THE BLOG
02/07/2016 08:57 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Other Bomb: Pakistan's Dangerous Nuclear Strategy

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Successful test of the Hatf-5B Pakistan ballistic missile

In recent years the concern over nuclear proliferation has centered on Iran's ongoing effort to develop a nuclear weapons capability. Pakistan's nuclear weapons program, however, may prove to be just as dangerous and just as destabilizing as that of Tehran's. That country is well on its way, within another decade, to amassing the third largest stockpile of nuclear weapons. Moreover, its current focus on deploying theater nuclear weapons, so called (5 to 10 kiloton) low-yield battlefield weapons, represents a dangerous new strategy that has wide-ranging impact on both the stability of the Indian subcontinent and the threat that a militant organization will obtain a nuclear device.

For the last seventy-five years, the international politics of the Indian subcontinent, and, to a lesser extent, the broader south and central Asian region that surrounds it, have revolved around the continuing Indian-Pakistani conflict. The two countries have fought four wars since their birth, following the partition of British India in 1947. These wars, fought in 1947, 1965, 1971 (which resulted in the loss of East Pakistan and the birth of the new state of Bangladesh), and in 1999, all resulted in significant Indian victories.

The 1999 war, called the Kargil War, was fought in the Kargil district of Kashmir. This was the first Indo-Pakistani conflict following the deployment of nuclear weapons by both countries. At one point during the fighting, Pakistan's government ordered the arming of its nuclear missiles, potentially bringing the two countries to the brink of a nuclear conflict. Although a truce was later negotiated, the fate of the original princely kingdom of Jammu and Kashmir, a legacy of the 1947 war, has to this day still not been resolved and continues to be a major source of conflict between the two countries.

The genesis of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program had a number of sources. In part it was a response to the defeat in the 1971 Indo-Pakistani war. It was also driven by Pakistan's realization that India was going ahead with the development of its own nuclear arsenal. Neither country is a signatory to the U.N. sponsored Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Pakistan opted to try to develop both plutonium and enriched uranium-based weapons.

In 1985 the CIA warned of a Pakistani plan to build a "plutonium production reactor." Pakistan subsequently built, with Chinese help, the 40-50 megawatt heavy-water Khushab plutonium production reactor. The reactor went on line in 1998. Three additional heavy-water reactors were also built and are currently operational at the same site. Pakistan also built a plutonium reprocessing plant at the New Laboratories facility at the Pakistani Institute of Science and Technology. An additional reprocessing facility is being built at the same location and a third is under construction in Chasma.

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Indian Army Agnil missile at Republic Day Parade 2004

Pakistan also began a program to produce highly enriched uranium (HEU) using gas centrifuge enriched uranium. The specially designed centrifuges spin uranium hexafluoride gas at high speeds to increase the concentration of the uranium 235 isotope. This is the same technology that Iran has been using in its nuclear weapons program.

The program got a significant boost when A.Q. Kahn, a metallurgist working in the Dutch subsidiary of the British-based Uranium Enrichment Company (URENCO Group) returned to Pakistan in 1975. Khan brought with him blueprints for various centrifuge designs and a broad array of business contacts. By buying individual components rather than complete gas centrifuges, he was able to evade existing export controls and acquire the necessary equipment.

Khan would go on to establish an illicit nuclear weapons technology procurement and consulting operation, the "Khan Network," that would play a major role in the transmission of nuclear weapons technology to Iran, Libya and to a lesser extent, North Korea. The Pakistani government has denied that it had any knowledge of Khan's illicit side business but under American pressure arrested A.Q. Khan, sentencing him to house arrest, and dismantled his network.

There continue to be reports, however, that rogue elements of that network continue to operate clandestinely. In 1998 and then in 2001, for example, according to former CIA Director George Tenant, the agency obtained fragmentary intelligence that Osama bin Laden had dispatched emissaries to make contact with the Khan network, in order to discuss obtaining the equipment necessary for developing a nuclear weapons infrastructure, details of nuclear bomb design and information on how to construct radiological dispersal devices.

There are also unconfirmed reports that as recently as 2014, the Islamic State has also reached out to former members of the Khan network for assistance in securing atomic weaponry. While the design and construction of a nuclear device is very likely beyond the capabilities of Al Qaeda, ISIS or any other militant jihadist group, the use of radiological dispersal devices, so called dirty bombs, is well within their capability.

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A. Q. Khan, fifth from left, at Pakistan's nuclear testing facility in the Ras Koh Hills, May 28, 1998

The Pakistani nuclear effort also received considerable assistance from China. It is believed, that starting in the late 1970s, Beijing supplied Pakistan with a broad array of missile and nuclear weapons related assistance. This assistance included warhead designs, highly enriched uranium (HEU), components of various short and intermediate range missile systems, gas centrifuge equipment and technical expertise. The A.Q. Khan network later transferred some of this technology to other countries.

According to various intelligence sources, Pakistan currently has between 100 and 120 nuclear weapons under its control. It is believed, however, that Pakistan has produced and stockpiled around 3,000 kilograms (6,600 lbs) of weapons grade HEU and about 200 kilograms (440 lbs) of plutonium. Pakistan's HEU based warheads utilize an implosion design that requires between 15 and 20 kg of HEU. The current stockpile is enough for an additional 150 to 200 weapons, depending on the warhead's desired yield.

The plutonium-based warheads need between 6 and 8 kg of plutonium. The current stockpile would yield between 25 and 35 additional warheads. As of the end of 2015, Pakistan has enough HEU and plutonium to produce an addition 175 to 235 warheads. This number could be higher if Pakistan opts for smaller warheads intended for battlefield weapons. This would raise the Pakistani nuclear arsenal to between 300 and 350 nuclear warheads. Pakistan is adding enough HEU and plutonium to its stockpile to produce around 10 to 20 additional bombs a year.

According to the Federation of American Scientist's latest tally, there are 15,465 nuclear weapons in the world. The vast majority of those are owned by the United States and Russia. France has about 300 warheads, China has around 250 and the United Kingdom has about 215. Israel is widely acknowledged to possess a sophisticated array of nuclear weapons. Estimates of the Israeli nuclear arsenal vary widely, from as little as 80 to as many as 400, with at least 100 of those weapons being thermonuclear "hydrogen bombs."

Since the late 1980s, Pakistan has used a variety of militant organizations as proxies in its ongoing struggle with India over Kashmir and elsewhere. This strategy may have been a direct result of its success with "Operation Cyclone," the CIA and Saudi funded program to arm the Afghan mujahedeen during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

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Taj Mahal Palace hotel in Mumbai under attack by Lashkar terrorists, November 2008

"Operation Cyclone" was also the code name for the terrorist attack in Mumbai. From November 26-29, 2008, ten members of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistani-based militant organization with long-standing ties to Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency conducted a series of 12 coordinating bombings and shooting attacks across Mumbai. The attacks resulted in the death of 164 people and the wounding of at least 308. The fact that the Mumbai operation used the same code word designation is a disturbing parallel. It is hard to believe that its use was a coincidence.

Sponsored, organized, trained and funded by Pakistan's ISI, Lashkar-e-Taiba is only one of several militant organizations that the ISI has used as proxies in its covert military operations. Other militant groups with documented links to the ISI include: Al-Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Omar, Jaish-e-Monammed, Sipah-e-Sahaba, the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), Jamaat-ud-Da'wah, Harkat-ud-Jihad al-Islami, the Haqqani Network, Jamaat-ud-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and of course its most famous creation--the Afghan Taliban.

Since 1990, given its record of defeat in conventional military conflicts with India, it appears that Pakistan's military strategy has relied on a threefold approach: use militant proxy organizations to strike at Indian military positions in Kashmir, specifically, and to attack Indian targets in general, rely on the threat to deploy nuclear weapons should India try to retaliate with a military invasion of Pakistan and rely on the U.S. and China, in particular, and world opinion in general, to restrain India from attacking Pakistan before the ponderously slow Indian Army can mobilize and be in a position to attack.

One of the lessons that India drew from the 1998 Kargil war was precisely that its slow mobilization and advance would give the Pakistani military plenty of advance warning of its intended strategy and military objectives. It would also give Pakistan plenty of time to mobilize world opinion to restrain India. Moreover, India found that it could not muster a strong enough offensive capability to do anything more than limited border incursions and low level attacks against border fortifications.

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Surrender of Pakistani military forces in East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, December 16, 1971

In response, the Indian Army undertook a comprehensive review of its military operations with the goal of developing a quick strike capability into Pakistan. The resulting doctrine, called "Cold Start," was designed to reorient India's military forces from their traditional defensive posture toward a more aggressive, offensive capability. The doctrine called for the formation of several eight division-sized, integrated battle groups that would combine infantry, artillery and armor. They would be on a standby alert, ready at all times to thrust deep into Pakistani territory along several possible lines of advance.

These battle groups would receive air support from the Indian Air Force (IAF) and, where appropriate, support from India's naval forces as well. The rapid deployment of these battle groups would allow India to seize Pakistani territory before the international community could mobilize a consensus to restrain India. The Indian military has continued to insist that there is no "Cold Start" doctrine and that the debate over military doctrine that has been swirling around India's Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses has been purely an academic exercise. Pakistan's military leadership and the ISI, however, believe that the "Cold Start" Doctrine is a fact.

The Pakistani response to the Cold Start Doctrine has been to emphasize the development of battlefield, so called "theater nuclear weapons." The strategy is to meet India's rapid deployment forces with a series of limited nuclear strikes against concentrations of troops and armor and then rely on international pressure to constrain India from escalating the confrontation to a full blown nuclear conflict.

Battlefield nuclear weapons pose a whole different level of security risks than conventional nuclear weapons. Islamabad's current Strategic Command Organization for Pakistani atomic weapons relies on a threefold structure consisting of the National Command Authority (NCA), the Strategic Plans Division (SPD) and the Strategic Forces Command (SFC). The NCA and the SPD have operational control over Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. The military's SFC has only day to day "administrative control" and technical support of these weapons system.

More importantly, Pakistan's nuclear weapons are kept disassembled, typically in three or four component parts with each of those parts kept in separate facilities. Thus the nuclear warheads are kept separate from the delivery vehicles. Moreover, the fissile cores of the warheads are separated from the conventional, i.e., non-nuclear explosives. Even if a militant terrorist organization was to penetrate a facility where the nuclear components are stored it could not obtain a functioning nuclear weapon.

The one drawback of this approach is that unless very close inventory control is maintained it is possible for component parts to go missing without being noticed. The combination of a multi-branch command authority and the fact that the weapons are kept in a disassembled state makes it extremely difficult for rogue elements within Pakistan or for militant organizations to secure or launch a nuclear weapon.

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Pakistani, truck mounted Babur, 400 mile range, Cruise Missile

Battlefield weapons on the other hand, by their very nature, are more at risk to theft, diversion or unauthorized use. As battlefield weapons they need to be under the control of local commanders. While the decision to deploy them may still be under the national command authority, their actual use has to be left to the commander in the field. Although most of them can be kept disassembled, it is likely that some portion has to be maintained in a ready state if they are to prove useful in stopping an Indian incursion.

At the very least, some portion would need to be assembled and deployed forward in anticipation of a possible Indian attack in response to a Pakistani operation. Typically, these battlefield weapons have short ranges. Since the facilities where the components of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal are stored are well back from the Indian frontier, this means that the weapons would likely need to be stationed relatively close to the frontline in a ready state. It is unclear how the Strategic Command Authority would exercise its control over such battlefield weapons once they were deployed or who would be responsible for guarding them.

In a positive development, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met informally with Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on November 30, during the Paris Climate Change Summit. The meeting was followed up by a surprise visit of Modi to meet with Sharif in Lahore Pakistan on December 26. This was the first direct meeting between sitting Indian and Pakistani Prime Ministers in more than a decade.

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Hatf 2, Pakistani Army Short Range Ballistic Missile

Ultimately, in the long-term, the future direction of Pakistan's nuclear weapons policy is going to be a function of the state of Indian-Pakistan relations on the subcontinent. In the short-term, however, Pakistan's rapid growth of its nuclear arsenal and its deployment of battlefield nuclear weapons adds one more factor of instability to the regions international politics and further raises the risk that nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of either rogue elements in Pakistan or international jihadist groups.