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Q&A: Pakistan Expands it Nuclear Arsenal

  • Iftikhar Hussain

Pakistan's nuclear-capable air-launched "Ra'ad" cruise missile is driven past crowds during the National Day military parade in Islamabad, March 23, 2008

Pakistan's nuclear-capable air-launched "Ra'ad" cruise missile is driven past crowds during the National Day military parade in Islamabad, March 23, 2008

This week, The Washington Post newspaper reported Pakistan has doubled its nuclear arms stockpile in recent years to exceed 100 weapons, according to estimates provided by several analysts. The article said Pakistan's arsenal is now larger than its neighbor and arch-rival India.

Among the analysts cited by the newspaper is David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security and a leading analyst on the world's nuclear weapons.

VOA reporter Iftikhar Hussain spoke with Mr. Albright to find out more about his research into Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.

We did see this in The Washington Post article, but exactly how much more [weapons-grade nuclear material] has Pakistan made so far?

"The numbers are hard to do. What we did is in a study, which we haven’t published yet, but we looked at how much material produced, and then looked at how many weapons you can make out of that, and then how many would be likely. And so, our number goes up to about 110 weapons now. It’s quite a large stock of actual weapons."

Pakistan seems to be very ambitious in developing its nuclear arsenal. What message does this send to the West?

"The message of a fairly rapid expansion of its nuclear arsenal worries the Western world. I don’t think anyone is trying to disarm Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. I think there’s largely an acceptance of that. There’s a desire that all countries give up their nuclear weapons and I think currently Pakistan would be seen as part of that global effort to get rid of nuclear weapons. But that being said, Pakistan appears to be greatly expanding its arsenal, which worries western states and they also don’t understand it. In a sense. they say Pakistan has enough nuclear weapons, it should simply agree to freeze its nuclear arsenal and live within a bound of nuclear weapons."

This raises the question of what Pakistan’s security establishment wants to achieve with this rapid increase in their arsenal.

"I think one is that they want to keep up with India.I think they also want to increase their ability to make plutonium which is a nuclear explosive material made in reactors. And they want the plutonium in order to make smaller warheads; we think it would be to make warheads for cruise missiles. So they want the plutonium to make a weapon that can be more dangerous in the nuclear arms race that it has with India.

Another part of this is that Pakistan simply wants to increase the number of its nuclear weapons. So, in that sense India and Pakistan are in kind of a pointless nuclear arms race, where they each perceive the others increasing their nuclear arsenals, making it more deadly, and so each feels compelled to move forward. But it’s a logic that really needs to be broken. Because it’s dangerous, it can increase the chance of nuclear war. It also can lead to much larger stocks of nuclear explosive material like plutonium and highly enriched uranium which can leak out and get into the hands of terrorists. And that could happen in Pakistan, it could also happen in India"

In the case of Pakistan, the country defends the program because of threats from India, and points to Israeli resistance to signing a nuclear treaty.

"It [Pakistan] always has an argument. Typically what it [Pakistan] has done is that it has tried to say that cutting off production is not enough. There has to be a reduction in the amount of plutonium or highly enriched uranium. Their objections are usually seen as just excuses because all of the countries in the world that have nuclear weapons reach a point where it just becomes apparent that they just don’t need any more. And they can live within their existing stock.

For example, if Pakistan wanted a new type of weapon under this arrangement, it could just take old ones and recycle them and recover the nuclear explosive material, and use the material to make new weapons. You can live within a cap, and there’s very little understanding of why Pakistan doesn’t agree to do this. It’s typically interpreted that Pakistan just wants to have an unbridled expansion in its nuclear arsenal in order to outdo India and of course India’s going to try to outdo Pakistan and China’s going to get worried about India. And so you have a situation that’s just going in the wrong direction and can easily be reversed, and both countries’ security, India and Pakistan, will be fine."

China and the United States, they’re the main defense suppliers to Pakistan. Can the United States place conditions on its military supplies to Pakistan until Pakistan cuts and freezes its nuclear arsenal?

"The Obama administration doesn’t want to do that. I think it may turn out that it’s necessary in the end, that maybe it’s going to be some pressure to convince the Pakistani government to, in a sense, stop the excessive production of these materials. I’m hoping that it’s not going to happen that way, but Pakistan has been blocking these discussions happening on the cutoff in the production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons for a couple of years now. And countries are becoming increasingly irritated about it. And so I think it may be that some conditionality needs to be brought to bear. It’s critical to do it, and I think the justification for many states would be that these materials must be produced in larger numbers.

We now think that Pakistan has more than 2,000 kilograms of these materials, and Pakistan’s going to have to worry about people stealing it. Now, no one thinks people are going to steal nuclear weapons in Pakistan. That would be very unlikely. But there’s a lot of this material, plutonium and highly enriched uranium, that gets mixed into what’s called the fuel cycle, and it gets moved from site to site, and it can be of quantities as small as 2 kilograms if it’s plutonium, maybe 5, 10 kilograms of weapon grade uranium, and countries have been known to lose control over that, and also it’s happened insiders highly motivated will steal it and get away with it, sneak some out, and maybe it won’t even be noticed if the amounts snuck out are small enough, but you do it often enough to build up a sizeable quantity.

So, there’s real worry that as Pakistan increases the size of its stock of nuclear explosive material, the risk will go up that some will be stolen because of this insider threat, that there are the people working in this complex, which grow in number because they increase the size of this production complex, are those people really trustworthy? Or, is it better to shrink the complex, which you would be able to do if you cut off the production of plutonium or highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons. Shrink the size of it and then better protect what you have in hand.