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Pakistan's nuclear obsession: A reason for concern?

Gabriel Domínguez, Shamil Shams August 28, 2015

A new report indicates that Pakistan is rapidly increasing its nuclear stockpile. Keeping in mind the country's proliferation record and terrorism threat, its nuclear obsession should be a worrying trend, say experts.

A Pakistan-made Shaheen missile capable of carrying nuclear heads, front, is displayed at a defense exhibition on Tuesday, September 14, 2004 in Karachi, Pakistan (AP Photo/Mohammad Ali)
Image: picture-alliance/AP

A new report by two US think tanks states that Pakistan could have the world's third-largest nuclear stockpile within a decade. Published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Stimson Center on August 27, the paper concludes that the South Asian nation could have a nuclear arsenal not only twice the size of neighboring India's but also larger than those of the United Kingdom, China, and France.

Titled "A normal nuclear Pakistan," the paper is based on publicly available satellite imagery and analysis done by expert groups which show that over the last decade Pakistan has constructed four reactors to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons. According to this analysis, thereactors are believed to have a capability to produce about 50 kilograms of plutonium per year, in addition to Pakistan's existing capability to produce highly-enriched uranium.

"In total, if Pakistan utilizes all the material produced by these facilities for nuclear weapons, we assess it could build 20 or more per year," Toby Dalton, one of the authors of the report, told DW.

Gregory Koblentz, an associate professor at George Mason University, comes to a similar conclusion: "Together with Pakistan's ability to produce approximately 10 to 15 nuclear weapons a year using highly enriched uranium, Pakistan's plutonium production capacity gives it the ability to produce 14 to 27 nuclear weapons a year. As a result, Pakistan has the fastest-growing nuclear arsenal in the world."

'India-specific' nuclear program

Analysts agree that the nuclear weapons program is driven by Pakistan's perception of the threat posed by India. "Pakistani officials state that their nuclear weapons are 'India-specific,' and as India's military power grows - with its much larger economy, it is able to invest more in modern military capability - Islamabad believes its need more nuclear weapons to maintain deterrence with India," according to Dalton, who is also co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment.

Pakistani Rangers patrol along the Pakistan-India border area of Wagah on October 16, 2014 (Photo: Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images)
Islamabad recently canceled talks with India after New Delhi said it wanted to restrict discussions to terrorismImage: Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images

The two countries have fought four wars and endured numerous crises over the years, mostly related to their dispute over the divided Kashmir region. Since the early 2000s the two countries have gone to the brink of war twice due to mass-casualty terrorist attacks in India that originated in Pakistan.

"The Pakistani military has adopted a strategy of 'full spectrum deterrence' so they can continue to engage in asymmetric warfare against India and deter even limited Indian conventional military retaliation with the threat of tactical nuclear weapons," Koblentz told DW.

Amit Cowshish, ex-financial advisor to India's Ministry of Defense, also pointed out that while Pakistan's nuclear arsenal is primarily intended to overwhelm its neighbor in a first-strike and neutralize India's second-strike capability, Islamabad probably also regards its nuclear capability as a means of projecting itself as a great power and standing up to the challenge from any other major adversary out to neutralize its arsenal in future.

Assistance from China?

Historical accounts of the country's nuclear program indicate that it procured a wide range of technology from companies in Europe and elsewhere. And some experts say there is also evidence to suggest it had help with its nuclear weapons efforts from China.

Dalton, however, believes that, at this point, Pakistan is able to make most of the material and technology it needs indigenously. "That said many Indian analysts believe that Pakistan continues to receive assistance from China on nuclear warhead design and missiles. Though there is no evidence publicly available to suggest such cooperation, which does not mean it isn't happening in secret."

Proliferation concerns

And then there is the risk of nuclear proliferation. While there is no information to suggest that there have been any safety incidents or accidents at Pakistan's nuclear power reactors, the country's nuclear safety record is not as clean as the Pakistani authorities claim.

In 2004, the "founder" of the country's nuclear bomb Dr. A. Q. Khan confessed to selling nuclear technology to North Korea and Iran. Khan was removed from his post as head of the country's nuclear program by former military dictator and President Pervez Musharraf in 2001. Khan spent five years under house arrest after Musharraf had him arrested in 2004 for his alleged role in divulging nuclear secrets. The restrictions on his movement were relaxed after a court in Islamabad declared him a free man in 2009.

The Pakistani military and civilian leaders have been accused of being too easy on Khan, but they have defended themselves, saying that the state had no role in what they say was Khan's "individual act." But many in Pakistan and in the West believe Khan was only able to pass on such sensitive information with support from the establishment.

Khan is a popular figure among Islamists and common Pakistanis alike, who believe that nuclear weapons are "necessary" for the security of the country. Pakistan's political and religious parties invariably use nuclear rhetoric against India and Western nations.

"The atomic bomb is our protector. It guarantees our sovereignty. Nobody can harm Pakistan as long as we have this bomb, and that is the reason why the US, India and other Western countries are conspiring against it," Abdul Basit, a student at Karachi University, told DW.

While Islamabad passed a law to control nuclear technology and instituted tighter export controls, experts are mainly concerned that nuclear weapons or fissile material might be stolen or given to terrorist groups.

"To date, there is no evidence that anything has gone missing, but clearly the security situation in Pakistan continues to be a challenge to state authorities, and with the number of nuclear weapons increasing, the probability that there could be a nuclear security mishap logically also rises," said Dalton.

Pakistani Shiite Muslims burn tyres during a protest against the suicide bombing that killed dozens of their community members in the Lakhi Dar area of Shikarpur, in Karachi, Pakistan, 30 January 2015 (Photo: EPA/SHAHZAIB AKBER +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++)
Islamabad has not been able to curb terrorism on its soil, so can it ensure nuclear safety?Image: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Akber

Analyst Koblentz agrees: "Regardless of whether or not the civilian and military leadership in Islamabad were fully aware of his activities or not, Khan's proliferation activities have made it difficult for the international community to trust Pakistan to manage its nuclear materials and weapons safely and securely."

"The more fissile material and nuclear weapons that Pakistan produces and the more tactical nuclear weapons it deploys the higher the risk of these materials or weapons being stolen or used in an unauthorized manner," Koblentz added.

Terrorism threats

Exacerbating these concerns is the high level of terrorist activity within Pakistan by groups such as Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Islamic State, and al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent. The ability of such groups to penetrate the defenses of Pakistani military bases, likely with inside assistance, is particularly troubling.

The Taliban militants have proven time and again that they are capable of attacking not only civilians but also military bases. In August 2012, militants armed with guns and rocket launchers attacked an air base in the town of Kamra in the Punjab province. The large base is home to several squadrons of fighter and surveillance planes, which air force officials said had not been damaged in the attack. The Taliban have great influence in Pakistan's restive northwestern Swat Valley and according to defense experts, several nuclear installations are located not too far from the area.

Islamabad-based defense analyst Maria Sultan, however, insists that Pakistan's nuclear control authorities have a strong grip on the country's nuclear assets. "Pakistan has the capability of monitoring its nuclear weapons, and the technology it is using to do that is very sophisticated," Sultan told DW. She insisted that the West's concerns about Pakistan's nuclear safety were "unfounded."

Though Pakistan's civilian and military establishments claim their nuclear weapons are under strict state control, many defense experts fear that they could fall into the hands of terrorists in the event of an Islamist takeover of Islamabad or if things get out of control for the government and the military.

"Nuclear programs are never safe. On the one hand there is perhaps a hype about Pakistani bombs in the Western media, on the other there is genuine concern," London-based Pakistani journalist and researcher Farooq Sulehria told DW. "The Talibanization of the Pakistan military is something we can't overlook. What if there is an internal Taliban takeover of the nuclear assets?" Sulehria speculated.

Despite that, political and defense analyst Zahid Hussain told DW the West was "unnecessarily worried."

"Pakistan conducted its nuclear tests more fifteen years ago. Nothing has happened since then. Pakistan has made sure the nuclear weapons remain safe."

Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan waves to journalists from the front door of his house in Islamabad in this August 28, 2009 file photograph (Photo: AQKHAN/ REUTERS/Mian Khursheed/Files)
Nuclear scientist A. Q. Khan allegedly transferred nuclear technology to a number of countries, including Iran and North KoreaImage: Reuters

Monitoring efforts

Many questions have also been raised as to whether the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) should do more to monitor Pakistan's nuclear ambitions. Fact of the matter is that the IAEA does inspect the South Asian nation's nuclear power reactors, and has helped Pakistan also on questions of nuclear security.

However, as Dalton explained, Pakistan - like India and Israel - never signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, so it has no obligation to open its other nuclear facilities to IAEA inspection and monitoring. Thus, there is little the IAEA can or could do, unless Pakistan opts to place some of these facilities under IAEA monitoring, the analyst added.

By now, it seems that Pakistan has attained parity, if not a slight edge, in nuclear capabilities compared to India. But as analyst Koblentz pointed out, "Producing more plutonium and nuclear warheads won't improve Pakistan's security, but instead increase the risk of nuclear terrorism, nuclear accidents, and nuclear crises."