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Primer: Pakistan’s Nuclear Weapons Program

On 28 May 1998, Pakistan conducted five simultaneous underground nuclear tests in the Ras Koh Hills in Chagai District, Baluchistan. Though there had been rumblings of Pakistan already possessing – and even testing a live nuclear weapon – as early as 1990 (via Chinese support)[1], Pakistan made it unambiguous as it responded to India’s nuclear detonation tests (which occurred on 11-13 May 1998).

What followed Pakistan’s tests, designated Chagai-I, was two decades of continual development of the delivery mechanisms and warhead technology, controversy (or crisis) on proliferation and struggle to gain worldwide legitimacy – and the benefits it brings – as a respected nuclear power.

Pakistan succeeded in some areas, such as miniaturizing its warheads (by completing plutonium warhead development) and enabling its aircraft, ships and submarines to be stand-off range delivery platforms. However, it continues to struggle in its efforts to gain the kind of acknowledgement that simply translates into expanded access to nuclear technology and fuel resources.

This article is a primer to the many issues feeding into Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. Throughout the month of May, Quwa will release a series of detailed articles – as well as its monthly report – on the history, development, realities and future prospects of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program.

The Only Guarantor of Sovereignty

Following the wars of 1965 and 1971, Pakistan’s security intelligentsia and establishment (i.e. its decision-makers) concluded that alliances, no matter how apparently ‘strong’ or ‘deep’, are not true guarantors of Pakistani sovereignty and territorial integrity. In his book Eating Grass, retired Pakistan Army Brigadier General Feroz Hassan Khan stated, “Pakistan found international institutions capricious and alliances unreliable.”[2] In effect, a nuclear deterrence would be Pakistan’s only absolute guarantor of its sovereignty; but pursuing – and even possessing it – drew consternation, particularly from the US.

In a sense, the Pakistan nuclear weapons program is a strong reflection of Pakistan’s historical difficulties in cultivating a strong foreign relations presence. Granted, both India and Pakistan were hit with various sanctions from the US – and to a lesser extent, Western Europe – for their respective programs, but India has evidently emerged in a comparatively better position in terms of being accepted as a nuclear power. One need only look at India’s entry into the Wassenaar Arrangement and the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), which now afford it with both foreign relations credibility and technology access.

However, one might argue (rightfully) that Pakistan’s foreign relations stature in the 1970s was superior to what it endures today. Indeed, the decision to pursue nuclear weapons appeared to have taken foreign relations – including optimistic scenarios – into account, and so, it was always meant as the guarantor. On the other hand, foreign relations was pivotal to enabling Pakistan to develop the sufficient infrastructure and expertise to produce nuclear weapons in the first place. Likewise for the delivery mechanisms.

Today, the connection between these two issues is just as important, especially in terms of the long-term efficacy of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and, potentially, the integrity of its program. Pakistan recognizes this fact. In 2016, Pakistan’s National Security Adviser Lt. Gen (retired) Nasir Khan Janjua stated:

“Those who look for solutions through might will have to sit on the seats of dialogue to talk about peace and find real solutions. World powers might be cooperating with India on defence and nuclear weapons, but their discriminatory attitude against Pakistan must stop.”[3]

India’s advancements, which in increasing part stem from its collaboration with Russia and, increasingly, the US, Israel and Western Europe, strengthen its capabilities. Be it delivery of warheads or the growing capacity to potentially intercept Pakistani deliveries, the net-result erodes Pakistan’s position. Pakistan is pointing the finger at certain ‘world powers’ for enabling India at Pakistan’s expense.[4]

Besides losing ground to India, the second aspect of a poor foreign relations outlook is the risk of Pakistan losing its nuclear weapons capability. However unlikely, the fact that Pakistan is not progressing in terms of gaining recognition (such that it can similarly benefit as India) does nothing to reinforce its position in such a scenario. Rather, it remains vulnerable to future penalties raised in response to its program.

Pakistan’s prospects for politically stabilizing (such that its foreign relations and economic portfolios are both competent and consistent) is a key indicator for the next decade. Progress on that front could open Pakistan’s doors to advance its overall nuclear program. However, political progress is an uncertainty.

Culminating Essential Capabilities

In the 20 years following Chagai-I, Pakistan has built a complete and capable arsenal of nuclear warheads and delivery systems. This includes testing an array of ballistic missiles to undertake delivery. The program culminated with the Shaheen III medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) and Ababeel MRBM with multiple re-entry vehicles (MIRV) to sufficiently cover the entirety of Indian territory and to pressure – if not bypass – a ballistic missile defence (BMD) shield, respectively. The Shaheen III and Ababeel have stated ranges of 2,750 km and 2,200 km, respectively.[5][6]

Since 2013, Pakistan’s induction of so-called ‘tactical nuclear weapons’ (TNW) has been of significant note. First, TNWs reflect Pakistan’s advances in producing miniaturized warheads that could fit in small munitions such as cruise missiles and large artillery rockets (i.e. the Nasr). Second, these have enabled Pakistan to expand its nuclear deterrence capabilities to air and sea-launched platforms that can readily carry cruise missiles. However, TNWs – particularly the Hatf-IX Nasr short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) – is viewed as a potential catalyst to triggering a nuclear exchange.

The assertion stems from the notion that the Nasr SRBM – if equipped with a miniaturized warhead – was designed to target intruding integrated battlegroups. Basically, in the words of the Pakistan Army’s Chief of Army Staff (COAS) Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, the Nasr SRBM put “’cold water’ on ‘cold start’”.[7]

That is fully intentional so as to add uncertainty – and increase risk – within any conventional conflict with India. To assert that it has a credible deterrence capability, especially following an enemy nuclear strike, Pakistan brought its Babur 3 submarine-launched cruise missile (SLCM) to the fore in 2017. With SLCMs, the Pakistani defence establishment is stating that it not only has a complete triad of delivery options – from land, air and sea – but a survivable deterrence asset should its land and air-based assets collapse.

In theory, Pakistan’s submarines can continue operating following a collapse of that nature, but how Pakistan intends to manage them given the reality of sub-surface operations is uncertain. It is difficult to communicate with submerged submarines, though a very-low-frequency (VLF) radio station can facilitate it. However, one’s submarines must be in position to be reached by VLF (i.e. a specific depth-range), and that must be timed with when Pakistan will message them. There are many uncontrollable variables in play. Thus, Pakistan will need to design its naval command-and-control (C2) infrastructure in a specific way to meet its strategic objectives. These need not be limited to delivery but can include restraint as well (as that too could be a means to guarantee Pakistan’s survival).

With the Babur SLCM, along with the Harba dual-anti-ship missile (AShM) and land-attack cruise missile (LACM), in place, Pakistan’s Naval Strategic Forces Command (NSFC)’s C2 system and processes will be of interest in the coming decade. Not only will the NSFC absorb nuclear-capable SLCMs and LACMs, but it’s C2 system will manage the delivery platforms – i.e. the Hangor (II)-class submarines, the Azmat fast-attack crafts and potentially a plethora of other – and larger – ships. By 2030, it should be complete.

What is Next?

Broadly, there are two aspects to this question.

First is to determine where Pakistan intends to ‘cap’ the focus of its deterrence efforts. Thus far, that ‘cap’ appears to have been set on sufficiently covering India, with anything beyond considered (at least openly) as inconsequential. In other words, Pakistan does not appear to have the intent to pursue intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBM) and/or intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM).

However, the second aspect covers advancing the delivery and warheads. While Pakistan could opt to limit its focus on India, that does not preclude it from having interest in next-generation rocket systems, new warhead technology, supersonic and hypersonic munitions and new delivery platforms. How Pakistan intends to procure or develop these systems, especially with a less-than-adequate pool of willing partners and suppliers (due to not being a MTCR and/or WA member), is an important question.

The next decade will determine how Pakistan will position itself to secure these new systems, which would require extensive research and development (R&D) investment. If Pakistan must pursue these fields alone, the necessary R&D investment – be it organic homegrown development or procuring overseas – the cost will be immense. However, like the nuclear program’s development through the 1970s and 1980s, it could be viewed as a necessity in light of India’s advancements. To what extent Pakistan can plausibly succeed, that is uncertain (though if the nuclear weapons program is of any indication, the persistence will be there if the intent is acted upon by the country’s decision-makers).

Conclusion May Nuclear Series

This month, Quwa Premium will dedicate its weekly articles and monthly report to discussing each of the aforementioned questions in detail by drawing upon existing research and past precedence and examples to begin understanding the future of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program.

Note: April’s edition of the Quwa Premium report is delayed, but it will be published on the weekend of 18 May. In addition, the Quwa Premium report will be published on-schedule on 31 May.

Author/Editor: Apologies for the delay. There had been a combination of personal issues as well as business related matters (requiring changes to the website) that took most of my time. Quwa will be returning to regular cadence through May.

[1] C. Uday Bhaskar. “Column – Southern Asia’s nuclear myths revisited post bin Laden”. Reuters. 13 May 2011. URL: (Last Accessed: 03 May 2018).

[2] Feroz Hassan Khan. “Eating Grass.” Stanford University Press. 2012. p.24

[3] Mateen Haider. “India’s growing military spending threatens Pakistan, says NSA Janjua”. Dawn News. 05 April 2016. URL: (Last Accessed: 03 May 2018).

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Pakistan successfully test-fires Shaheen-III missile”. Dawn News. 11 December 2015. URL: (Last Accessed: 03 May 2018).

[6] Press Release. Inter Services Public Relations. 24 January 2017. URL: (Last Accessed: 03 May 2018).

[7] Kamran Yousaf. “Nasr puts cold water on cold start, COAS says on missile launch”. The Express Tribune. 05 July 2017. URL: (Last Accessed: 03 May 2018).

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