Pakistan – The Quiet Nuclear Threat

The largest nuclear arsenal in the Muslim world, launching platforms for long and short ranges and a second strike capability. A glimpse of the Muslim nuclear superpower that remained under the Radar

"The Pakistani nuclear program is rapidly growing… along with an unusual problem: Pakistan is not a rogue state that might go nuclear, but rather a nuclear state that might go rogue. Such a situation presents an almost endless stream of nightmare scenarios for U.S. policymakers,” wrote Kevin Hulbert, a former CIA Station Chief, in an opinion column on “The Cipher Brief” website in early October.

“While Pakistan is not the most dangerous country in the world, it is probably the most dangerous country for the world, and as such, a serious case for close and continued U.S. engagement with Pakistan can be made. As a country ripe with the triple threat of terrorism, a failing economy and the fastest growing nuclear arsenal, Pakistan has the potential to create more nightmare scenarios for U.S. policymakers than any other country.”

Pakistan is a nuclear state possessing the largest arsenal in the Muslim world: about 120 warheads and the capacity to manufacture 20 warheads per year, according to The Washington Post. Other experts claim that the aforesaid number of warheads is overrated, and that in fact the number is a double-figure one, but much smaller. Pakistan conducted its first nuclear test in 1998 (“Chagai-I”) before joining the NPT. That is the reason why it is not currently a part of the Treaty.

Pakistan’s nuclear history began in 1965, with a reactor supplied by the USA in the context of the “Atoms for Peace” program. That PARR-I reactor was activated in 1974. Alongside the official program, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (who subsequently became President of Pakistan), initiated a military nuclear program in 1972. The reason was the defeat of Eastern Pakistan (currently Bangladesh) in the war against India a year previously. In 1974, Pakistan tested a first device – but not yet a bomb. In 1975, Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan entered the picture. Khan had been educated in Germany, and he brought along his knowledge of gas centrifuges that he had acquired at a plant of the Urenco Company in Holland. He also brought along uranium enriching technologies stolen from Europe.

Khan assumed responsibility for the establishment of the Kahuta uranium enrichment facility in 1976. Under his leadership, Pakistan developed a global network of smuggling operations, through which it obtained the necessary materials and technologies. By 1986, Pakistan had already produced a sufficient amount of nuclear material for a bomb. A year later, it acquired the knowledge required in order to perform a nuclear explosion.

As stated, Pakistan conducted its first nuclear test in May 1998. In the course of that test, six explosions were initiated. The Los Alamos laboratories in the USA claimed that one of the explosions involved low-grade plutonium. Opinions regarding that claim are divided to this day.

In the early 1990s, estimates claimed that Pakistan possessed 3,000 active centrifuges. In those days, Pakistan aspired to develop plutonium production capabilities. They found a sympathetic shoulder to lean on in China, which helped the Pakistanis build a 40 megawatt reactor at the Joharabad facility. According to US sources, that reactor can produce between 8 and 10 kilograms of plutonium per year – enough for one or two bombs per year. The plutonium separation process takes place in the Chasma reactor at the Rawalpindi sites. According to the website, this reactor can also produce tritium out of lithium-6 (for the purpose of producing a hydrogen bomb). Both facilities are not supervised by IAEA.

Another major facility in Pakistan’s nuclear program is Khushab, which serves as a production plant for plutonium for nuclear weapons. As stated, the first reactor was established in the 1990s by China. Among other things, China also helped the Pakistanis design their warheads and contributed various elements to the uranium enrichment plants, along with radioactive materials. Over the years, Pakistan also acquired dual-use elements in Russia and Western Europe.

The Khushab facility is located about 200 km south of Islamabad. Originally, the facility consisted of a single reactor. Over the years, Pakistan expanded it with three more reactors in 2002, 2006 and 2011. According to a report on the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) website, the fourth reactor became active in January 2015. Each one of those reactors is capable of producing 10 kg of plutonium per year, namely – a bomb production rate of 14 to 27 bombs per year, according to various estimates. If Pakistan maintains its current production rate, in one decade it will possess the world’s third largest arsenal of nuclear warheads, after the USA and Russia.

Almost Attacked by Israel, Threatened by the Mossad

One of the better known stories around Pakistan involves Khan’s smuggling network. After being indicted for running a worldwide smuggling network for nuclear technology elements, he was placed under house arrest in 2004 and subsequently released in 2009. Khan was apprehended in 2004 after having been accused that over the course of the two previous decades he had shared nuclear technology with Iran, Libya and North Korea. Some sources maintain that Khan also helped Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The arrest was made after the CIA had been monitoring Khan’s network for a long time.

The Khan affair introduced the world to the black market of the nuclear world. Khan’s network had centrifuge parts manufactured in Malaysia and purchased various elements in Africa, Europe and the Middle East. In the case of North Korea, missile technology was transferred to Pakistan and centrifuges were transferred to North Korea. In the case of Iran, Khan had planned to sell Iran 50,000 centrifuges in 1987. Eventually, this plan never materialized and Iran purchased from Khan a certain amount of old centrifuges for a lot of money.

In 1979, the Indian intelligence agency intercepted an American document according to which Pakistan intended to conduct a nuclear test very soon. The intelligence agencies of Israel that were monitoring the Pakistanis knew that they were working on a nuclear bomb, but the information betrayed the fast progress made by that country. In view of the new information, Israel planned an attack against the nuclear facility in Kahuta, used by Dr. Khan. The attack was cancelled  owing to US pressure, according to the book "Deception: Pakistan, the United States, and the Secret Trade in Nuclear Weapons" by Adrian Levy & Catherine Scott-Clark. The Reagan administration feared that the attack would undermine American interests in Afghanistan, which Pakistan supported vis-à-vis the Russians. According to various reports, Israel even went as far as building a complete model of the Pakistani nuclear facility in the Negev, for the purpose of training the strike mission pilots. According to the book, the attack was to be staged in March 1984 from the Jamnagar Indian Air Force base in Gujarat. Another source claiming that Israel had planned an attack against the Pakistani nuclear facility is the website.

Other allegations pertaining to the connection between Pakistan and Israel include a claim according to which in the 1980s, following the attack against the Iraqi nuclear reactor, Pakistan wanted to assure Israel that it was not threatened by Pakistan, in order to prevent a future Israeli attack. For this purpose, the Pakistani President, Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, asked the USA to assure Israel that Pakistan would not attack it. According to the same allegation, that is the reason why Israeli officials never mentioned Pakistan as a nuclear threat in their rhetoric. Additionally, it was alleged that Pakistan and Israel established a cooperative alliance between their respective intelligence agencies, ISI and the Mossad.

Another allegation maintains that Israel trained the bodyguards of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. In one case, in 2003, a frequency jammer supplied by Israel even saved the President’s life. Other allegations maintain that this intelligence cooperation revolved around Iran, namely – information collected by ISI was transferred to the Mossad.

Other reports alleged that Pakistan purchased arms from Israel. A British report from 2013 claimed that Israel sold Pakistan Radars, electronic warfare equipment, pilot helmets, fighter aircraft spare parts and engines, optical target acquisition systems, parts for trainer aircraft and other items. Another report, dated 2012, alleged that Turkey sent trucks to Israel to be converted to aircraft refueling trucks for Pakistan.

The same book, Deception, also reports that in the early 1980s, the Mossad threatened a member of Khan’s network, a British national named Peter Griffin. Griffin reported that a Mossad operative sat next to him at a pub and said: “We do not like what you are doing, stop it.” In another case, the Mossad sent a bomb to the home of a German national named Heinz Mebus who had established a fluoride and uranium conversion plant in Pakistan for Khan. The bomb killed Mebus’ dog, but the message was received.

In those years, the 1980s, the Mossad, under the cover of such fronts as “The South Asia Demilitarization Group” or “The Committee for the Safeguarding of the Islamic Revolution” attempted to assassinate members of Khan’s network. The Mossad also threatened such European companies as Alcom Engineering of Italy or CORA Engineering of Switzerland, who were involved in business with Khan – all according to the same book.

Along with the development of fission or fusion-based warheads, Pakistan also developed launching platforms, including short-range launchers such as the Nasr (60 km), nuclear artillery, and long-range launchers such as the Shaheen-III (2,750 km). Additionally, they developed the Babur missile that could be launched from submarines or surface vessels, and the Raad cruise missile. Missile technology was developed at the Kahuta facility. In 1999, Saudi prince Bin Abdul Aziz visited that facility, probably for the purpose of purchasing Ghauri missiles. According to various sources, Saudi Arabia is one of the primary financing sources for the Pakistani nuclear program.

A Threat More Serious than the Iranian Threat

According to a report dated 2011, about 9,000 people in Pakistan are involved in the nuclear project, of whom about 2,000 possess "critical" knowledge about the project. As stated, Pakistan holds an arsenal of between tens and hundreds of nuclear warheads and diversified launching platforms from the ground, from the sea and from the air.

Although Pakistan maintains that their nuclear weapons are properly protected, various experts estimate that in effect, it is a ticking time bomb. The reason for it is the high risk-to-odds ratio regarding the possibility that Pakistan will become a rogue state dominated by fanatic religious elements from al-Qaeda or the Taliban. Additionally, there are concerns that nuclear weapons may find their way into the hands of those organizations who might actually use them. Another concern stems from Pakistan’s history in the context of technology leaks.

In 2001, those concerns reached a peak. The USA and Israel feared that President Musharraf was losing control over Pakistan and planning began for an operation intended to steal some of the nuclear warheads considered to be under risk from Pakistan. It was feared that former employees of the Pakistani intelligence agency ISI might steal 24 such warheads if the President lost control. For this purpose, the special operations units of both countries prepared for a joint operation. According to reports in the Telegraph of Britain, teams of the Israeli unit Sayeret Matkal were sent to the USA in order to train with US units in preparation for the operation that never materialized.

With regard to the ideological aspect, too, Pakistan continues to be a threat to the world. It never adopted the “No First Use” (NFU) doctrine, it is not a part of the NPT or the NSG and some of its facilities are under no supervision. According to various reports, Pakistan also provides a nuclear umbrella to the Gulf States, in particular to Saudi Arabia that bankrolled parts of Pakistan’s nuclear program. Some reports alleged that Saudi Arabia wanted to purchase nuclear strike systems from Pakistan. Pakistan’s shaky economic situation does not bode well regarding the stability of the present regime.

Along with the dangers on the part of the regime, China, which built the nuclear reactors for Pakistan, apparently sold Pakistan outdated technology that is highly probable to produce safety problems. China also intends to build two more electrical power nuclear reactors in the Karachi area in the near future.

Concerns have undoubtedly intensified pursuant to the agreement between Iran and the superpowers. The Middle East has embarked on a nuclear arms race as no country wants to remain devoid of nuclear deterrence opposite Iran. This has made the Pakistani knowledge highly valuable, and in a poor country like Pakistan, with so many people involved in the nuclear industry, this situation is a ‘loophole beckoning to the thief’.

With One Eye Open

Owing to the growing concerns on the part of the USA regarding the Pakistani nuclear program, the White House channeled into Pakistan US$ 30 billion between 2002 and 2015, in an attempt to gain access to the nuclear facilities for supervision purposes. Recently, reports have started floating about a deal being concocted between the two countries. In the context of that deal, Pakistan will be recognized as a nuclear state and will be allowed to maintain a civilian nuclear program in exchange for close supervision over its nuclear and missile program.

Another development is related to the development of a second strike capability by Pakistan. According to a report on the Defense News website, Pakistan will acquire eight Yuan-class SSK submarines from China. Four of those submarines will be built in China and the others will be built at the Karachi Shipyard & Engineering Works in Pakistan. Experts assume that those submarines will be able to launch the Babur missiles fitted with nuclear warheads to a range of about 700 kilometers.

Why is that important? Because such a capability could lead Pakistan to change its strategy to the Credible Minimum Deterrence strategy, which was also adopted by India, Pakistan’s primary rival. In the context of this strategy, the state commits to “No First Use” of nuclear weapons and reduces its production of bombs, as opposed to the Mutually Assured Destruction strategy which Pakistan has maintained to this day. This is also the reason why Pakistan maintains one of the world’s largest nuclear weapon arsenals.

Does the Pakistani nuclear arsenal constitute a threat to Israel? Well, it seems that at the present time, Islamabad does not constitute a direct threat. As long as the stability of the regime is maintained, Pakistan is a global problem handled primarily by the USA. At the same time, Israel should have a plan for the time when a radical religious leader may ascend to power in Pakistan.

With regard to the broader perspective, Israel should be concerned primarily about the leaking of knowledge, technology and products from Pakistan. As Khan’s network provided the momentum for the nuclear infrastructures of Iran, North Korea and possibly other countries as well, Pakistan is currently an objective for terrorist organizations and countries wishing to acquire nuclear capabilities. Admittedly, the regime declares that they are doing their best to protect their nuclear assets, but Jerusalem will be well advised to remain vigilant vis-à-vis the world’s largest Muslim nuclear state.

Tal Inbar, Head of the Space & UAV Research Center at the Fisher Institute for Air & Space Strategic Studies, contributed to the preparation of this article.