Pakistan’s tactical nuclear weapons program worries US

Pakistan’s tactical nuclear weapons program worries US

By P.K.Balachandran/Daily Mirror

Colombo, September 10: Pakistan’s galloping nuclear weapons program is worrying not just India, which is its target as the regional rival and adversary, but also its traditional “ally” and Super Power, the United States.

The American fear is not just that a politically unstable and highly militarized Pakistan could be the world’s largest nuclear weapons State by 2025. It is the development of a tactical nuclear force to be used in the battle field, which is more worrying.

Simply put, the American fear is that Pakistani tactical or battlefield nuclear warheads might be stolen by Islamic militant groups and used against the US.

According to researchers Hans M.Kristensen, Robert S.Norris and Julia Diamond of the American Nuclear Information Project, Pakistan could have 220 to 250 nuclear warheads by 2025, if the present pace of development continues.

In their recent paper entitled  Pakistani Nuclear Forces 2018, published in Taylor and Francis online ( https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00963402.2018.1507796?scroll=top&needAccess=true), the authors say that  Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program has been faster than American projections.

It now has 140 to 150 nuclear warheads, which exceeds the projection made by the US Defense Intelligence Agency in 1999. According to that Pakistan would have only 60 to 80 warheads by 2020.

Below Strategic Level

Hans Kristensen, who is Director of the American Nuclear Information Project, says that Pakistan is building up a “full spectrum deterrent” including short-range nuclear-capable weapon systems to counter threats at the battle field level.

Tactical battlefield nuclear weapons are needed to blunt any Indian attack  using its superiority in men and conventional weaponry, Pakistani strategic planners think.

But Kristensen fears that the growing inventory of short-range nuclear weapon systems could lead to problems with “warhead management and command and control during a crisis.”

The Trump Administration’s apprehension goes beyond this to  include the possibility of an “increase in the likelihood of nuclear exchange in the region.” This is the dreaded nuclear proliferation.

But Pakistani officials insist that the tactical nuclear weapons cannot be stolen.

Gen.Khalid Kidwai

Samar Mubarik Mund, a former Director of Pakistan’s National Defense Complex, said in 2013 that a Pakistani nuclear warhead is “assembled only at the eleventh hour if [it] needs to be launched. It is stored in three to four different parts at three to four different locations. If a nuclear weapon doesn’t need to be launched, then it is never available in assembled form.”

Justifying the tactical nuclear weapons program in 2015, General Khalid Kidwai, a member of Pakistan’s National Command Authority, said: “Pakistan opted to develop a variety of short-range, low-yield nuclear weapons as a defensive, deterrence response to an offensive doctrine by India.”

Pakistan’s fears that India might launch quick strikes into Pakistan  with eight to nine brigades of about 35,000 troops simultaneously. Such an incursion can be stopped only by using tactical battle field nuclear weapons, Islamabad believes.

Nuclear weapons production complex

Pakistan has a well-established and diverse fissile material production complex that is expanding, Kristensen and his co-authors point out.

“It includes the Kahuta uranium enrichment plant east of Islamabad, which appears to be growing with the addition of what could be another enrichment plant, as well as the enrichment plant at Gadwal. Four heavy-water plutonium production reactors appear to have been completed at the Khushab Complex. Three of the reactors at the complex have been added in the past 10 years.”

“The New Labs Reprocessing Plant at Nilore, which reprocesses spent fuel and extracts plutonium, has been expanded. A second reprocessing plant located at Chashma in the northwestern part of Punjab province may have been completed.”

“Nuclear-capable missiles and their mobile launchers are developed and produced at the National Defense Complex in the Kala Chitta Dahr mountain range west of Islamabad.  Other launcher and missile-related production and maintenance facilities may be located near Tarnawa and Taxila,” the researchers say.

It has been suspected for long that the Pakistan Ordnance Factories near Wah, northwest of Islamabad, produce nuclear warheads.

Estimating Stockpile Difficult

Estimating the size of the Pakistani nuclear warhead stockpile is fraught with uncertainty, the authors say.

“A frequent mistake is to derive the estimate directly from the amount of weapon-grade fissile material produced. This is theoretically enough to produce between 236 and 283 warheads. But calculating stockpile size based solely on fissile material inventory is an incomplete methodology that tends to produce inflated numbers.”

Warhead production capability must take several factors into account, including production facilities, delivery systems and political directions, the authors recommend. According to them Pakistan lacks enough nuclear-capable launchers to accommodate 200 to 300 warheads.

However, according to NATO, despite its drawbacks, Pakistan is producing nuclear weapons “at a faster rate than any other country in the world”. In the researchers’ estimate, Pakistan currently is producing sufficient fissile material to build 14 to 27 new warheads per year.

Nuclear-capable aircraft

Pakistan has the F-16A/B and Mirage III/V fighter squadrons which can deliver nuclear warheads. It has developed sophisticated computer and electronic technology to outfit the US F16s with nuclear weapons.  The F-16A/Bs have a range of 1,600 km.

Some of the Mirage III and/or Mirage V aircraft have been used in test-launches of the nuclear-capable Ra’ad air-launched cruise missile. The Pakistani Air Force is adding aerial refueling capability to the Mirage. There are also rumors that Pakistan intends to make the Chinese-supplied JF-17 fighter nuclear-capable, Kristensen says.

A nuclear facility in Pakistan.Photo. AFP

Land-based ballistic missiles

Pakistan six operational nuclear-capable land-based ballistic missiles. These are: the short-range Abdali (Hatf-2), Ghaznavi (Hatf-3), Shaheen-1 (Hatf-4), and NASR (Hatf-9), and the medium-range Ghauri (Hatf-5) and Shaheen-2 (Hatf-6).

Three other nuclear-capable ballistic missiles are under development, namely, the medium-range Shaheen-1A, Shaheen-3, and  the MIRVed Ababeel. Pakistan has eight or nine road-mobile ballistic missile garrisons including four or five along the Indian border.

Controversial NASR

One of the most controversial new nuclear-capable missiles in the Pakistani arsenal is the NASR (Hatf-9), a short-range, solid-fuel missile originally with a range of only 60 km that has recently been extended to 70 km, Kristensen and his colleagues say.

According to the Pakistani government, the NASR “carries nuclear warheads of appropriate yield with high accuracy, shoot and scoot attributes” and was developed as a “quick response system.”

“With a range too short to attack strategic targets inside India, NASR appears intended solely for battlefield use against invading Indian troops,” Kristensen avers.

Pakistan conducted two test launches of the medium-range Shaheen-3 in 2015 with a range of 2,750 km sufficient to target all of mainland India including the Andaman Islands which, according to Gen. Kidwai, could be a major military base.

On 24 January 2017, Pakistan test launched a new medium-range ballistic missile – Ababeel – that the government says is “capable of carrying multiple warheads, using Multiple Independent Reentry Vehicle (MIRV) technology”.

Ground- and air-launched cruise missiles

Pakistan continues to develop the ground-launched Babur (Hatf-7) and the air-launched Ra’ad (Hatf-8) nuclear-capable cruise missiles.  Babur and Ra’ad both have “stealth capabilities” and “pinpoint accuracy,” and “a low-altitude, terrain-hugging missile with high maneuverability.”

The air-launched, dual-capable Ra’ad (Hatf-8) “can deliver nuclear and conventional warheads with great accuracy to a range of 350 km,”  the government claims.

Sea-launched cruise missiles

Pakistan is also developing a sea-launched version of the Babur known as Babur-3. The weapon has been test-launched twice, in January 2017 and March 2018.

The Indians, however, claim that the Pakistani missile program is based on foreign designs. The Shaheen and Ababeel series are of Chinese origin; Ghauri I and II are of North Korean origin, and the Babur Cruise Missile is Ukrainian according to Indian Defense News of May 27, 2017.

(The featured image at the top is that of NASR Pakistan’s tactical battlefield nuclear miissle. Photo. India Today)