The Future of Pakistan’s Nuclear Weapons Program

The Future of Pakistan's Nuclear Weapons Program

by Christopher Clary
October 2, 2013

This chapter reviews developments in Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal since 1998 and projects likely developments through 2020.


This chapter reviews developments in Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal since 1998 and projects likely developments through 2020.


Pakistan remains one of the most likely sources of nuclear risk globally—through theft of Pakistani nuclear material, unauthorized use of weapons during conflict, or intentional use in war. This stems from the large number of dangerous groups based in Pakistan, regional instability in its neighborhood, and the country’s increasing reliance on nuclear weapons rather than conventional military force for deterrence. The future of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program is the development of a larger arsenal with more types of delivery vehicles and an expanding role for nuclear arms in warfighting. While not yet committed to a battlefield role for nuclear weapons, Pakistan is developing the constituent components necessary for such missions, giving it a battlefield capability that the country’s adversaries must account for in the event of crisis or conflict. In other words, even without fully developing a battlefield nuclear force, Pakistan has taken the steps necessary to create a battlefield “force in being” that can affect the decisions of other states, even at this nascent stage.

  • The United States has little leverage to directly alter Pakistan’s increasing reliance on nuclear weapons or to shape the country’s nuclear choices.
  • The two factors that are most likely to arrest the growth of the Pakistani nuclear arsenal are resource constraints and improved relations between India and Pakistan.
  • Pakistani civilian leaders are more likely to force a reassessment of nuclear decisions than their military counterparts. As a consequence, U.S. policy initiatives to bolster civilian leaders may ultimately facilitate greater moderation in the expansion of the Pakistani arsenal.

Fifteen years ago, in May 1998, Pakistani officials announced that they had tested six nuclear devices, completing a round of reciprocal nuclear tests that had begun two weeks earlier when Indian representatives announced five nuclear tests. After having bombs in the basement for so long, the period of overt weaponization in South Asia began. Before the eventful month of May 1998, both states had unproven designs; Pakistan had conducted no overt nuclear tests, and India’s 1974 “peaceful nuclear explosion” device was viewed as unreliable and so massive as to be undeliverable. [1] Both states had uneven delivery dyads in 1998, relying primarily on manned aircraft and secondarily on ballistic missiles. These missiles were mostly in development and had undergone only a handful of flight tests. Both India and Pakistan likely had very small arsenals at the time of the tests, with warheads perhaps numbering in the single digits. [2]

In the immediate aftermath of the May tests, both governments assured the world that they would avoid the mistakes of the established nuclear powers. Pakistan’s foreign secretary Shamshad Ahmad explained to the international community: “It is not our purpose to enter into an arms race. The history of the Cold War showed that such disastrous races are counterproductive and definitely not sustainable.” [3] The following year, Ahmad reaffirmed this stance to an Islamabad think tank: “Let me state clearly and unequivocally that Pakistan can and will find ways and means to maintain credible nuclear deterrence against India without the need to match it—bomb for bomb, missile for missile.” [4]

Despite those statements of restraint, the fifteen years since 1998 have witnessed abundant developments by both South Asian nuclear powers. Although still constrained by limited resources, Indian and Pakistani policymakers appear to have determined that the requirements for credible minimum deterrence are considerably more expansive than they anticipated in the initial months after the 1998 nuclear tests. Pakistan has emphasized nuclear weapons development in the last fifteen years to compensate for its conventional-force disparity with India. As a result, its program has developed at a pace equal to if not more impressive than India’s, despite greater fiscal limitations.

Barring a severe economic crisis, this strategy is likely to continue. Pakistan’s security managers are pursuing a larger nuclear weapons arsenal, featuring diverse delivery vehicles, that the Pakistan military can rely on to deter rivals in crisis and war. The most significant development in recent years has been the creation of a battlefield nuclear “force in being” that provides Pakistan the option of battlefield use of nuclear weapons, even if Pakistani decision-makers have not fully incorporated such thinking into their doctrine. The net result of this and other developments has been more weapons at heightened levels of readiness, posing a greater nuclear threat in peacetime, crisis, and war. Pakistani officials assess that these risks are tractable—despite Pakistan’s difficult internal threat environment—given concerted and professional efforts at nuclear stewardship by the country’s military. Observers outside Pakistan, however, may be less comfortable with the negative externalities concomitant with relying on a nuclear threat to deter foes.

This chapter will examine Pakistan’s ongoing and foreseeable nuclear developments, first reviewing the status of Pakistan’s fissile-material production. Next, it turns to assess whether these trends in fissile-material production are consistent with the continuing primacy of the mission to deter India for Pakistan’s strategic forces, or whether such numbers imply…


[1] On India’s 1974 device, see Ashley J. Tellis, India’s Emerging Nuclear Posture: Between Recessed Deterrent and Ready Arsenal (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2001), 196–98.

[2] Robert S. Norris and William M. Arkin record two and three warheads in their historical estimate of the respective Indian and Pakistani arsenals in 1998. Although this estimate seems too small, it likely is of the correct order of magnitude. See Robert S. Norris and William M. Arkin, “Global Nuclear Weapons Inventories, 1945–2010,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 66, no. 4 (2010): 82.

[3] Kenneth J. Cooper and John Ward Anderson, “A Misplaced Faith in Nuclear Deterrence,” Washington Post, May 31, 1998.

[4] Shamshad Ahmed, “India’s Nuclear Doctrine: Implications for Regional and Global Peace and Security” (statement presented at the Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad, September 7, 1999).

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