Pakistan's Nuclear Past as Prologue

March 12, 2013 Topic: Nuclear Proliferation Region: Pakistan

Pakistan's Nuclear Past as Prologue

The chances of limits or reductions are remote.

In some respects, the competition may have helped provide the impetus needed to overcome numerous obstacles. But while the KRL played a crucial role in providing the enriched uranium the program used in its weapon design, the PAEC came out ahead in the end. When Pakistan ultimately decided to test nuclear weapons in May 1998—a decision the author asserts was forced by India’s nuclear weapons tests just days before—the Pakistani army assigned PAEC the lead, while the KRL team played only a supporting role.

The 1998 tests were by no means the end of the story. Pakistan still faced the challenge of transforming a demonstrated capability into an operational deterrent. Feroz Khan provides a detailed account of this process, drawing upon his firsthand knowledge as an original member of the Strategic Plans Division (SPD). On several occasions, the author directly refers to the role he and his erstwhile colleagues played, thus giving rise to some concerns about objectivity. On the other hand, Khan is able to supply detail and nuance that may not otherwise be clear from the available record. He concludes that the establishment and growth of the SPD professionalized Pakistan’s nuclear capability, by providing “systematic control over strategic organizations” and establishing measures to protect the security of Pakistan’s nuclear assets and guard against unauthorized use. He also credits the SPD’s increasing oversight of all aspects of the nuclear weapon program, including its finances, for ultimately unraveling A.Q. Khan’s proliferation network and his dismissal as KRL director in April 2001.

Prospects for the Future

In Feroz Khan’s view, in a country riven by sectarian and ethnic divisions, the need for nuclear weapons is the one thing upon which all Pakistanis agree. While most countries reacted with considerable dismay to the 1998 tests, the Pakistanis were jubilant. Their country had overcome long odds to build a nuclear weapon, despite starting with a weak technological base and facing strong countervailing pressure from the West. Moreover, Pakistanis felt they now had an answer to India’s larger conventional military capabilities.

But it is worth asking whether the national-security benefits gained from having a bomb were commensurate with the cost incurred in building it. As noted earlier, nuclear weapons may arguably have played a role in deterring another major war with neighboring India. Yet Pakistan’s nuclear weapons have not fundamentally redressed the conventional military imbalance between the two countries, which may grow even more lopsided as India continues its significant modernization effort. It is also not clear that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons will deter a major Indian military response to another terrorist incident, such as the 2008 attack in Mumbai, especially if that response is deliberately tailored not to cross any presumed Pakistani nuclear “red lines.” Finally, nuclear weapons do not deal with other pressing threats to Pakistan’s stability, which Feroz Khan describes as “domestic dissension and internal conflict” resulting from a failure “to bring harmony and nationalism to a religiously homogenous but ethnically and linguistically diverse people.”

Ironically, the sense of humiliation and isolation that gave rise to its nuclear-weapons program in the first place, may also still be a factor in Pakistan’s thinking, though in a different guise than before. Pakistan has clearly chafed at the U.S. civil nuclear agreement with India and its subsequent efforts to integrate India into international nuclear-control regimes—while not making similar overtures toward Pakistan. Aside from hardening Pakistan’s opposition to a multilateral ban on the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons, it perpetuates Pakistan’s sense that it is isolated and forced to rely solely upon itself in protecting its national security.

Under these conditions, the prospects for Pakistan limiting or even scaling back its nuclear program must be considered remote, particularly as long as the potential for major conflict with India persists. Indeed, given current trends, the more likely near-term outcome is for a continued build up and increasing diversification of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. Pakistan is widely reputed to have the fastest-growing nuclear-weapon stockpile in the world. Given reported plans to expand its plutonium production capacity with additional nuclear reactors at Khushab and completion of the Chashma reprocessing facility, Pakistan clearly looks to be in the nuclear-weapons business for the long haul.

Feroz Khan’s account clearly demonstrates that Pakistanis in the end did have to “eat grass” to build the bomb. The resources devoted to the nuclear-weapons program came at the expense of investment in education, healthcare, and infrastructure. The increasingly onerous sanctions imposed by the United States and other countries adversely impacted economic and military assistance, as well as overseas educational opportunities for Pakistani scientists. Pakistan’s current plans mean that the sacrifice of lost investment opportunities will continue. For unless and until its nuclear ambitions are tempered by a more circumscribed approach to “minimum deterrence” and actual progress in adopting both conventional and nuclear confidence-building measures with India, Pakistan’s nuclear-weapon program will consume precious resources for years to come.

Lt Gen Frank G. Klotz, USAF (Ret.) is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, DC, and the former commander of Air Force Global Strike Command.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/SyedNaqvi90. CC BY-SA 3.0.