Why is Pakistan cranking up its nuclear weapons capacity?

Rather, who is it cranking up for?

Consider the following:

—There have been, as Bruce Riedel points out in a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, “persistent reports of some kind of understanding between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia for Islamabad to provide nuclear weapons to Riyadh if the Saudis feel threatened by a third party with nuclear weapons.” And although they both deny a secret deal “rumours of one continue to surface as Iran gets closer to developing its own bomb.”

—After 9/11, the United States took steps to ‘secure’ Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, which included transfer of technology to prevent their unauthorised use. The Acorn has previously argued that this suggests that Pakistan is likely to protect its nuclear autonomy by creating a second, more secret, and perhaps less secure arsenal. In a recent Times of India report, Chidanand Rajghatta points to a briefing document by the US Congressional Research Service which says that Pakistan has developed a “second strike capability”, and infers implications for the India-Pakistan nuclear balance. While the inferences are debatable, it supports the second arsenal hypothesis.

—A country in the middle of a long political and economic crisis, financial bankruptcy, several insurgencies and a war within its own borders, and clearly dependent on the international community for life support, is not only increasing its stockpile of fissile material for nuclear weapons, but also expanding its capacity to produce more. And until November 26th, 2008, Pakistan was still engaged in a ‘peace process’ with India.

—Given the subcontinental nuclear equation, it doesn’t matter to India if Pakistan has 60 warheads or 120, and whether or not it has a “second strike capacity”. Why has India built no new plutonium reprocessing plants—relatively simple projects that don’t need a lot of money and for which competent indigenous technology exists—in the last decade? The Pakistanis are not entirely oblivious to this, and recognise that the marginal utility of the additional capacity to produce nuclear weapons is very low. In other words, there’s little additional security to be had vis-a-vis India for the kind of investments they are making.

So why is Pakistan adding capacity?

Here’s a hypothesis: the additional capacity is partly meant for Saudi Arabia’s proxy arsenal that Pakistan manages in trust. It is linked to a Saudi-Iran nuclear balance and linked to Iran’s development of nuclear weapons capacity. The additional capacity is also meant to strengthen the “second arsenal”, because Pakistan fears that the first one is compromised either by US supervision, snatch plans or both.

What does this imply?

First, that there is a new nuclear arms race—not in the subcontinent, but between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with Pakistan acting as the latter’s bomb factory.

Second, that because the US has been unable to fully ‘secure’ Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, it has caused Pakistan to build more warheads/capacity that has increased nuclear risks to yet unquantified levels.

22 thoughts on “Why is Pakistan cranking up its nuclear weapons capacity?”

  1. That makes some sense. This fact has confused me that why are adding to nuclear stockpile when they are at war with themselves. And whom does Suadi Arabia fear? Last time I heard, they were close allies of USA.

  2. Pak can only produce what its N-sponsor PRC allows it to produce. The recent NoKo test also shows that PRC is playing its own game to corner the US and its allies (SoKo and Japan) and potential allies (INdia in the IOR) using its cat’s paws – NoKo and Papistan.

    Seriously, the extent of PRC assistance in destabilizing our security cannot be understated. Whereas AQ Khan built an enriched uranium based weapon that likely fizzled, the one tested in Chagai in 1998 had a Pu core (U2 flight samples testified to this).

  3. Isn’t it obvious?

    Pakistan is is such trouble that it does not have too many levers to indulge in blackmail.

    The nukes are a potent way to give it that lever back.
    Combined with a craven indian administration, the stage is set for a grand bargain.
    I.e. unilateral concessions from india.

  4. Why would Saudi like to stockpile in Pak ? Isn’t Saudis are in US N umbrella already ? US would be very happy to help Saudi, if they are nuked by Iran. So Saudi have no need for N unless they want to strike first. Logic of Saudi needing a secondary N cover looks flawed.

    I think Pak cranks up its machinery to maintains its current position after India deploys a active BMD. Pak would need a elevated numbers to punch thru the BMD layer or to have a secondary cache away from US eyes and that would be the reasons to crank up.

  5. I agree with Sud that China has quite a bit of say in what Pakistan does. But the largest sponsor that Pakistan has is the US.

    I have been arguing that the US funds Pakistan’s wars and its bombs. All the hand-wringing by US commentators and policy makers aside, Pakistan does what it does because the US allows it. You cannot be granting tens of billions of dollars in “aid” and not have control over what is clearly a banana republic and your giving of that aid is a signal that you approve of what the banana republic is doing.

    Pakistan is the organ grinder’s monkey. The organ grinder calls the tunes and decides when and where the monkey will dance. No point in blaming the monkey for the dance, is there?

    The bit that I really like in Nitin’s analysis: SA and Iran going at each other. That would be sweet. Let them nuke each other.

    All this is a very painful process for the world at large. The sooner it comes to an end the better. However the end is not going to be pretty either. So let’s just hope that the end is not too far away. My feeling is that one of these days, those fighting on allah’s side are going to take a nuke to the US and kill a few thousand Americans. Then the US will wake up and level Pakistan and invade Saudi Arabia.

    China would not get into the act because Pakistan has outlived its utility to the Chinese — India is no longer comparable to China and so China does not need Pakistan to keep India in check. India did not need Pakistan’s help at all since the government of India has done that job.

    As the Chinese curse goes, we are indeed living in interesting times.

  6. @Acorn

    Offstumped is moving to WordPress.

    I understand the INI’s role as an independent and impartial platform, but can’t you let Offstumped continue here or let someone else occupy the place that articulates the Center-Right view being impartial and independent.

  7. The premise that Saudi A wants to get nukes from Pakistan to counter Iran sounds pretty flawed. Not only does SA have nuclear protection from the US, Iran’s arsenal threatens Israel (and US), which has a history of pre-emptiveand aggressive postures (recent events in Syria come to mind).

    Why would the Saudis care?

  8. One possible interpretation is that Saudi Arabia is slowly coming to terms with the idea that US nuclear umbrella is no longer a guarantee against Iran on the one hand, and Israel on the other hand. It does make sense for the Saudis to use Pakistan as one of the levers, just in case.

    But this possibility by itself does not fully explain the complicity of US and China in allowing the crank up to happen.There has to be some other, more strategic benefit for the G-2.

    In a way, this is the Great Game again – this time it is Pakistan as a reward for the winner.With both China and US competing with each other to control Pakistan, it is but natural for Saudi Arabia also to see itself as a stakeholder.I doubt if nothing much would come out of this deal though.Pakistan is capable of hoodwinking Saudi with guidance from China.The bombs would indeed be made with Saudi money, but their purpose may not be Iran.

    More than Iran nuking Saudi out and Pak/China doing the same for Iran, it is more lilely that a dirty bomb could either go off in US.Even more likely is for a ‘stateless-actor’ from Pakistan triggering off a nuclear blast in India.China, US, Saudi Arabia, UK and the rest of the world will then pressurise India not to retaliate.

    The options in front of India would be: 1.Retaliate and face more nuclear strikes OR 2.Hold back, and win the eternal gratitude of the community of Nations, billions of funds for the reconstruction effort, and a Nobel peace for the ‘people of India’.

    Short of going for complete disarmament, this is the most likely scenario to play out. So, I don’t think India can sit quiet and theorise that Pakistan’s cranking up nuclear weapons doesn’t matter to us.These weapons, whether 60 or 100 are meant for India and have the blessings of major powers.

    In fact, I will go even further and say that critical commercial locations that have implications for US and China are likely to be unharmed.It is Rajasthan and Kutch that seem to be the likely targets.

    Sorry if I am sounding like a conspiracy theorist, but then even Stratfor and other ‘respected analysts’ seem to be conjecturing, and so, why not ?

  9. Good analysis,

    Saudi’s lend their equipment to Pak in event of a India-Pak war. Will this deal solidify the exchange? Will Indian pilots have to take on Saudi’s Eurofighter if there ever were to be another war?

  10. Nitin,
    Without the intent to sound rude or cynical…
    “hypothesis” == Conspiracy Theory?

    Don’t get me wrong, but don’t you think that the world at large and India/US in particular would have at least got a scent of this?

    Especially interesting is the fact that you have taken the hypothesis as the starting point and built up from there to describe an alleged Nuclear Arms race.


  11. It was often joked that Pakistan’s problems are the 3 A’s, those being, Allah, America and Army and now to that you can add Atomic.


    You can now officially identify Pakistan as a Sunni Munitions Factory on the front against the Shiite empire

  12. Pradeep,

    Thanks for making the point and also for putting it politely.

    Yes, my hypothesis can be seen as a conspiracy theory, but no more than noting Pakistan’s nuclear expansion and claiming a South Asian arms race.

    The phenomenon of outsourced/proxy programmes is not unique: Bret Stephens has a piece in today’s WSJ that recounts how everyone had external help, and how Iran and North Korea are in a outsourcing relationship. The Saudis have actually tacitly signaled that it is also their bomb—it’s not unintentionally that a top Saudi prince’s secret visit to Kahuta is leaked to the world’s media.

    The theory of a South Asian nuclear arms race is invalidated by a simple fact: India has not invested in new reprocessing facilities for over a decade. So what’s the alternative explanation?

    It is too credulous to accept that the Saudis are sitting by idly when Iran is nuclearising.

    Still one can never be sure, so I state it as a hypothesis. I lack the certitude of the scholars, analysts and pundits who declare a South Asian arms race, based on seeing one runner go through the paces.

  13. @pradeep,

    The US might have gotten scent of it but they would no sooner confront their Saudi Arabian allies than plumb the Pacific Ocean. They’ll just use this chance to lecture us on NPT, CTBT, FMCT, DDT, DPT etc.

    Because we don’t sell them oil.

  14. Several suggest that Saudi have US nuclear cover. I don’t think so. While US provides weapons system and would protect Saudi oil (like it did Kuwait’s), US does not give nuclear cover. Because, for one thing, Saudi didn’t need one until now. Also even the Japanese aren’t sure they have nuclear cover from US what with the Uttara Koreans going ballistic. In fact, before Iran declares itself nuclear, Japan may do. So much for the strategic foresight of the Chinese.

    So it’s perfectly logical that Saudi would want a piece Paki bomb and that Pakis would oblige – after all, it is called the Islamic bomb. And Saudi provides all kinds of aid to keep Paki afloat. Next up is Eygpt. It’ll be interesting to see how it gets a bomb. Libyans may be kicking themselves for having folded too soon.

  15. Invalid’s analysis is interesting. However, I believe that our BMD will be primarily used to protect our second strike capability. Even if our BMD shield is only 5% effective, it severely undermines the effectiveness of their first-use strategy. First-use would ensure their own extinction.
    In this scenario, penetrating the missile shield would have no practical significance, IF 5% of what is left of our capabilities is sufficient to incinerate Pakistan.

  16. Vickey Vice,
    I agree that BMD is not going to give 100% protection; but it badly decreases the probability of getting hit.

    Well, BMD shield might be employed only for places like Mumbai, Delhi and other cities of strategic importance. Needless to say, Pak would want to strike only those place. To penetrate the safety net, Pak has to either go for non uniform trajectory missiles like Topol-M or increases its warhead count to increase its probability or fire more dummies along with the intended ones. First option is ruled out, as Pak doesn’t have technical capability. Later 2 options is doable by Pak.

    You can argue that current numbers would be sufficient for Pak to strike at one or two places even with taking BMD in account. In theory that is correct, but practically won’t be possible.

    Pak won’t go N way on day one of the war; it can’t if it wants other nations to save Pak from India’s 2nd/3rd counter-strike. That would give India sufficient time for reducing Pak’s N numbers and their missile numbers, in the event of full scale war. You have to subtract this numbers. Note that credible N strike capability is the minimum of N devices and delivery system, which is land based ballistic missiles in Pak’s case. Earlier, they had one more delivery option in the form of F16; but with India inducting more air superiority fighters, that option is not possible.

    Also, Pak would want to store few more N devices aftermath the war as a magnet to attract money.

    Probable strike numbers (R) = actual count (V1) – Cannon fodder for BMD (V2) – war damages (V3) – money magnet & others(C). To keep R constant with India increasing V2 & v3, Pak has to increase V1. C is constant and can’t be decreased, if there should be any decent future.

  17. I am going to get flogged here for this… but I think the role of Saudi Arabia in Pakistan’s increasing nuclearization is pretty peripheral.


    Yes there are long linkages between Saudi and Pakistan. However, Saudi has taken sides in Pakistan’s internal conflicts (Musharraf-vs-Zardari-vs-Sharif) and did not provide the oil loan waivers in mid-2008 when Pakistan needed the money the most (at that time, oil prices were going to $140/barrel, and SBP reserves were plummeting roughly by $500 mln per week).

    I recall several trips make to Riyadh by officials from Pakistan’s finance secretrariat and debt management office, as well as FM Querishi. Rumors were that an agreement was pretty much a done deal, but ultimately the waivers (or loans) simply didn’t come through. The rift between Sharif and Zardari may have had something to do with the Saudi reticence. Nonetheless, the overall result was Pakistan getting pushed into the arms of the IMF for the $7.6 bln standby loan facility, and intrusive re-design of macroeconomic policies followed.

    Subsequently, the Saudis refused to get involved in the “Friends of Pakistan” donor group consisting of UAE, Kuwait, US, UK, EU countries, Japan. The rumor mill on this one is that Saudis were slighted by initially being asked to be just another member in the FoP (alongside their middling GCC neighbors) , and the Saudis thought a special role/position for the Kingdom would have been more in keeping with the level of their wealth and status.

    The bottomline is that Pakistan has faced a serious economic crisis and deep internal political rifts, and the Kingdom of Saudi has stayed away. This is completely different from the experience of the late 1990s when Pakistan retaliated with its own nuclear tests, suffered crippling sanctions, had to restructure its sovereign debt, but received considerable Saudi support -especially through budget grants and oil payment deferrals (which were subsequently waived).

    Another thing to bear in mind is that Saudis have cracked down on their Jihadis pretty harshly and quite successfully. The crackdown in Pakistan is as you know is extremely messy, fraught with risk and is occurring under the close scrutiny of the Americans. The two crackdowns are simply not politically or operationally linked. The only common thread may be cooperation on monitoring financial channels that may be used by terrorist organizations.

    Within Pakistan itself, there is deep dismay about the intellectual sway of Wahhabi/Deobandi Islam over the nature of religious discourse. And more and more thoughtful Pakistanis are coming to realize that Pakistan sought a religious basis for kinship with Middle-Eastern powers to anchor its strategic and cultural sense of security. And all it got was a regressive culture that has resulted in endless wars and an every deepening insecurity. Moreover, many Pak intellectuals and human rights groups also rue the treatment of their countrymen in Saudi, and the frequent arrests, abuse, and executions.

    Lastly, Pakistan’s international reputation on matters of nuclear proliferation is in tatters. I think the last thing they would risk at this juncture is to do another secret deal to proliferate weapons or technology again, especially, at a time, when old assumptions and axioms of foreign policy are being internally debated and questioned as never before.

    Why Pakistan is producing nuclear devices like a bunny rabbit, is thus related to an entirely different set of considerations. And, the Bruce Reidel thesis is probably off the mark a bit on account of arguments presented here.



  18. BMD probably will not give us protection simply because the flight time for a nuclear-armed missile to reach Delhi is too short for any practical action. Most of the time will be spent in confirmation. I have noted this in the context of a detailed analysis in a post here

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