December 8, 2010geopoliticsnuclear strategydefencePakistan

Assessing Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal

Pakistan has a nuclear arsenal within a nuclear arsenal hidden away from US surveillance

This is a report of my talk at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi. I have not edited the text I received from the seminar organisers.

Pakistan’s nuclear development programme is based both on uranium and plutonium. Pakistan is producing highly enriched uranium and her nuclear development programme has expanded with introduction of plutonium. The Chashma plant, built with Chinese help is based on plutonium. Pakistan Army is effectively involved in the country’s nuclear development programme. While there is no evidence available from open sources on Pakistan increasing the size of its nuclear arsenal, it is certain that Pakistan’s nuclear stockpile is growing.

China has been helping Pakistan on nuclear issues and will continue to do so because of the growing strategic partnership between the two countries as also due to the perceived impact of the Indo-US nuclear deal. It is a fact that India’s nuclear capability will be greatly enhanced as a result of the said deal. India also enjoys conventional arms superiority over Pakistan. How this situation is to be addressed is a matter of intense debate in Pakistan. Pakistan uses its nuclear power as a tool for deterrence. In Pakistani perception, it was nuclear deterrence which kept the war confined to the Kargil Sector in 1999 and prevented India from undertaking operations against Pakistan subsequent to the terrorist attacks in Mumbai on 26 November 2008.

However, there is no sign of a nuclear arms race in the region. No reprocessing plants have been built in India since the 1990’s which indicates that India is no great rush to expand its nuclear arsenal. In the absence of a nuclear arms race in South Asia, it is pertinent to ask why Pakistan is expanding its nuclear programme. This perhaps could have something to do with a threat perception emanating from Iran’s quest to become a nuclear power. It appears that a nexus exists between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan on the issue to counter the growth of Iran’s nuclear capability. It seems that Pakistan is underwriting Saudi Arabia’s nuclear potential and that some kind of understanding/agreement exists between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia on the issue. Pakistan is likely to keep a stockpile of nuclear weapons for Saudi Arabia, paid for by the latter. This will be used as a deterrent against any Iranian or third party threat to the Saudis.

Saudi Arabia is replacing CSS-2 with the CSS-5 missile which could be nuclear tipped. Iran’s nuclear programme hence raises the demand in Pakistan for stockpile material to cater to the defence requirements of the Saudis. With respect to nuclear deterrence, Saudi Arabia has three options: -
• Seek a US nuclear umbrella
• Develop indigenous nuclear capability
• Use Pakistan’s nuclear weapons as proxy.

Saudi Arabia will be most comfortable with the last of these propositions. There is also a geopolitical dimension in supplying nuclear weapons to Saudi Arabia. As neither Saudi Arabia nor Pakistan is comfortable with Iran’s growing quest for nuclear capability, this could in turn fuel a nuclear arms race in the region with the Saudis pitching in with Pakistan to deter the Iranians thus impacting on stability in the Middle East.

US fears of Pakistani nukes falling into the wrong hands have been enhanced post the 26 Sep 2001 attacks by the Al Qaeda on the USA. As a safety mechanism, the US and Pakistan reached an understanding on nuclear security measures. Consequently, Gen Musharraf accepted oversight US management of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenals. The US provided assistance to Pakistan in the form of training to its personnel, funds, safety and security, equipments, and technology to the tune of USD 100 million. It is believed that as part of security measures the US may have transferred PAL technology, (Permissible Action Links) to Pakistan. If this be so, there may be concern in the Pakistan nuclear establishment of its ability to use such weapons. This could perhaps lead to a situation where Pakistan may go in for keeping a nuclear stockpile of weapons outside the PAL system — a second nuclear arsenal.

Pakistan is worried for its nuclear safety and the US view on its nuclear programme. The second nuclear arsenal would be outside the ambit of its regular arsenal and could be brought into play if any attempt is made to take out its regular arsenal by any agency distrustful of Pakistan’s nuclear warheads.

Possible existence of a second nuclear arsenal increases the risk for the US and also imposes an asymmetric threat to India. Such an arsenal will fuel an arms race in the Middle East especially in view of the Saudi-Pak nuclear convergence and cooperation with respect to growth of Iran’s nuclear capability. India for its part must disabuse all concerned that it is in a nuclear arms race and promote stability in the region. Perhaps if India can act as an interlocutor between Iran and the USA and bring about a rapprochement between the two countries, it could promote strategic stability in the region and prevent a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

(Transcribed by Dr Shah Alam, Research Fellow, CLAWS)

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