uranium to increase its stockpile to 200 nuclear weapons by 2020 if fully utilized.  Percentage wise, this would mean that the Pakistani army would be projected to increase its nuclear weapons arsenal by roughly sixty-seven percent over the next five years.  In other words, Pakistan could have as many nuclear weapons as the United Kingdom by 2020. Moreover, Pakistan falls outside the purview of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

To guarantee that they the ability to rapidly expand their stockpile, the Pakistani military is investing in reprocessing plutonium in addition to enriching uranium.  In January 2015, the Institute for Science and International Security reported that the Pakistanis opened up their fourth plutonium facility at Khushab, which provides Islamabad with an additional channel to construct nuclear bomb material in a relatively short period of time.  “Its expansion appears to be part of an effort to increase the production of weapons-grade plutonium,” the ISIS report (not to be confused with the terrorist group) reads. “Allowing Pakistan to build a larger number of miniaturized plutonium-based nuclear weapons that can complement its existing highly enriched uranium nuclear weapons.”

2. Pakistani Nukes a Major U.S. Intelligence Priority