The Tribune - Spectrum

, June 9, 2002
Lead Article

Pakistan --- The nuclear weapons threat

This is not the first time that Pakistan has brandished its nuclear card to keep India at bay. As early as 1995-96, Pakistanís political leadership had started threatening India with a nuclear response if it took decisive steps to check intrusions into the Kashmir valley. The card was used again during the Kargil conflict. Former diplomat J.N. Dixit traces Pakistanís journey to achieveing a nuclear status and its posturing vis-a-vis Indiaís nuclear capabilities.

IT is well-known that Pakistan entertained nuclear ambitions from the mid-1960s onwards. It decided to acquire nuclear weapons by January 1972 within three weeks of its defeat in the 1971 war. Bhutto, who succeeded Yahya Khan, was clear in his mind that the acquisition of nuclear weapons and the related delivery systems by Pakistan was imperative if it was to match Indiaís superior conventional technology and military capacities. This was the force multiplier Pakistan sought, and achieved. Bhutto had called a meeting of eminent Pakistani scientists in Multan in January 1972, announced his desire to make Pakistan a nuclear weapons state, and urged his scientists to help him achieve his aim, if possible, within three years. There is a wealth of published information available about the evolution of Pakistan as a nuclear weapons power through clandestine means. It was helped in terms of material, technology, maps and designs and sophisticated equipment by France, the UK, the US, Holland, Germany, Italy and the Scandinavian countries indirectly and, above all, China. China has also been actively assisting Pakistan in developing its military missile capacities. Aircrafts of the US and French manufacturers belonging to the Pakistani Air Force were given suitable weapons configuration structures to carry and deliver nuclear warheads. Records assiduously maintained and collated by the Centre for Non-Proliferation Studies in the Monterey Institute of International Studies, California, indicate that Pakistan went into high gear to become a nuclear weapons state from 1977 onwards, after having collected the basic material necessary to launch its tests of May 28 and 30, 1998. Between 1972 and 1974, Pakistan had persuaded Libya, Saudi Arabia, and, to some extent, Iraq, to fund its nuclear weapons programme. By 1986, Pakistan had acquired the capacity to manufacture raw material for nuclear weapons and to assemble them.


Ultimately, it was China that emerged as the main supplier. It has been discerned from technological documents and reports covering the 1980s and 1990s that China assisted Pakistan in developing nuclear technological capacities. China sold special industrial furnaces and high-technology diagnostic equipment to unsafeguarded nuclear facilities in Pakistan. Chinaís Nuclear Energy Industrial Corporation was the source of this equipment. China also supplied Pakistan with ring magnets, drawings and designs for the manufacture of nuclear bombs. Chinese high-temperature furnaces facilitated Pakistanís manufacture of tritium moulds for the nose cones of the missiles that would carry warheads. The US has been the source of material such as zirconium and Kryton electric triggers for nuclear bombs. Germany and some Scandinavian countries have been the source of electronic components, tritium purification and production facilities. China supplied Pakistan both highly enriched uranium and complete drawings and designs for a 25 kiloton nuclear bomb in 1983.

A Pakistani nuclear device was reportedly tested at the Chinese testing site at Lop Nor in Xiniiang in 1987. By 1992, both Abdul Qadir Khan and Foreign Secretary Shahryar Khan had confirmed that Pakistan was a nuclear weapons capable state. By 1995-96, Pakistani political leaders had started threatening India with a nuclear response if India took decisive military action against Pakistani intrusion into Jammu and Kashmir. Certain aspects of Pakistanís nuclear programme are quite clear. First, the primary motivation of Pakistan was to harness nuclear energy only for military and weapon purposes. Second, the programme was generally under the control of the Pakistani military establishment. Third, Pakistaniís nuclear weapons programme was mostly a clandestine operation, connived at by the US during the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan...

Reports over the past two years, since the beginning of 2000, estimate that though Pakistan may have fewer nuclear warheads, it has a more effective and deployable delivery system both in terms of aircraft and missiles. The speculative assessment is that Pakistan has converted its F-16 and Mirage aircraft to carry nuclear warheads. It is believed that while India is still developing and perfecting various categories of its missiles, Pakistan has tested the M-11 missiles supplied by China and the Nodong missiles supplied by North Korea. There have also been reports that Pakistan has finalised its command and control systems to manage its nuclear weapons systems and related arrangements. Most of these reports emanate from Western academic and specialised sources. While India may have more nuclear warheads and the capacity to produce a larger number, it is believed that Indiaís delivery systems are still in the experimental stage and that India has not as yet finalised its command and control systems to manage its nuclear weapons and missile capacities. Neither the Government of India nor the Government of Pakistan has given out any definitive information on these speculative assessments.

The rationale for Pakistanís nuclear weapons programme continuously harped on is that Pakistan has always been quantitatively and technologically weaker than India in military terms. Indiaís counter-argument is that in terms of the ratio between defence responsibilities and the size of the armed forces, specially in terms of territorial defence from external aggression, this argument is not valid. It would be relevant, therefore, to mention the factual position in terms of conventional military balance between the two countries, which would include not just the regular armed forces, but also the paramilitary forces and the equipment which they have. The most fundamental factor while undertaking this comparative assessment is the territorial factor. India has a roughly 2000-kilometre border with Pakistan (including the Line of Control). It has another 3500-3800-kilometre boundary stretching from Ladakh in the northwest to Arunachal Pradesh in the east. In addition, it has a 1600-kilometre border with Myanmar and southwestern China. This is apart from Indiaís borders with Bangladesh, and the coastline stretching from West Bengal to the Gulf of Cambay. India has a regular land army of 1,303,000 and an additional reserve of 535,000. India has 3414 battle tanks (out of which about 1100 are not readily deployable). It has about 4500 artillery pieces, about 2400 air defence guns and about 1800 surface-to-air missiles of various categories. The size of the Indian Navy is about 53,000, including 5000 naval aviation personnel and 1000 marines. It has 16 submarines, most of them obtained from the former Soviet Union. It has 26 surface combat ships which include 8 destroyers, 12 frigates and 5 corvettes. India has 38 corvettes in its Coastguard services. The navy is equipped with a variety of conventional weapons and missiles. The naval aviation wing is primarily equipped with Sea Harrier and Chetak helicopters and 37 combat aircraft. The Indian Air Force has a strength of 150,000 personnel. It has 774 combat aircraft and 34 armed helicopters of the larger size. Indiaís paramilitary forces consist of the National Security Guard, the Special Frontier Force, the Rashtriya Rifles, the Defence Security Corps, the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, the Assam Rifles, the Railway Protection Force, the Central Industrial Security Force, the Central Reserve Police Force, the Border Security Force, the Home Guard, the State Armed Police, the Civil Defence Corps and the Coastguard. The total strength of these 14 paramilitary cadres is roughly 1,066,000.

Compared to this, the strength of the Pakistani armed forces is 1,225,000. The army has 550,000 personnel, 2885 battle tanks, 1467 artillery pieces, more than 2000 air defence guns and nearly 400 surface-to-air missiles which include Stingers, M-11 and M-9 missiles. The Pakistani Navy has 22,000 personnel, 10 submarines and 8 surface combat ships, mostly frigates. It has 9 coastal patrol seacraft and an air wing with 40 aircraft. The Pakistani marine force has a strength of 12,000 men.

The Pakistani Air Force has 40,000 personnel, 353 main combat aircraft and bombers. The Pakistani Navy is equipped with Exocet missiles and surface-to-air missiles. The Air Force is equipped with Exocet, Harpoon, Sparrow, Sidewinder and Magic missiles. Pakistan has 6 paramilitary cadres with a strength of 288,000. The para-military cadres are the National Guard, the Frontier Corps, the Pakistan Rangers, the Northern Light Infantry, the Maritime Security Agency and the Coastguard.

Though Pakistan is less than one-third the size of Indian territory and it has to guard frontiers roughly one-sixth of the frontiers India has to, Pakistanís armed forces, paramilitary forces and equipment measure more than 60 per cent of the strength of the armed forces of India. Given Indiaís defence responsibilities, apart from the frontier with Pakistan, the most optimistic interpretation would be of India and Pakistan being evenly matched in terms of their conventional military strengths, in the sectors in which they are likely to confront each other. Pakistanís nuclear weapons programme and its substantive defence cooperation with China in the spheres of nuclear and missile weapons, therefore, constitute an additional tangible and perceptible threat. One cannot also avoid coming to the conclusion that Chinaís continuing help to Pakistan to build up its military strength is a calculated step aimed at keeping India under pressure. Indiaís nuclear and missile weapons programme, therefore, has been and is unavoidable and can be reasonably termed as a pre-emptive measure in defence preparedness.

What are the nuclear weapons capabilities of India and Pakistan? Since the nuclear tests, by the International Institute of Strategic Studies and the US Natural Resources Defence Council have estimated that Indiaís stockpile of separated-weapons grade plutonium would be between 330 and 400 kilograms plus or minus 30 per cent, enough to manufacture between 65 and 100 nuclear warheads by the year 2005. The US agencies have also acknowledged that India has a capacity to manufacture, deploy and deliver two such thermonuclear weapons. The Congressional Research Service of the US projects a higher estimate of Indiaís nuclear capacities, putting it at between 390 and 470 warheads. As far as delivery systems go, India has the more sophisticated categories of fighter bomber aircraft from Russia and the French Mirage. India has also tested the medium-range Prithvi and the intermediate-range Agni missiles. India has also some initial capacities to launch nuclear weapons from sea-based platforms, such as the "Delhi" class destroyers or submarines of Russian origin. The same sources mentioned above estimated that as Pakistanís nuclear weapons and missiles are based on tested weapons systems supplied by China and North Korea, its nuclear weapons capacities therefore would be more proven and reliable than ours. Dr Abdul Qadir Khan, assessing the ramifications of the six nuclear tests carried out by Pakistan at the Chagai Hills at the end of May 1998, confirmed that Pakistanís nuclear weapons tests were based on boosted fission devices using Uranium 235. He asserted that Pakistan has a sufficient stockpile of fissile material for the production of nuclear weapons, namely, highly enriched uranium produced at the centrifuge plant at Kahuta near Islamabad. Pakistanís stockpiles in 1999 were estimated at between 450 and 600 kilograms, sufficient to produce 20 to 30 nuclear warheads. Making long-term projections, US experts have suggested that Pakistan is capable of possessing about 100 nuclear warheads by the year 2020. Apart from being able to deliver the warheads by F-16 aircraft, Pakistan also has sufficient stocks of fully tested Ghauri and M-11 missiles, apart from Hatf-I and Hatf-II missiles for delivering tactical nuclear weapons....

There has been curiosity about the quality and quantity of nuclear weapons systems and missiles that would constitute the minimum credible effective deterrent ó not only from Pakistan but from a number of important powers. Indiaís response has been that effective minimum deterrence cannot be a static phenomenon. The quality and quantity of deterrent capacities will change according to the perceived threat, the nuclear weapons posture of potential enemies and the required extent of the second strike response. This is logical in keeping with the nuclear doctrines of the older nuclear powers....

Pakistanís response to the Indian nuclear tests in terms of attitudes and policies has been ambiguous and less formally documented. First came Nawaz Sharifís statement that Pakistan was obliged to exercise the nuclear option due to the weaponisation of Indiaís nuclear programme. Pakistan had to respond to the radically altered strategic balance in the South Asian region because of this. Pakistan then decided to acquire nuclear weapons and to equip itself with delivery systems in the interest of national self-defence, to deter aggression whether nuclear or conventional. It is the last portion of his statement which spells out the most significant element of Pakistanís nuclear doctrine. The point made is that Pakistan will use its nuclear weapons capacity to deter even a conventional military threat. Though Pakistan has not announced any formal nuclear doctrine like India, the main elements of Pakistanís nuclear doctrine can be discerned as follows:

First, Pakistan will use its nuclear weapons to counter even a primarily conventional conflict situation if it feels threatened with military defeat. Pakistan will resort to "first use" of nuclear weapons without limiting them to deterring only a nuclear threat from India. Pakistanís ambassador to the UN Conference on Disarmament in Geneva elaborated the concept in July 1998 stating that with Pakistanís aquisition of nuclear weapons, a situation of overall mutual deterrence now exists between India and Pakistan. Pakistan will seek to maintain this situation of deterrence in future. The level at which this deterrence is maintained, and will be maintained will be determined, in accordance with any escalatory steps taken by India. Though its interest is maintaining nuclear deterrence at the lowest possible level, the governing consideration would be to safeguard Pakistanís strategic vulnerability in certain areas such as fissile materials, and ballistic missiles. The Government of Pakistan in official statements advocated that permanent members of the Security Council and the industrially advanced "Group of 8" countries should persuade India not to deploy its nuclear weapons delivery systems. Pakistan, however, did not give any similar undertaking not to deploy its own weapons systems.

The next element in Pakistanís nuclear doctrine is that given the asymmetry of conventional weapons capabilities between India and Pakistan, in which India has superiority, Pakistan reserves the right of "first use" of nuclear weapons against India. Pakistan has announced that it has put in place its command and control systems to manage its nuclear weapons capacities. This command and control system and the final authority for exercising the nuclear weapons options rests with the Pakistani military high command which will exercise this authority in consultation with the Prime Minister. For the present this provision for consulting civilian authorities is redundant because Pakistan is under the military rule of General Pervez Musharraf.

Pakistan has so far not given any commitment about not holding further nuclear tests. Its stand is that it will adhere to the provisions of these regimes only if India first abides by such provisions whenever they come into force. The Pakistani nuclear doctrine found expression at the highest political levels during the Kargil conflict between May and July 1999. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif stated in the initial stages that Pakistan was fully equipped to meet any nuclear threat from India. Foreign Minister Sartaj Aziz and Foreign Secretary Shamshad Ahmed Khan went one step further to say that Pakistan will not hesitate to use any weapon in its arsenal to defend its territorial integrity. India interpreted these as veiled nuclear threats during the Kargil conflict. The speculative assessment in India at that time was that Pakistanís lack of geo-strategic depth and the reach of Indiaís conventional forces, especially Indian aircraft, would mean that Pakistani leaders would be inclined to use their nuclear weapons capacities early, to pre-empt any defeat by Indian conventional forces. Given this juxtaposition of Indiaís and Pakistanís doctrines and postures, foreign experts have suggested that there is a risk of a dangerous misunderstanding between Indiaís and Pakistaniís perceptions of what they would do in terms of their respective nuclear weapons utilisation when a conflict situation between them reaches levels of criticality. As Pakistan claims to be at a military disadvantage, it would be interested in maintaining deterrence power and be ready to use nuclear weapons in the early stages of a conflict if it felt seriously threatened. Indian authorities, on the other hand, may believe that Pakistan would be restrained from early use of nuclear weapons due to massive Indian nuclear retaliation. The result is and would be a highly uncertain situation with dangerous implications. Pakistanís inclination to be trigger-happy in nuclear terms seems plausible, given the fact that the final authority of command and control over nuclear weapons would rest with the joint staff headquarters aided by a military secretariat. Neither is responsible to any elected institutions. 21st century bringing upon themselves the challenge of tackling the implications of being endowed with enormous destructive power. Future generations of Indians and Pakistanis will judge the current leaders on the basis of the options they choose. One hopes that reason and common sense will prevail.

Excerpted from India-Pakistan in War & Peace by J.N. Dixit, Books Today, pages: 501, Price: Rs 595.