Pakistan: Should We Worry About Their Nuclear Weapons Program? The Islamic Republic of Pakistan is making headlines again, and for multiple reasons. For starters, former Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf passed away back on 5 February 2023, and he remains a polarizing figure in that country’s troubled history.
On the one hand, he is reviled by much of the populace, and he was prosecuted for and convicted of treason. On the other hand, Musharraf made Pakistan a key ally of Washington in the Global War On Terror after the 9/11 attacks on American soil, cracking down on radical Islamism within his nation’s borders. 2,500 mourners attended his funeral this month.
Meanwhile, Pakistan has also made headlines within the very pages of 19FortyFive, as my colleague Peter Suciu reported yesterday on Pakistan’s joint naval exercises with the People’s Republic of China. This is an issue of serious concern to the U.S. as well as key American regional ally India, not only due to the fact that China continues to expand its already formidable nuclear arsenal, but the fact that Pakistan is a nuclear-armed nation as well. Let’s now take a deeper look at Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities.
The Beginnings of the Pakistani Nuclear Weapons Program
Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program commenced in 1972, on the heels of suffering a humiliating defeat in the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971 that brought about Bangladeshi independence; at the time, Pakistan’s then-Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto famously declared: “If India builds the bomb, we will eat grass or leaves, even go hungry, but we will get one of our own.”
A key player in Pakistan’s nuclear development was Dr. Abdul Qadeer (A.Q.) Khan (1936 – 2021), who worked from 1972-75 at the Physics Dynamic Research Laboratory in Amsterdam where he had access to information on uranium enrichment, and then in 1976 took that knowledge – along with some conveniently pilfered secret documents on uranium centrifuge construction – to his home country’s secretive Engineering Research Laboratories (ERL) in the city of Kahuta. Eight years later, the nation had mastered the ability to enrich uranium to weapons grade levels.
For various geopolitical reasons, the work was stalled for over a decade, but Islamabad’s nuclear missions certainly didn’t wither on the vine during that interlude. And in 1998, the nuclear genie fully emerged from the Indian subcontinental bottle: on 11 May 1998 – 24 years after its so-called “peaceful nuclear explosion” codenamed “Smiling Buddha” – India successfully conducted its nuclear weapons tests known as Pokhran II.
For Islamabad’s government, then under the leadership of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the proverbial gloves were off, and 17 days later they followed suit via the nuclear test operations codenamed Chagai-I; in Mr. Sharif’s own words, “Today, we have settled a score and have carried out five successful nuclear tests.”
Pakistan and Nuclear Weapons: Where Do They Stand?
Fast-forward to the present day and Islamabad currently possesses anywhere from 100-165 nuclear warheads — depending on which source you consult – while India has around 90-110 nukes. According to a fact sheet from the Washington, DC-based Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, “Pakistan has 6 operational types of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles. Its overall arsenal consists primarily of short to medium-range ballistic missiles but is making significant progress in its cruise missile capabilities.
The ground arsenal consists of approximately 106 land-based missiles with yields of 5-40 kt. Pakistan’s road-mobile ballistic missiles include the short-range Abdali, Ghaznavi, Shaheen-1 and NASR, as well as the medium-range Shaheen-2 and Ghauri.”
In addition to being able to launch these nuclear warheads from ground-based launchers, the Pakistani armed forces have the ability to deliver nuclear payloads from the air; 36 of the country’s nuke warheads are configured for airdrop, and both the F-16s and Dassault Mirage IIIs and Vs in the Pakistan Air Force are suspected to be configured for such missions.
The Future of the Pakistani Nuclear Program
Pakistan shows no pretenses of any interest in non-proliferation and is indeed looking to expand its nuclear weapons capabilities. To quote the Center for Arms Control fact sheet again, “The Shaheen-3 and the Ababeel medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) are currently in development. The Ababeel is believed to have multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) designs but has not yet tested this capability. Experts have expressed doubts that Pakistan has successfully miniaturized a nuclear warhead, a necessary step for MIRV operation.”
Meanwhile, Pakistan is looking to bolster its air-delivered nuclear arsenal, manifested in the Ra’ad II air-launched cruise missile (ALCM), which was unveiled in 2017 and launched in 2020 from the aforementioned Mirage III.
Last but not least, whilst Pakistan doesn’t have a true nuclear triad yet, that may well change soon. Though still in development as opposed to actual production/operational phase, the Babur-3, a sea-launched version of the ground-launched nuclear-capable Babur-2, has been tested underwater twice.
More eerily, in late 2021, Pakistan approved the purchase 8 new missile-capable, air-independent propulsion-powered (AIP) Yuan-class Type 039A submarines from China, which would indeed give Pakistan a bona fide sea-based deterrent and thus finalize a Pakistani nuclear triad.
These are scary times we’re living in, or as the Chinese proverb says, “May you live in interesting times.”
Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force Security Forces officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon). Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU). He has also been published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cyber Security. Last but not least, he is a Companion of the Order of the Naval Order of the United States (NOUS). In his spare time, he enjoys shooting, dining out, cigars, Irish and British pubs, travel, USC Trojans college football, and Washington DC professional sports. If you’d like to pick his brain in-person about his writings, chances are you’ll be able to find him at the Green Turtle Pasadena in Maryland on Friday nights, singing his favorite karaoke tunes.