Pakistan and Nuclear Weapons

Pakistan and Nuclear Weapons

In this article, we shall discuss the history of Pakistan and their nuclear weapons. We will look at when they developed nuclear weapons technology, and also the role that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons had with neighboring state India. While we look at the India-Pakistan relations elsewhere, we want to examine the role of nuclear weapons with regards to these states and international relations in general.

Pakistan is one of the other nine states in the international system to have developed nuclear weapons. Both India and Pakistan each tested nuclear weapons in 1998. However, according to reports, Pakistan was initially questioning whether they should test a nuclear weapon. As it has been noted, “Challenged again in May 1998 by a series of 5 Indian nuclear tests, Pakistan was initially reluctant to test its own weapons out of fear of international sanctions. Belligerent statements by Indian leaders after the tests succeeded in forcing it over the hill. But success brought change. Pakistan saw nuclear weapons as a talisman, able to ward off all dangers. Countering India’s nuclear weapons became secondary. Instead, Pakistani nuclear weapons became the means for neutralizing India’s far larger conventional land, air, and sea forces” (Hoodbhoy & Mian, 2002). So, for Pakistan, they viewed nuclear weapons as a way to check the power of India. However, for some of the military leaders, this meant not only holding a position of deterrence against India, but rather, looking to expand on policy interests in areas such as Kashmir (Hoodbhoy & Mian, 2002).

Pakistani officials seem to think that nuclear weapons achieve these objectives of controlling India, all the while ensuring more influence for them with regards to their actions in Kashmir. For Pakistani officials, 

They anticipate that in the event of hostilities, India is likely to take losses in a terrain unsuitable for heavy armour or strike aircraft. So it could shift the theatre of war – escalating horizontally but without attacking nuclear facilities. Thereafter India would have several options available to it:

Push into lower Punjab or Upper Sindh to sever Pakistan’s vital road and rail links.

Destroy the infrastructure of the Pakistan military (communication networks, oil supplies, army bases, railway yards, air bases through the use of runway busting bombs).

Blockade Karachi, and perhaps also Gwadur, Pakistan’s other port, currently under construction.

Pakistan’s generals have sought to make it impossible for India to achieve these goals. They have articulated a set of conditions under which they will use their nuclear weapons. Pakistani nuclear weapons will be used, according to General Kidwai of Pakistan’s Strategic Planning Division, only “if the very existence of Pakistan as a state is at stake” and this, he specified, meant:9

1. India attacks Pakistan and takes a large part of its territory

2. India destroys a large part of Pakistan armed forces

3. India imposes an economic blockade on Pakistan

4. India creates political destabilization or large scale internal subversion in Pakistan India, in turn, has started to prepare its military to be attacked by nuclear weapons on the battlefield and to continue the war. The major Indian war game Poorna Vijay (Complete Victory) in May 2001, the bigggest in over a decade, was reported to center on training the army and airforce to fight in a nuclear conflict.10 Taken together, Indian military options and Pakistani planning would seem to ensure that that any major India-Pakistan conflict would lead inexorably to the use of nuclear weapons” (Hoodbhoy & Mian, 2002).

Because of the conflict between India and Pakistan in the past, some have worried that Pakistan having nuclear weapons is concerning, and could lead to further instability in the region, particularly since both countries possess nuclear weapons. As Sagan (2006) explains:

“Islamabad has been dangerously lax since its 1998 nuclear tests, exercising weak control over its military personnel, intelligence officials, and scientists who have access to nuclear weapons, materials, and technology. Soon after the 1998 tests, Pakistani military planners developed more belligerent strategies against India. Dusting off an old plan, in the winter of 1999, Pakistani infantry units disguised as mujahideen snuck into Indian-held Kashmir. The incursion sparked the 1999 Kargil War, in which over 1,000 soldiers were killed on both sides before Pakistani forces reluctantly withdrew. According to U.S. and Indian intelligence, before the fighting ended, the Pakistani military had started to ready its nuclear-capable missiles for potential use. But when President Bill Clinton raised the possibility that this had happened with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, he displayed a disturbing lack of knowledge about what his own military was doing. Similarly, Pakistani leaders gave important nuclear command-and-control responsibilities to the notorious Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which has intimate ties to both the Taliban and jihadist groups fighting in Kashmir. Doing so was a recipe for trouble, raising the risks that a rogue faction could steal a weapon or give it to terrorists. According to credible reports, during the Kargil War, Pakistani military planners and the ISI considered hiding Pakistan’s nuclear weapons in western Afghanistan to protect them from a potential preemptive attack by India; they even contacted Taliban officials to explore the option” (5).

According to Sagan (Sagan, Waltz & Betts, 2007), it was the ability to Civilian Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to call the troops back that helped resolve a heightened crisis situation that could have been disastrous.

He goes on to say that

“Islamabad has also exercised incredibly loose control over Pakistani nuclear scientists. After the 9/11 attacks, it was discovered that a number of individual scientists — including Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood, a senior official of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) — had met with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and discussed techniques for developing nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. In April 2002, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf admitted that PAEC scientists had been in contact with al Qaeda but claimed that “the scientists involved had only very superficial knowledge.” Most proliferation experts also believe that senior Pakistani military officers were involved in many, if not all, of the deals in which A. Q. Khan and his associates sold nuclear centrifuge components to Iran and Libya, offered to help Saddam Hussein build a bomb just before the 1991 Gulf War, and provided North Korea with uranium-enrichment technology” (5).

As Sagan (Sagan, Waltz, & Betts, 2007) explains, there is a concern with Pakistan having nuclear weapons because of attempts by some to sell of the weapons information, and that there was not a unified command structure. The fears that two of the Pakistani scientists had sympathies with violent jihadist Islamist groups such as Al Qaeda led to a genuine concern that they could have given information to such a group, thus putting at risk very sensitive, and highly dangerous nuclear weapons (Hoodbhoy & Mian, 2002).

Thus, given the history of conflict between India and Pakistan in Kashmir, as well as the rise in nuclear weapons for the two countries, there have been calls for a reduction and non-proliferation of nuclear weapons for both states. In the meantime, there also needs to be efforts to education the military, policymakers, and the public about the harsh dangers of nuclear weapons (Hoodbhoy & Mian, 2002).



Hoodbhoy, P. & Mian, Z. (2002). The India-Pakistan Conflict: Towards The Failure of Nuclear Deterrence. Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability. November 13, 2002. Available Online:

Sagan, S. D. (2006). How to Keep the Bomb from Iran. Foreign Affairs, Vol. 85, September/October. Available Online:

Sagan, S. D., Waltz, K. & Betts, R.K. (2007). A Nuclear Iran: Promoting Stability Or Courting Disaster? Live Debate at Kellogg Conference Center, Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs. 8 February, 2007. Available Online: 

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