Article in Politics / International / Middle East
Pakistan’s nuclear-weapon programme is a source of extreme national pride. A. Q. Khan, head of the programme for some 25 years, is considered a national hero there. But he has been criticised abroad for allegedly operating a clandestine network providing nuclear technology to other countries.

Pakistan's civil nuclear programme was established many years ago. In 1965, Pakistan's first nuclear reactor was established, with help from the United States, during the regime of military dictator General Ayub Khan. In 1973, when Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto became prime minister, he launched a nuclear-weapons programme. Pakistan decided to enrich its own uranium for use in nuclear weapons.

The plan (Project 706) was and organised and led by Munir Ahmed Khan, a brilliant American-trained nuclear and electronics engineer. He was joined a year later Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, a metallurgist, usually called A. Q. Khan and known as the father of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. Pakistan is believed to have completed the development of a nuclear weapon by 1984.

Pakistan's nuclear programme, run by the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC), has since been rapidly expanded. It now operates: eight nuclear-fuel production and uranium-enrichment facilities; three uranium mining concerns; and one heavy-water production facility. China is believed to have played a key role in Pakistan's nuclear-weapon programme, helping to manufacture a number of its weapons.

Pakistan’s nuclear-weapons programme was accelerated after India's surprise nuclear test on 18 May 1974. On 11 May 1998 India tested three more nuclear tests and, on 13 May 1998, she conducted two more nuclear tests – all the Pokhran test range.

On 28 May 1998, Pakistan followed suit, detonating five nuclear devices in the Chagai Hills, Balochistan. Pakistan became the world’s seventh country to successfully develop, test and deploy nuclear weapons.

A. Q. Khan

A. Q. Khan was born on 1 April 1936 in Bhopal, India and educated at the University of Karachi, Pakistan, graduating as an engineer in 1960. He obtained funding to continue his education abroad. In 1967, he received a Master of Science degree from Delft University of Technology, the Netherlands and, in 1972, a Doctor of Engineering degree in metallurgical engineering from the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium.

Khan was then recruited by the Physical Dynamics Research Laboratory (FDO), Amsterdam. FDO is a subcontractor for the URENCO Group. URENCO was established in 1970 by the United Kingdom, West Germany, and the Netherlands to supply the enriched-uranium nuclear fuel used in European nuclear reactors. Khan worked at URENCO’s facility at Almelo, the Netherlands, which enriches uranium using gas-centrifuge technology.

URENCO typically produces, in its uranium-enrichment plants, uranium enriched to between 3 and 5 per cent in uranium-235. Because highly-enriched uranium (HEU), suitable for use in nuclear weapons, can be produced by re-circulating uranium hexafluoride gas around and around a cascade of gas centrifuges, gas centrifuge technology is strictly regulated by national and international nuclear export controls.

Khan had access to the most secret areas of the URENCO uranium-enrichment facility and to secret documentation about URENCO’s gas centrifuge technology. He reportedly passed secret information to Pakistani intelligence agents.

In early 1976, Khan suddenly left the Netherlands and returned to Pakistan to take over Pakistan's nuclear-weapon programme. He took with him secret URENCO technical details and blueprints for a gas centrifuge of the P-1 design, featuring a rotor made of maraging steel, a super hard alloy. In 1983, a Dutch court convicted Khan in absentia for attempted espionage, but the conviction was later overturned.

Within Pakistan the nuclear-weapon programme is a source of extreme national pride. Khan, who headed the programme for some 25 years, is considered a national hero in Pakistan. But he has been severely criticised abroad for allegedly operating a clandestine international network that provided other countries with nuclear technology, particularly gas centrifuges technology to enrich uranium, which could then be used as the fissile material to fabricate nuclear weapons. In addition to hardware, the network, established in the 1980s, apparently also provided details of the design of nuclear weapons.

The Khan Network

Many believe that Pakistan’s government, particularly the security services, must have known about, and approved of, the activities of A. Q. Khan and his network. The network apparently sold gas-centrifuge technology to Iran, North Korea and Libya. It also provided Libya with a design of a nuclear weapon, probably one of an early Chinese weapon. Reportedly Khan had three motivations for his activities: “defiance of Western nations and an eagerness to pierce the ‘clouds of so-called secrecy’; eagerness to empower Muslim nations; and money.

The admission of the existence of this illicit nuclear trade caused an international uproar. The government of Pakistan was certainly acutely embarrassed about being implicated in a gross case of nuclear proliferation. The government claimed that Khan acted on his own and that it was unaware of his activities, a claim that many independent experts find difficult to believe. At the very least, it is suggested, the heads of Pakistan's military and intelligence establishment must have known about and agreed to the transfers. Be this as it may, there is no doubt that Pakistan has well-established and effective military and civil nuclear programmes.

Nuclear Security in Pakistan

Concerns about Pakistan’s record of nuclear security date back a long time. Some were provoked by the clandestine activities of A. Q. Khan. These concerns are justified. According to US State Department cables leaked to WikiLeaks, Pakistan is a very unstable country with its army and security services heavily influenced by the Afghan Taliban and Islamist militants, such as Lashkar-e-Taiba (1). These groups, the cables say, might want to seize nuclear material.

Mark Fitzpatrick, an expert on nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, explains that: “The intersection of terror and proliferation is nowhere more evident than in Pakistan” (1).

Shaun Gregory of Bradford University, a specialist in Pakistani nuclear security, believes that the military element in Pakistan is “fairly robust” but on the civilian side “where the fissile material is processed” and the nuclear “weapons produced, levels of safety and security are much lower” (1).

Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are heavily guarded, protected by a 1,000-man armed security force, which is part of an 8-10,000-strong Strategic Plans Division responsible for managing Pakistan’s nuclear stockpile. Considerable improvements have been made recently in Pakistan’s nuclear security, to some extent with American assistance (2).

Nevertheless, there are serious threats in Pakistan from extremist sympathisers working inside nuclear facilities. As well as the insider threat, considerable threats arise from outsider attacks by al Qaeda or Taliban. The fact that Pakistan is a very weak state exacerbates these concerns.

Senior Pakistani military and security officials are well aware of extremist threats to Pakistan’s nuclear stockpiles and facilities but their greatest concern is protection against Indian strikes. They are also very concerned about the possibility that the Americans may seize Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. There have been repeated reports in the US media of planning for such a scenario.

In the words of Matthew Bunn: “Pakistan has not permitted U.S, experts to visit its nuclear sites or even disclosed where they are. Though the U.S. and Pakistani governments describe themselves as allies, anti-American feeling and suspicion of U.S. motives is widespread in Pakistan, particularly on nuclear issues (as the United States long opposed Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, and is still suspected of trying to undermine it). These suspicions can sometimes undermine cooperation in sensitive nuclear areas, and are only inflamed by detailed public discussions in the United States of possible actions to improve Pakistani nuclear security.” (3)

Pakistan’s Current Nuclear Arsenal

It is estimated that, as of January 2010, Pakistan possessed between 70 and 90 nuclear weapons, an arsenal of about the same size as that of India. The nuclear weapons of Pakistan and India are, however, thought to be only partly deployed (4).

Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are deliverable by aircraft or ballistic missiles (4). It operates F-16A/B combat aircraft, most likely with a nuclear-delivery role.

Pakistan has two types of land-based, short-range ballistic missiles, each of which probably has a nuclear-delivery role – the Ghaznavi (Hatf-3), in service since 2004, and the Shaheen I (Hatf-4), in service since 2003. These short-range ballistic missiles have ranges of up to about 450 kilometres.

The Ghauri (Hatf-5) is a road-mobile medium-range ballistic missile, in service since 2003. Pakistan’s only medium-range operational ballistic missile, it has a range of at least 1,200 kilometres. It can deliver a payload of about 500 kilograms.

Pakistan is developing the Shaheen II (Hatf-6), a road-mobile medium-range ballistic missile, which has been successfully tested and is expected to become operational soon. It has a range of about 2,500 kilometres with a payload of about 1,000 kilograms.

Pakistan is also developing two types of cruise missiles, the sea- and air-launched Babur (Hatf-7) and the air-launched Ra’ad (Hatf-8). The former has a range of about 700 kilometres and the latter has a range of 350 kilometres.

The HEU used as the fissile material in Pakistan’s current nuclear weapons is produced by gas centrifuges at a uranium-enrichment facility at the Kahuta Research Laboratories (also called the A. Q. Khan Research Laboratories), Punjab. Pakistan is reportedly planning to use plutonium as the fissile material in some or all of its future nuclear weapons. These would be smaller and lighter than HEU-based weapons, for a given explosive yield, which could be carried by smaller missiles, ballistic or cruise.

Pakistan has been operating, at its nuclear establishment at Khushab, Punjab, a small reactor (the 50-megawatt (thermal) Khushab I reactor), since 1998, which is capable of producing about 12 kilograms of plutonium annually, enough plutonium to make about 3 or 4 nuclear weapons annually. Pakistan is constructing two more reactors at Khushab, one of which may already be operating. These new reactors will provide Pakistan with a much greater supply of weapons-usable plutonium.

The manufacture and assembly of Pakistan’s ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads apparently takes place at a small number of sites at the Air Weapons Complex at Wah Cantt, the National Defense Complex at Fatehjang, the Central Ammunition Depot at Sargodha, and the missile manufacture facility in the Rawapindi suburb of Tarwanah.


Most of Pakistan’s nuclear sites are close to or even inside areas dominated by Pakistani Taliban militants and al-Qaeda. These groups are more than capable of launching terrorist attacks in these areas.

The main challenge to Pakistan’s nuclear security is to prevent the theft of nuclear material, particularly HEU and plutonium. The threats comes from people inside nuclear facilities – for example, from individuals and groups that sympathise with and support extremists, like those in al Qaeda and the Taliban - and from attacks by militant outsiders.

So far as the insider threat is concerned, the American ambassador to Islamabad, Anne Patterson, explained: “Our major concern is not having an Islamic militant steal an entire weapon but rather the chance that someone working in government of Pakistan facilities could gradually smuggle enough material out to eventually make a weapon” (5).

It will, to say the least, not be easy to deal with these threats. Matthew Bunn sums up the difficulties admirably: “It is important to understand the limits of the policy tool of improving nuclear security. The more extreme scenarios in Pakistan would not be addressed by any plausible nuclear security system. If the Pakistani state collapsed, or Taliban-linked jihadists seized power, or hundreds of well-armed and well-trained jihadists attacked a nuclear site all at once, or senior generals decided to provide nuclear assistance to jihadis, better nuclear security systems would not solve the problem. However large or small these risks may be, other policy tools will be needed to address them.” (6).

Hopefully, the Pakistani authorities are evolving such tools. But it is not easy to be optimistic that they are.


  1. Declan Walsh and Julian Borger, Suspicion and mistrust reign amid US fears of nuclear theft, The Guardian, 2 December 2010, p.13.
  2. David Leigh, US fears over Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, The Guardian, 1 December 2010, p.1.
  3. Matthew Bunn, Securing the Bomb 2010, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University April 2010, p.29.
  4. Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Armaments, Disarmament and International Security, SIPRI Yearbook 2010, p.360, Oxford University Press, 2010.
  5. David Leigh, US fears over Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, The Guardian, 1 December 2010, p.1.
  6. Matthew Bunn, Securing the Bomb 2010, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University April 2010, p.31.
Charles F Barnaby Identity Verified

About the Author 

Charles F Barnaby
Frank Barnaby, a nuclear physicist, worked at the: Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, Aldermaston (1951-57); University College, London

Recent Content by Charles F Barnaby

The Invulnerability Of British Strategic Nuclear Submarines Is Under Serious Threat

There are various moves afoot to deploy new strategic nuclear-weapon systems. The US, for example, has completed tests of its newest strategic nuclear weapon, the B-61 mod-12 nuclear bomb, and plans to deploy such bombs in an airbase in Germany. And Britain is about to spend billions of pounds on...

Polonium 210 As A Poison

A public enquiry, established by the UK government, and chaired by Sir Robert Owen, to look into the death of Alexander Litvinenko, published its report on 26th January 2016. Litvinenko, a former Russian spy and MI6 agent, died of radiation sickness in London on 23 November 2006. He was allegedly...

North Korea's Nuclear-Weapon Programme

There is much international concern about the state of North Korea's nuclear-weapon programme. The country’s official name is the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). It is generally assumed that it has nuclear weapons but does not yet have the means to deliver them by ballistic missiles.

Latest Ebooks