Written by Rizwan Zeb.

Twenty years ago, on May 28, Pakistan conducted its first nuclear tests in response to Indian nuclear tests on May 11 and 13. It is time to review the developments that have taken place since then, and examine how Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme has evolved as well as how it might or should look in future.

Pakistan reluctantly embarked upon the nuclear path. Since 1947, Pakistan has faced an existential threat from India. Yet in its initial years, Pakistan was not interested in developing nuclear weapons. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto as Ayub Khan’s foreign minister failed to convince Ayub Khan to build a bomb. The situation changed after the dismemberment of Pakistan. In 1972, after becoming the President of Pakistan, Bhutto held a meeting with key officials in Multan and ordered them to build a nuclear bomb. In the meeting, the young Munir Ahmed Khan, who later oversaw the development of the nuclear programme, assured him that Pakistan could build a nuclear bomb. This meeting set the future direction of Pakistan’s nuclear programme. After the Indian nuclear explosion in 1974, Pakistan’s own quest for nuclear weapons began in earnest.

As a matter of policy, Pakistan has not announced any clear-cut red lines.

In keeping with the fact that the Pakistan was motivated to build a nuclear weapon due to its security concerns, Islamabad offered New Delhi several arms control proposals such as the creation of a nuclear weapons-free zone in South Asia; simultaneous signatures to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) by India and Pakistan; mutual acceptance of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards; bilateral inspections of each other’s nuclear facilities; a joint declaration to renounce the development of nuclear weapons; and the signing of a regional test-ban treaty. These proposals were rejected by India as its nuclear programme was not only Pakistan specific, it also had China to consider.  This left no other option for Pakistan but to intensify its own quest for a nuclear deterrent to ensure its security.

President Zia, who continued Pakistan’s nuclear programme despite many difficulties, declared in 1987 that Pakistan had achieved the capability to make a nuclear weapon. According to certain media reports that appeared in February 1992, the Pakistani Foreign Secretary admitted that Pakistan could produce weapon-grade uranium and weapon cores and could assemble a nuclear device. Despite making considerable advances in the field, Pakistan refrained from testing until 1998.

After an interval of 24 years, India shook the world when it conducted a number of nuclear tests on 11 and 13 May 1998. Pakistan called this a “death blow to the global efforts at nuclear non-proliferation” and called upon the international community to issue a strong condemnation. Contrary to the American view that it was only a matter of when, and not why or why not, before Pakistan would respond with its own nuclear tests, an “intense public debate on the appropriate Pakistani response to the Indian nuclear tests followed.”

Though the pro-testing lobby was very vocal and visible, there was a significant and politically influential group of people who emphasized “Pakistan’s precarious economic position and warned that the country would not be able to withstand the burden of economic sanctions that would ensue in the post explosion period.” They therefore counselled restraint. The statements from the Indian leadership between 11 and 28 May and the American inability to engage Pakistan innovatively persuaded the Defence Committee of the Pakistan Cabinet to approve the nuclear test.

David versus Goliath?: Pakistan’s Nuclear Doctrine

Unsurprisingly, a militarily weaker Pakistan lacking strategic depth places its reliance on nuclear weapons to ensure its national defence. With increasing conventional imbalance between India and Pakistan, nuclear weapons for the latter assume the role of an essential penalty to offset India’s conventional superiority.  According to General Mahmud Durrani, former Pakistani national security adviser and ambassador to USA, there are four objectives of Pakistan’s nuclear policy:

  • deterrence of all forms of external aggression that can endanger Pakistan’s national security;
  • deterrence will be achieved through the development and maintenance of an effective combination of conventional and strategic forces, at adequate levels within the country’s resource constraints;
  • deterrence of Pakistan’s adversaries from attempting a counter-force strategy against its strategic assets by effectively securing the strategic assets;
  • threatening nuclear retaliation should such an attempt be made and stabilization of strategic deterrence in the South Asia region.

Pakistan has made significant progress in the sphere of command and control of its nuclear weapons. On 2 February 2000, the National Security Council approved the creation of the National Command Authority (NCA). The NCA is responsible for nuclear strategic policy formulation and exercises control over the employment and development of all strategic nuclear forces and strategic organizations. The NCA comprises the Employment Control Committee (ECC) and the Development Control Committee (DCC), as well as the Strategic Plans Division (SPD), which acts as the Secretariat. The “Employment Control Committee”, chaired by the head of the government, includes the Ministers of Foreign Affairs (Deputy Chairman), Defence, and Interior; the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (CJCSC) and the Services Chiefs; and the Director General of the Strategic Plans Division, who is also the secretary of this committee.

Technical Advisers and others can attend if and when asked and/or required by the Chairman. The main duty of this committee is to formulate the country’s nuclear strategy, including the targeting policy. The Development Control Committee is responsible for the development of strategic assets. This committee includes the Chairman of the JCSC, who acts as Deputy Chairman; the three Services Chiefs; the Director General of the Strategic Plans Division; and the heads of concerned strategic organizations as and when required. The Strategic Plans Division (SPD) acts as the Secretariat for NCA. The primary duty of the SPD is the planning and co-ordination of the establishment of a reliable command, control, communication, computers and intelligence (C4I) network for the NCA.

Although Pakistan has not officially declared a nuclear doctrine yet, it is broadly understood to be based on: first use option, credible minimum deterrence/ full spectrum deterrence and undefined nuclear threshold or redlines. Being a weaker party with comparatively lower conventional capabilities, Pakistan has to retain the option of first use. However, Pakistani leadership has made it clear time and again that its nuclear weapons are weapons of last resort.  Pakistan argues that it maintains a minimum credible deterrent capability in which numerical parity with India is not necessary as its nuclear policy is based strictly on deterrence, and not on war-fighting.

Arguably, Pakistan’s minimum credible nuclear deterrent posture is directly proportional to India’s military nuclear advancement, which to date is the primary nuclear threat. Therefore, Pakistan’s minimum credible deterrent cannot be quantified in numbers because what (and how many) deters India today may not be enough for tomorrow. In light of the ever-widening imbalance between the conventional capabilities of India and Pakistan and the cold start doctrine, Pakistan has responded with developing tactical nuclear weapons to counter the possibility of a limited war under a nuclear umbrella. This comes under the new terminology used by Pakistani leadership of full spectrum deterrence. A number of analysts consider this a clear departure from the initial policy of credible minimum deterrence and see it as an offensive and destabilising factor. One can see the full spectrum deterrence policy as a continuation of credible minimum deterrence policy of Pakistan in light of its contours discussed above

As a matter of policy, Pakistan has not announced any clear-cut red lines. The only information available is that when all else fails, Pakistan would have no choice but to resort to the nuclear option in a last-ditch attempt to ensure its survival.  Today’s red line may not be one tomorrow; hence, it is  logical that while Islamabad has made clear the existence of its red lines, it has adopted a vague and flexible approach about them.

Rizwan Zeb is Research Fellow, South Asia Study group (SASG), University of Sydney, Associate Professor, Iqra University, Islamabad and associate editor of the Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs (Sage). He is a former Benjamin Meaker professor, University of Bristol, UK; visiting scholar India-South Asia Project, Foreign Policy program of the Brookings Institution, Washington DC, USA. He specialises in South Asian Security Affairs and has researched and published extensively on Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine, security and learning. A number of his publications on the subject (and used for preparing this article) include Pakistan’s Nuclear Weapons: How Safe is Safe Enough? Transparency versus Opacity, Defence and Security Analysis, Volume 30, Issue 3, 2014; Pakistan’s Nukes: How Safe is Safe Enough? Swords and Ploughshares, Vol XVIII / No. 1 / Fall 2010, Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security (ACDIS), University of Illinois; Deterrence Stability, Nuclear Redlines and India-Pakistan conventional Imbalance, Spot Light on Regional Affairs, Vol. XXVIII, No. 4, 5, April-May 2009; David versus Goliath? Pakistan’s Nuclear Doctrine: Motivations, Principles and Future, Defense and Security Analysis, Vol. 22, No. 4, pp. 387–408, December 2006. He tweets at @SRizwanZeb. Image credit: CC Wikimedia Commons.

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