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Pakistan’s Rationale for Nuclear Weapons

The starting-point for understanding Pakistan’s rationale for having nuclear weapons is to visit the history of its foreign relations and security efforts. Naturally, one might view India’s underground nuclear tests in 1974 – i.e. Smiling Buddha – as the cause. However, Smiling Buddha was merely the trigger that initiated Pakistan’s efforts to acquire nuclear weapons in earnest, the causes were structural and had emerged far earlier than 1974 or 1971 (i.e. when East Pakistan seceded and became Bangladesh).

Simply put, the cause is the substantiated belief among Pakistan’s decision-makers that nuclear weapons are the only guarantor of Pakistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. In a sense, the trigger for these beliefs was the 1965 War; the US refused to support Pakistan’s war effort and, in turn, blocked military aid and spare parts for Pakistan’s military equipment (the vast majority of which was American-made). In addition, Pakistan felt that the international community (e.g. the United Nations) was not conducive for supporting Pakistani interests, such as inflicting substantive penalties on New Delhi.

In Eating Grass, retired Pakistan Army Brigadier General Feroz Khan stated, “Pakistan found international institutions capricious and alliances unreliable.”[1] However, this conclusion – though inherently correct – had come following a prior Pakistani misreading of US interests in South Asia.

Prior to 1965, Pakistan had believed that its status as a US ally would provide it with the requisite weight to pursue its interests vis-à-vis India (i.e. Kashmir). In the lead-up to the 1965, Pakistan was certainly receiving the material fruits to justify its beliefs, i.e. US economic and military aid, comparatively new weapons and a surge in status through membership in the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO).

However, none of that support was intended to be used against India. Rather, Washington did not intend to antagonize India at all, be it directly or through Pakistan. In fact, much like Pakistan, the nucleus of the Indian nuclear program could also be traced to US support through the 1950s and 1960s – i.e. the Atoms for Peace Plan.[2] Granted, New Delhi did not sign onto Washington’s efforts to pressure Moscow, but not once did Washington enable Islamabad to penalize India. Pakistan failed to acknowledge this reality.

The wars of 1965 and 1971 materialized the outcome of Pakistan’s failed reading. However, following the two conflicts, Pakistan’s security establishment and intelligentsia did not trust international institutions, international laws or alliances enough to stop it from trying to match India in terms of defence. When the day India made its intentions to procure nuclear weapons became apparent, Pakistan followed in earnest.

Then President of Pakistan, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto famously stated, “…we will eat grass, even go hungry, but we will get one of our own.” For Pakistan, no amount of assurances or nominal condemnation from the world will truly protect it from India’s nuclear weapons – Pakistan would require an analogous capability. Certainly, procuring nuclear weapons would come at a significant economic cost, not least from the direct fiscal costs, but lost opportunity costs (i.e. diverting skilled human resources and technology investments away from other areas to nuclear weapons). Furthermore, Pakistan’s nuclear weapons would serve as the central pain-point affecting its ties with the US (and to a lesser extent, Western Europe) for decades. For Pakistan, these were necessary costs to pay, but ironically, they were – and will continue being – integral for Pakistan to possess and improve upon its nuclear – and wider – deterrence objectives.

Foreign Relations: Initiating the Nuclear Weapons Program

Though the nuclear weapons were meant to compensate for the limited utility foreign relations strengths bring to Pakistan (in periods of crisis, such as 1965 and 1971), Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities materialized thanks to the input of foreign technology, expertise and critical industrial inputs.

The transfer-of-technology (ToT) – especially from the US – began before Pakistan contemplated nuclear weapons, i.e. under the Atoms for Peace Program. Indeed, Pakistan (and India) owe it to the US and Atoms for Peace to opening the doors for its engineering, science and technology students to nuclear research opportunities through the 1950s and 1960s.[3] The individuals to emerge from these initiatives would move to ultimately establish the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) in 1956. Among them was Munir Ahmad Khan (1926-1999), who would become Chairman of PAEC from 1972 to 1991.

However, Brig. Gen (retired) Feroz Khan outlined that following Smiling Buddha, the US began instituting tougher non-proliferation regimes on nuclear technology. This would affect Pakistan, which could at this point only react to India’s foray into nuclear weapons development, by limiting its ability to match. Thus, Pakistan felt (according to Khan) that it was being penalized for what was an apparent Indian abuse of the Atoms for Peace – and energy-only nuclear programs at large – while India could escape after reaping the wrong benefits from those initiatives.[4]

What followed Shining Buddha was arguably among Pakistan’s finest episodes of foreign relations work.

First, Islamabad refused to sign the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). While the immediate cost was not being given de facto access to the necessary inputs for its energy and weapons programs – and even being penalized later in the 1990s – Pakistan avoided placing itself in the position of violating the NPT later (in contrast to Iran and North Korea). In effect, Pakistan provided the world a solid idea of what it was planning, and in turn, left its supplier pool (which was limited) comprising of only those willing to accept the risks of dealing with Pakistan.

Second, despite rejecting the NPT and London Suppliers Group (LSG)’s attempt in setting Pakistan’s atomic agenda, Pakistan clearly demarcated its civilian and military programs. Subsequently, Pakistan put its civilian program under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards, but under a strictly and clearly defined bilateral mandate.[5] In those programs the IAEA required safeguards, Pakistan abided; and where the IAEA did not have a clearly identified mandate, it was shut-out.[6] Brig. Gen (retired) Khan raised the example of PAEC’s New Labs reprocessing program; the IAEA had inquired about it, but New Labs was started prior to Pakistan accepting IAEA safeguards – Pakistan rebuffed the IAEA.[7] However, as a matter of policy, Pakistan refused to act punitively to the US, Canada or Western Europe over the NPT. Anything bought under IAEA safeguards would not be scaled or leveraged for the nuclear weapons program.[8]

For PAEC, the idea was to leverage the expertise gained from the civilian program for military purposes – i.e. indigenously construct the weapons program in parallel. However, Pakistan had difficulty gaining the necessary traction in the West – most tentative deals with French, German and Canadian suppliers simply fell-through for various reasons – and had to collaborate with strategically conducive partners such as the Chinese.[9] However, some agreements with the West apparently did materialize; in the 1980s, Pakistan had contracted a West German company – Linde AG – to support in the construction of tritium production and recovery facility.[10] As a booster, tritium became of immense value to Pakistan by the 2010s when it began fielding cruise missiles capable of carrying miniaturized plutonium warheads.

Foreign Relations: Building Legitimacy

Though Pakistan had navigated its way to developing nuclear weapons in the 1970s and 1980s, its initial refusal to sign the NPT would eventually return to haunt it in the 1990s. Larry Pressler, a US Senator, had managed to tie Pakistan’s access to economic support and military aid and weapons to the White House – specifically the President of the US – certifying that Pakistan was not in possession of explosive nuclear devices. Ultimately, the Pressler Amendment would result in nuclear sanctions on Pakistan in the 1990s.

However, following 9/11 and the US’ invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistan leveraged its ability to support the US presence in Afghanistan as cause for removing the Pressler Amendment sanctions. Granted, much of the gains were in terms of economic and military aid (i.e. not freer access to foreign nuclear technology), but for the time being, Pakistan managed to cement its nuclear weapons program as a given.

Certainly, the stigma of flaunting non-proliferation efforts (i.e. Dr. A.Q. Khan Network) and an apparent sense by the US that Pakistan could lose control of its weapons through its push to expand its deterrence element to the seas are foreign policy challenges. Unfortunately, the performance of recent Pakistani governments and security establishments have left foreign relations gaps.

Today, India is able to leverage memberships in the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and Wassenaar Arrangement (WA) while also flirting with the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). Pakistan is effectively just left with China, which – though beneficial – is a bottleneck in that a tightening on its end would preclude Pakistan from accessing the technology it needs to pursue next-generation weapons (e.g. supersonic or hypersonic strategic munitions). In contrast, the 1970s and 1980s saw Pakistan’s leadership try to cement bilateral relations with various countries so that they can resist US pressure (e.g. in the case of West Germany when it apparently let Linde AG and others deal with Pakistan). Moreover, the pursuit of domestic technological and industrial capacity of the 1970s was vision-driven as the utility only became apparent decades later (e.g. tritium boosters for miniaturized warheads).

Although Pakistani decision-makers in the 1960s and 1970s did not trust foreign relations to compensate for actual deterrence capability, they understood the utility of credible foreign relations work in achieving other means of security. Today, that ardent attention – much less the rigorous activity – does not seem to be in place, despite the fact that the kernels to build strong bilateral relations that could lead to a new surge of domestic capacity building (in conventional and strategic deterrence technologies) – especially in South Africa, Brazil and Ukraine – are present. Though trite, one could argue that Pakistani leaderships of past had tied some of their self-preservation to the preservation of Pakistan; this linkage might not be as strong today.

[1] Feroz Hassan Khan. “Atoms for Peace at the Crossroads of History”. Eating Grass. Stanford University Press. 2012. p.24

[2] M.R. Srinivasan. “50 Years of Atoms for Peace”. The Hindu. 13 December 2003. URL: (Last Accessed: 09 May 2018).

[3] Khan. Eating Grass. p29-31.

[4] Ibid. p100.

[5] Ibid. p105; p199-200.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid. p200

[8] Ibid. p105

[9] Ibid. p109

[10] Ibid. p202

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