As fighting intensifies in the Swat Valley and other tribal regions in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province, the worsening security situation in the Af–Pak region coupled with the seeming failure of the writ of the civilian government in Pakistan has raised deep concerns regarding the safety of Islamabad’s nuclear arsenal.
This overriding concern was evident when US President Barack Obama sought assurances from Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari, in May 2009, that Islamabad’s nuclear arsenal was safe and that the Pakistan Army intends to trounce the radical Taliban upsurge.
Even though the Obama administration has stated that Pakistans nuclear weapons are secure, at least for the moment, paramount unease revolves around the possibility that non-state actors would not let go even a remote opportunity to seize a nuclear weapon.
Even though the Obama administration has stated that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are secure, at least for the moment, paramount unease revolves around the possibility that non-state actors would not let go even a remote opportunity to seize a nuclear weapon.
Although Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, United States Armed Forces, is comfortable about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, he expressed doubts regarding its “continuing safety.” The apprehension seems palpable given the present fluidity of the politico–military situation in Pakistan. In the event of President Zardari’s government crumbling, the Pakistan Army’s failure to root-out militants and terrorists, a situation could well arise wherein extremist infiltration within the military and intelligence services could compromise the safety of Islamabad’s nuclear weapons – a potential catastrophe for the entire region, especially India.
Beijing as Islamabad’s Nuclear Benefactor
All along, as the world debates and ponders over the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, China’s silence on the issue remains conspicuously evident. Following its comprehensive military defeat at India’s hands in 1971, Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had said that the ‘Pakistanis would eat grass if need be but would spare no effort to produce an Islamic (nuclear) bomb.’ It has been well known that Pakistan acquired this capability with munificent assistance from the Chinese, who found in Pakistan a strategic ally willing to countervail India — a common adversary to both. It was noted with consternation that the international community led by the US pointedly ignored China’s role in nuclear and missile proliferation to Pakistan throughout the 1980s and the 1990s.
Nuclear proliferation analyst, Gary Milhollin, has very succinctly summed up by stating, “If you subtract Chinese help, there wouldnt be a Pakistani programme.”
China’s trade of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and their means of delivery within Asia generated significant debate during the Cold War years and thereafter. Although China pledged publicly in 1984 that it would not contribute to the spread of nuclear weapons and agreed to IAEA safeguards on its nuclear exports, there was evidence that China continued providing weapons-related aid to Pakistan and exported unsafeguarded nuclear material to other nations as late as 1987. By that year, Washington gained more intelligence on the China–Pakistan relationship and wanted to confront Pakistan and, thus, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory was asked to mock-up a small model of the weapon based on the Chinese design, using the intelligence picked up from procurement patterns.
It is only too well known that China provided crucial direct assistance to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme since the 1980s. It was widely believed that China provided Pakistan with the design for a nuclear weapon in the 1980s, and probably enough highly enriched uranium (HEU) for one to two bombs, according to US intelligence agencies which reported way back in 1983. According to a study conducted by the Monterey Institute of International Studies, China reportedly transferred the nuclear weapon design of a 25-kiloton nuclear bomb – possibly a Chic-4 design – to Pakistan in 1983. Besides, Pakistani nuclear scientists claimed to have been permitted by the Chinese to test a nuclear device in the Lop Nor test range in China in 1983.
According to Leonard Spector, Beijing also assisted Islamabad in the construction of an unsafeguarded plutonium production reactor at Khushab, and construction of a safeguarded nuclear-power plant at Chasma to supplying it with an advanced-computer control system. In 1986, China sold Pakistan tritium – an element used in the trigger of hydrogen bombs as well as to boost the yield of fission weapons. Beijing also supplied heavy water (D2O) to the safeguarded Kanupp reactor (originally supplied by Canada) at a rate to make up heavy-water losses of 2 to 4 percent a year.
Although the Kanupp reactor had large reported losses of heavy water in its early years of operation, the facility was upgraded later to bring the reactor into conformity with industry standards, and reduce the heavy water loss rate to about one percent annually. Thus, China was believed to have supplied Pakistan with up to nearly four metric tonnes more heavy water per year that it needed for its safeguarded power reactor, leaving open the possibility of diversion of surplus heavy water to Khushab, which needed only five tonnes of heavy water to start up and fifteen tonnes to operate at full power.