Pakistan’s Nuclear Trajectory: Punching Below its Weight – Part 1 of 2

Mansoor Ahmed offers a response to “Pakistan’s Red-Carpet Treatment

Pakistan’s nuclear program has been at the center of attention for nonproliferation pundits for several decades for a variety of reasons. For them, the acquisition of nuclear technology, even for non-NPT states, both for peaceful and military applications (self-defense), is the divine right of the chosen few who are either unable or unwilling to recognize the legitimate security concerns of states in regions mired in a perpetual cycle of hostility. Faced with the traumatizing separation of its Eastern Wing in 1971, Pakistan resolved never to witness such an event at the hands of India again, and was forced to respond to India’s nuclear challenge only three years later in the wake of Pokhran-1. Pakistan had taken the lead in calling for nuclear restraint in South Asia even before India’s 1974 test when it first proposed a Nuclear Weapon Free Zone in 1972. This call was repeated twice, once after Pokhran-1 and again in 1978 when Pakistan proposed that both countries simultaneously renounce the acquisition or manufacture of nuclear weapons. The following year, Pakistan again offered India mutual inspection of each other’s nuclear facilities and also proposed a simultaneous accession of India and Pakistan to the NPT and full-scope IAEA safeguards. In 1987, it expressed willingness to enter into a bilateral nuclear test-ban treaty with India and proposed a missile free zone in South Asia in 1994. None of these proposals were given any serious consideration. Since 2007, India has consistently rejected six nuclear-related Confidence Building Measures proposed by Pakistan on one pretext or another. Regrettably, India has rejected each one of these proposals in the past four decades even though there have been a few successful CBM’s which have stood the test of time such as the agreement of non-attack on each other’s nuclear facilities and the agreement of pre-notification of flight tests of ballistic missiles. However, proposals for a strategic restraint regime that would include a commitment not to build missile defenses and include prior notification of cruise missiles were not accepted by India.

Therefore, when in the backdrop of a deep history of mistrust Pakistan resorts to indigenous efforts to build its nuclear deterrent, based on its own force goals and resources, it stands accused of following a “mistaken trajectory” and is seen as “punching above its weight.” A dispassionate assessment of Pakistan’s nuclear trajectory vis-à-vis India and the size of its nuclear fuel cycle in terms of the production capacities of various plants and facilities shows that while it has consistently built up its nuclear capabilities over time, there has been no abrupt or exponential increase in fissile material production comparable to India (for both existing or projected capacities). It is also a fact that Pakistan has reached this stage in its nuclear capability only after four decades of sustained effort and progressive indigenization in its nuclear and missile programs. It has learnt to brace sanctions, find solutions and improvise, and mastered all aspects of the fuel cycle at a fraction of the cost of producing any nuclear plant or facility of the same type or size anywhere else in the world (such as plutonium production facilities). A closer look at Pakistan’s nuclear trajectory demonstrates that while India has been producing plutonium from CIRUS since 1963 and from Dhruva-I since 1988 and has a much larger infrastructure outside safeguards to produce more plutonium in addition to its considerable advantages in existing stockpiles of plutonium.

Pakistan is using infrastructure to produce plutonium from 1998 onwards which PAEC was able to build over a period of 25 years (1973 to 1998), save for second, third and fourth 50 MWt production reactors at Khushab (the fourth one nearing completion), all of which were initiated during the fifteen years after the 1998 tests. Thus, Pakistan’s pre-1998 plutonium infrastructure comprises a fuel fabrication plant at Kundian (completed 1976-80); the New Labs reprocessing plant at PINSTECH (1973-1981); the 50 MWt Khushab-1 reactor, heavy water and tritium production plants (1985-1997); and the partially completed Chashma reprocessing plant (1978) which has recently been retrofitted and reportedly commissioned. After Khushab-1 was commissioned in 1998, Pakistan was able to add three additional reactors of the same type and size only because it was developing indigenous design and manufacturing facilities in parallel with work at Khushab Nuclear Complex in the 1980s and 1990s.

For comparison’s sake, it would be useful to recall that Pakistan has built only two unsafeguarded reprocessing plants since the 1970s; one pilot-scale plant (New Labs) with 20-40 (completed in 1981-82) and the other commercial-scale plant (Chashma) with 40-100 tHM/yr capacity which the French had abandoned in 1978. At the same time, India has built five commercial-scale reprocessing plants (all outside safeguards); one at Trombay (50 tHM/yr) two at Tarapur (100 tHM/yr) and two (100 tHM/yr) at Kalpakkam (the second one nearing completion in 2014).

But Pakistan has no Fast Breeder Reactor and no unsafeguarded heavy water power reactors on its soil. India already has 100 MWt Dhruva-I in operation coupled with 125 MWt Dhruva-II nearing completion along with another 30 MWt reactor being planned. Its 40 MWt CIRUS reactor had already produced 500 kg of weapon-grade plutonium up to 2006 (IPFM 2006) and an additional 45 kg before it was shut down in 2010. Dhruva-I continues to produce 20-25 kg of weapon-grade plutonium every year. India’s 8 heavy water power reactors kept outside safeguards under the Indo-US nuclear deal can produce 1250 kg of weapon-grade plutonium each year, even though India claims that the unsafeguarded reactor-grade plutonium produced by them during normal operations would be used as fuel (MOX) for its breeder reactor program (also unsafeguarded). India’s 500 MWe EFBR can produce 145 kg of weapon-grade plutonium each year.

Comparisons in highly enriched uranium capabilities and stockpiles show a similar trend. Pakistan has not increased or expanded its uranium enrichment capacity in the past 20 years, where as India is doubling its existing enrichment potential (floor space) at its Rare Materials Plant (Rattehali) in Mysore. In fact, Pakistan’s HEU stocks might be less than the known estimates since it is difficult to determine the precise SWU capacity of an enrichment plant and its UF6 feed production. That Pakistan is not engaged in, nor aims at entering into a fissile race with India, is exemplified by the following comparison of unsafeguarded fissile material stockpiles and production capabilities (existing and projected).

India Pakistan
1. Weapon-Grade Plutonium Metric Tons (Separated) 0.54 0.15
2. Reactor-Grade PlutoniumMetric Tons (Separated) 4.7 (IPFM 2013)11.5 (IPFM 2006) 0
3. Highly Enriched Uranium Metric Tons 2.4 2.7-3.0
4. Production Reactor MW thermal (MWt) 100+ 125+30= 255

50+50+50+50= 200
5. 8 (220 MW) Heavy Water Power Reactors + 1 (500 MW) Breeder Reactor MW electric (MWe) 1760+550= 2310(1250 + 140 kg Pu-239/yr) 0
6. Uranium Enrichment Separative Work Unit Capacity (SWU) 15-30000 (existing)30-60000 (expanded) 15-45000
7. Reprocessing Plants Net Capacity tons of Heavy Metal/year (tHM/yr) 350 70-140

Sources: IPFM Reports 2006 and 2013.

Curiously enough, Pakistan’s plutonium quest has been at the heart of western non-proliferation efforts since the 1970s when the country was striving to complete the nuclear fuel cycle. It is intriguing that towards the late 1970s when Pakistan was completing research and development work on various plants and facilities for the enriched uranium route (uranium processing, conversion and enrichment) as part of the fuel cycle, and was also quietly building other unsafeguarded facilities for the plutonium route, the United States had used its full diplomatic pressure to secure a major non-proliferation objective in order to force France to cancel the deal for the safeguarded commercial-scale reprocessing plant in August, 1978 (which was never intended for Pakistan’s weapons program anyway).

Only a year later, a June 6, 1979, a de-classified US State Department cable stated that Pakistan might be “allowed” to complete its gas-centrifuge program while the United States (in its misplaced opinion) had succeeded in stopping Pakistan’s plutonium program in its tracks. This might have been so as the United States was probably not sure that Pakistan could build uranium processing, hexafluoride gas (UF6) production, and gas-centrifuge plants for the enriched uranium route anytime soon, but more significantly because plutonium was and still is the major non-proliferation concern for Pakistan since it provides the capability to develop miniaturized, boosted fission, tactical and thermo-nuclear warheads—the basis of a first-class operational nuclear deterrent.

Thermonuclear weapons is yet another area where Pakistan has shown restraint and has been punching below its weight, even though the capability exists to build these weapons, but perhaps boosted-fission warheads might suffice for existing force goals.

Pakistan’s ballistic missile program was largely driven by the effects of the Pressler Amendment. Yet its missile development and testing trajectory does not reflect any arms racing with India in this field with both countries pursuing divergent pathways in the field. For instance, Pakistan’s missile development and testing is solely geared towards the consolidation of its existing capabilities designed to achieve greater accuracy, reliability against increasing Indian ballistic and planned cruise missile defenses and survivability of its strategic forces. This has been explained in a recent Carnegie study, which states that “An analysis of aggregated missile test data since 1998 reveals that the armament dynamic is far more complex. The Indian and Pakistani nuclear programs are largely decoupled. The data show little correlation between the adversaries’ testing behavior contrary to what would be expected in a classic arms race. In fact, the types and ranges of missiles under development provide concrete evidence of the divergence in their nuclear objectives and security strategies. Pakistan is building weapons systems to deter India from conventional military operations below the nuclear threshold. India is developing systems primarily to strengthen its strategic deterrent against China….”

This fact was reiterated when Pakistan did not respond to India’s 5000-7000 km-range Agni-V ICBM. in kind, but conducted tests of improved versions of its 1000-1300 km-range Shaheen-1A ballistic missile as a potential substitute to the liquid-fuelled Ghauri. Pakistan also has no ballistic or cruise missile defense programs; no ICBM projects like Agni-V which is being armed with MIRVs and no SSBNs like India’s Arihant armed with the 700 km-range Sagarika SLBMs. Pakistan’s defense budget has largely remained static at around 2-3% of GDP ($5-7 billion) in the past decade compared to India’s which has increased to around $ 40 billion. Similarly, a growing imbalance in conventional forces (which Pakistan can never bridge) is exacerbating with India becoming the world’s largest net importer of conventional arms for several years in a row in the past few years.

This then brings forth the logic of Pakistan’s recent development of battlefield or tactical nuclear weapons designed to deter limited conventional war below its nuclear threshold. TNWs would be used only as weapon of last resort in case of deterrence failure and collapse of conventional forces or the crossing of its perceived nuclear thresholds, whichever comes first. In case of deterrence failure, there would be no escalation control would become impossible and ineffective resulting in the employment of every means available to Pakistan to defend itself against aggression. Pakistan opted to build TNWs (presumably in limited numbers for deterrence only and not for war fighting) as means to supplement conventional defenses.

Nonetheless, when Pakistan tested a 60-km range nuclear capable battlefield missile (Hatf-IX) Nasr in 2011, it caused considerable consternation in India and elsewhere. However, when India tested the 50-150 km-range Prahaar shortly thereafter, , and dubbed it a “tactical surface to surface missile capable of carrying different types of warheads, which operates as battle field support system to the Indian Army” or has recently added another 60-170 km tactical missile Pragati, to its missile arsenal, no one raises a finger. That is mainly because India has stopped short of declaring these systems nuclear capable and have declared them to carry conventional warheads only. But if India can develop unconventional warheads for the nuclear capable Prithvi-I and II, then it is only a matter of time before nuclear warheads for Prahaar and Pragati are developed, especially given their deployments against Pakistan and China.

So how many warheads would then suffice for credible minimum deterrence? Pakistan is being placed ahead of India in warhead count by a number of international publications and experts. What is astonishing is the basis of such estimates unless they have had the privilege of having done a warhead count themselves or been able to determine the exact amount of fissile material and the corresponding non-nuclear components developed to produce warheads. Warhead count and the amount of fissile material weaponized would invariable depend on various weapon designs (boosted fission, composite core, two-stage etc.) This in any case would be any nation’s most classified information and neither India, nor Pakistan have declared their respective inventories of fissile stocks or warheads.

Since some of India’s leading strategic analysts such as K. Subrahmanyam have called for the development of a strategic triad comprising a 400-warheads, Pakistan should settle for at least a triad consisting of a 200-250 warhead force that might include different types warheads required to maintain a credible minimum deterrent, designed to absorb an Indian first strike and respond—a capability needed for any country to maintain strategic stability with a nuclear armed neighbor.

However, any such force goals would depend on the availability of fissile material (especially plutonium and tritium for miniaturized warheads) whose production would be limited by the finite domestic reserves of natural uranium, unlike that of India who is being lavishly furnished by the NSG countries with the means of making the most optimum use of all its natural uranium stocks for weaponization.


Part 2 of this piece is available here.

Posted in , India, India-Pakistan Relations, Military, Nuclear, Nuclear Weapons, Pakistan

Mansoor Ahmed

Dr. Mansoor Ahmed is a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for International Strategic Studies (CISS) Islamabad, Pakistan. He is a former Stanton Nuclear Security Junior Faculty Fellow (2015-16) and Postdoctoral Research Fellow (2016-18) with the Managing the Atom Project/International Security Program at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center. He was also an MTA Associate for 2018-2019. Previously, he was a Visiting Research Scholar at the Cooperative Monitoring Center, Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M., USA in 2013. He has also served as a Lecturer in the Department of Defence and Strategic Studies (DSS), Quaid-i-Azam University (QAU), Islamabad from 2011 to 2015, and as Visiting Faculty in the Department of Strategic and Nuclear Studies, National Defence University, Islamabad from 2009-2011. Before joining the academia, he worked in the Pakistan Audit and Accounts Service from July 2003 to January 2011. Dr. Ahmed holds a PhD in International Relations from Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. His research interests include various aspects of Pakistani and Indian nuclear programs and policies; fissile materials, non-proliferation, arms control and strategic stability issues with special reference to South Asia. His research work has been published by the Belfer Center, the Stimson Center, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the US Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.

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7 thoughts on “Pakistan’s Nuclear Trajectory: Punching Below its Weight – Part 1 of 2

  1. The Author makes an erroneous assumption that India must calibrate its scientific achievements with those of Pakistan, so that insecurity brought on by imbalance is negated. Brother, we Indians believe we have the human resources to challenge the best in every field and are really not interested in competing with anyone. The true challenge is in competing with oneself by thinking both critically and laterally, De Bono style. Copying others can never make a country or individual a leader, though one can stay ahead by not making the mistakes others made.
    India is not really concerned with how many Nuclear warheads or Missiles Pakistan wants to deploy, let it be a million or a zillion, it is a personal choice of every country. All that Indians want to communicate to their Government is “have zero tolerance for Terrorism”. The message for Pakistan is “please keep your Assets and Terrorists within your borders”. Is the message too complicated to be understood ?

  2. India continues to view Pakistan as the “real threat” even though it is adjusting its military strategy to include the possibility of a limited two-front war with both Pakistan and China. Indian military deployment on land is mainly fixated against Pakistan but in recent times, it is also being adjusted for both China and Pakistan.
    “The nuclearisation of South Asia has made war an unthinkable option. In the presence of nuclear weapons, military victory has become impossible; political victory, however, would depend on the threat of war (deterrence). As long as there is no sincere progress towards the resolution of major outstanding disputes, nuclear weapons would continue to play the central role in Pakistan’s strategic calculus to deny India military as well as political victory.”
    the author has very sound knowledge of the south asina issues and gfive a very realistic approach , and anylissi of the issues.
    further if we see in other way around For Pakistan strategic stability creates absence of all forms of conflict/ war. India would be wise to take such capability into account and avoid risky policies like CSD and massive retaliation.
    Cold start doctrine which is aimed for hot wars is aimed to de-stabilize the security environment of south Asia. Pakistan is developing SRBMs so that it can deter Indian coercion and its plans to fight below a perceived Pakistani nuclear threshold. This test of Nasr indicates that Pakistan is steadily enhancing the capabilities of Nasr missile, such as its accuracy which is a real technological feat. Nasr has worked to halt limited war possibility that Pakistan perceives across the entire spectrum of threat from New Delhi this is a reason for which Nasr deserves as a Weapon of Peace and hence ensures the security of main land from Indian attack.

  3. Mansoor,
    Excellent technical analysis, as usual.
    You do seem to be confirming that Pakistan is very much competing with India, and predicating requirements on anticipated Indian capabilities. Would you not agree with this? If so, Pakistan does not embrace a doctrine of minimum nuclear deterrence. Instead, one might call Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine to be one of “relative” nuclear deterrence.
    Of course, by this standard, India is not embracing a doctrine of minimum nuclear deterrence, either.
    Best wishes,

  4. Thank you MK,

    It all depends on how you interpret the whole canvas of the South Asian nuclear conundrum.

    While I would agree that there has been a subtle and clear shift in Pakistan’s deterrence posture from minimum credible deterrence to credible minimum deterrence, it has primarily been the product of evolving and dynamic nature of the threat spectrum in the region–to which Pakistan cannot remain oblivious.

    However, this does not change the fact that 75% of Pakistan’s entire fissile material production/fuel cycle infrastructure that is being used today was built between 1973-1998, except for the three additional 50 MWt production reactors.

    Its missile quest (as shown by the pattern of the tests and the range of the missiles) is only geared toward achieving a survivable triad for an assured second strike capability and has no regional or global ambitions.

    On the other hand, the huge asymmetries in existing stockpiles with India; ongoing and planned expansion in India’s fissile material production capabilities; and keeping a fuel cycle, HEU and Pu production infrastructure outside safeguards (under the separation plan for the 123 Agreement) for future production amounts to double the size of Pakistan’s entire civil and military nuclear program.

    This demonstrates that Indian and Pakistani nuclear and missile trajectories, and force postures are on clearly divergent paths. Here it is important to clarify that the induction of TNWs in limited numbers (to buttress deterrence at the tactical level and not to seek war-fighting aims) coupled with the introduction of the concept of full-spectrum deterrence has only added another tier at the tactical/theatre level to ensure the credibility of the minimum deterrent posture and has not changed the overall posture from deterrence to war-fighting.

    Pakistan is only aiming at what it can achieve within its available means and the maximum number of weapons it can produce would be constrained by the amount of finite natural uranium resources it has (unlike India) which has suddenly discovered large domestic reserves after the Indo-US nuclear deal which will free up its entire domestic production for its fissile material production program infrastructure (whose current rate of expansion is decidedly greater than Pakistan’s entire existing capacity).

    Even as any projections for the number of possible weapons remain hypothetical, it would be fairly easy to calculate the respective warhead-making potential for both countries in view of their existing stocks and production capacities.

    If India’s entire current un-safeguarded reactor-grade, and weapon-grade plutonium and HEU stocks are taken into account, these are roughly sufficient for over 1000 nuclear warheads.

    Pakistan’s restraint is evident from a non-existent ballistic and cruise missile defense program; no ballistic missile nuclear submarine program; no inter-continental range ballistic missile program; no un-safeguarded heavy water power and breeder reactor projects; no expansion in production of highly enriched uranium or the nuclear fuel cycle; no neutron or thermonuclear weapon projects; no space weaponization program; and no MIRV technology projects for any ICBMs.

    Indeed, Pakistan’s force goals are being determined by the quantified requirements of keeping the minimum nuclear deterrent “credible” but given the aforementioned accounting for what Pakistan has not done and what it is doing in limited ways, this does not establish itself as a cold war style tit-for-tat competition with India (whose pathway is far more ambitious and global in its scope and desired reach).

    Therefore, to ensure the “credibility” of its minimum deterrent, Pakistan is consolidating its existing capabilities by developing a highly survivable, robust and effective triad-based nuclear deterrent which will help maintain strategic stability.

    If Pakistan’s posture appears to be one of “relative deterrence”, then India’s expansion in conventional force multipliers and building a potentially 400-warhead triad-based force (including thermonuclear weapons and possibly TNWs in the future), designed to achieve “Massive Retaliation” is indeed not “minimum” by any standard.

    Once Pakistan’s force goals are attained for credible minimum deterrence which are being erroneously perceived as a classic nuclear arms race and competition to achieve strategic parity, the nuclear equation will transform into a stable strategic balance with India. It would then be largely irrelevant for Pakistan if India builds a 10000 km range ICBM armed with MIRVs that can threaten the rest of the world.

    Such force goals might be within reach in the foreseeable future and till such time that they are achieved, however, the world would have to patiently wait and accept Pakistan’s sovereign right to develop and modestly consolidate the indigenous means to defend itself within its limited and available resources. That wait, hopefully won’t be too long.

    Best regards.

  5. the drum beating that Pakistan is being discriminated is of no use if consider the Machiavellian realities of international politics. beside the considerations of national interests signalling the state of denial in which we live would further add to the suspicion streak of pundits you talked about. the estimates that you gave aren’t even sufficient to maintain the credible standings of minimum deterrence. Downplaying might lead to fragility of deterrence stability.

  6. Wow, you think Pakistan is the biggest threat to India, no its not. Indian nuclear programme is essentially completed keeping China in mind, after 1962 India needed to have nukes to balance powerful China or at least stop it if war happens. India can thrash Pakistan within days.

  7. The author points out that “Pakistan’s defense budget has largely remained static at around 2-3% of GDP ($5-7 billion) in the past decade compared to India’s which has increased to around $ 40 billion”

    The article fails to note that India’s defence expenditure is also 2-3% of GDP.

    The question that pops to mind is “What does Pakistan want to deter India from?” Hegemonic design it seems. But the recent past — Kargil, Mumbai attacks, parliament attack, etc. — seems to point to irresponsible behavior under the nuclear umbrella.

    Further, the author raises the issue of the lack of parity with India in the domain of nuclear technology, but does not mention the legacy of AQ Khan and Pakistan’s proliferation record.

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