Pakistan began developing its nuclear weapons programme after its neighbour India conducted its ”peaceful” nuclear test in 1974. During the next 20 years, Pakistan made substantial efforts to develop a uranium enrichment programme for nuclear weapons at the Abdul Qadeer Khan Laboratories.
With help from Canada, China and France, Pakistan gained the capability in the late 1980s to rapidly develop a nuclear weapon. After India’s nuclear test in May 1998, Pakistan conducted a series of nuclear tests over the course of two days to demonstrate its nuclear-weapons capability. A Q Khan, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear weapon programme, later engaged in substantial trade of illicit nuclear technology on the nuclear black market with states including Libya and North Korea.
Pakistan is rapidly developing and enhancing its nuclear-weapons capability. Estimating the exact size and composition of the Pakistani nuclear arsenal is difficult, as no official data has been published. Federation of American Scientists, FAS, estimates that Pakistan currently maintains an arsenal of 120-130 nuclear weapons.
Pakistan deploys its nuclear arsenal partly on fighter-bomber aircraft and partly on land-based ballistic missiles. While it is unclear which types of aircraft the Pakistan Air Force have assigned a nuclear role, Pakistan currently maintains the following aircraft fleet:
- F-16A/B: Pakistan gained 40 F-16A/B from the United States in the 1980s, as well as an additional 85 F-16s delivered between 2005 and 2008. The F-16 fleet has since been upgraded with a mid-life upgrade (MDU).
- Mirage V: The SIPRI Yearbook 2014 suggests the French Mirage V is a more likely candidate for a nuclear role, due to the fact that the earlier Mirage III model has been used extensiely for testing the new Ra’ad air-launched cruise missile, a missile which might be intended for delivering nuclear weapons. Pakistan has also developed and in-flight refueling capability for the Mirage V through the Russian Il-78, allowing the Mirage V to gain an increased operational range, a factor that is considered essential for long-range nuclear strikes.
- JF-17: Pakistan has recently acquired the Chinese-produced JF-17, which might be intended as a replacement to the aging Mirage V.
- Abdali (Hatf-2): The Abdali is a short-range ballistic missile with a limited range of about 180 km. According to the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the Abdali is able to carry both nuclear and conventional warheads, providing ”operational level capability to Pakistan’s Strategic Forces”.
- Ghaznavi (Hatf-3): The Ghaznavi, according to the ISI, is a short-range (290 km) ballistic missile. The missile can also carry either nuclear or conventional warheads. The missile was tested on April 22 and May 8, 2014. An ISI press release stated that the successful launch was ”another milestone which has further strengthened the defence potential of Pakistan”, indicating a tactical nuclear role for the Ghaznavi.
- Shaheen I (Hatf-4): According to the ISI, the Shaheen 1 is a short-range ballistic missile with both a nuclear and conventional capability, able to deliver warheads at up to 900 km. The 900-km range indicates that the ISI is actually referring to the Shaheen 1-A, an extended-range version of the Shaheen 1.
- Shaheen II (Hatf-6): The Shaheen 2 is an intermediate-range ballistic missile, most recently tested on November 13, 2014. After many years of uncertainty over the missile’s status, Pakistani military officials have hailed it as ”yet another milestone towards consolidation of full spectrum minimum deterrence”. According to the ISI, the missile is able to deliver both nuclear and conventional warheads to targets up to 1500 km away.
- Ghauri (Hatf-5): The Ghauri is a liquid-fuelled and road-mobile medium-range ballistic missile able to deliver warheads up to 1250 km. According to the SIPRI it is based on the North Korean Nodong missile. The missile is believed to have entered service into Pakistan’s strategic forces in 2003, with fewer than 50 launchers deployed. The missile was last tested on November 28, 2012.
- Nasr (Hatf-9): The Nasr is a road-mobile short-range ballistic missile equipped with multiple launch tubes with a very limited 60-km range, indicating its likely role as a tactical battlefield nuclear weapon platform. The Nasr is described as a nuclear ”quick response system” intended to deter threats at shorter ranges, being able to rapidly withdraw after firing in a ”shoot and scoot” manner.
- Babur (Hatf-7): The Babur an indigenously produced ground-launched cruise missile that can be fired from mobile multi-tube launchers. ISI claims it incorporates stealth features and has a nuclear capability. The missile has a 700-km range and was last test-launched on September 17, 2012.
- Ra’ad (Hatf-8): The Ra’ad is an air-launched cruise missile having a 350-km range. According to the SIPRI World Yearbook, the missile was last test-launched on May 31, 2012.
Nuclear weapon modernization
Pakistan is rapidly developing and enhancing its nuclear weapons capability, and this trend is likely to continue at a rapid pace in the coming years, especially as Pakistan faces the challenge of Indian efforts to deploy a nuclear triad of land-, air- and sea-based nuclear forces.
A worrying trend with Pakistani nuclear weapon modernization efforts is the increasing attention given to cruise and ballistic short-range missile systems. This indicates that Pakistan is currently attempting to develop a wide spectrum of missile systems intended for battlefield use against an outside aggressor’s military forces, most likely India’s. The development of such short-range systems is worrying because these tactical nuclear weapons must be ”forward-deployed” for them to have a deterrent effect. This can cause Pakistan to be vulnerable to a ”use-or-lose” dilemma in an actual conflict, giving Pakistan a strong incentive to ”use” these weapons before they are lost as an attacker advances. The use of such weapons carries additional risk, as any use of tactical nuclear weapons entails the risk of escalation to longer-range nuclear weapons, widening the theatre of battle from the tactical to the strategic level.
Nuclear weapons in national security strategy
Pakistan has no official nuclear weapons doctrine, but through statements and documents made by Pakistani civil and military channels it is still possible to deduce the role of nuclear weapons in the country’s national security strategy. Pakistan views nuclear weapons as its most valuable and important means to maintain national sovereignty. This is made clear in the article ”Pakistan’s Nuclear Imperatives” by General Mirza Aslam Beg, where he stated that ”Oxygen is basic to life, and one does not debate its desirability, nuclear deterrence has assumed that life-saving property for Pakistan”.
Most experts believe Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are intended to counter neighbouring India – both militarily and politically—in order to deter both a conventional attack from India’s superior conventional forces, and in order to respond to a possible attack with nuclear and/or conventional weapons. The statements made by Pakistani officials in regards to nuclear weapons often follow Indian statements, but differ on one important count. Pakistan has not made a no first-use pledge with regard to nuclear weapons. The reason for this might be Pakistan’s inferior position in conventional military forces. Avoiding a no first-use pledge might therefore be a way for Pakistan to enhance its deterrence capability, by leaving it unclear as to whether Pakistan will respond to a conventional attack with nuclear weapons.
The current trend towards a great number of shorter-range missile systems could quite possibly be interpreted a response to India’s new ”Cold Start” doctrine. Developed after the Mumbai attacks in 2008, the ”Cold Start” doctrine calls for rapid mobilization of Indian forces in the event of a conflict. These would then be used to penetrate the Pakistan border and overwhelm Pakistani forces with dispersed combat units in order to seize limited territorial targets before Pakistan or other powers could intervene. Through the development of highly mobile quick-response short-range nuclear-capable launchers, Pakistan could gain an increased capability to rapidly target advancing enemy forces.
Fissile material inventory
Pakistan currently maintains two plutonium production reactors, the Khushab-I and Khushab-II, which were put in operation in 1998 and late 2009 or early 2010 respectively. Two additional reactors are currently under construction at the same site, which will bring the number of plutonium production reactors to four. The reactors are believed to operate at 40-50 MWt. According to the International Panel on Fissile Materials, each of these reactors can produce 6-12 kg of plutonium annually, enough for 1-3 nuclear weapons each year, depending on weapon design. Four of these reactors could produce a total of 25-50 kgs of plutonium annually.
Last update: March 16, 2017