Pakistan Joins the Nuclear 100 Club

Feb 1, 2011

By Terrence P. Smith

Even as Pakistan’s economy, central governance and internal security continue to wither away, news surfaced on Monday that new American intelligence assessments are eyeballing Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal at over 100 weapons – representing at least a twofold increase since 2007. The news comes amid continuing concerns over their nuclear security – an issue this blog has written about twice in recent weeks. The new intelligence assessments have already created a mild media storm over security concerns, but this post asks: how significant is this “news” for security planners, is there really a threat, and what is Pakistan’s motivation/rationale for their build-up and what are the implications for multilateral arms control and disarmament agendas?

How big is this news?

Big and small. For the general population: estimates that Pakistan may have an arsenal over 100 strong is baffling. In 2007, Pakistan’s nuclear stockpile was projected to be only between 30 and 60 warheads and now reports are saying that they are on “track to be world's fifth largest” nuclear power (on pace to overtake Britain) and may take over the number four spot from France soon after that.

At the same time, it is well known that Pakistan is one of the only few countries actively producing fissile material and has been ramping up their weapons stockpile. So while the number is news, the buildup is not.

Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists said with news like this "It's hard to say how much the U.S. [government] knows.” While yes, it is hard to know the depth of the U.S. government’s awareness, the combination and extent of our military alliance with Pakistan (no matter how shaky) and the CIA’s involvement in Pakistan, makes it so that it would be very surprising if this was news to anyone in the upper echelons of the U.S. government. In response to his own question, Kristensen continued that the U.S. government probably already knew “a fair amount.” That question can be put to bed, if you take the quote from an unidentified high-ranking U.S. military official in the New York times as genuine. It read,

We've seen a consistent, constant buildup in their inventory, but it hasn't been a sudden rapid rise... We're very, very well aware of what they're doing.

Why the buildup?

So if we know (or knew) Pakistan was involved in a buildup of this scale, the pressing question is not how did they do it, but why? What are their motivations for increasing their arsenal in a time when most nuclear powers in the world have capped their programs and are now trying to downsize?

This is a particularly perplexing question for a country like Pakistan that, as Reuters described, is already “contending with widespread insurgency, a feckless government and an economy propped up with aid,” and is in a state of “political paralysis.”

One foreign official who is familiar with Pakistan’s plans, asked, “What does Pakistan need with that many nuclear weapons, especially given the state of the country’s economy?”

It’s very difficult to justify a nuclear buildup and particularly so when –realistically- your gravest security threat is a homegrown insurgency (you don’t hear too many people talking about the utility of nuclear weapons as a deterrent to domestic security challenges). Spending a ton of scarce resources on weapons programs is also difficult to spin as a useful counterbalance to a country facing a bleak financial and energy outlook. But perhaps there is room for some twisted logic on these two fronts. By building up their arsenal, they could be hoping to capture and maintain U.S. interest in the region (not that there is a shortage of that – see the U.S.’s longest and ongoing war). American military assistance, economic aid, and political support have become a namesake for the Pakistani leadership, and the nuclear buildup could be argued as an insurance policy to their relevance and forces the U.S. to continue to play their game (again, not that the security problem in the region isn’t already drawing our full attention).

The second possibility, and the more likely in my opinion, is a refusal to abandon the idea of India as the mega-monster in need of controlling and good old-fashion hedging. On the most primitive level, Pakistan’s logic may not be any more deep than the delight their leaders get when they open up the paper and read: “After years of approximate weapons parity, experts said, Pakistan has now edged ahead of India, its nuclear-armed rival. (Washington Post).” - India is believed to hold somewhere between 60 and 100 nuclear weapons.

The Pakistani leadership, because of their animosity toward India, has been finding themselves increasing frustrated by India’s “growing international clout” from economic ties to defense trade and cooperation. More specifically, seeing their strategic rival gain increased access to the global nuclear marketplace and related trade– the latest round being Obama’s announcement that he is removing some limits on technology exports to India – is surely upsetting to Pakistan. George Perkovich of the Carnegie Endowment explains that faced with India’s rise, for Pakistan "nuclear weapons become a very attractive psychological equalizer."

I would agree with Dr. Perkovich that Pakistan’s nuclear build up is better explained in psychological, rather than strategic, terms. This view is supported by the claim from an anonymous but informed foreign government official who said,

The country [Pakistan] already has more than enough weapons for an effective deterrent against India…. This [buildup] is just for the generals to say they have more than India.

The international relevance of Pakistan’s buildup?

If their expanding nuclear arsenal is merely a comfort blanket to Pakistan as their international likability and relevance (outside of security concerns) approaches rock bottom, are there any real security concerns the world faces from their buildup?

In the eyes of the Pakistani military, India is the main adversary. Thus, theoretically, India should have the most to fear from the strengthening of Pakistani capabilities. However, Nitin Pai, editor of the Indian National Interest Review, responded to the news by saying, “We stopped counting after Pakistan's first one." He continued, “If Pakistan is stockpiling nukes, it's the West that needs to be scared. India cannot be scared more than it has been since 1985 (when Pakistan first weaponized)."

It’s true that whether Pakistan has 30 or 60 or 110 weapons does not make a huge difference to Indian security plans, perhaps outside of the plausibility (or lack of plausibility) in successfully raiding and seizing their arsenal in the event of a collapse of the Pakistani government. Nitin’s point about it being more of problem for the West may be true. I would place the concerns for the American government into two categories: (1) nuclear material security in Pakistan (discussed more here and here on this blog) and (2) the implications for arms control and disarmament agendas.

The concerns for the Obama administration following this news, the New York Times explains, are that

The assessment poses a direct challenge to a central element of the president’s national security strategy, the reduction of nuclear stockpiles around the world. Pakistan’s determination to add considerably to its arsenal — mostly to deter India — has also become yet another irritant in its often testy relationship with Washington, particularly as Pakistan seeks to block Mr. Obama’s renewed efforts to negotiate a global treaty that would ban the production of new nuclear material.

The greatest issue may be the prevalence of the mentality exhibited by Pakistan (and almost every other nuclear power at some point in history) that building up nuclear weapons gets your country to where you want it to be. This is the issue we are struggling with in North Korea and Iran. The perception that nuclear weapons give you enough prestige and respect in the international community to the degree that countries feel that, through the pursuit of that one agenda, their strategic risks are reduced and their benefits earned. Pakistan is strapped for cash (their per capita GDP is estimated at $2,400 and real growth rate at 2.7%, ranked 182 and 135 in the world respectively) and their money could be better spent working on their civil infrastructure, their military focus would be better spent addressing their domestic security concerns, and their political focus should be on keeping control of their government rather than challenging the international security balance. But is that what they did? No, they dropped a pot of money on expanding their nuclear weapons program (The New York Times reported that “still, it is unclear how Pakistan is financing the new weapons production, at a time of extraordinary financial stress in the country”).

In 1972, then President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, known as the political father of the Pakistani nuclear program, vowed that "even if we have to eat grass we will make nuclear bombs." Fast-forward to this past fall, ex-Pakistani President Pervez Mussharraf, at an event at the Atlantic Council, displayed a continuation of this mentality through two points. One, he made the argument that Pakistan “had” to go nuclear to maintain a strategic balance with their adversary. Two, he claimed Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal was “the pride of every Pakistani man walking the streets.” If this is how Pakistan feels (and they are certainly not alone in the world), how can we ever hope to have a realistic chance of achieving the nonproliferation and disarmament goals set out by the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and supported by Obama’s Prague speech?

 

(image: wikicommons/beech boy)