May 28, 1998 will always be remembered for its historical significance when Pakistan successfully conducted five nuclear explosions, convincing the world that it was a credible seventh nuclear power. There was unbounded jubilation in Pakistan for having matched India’s similar capability that it had demonstrated only 17 days earlier. And was taunting Pakistan to “call its bluff”.
We were told as a consequence Pakistan has become invincible and had acquired an eminent status among nations. Furthermore, it is the only Muslim country that possesses this capability. Monuments were raised in appreciation and scientists like A Q Khan, Munir Ahmad Khan and Samar Mubarakmand were eulogised and became overnight credible national heroes. The scientists and engineers of the Atomic Energy Commission and A Q Khan Labs that were the hard-core and silent workers were equally in high spirits.
Twenty years later, it is worth reviewing what Pakistan has gained or lost as a consequence.
It was undeniably a major technological accomplishment, although many eminent scientists would not agree with me. Their line of argument has been the technology of making a bomb is not that sophisticated or high tech. More than 60 countries in the world have that capability and could produce it if they were not restrained by their own moral and legal compulsions. But what are missing in this argument are two relevant factors. Pakistan’s technological, scientific and industrial infrastructure is fairly weak and was even weaker twenty, twenty-five years back when we were engaged in developing the capability. We were hardly producing any sophisticated item autonomously either in the civil or military sector.
Another major factor that is overlooked that the US and Western powers had placed a strict embargo on purchase of any materials, equipment, and technology, including processes that could be directly or even remotely be used in building the bomb and related infrastructure. The credit thus goes to our civilian and military scientists, engineers, managers and security organisations that despite these enormous challenges successfully steered this highly complex and difficult endeavour.
The stewardship provided by General Kidwai to the programme and the unstinted support by both civilian and military regimes during the crucial three decades largely contributed to its success. We equally owe to successive Chinese governments for the unstinted support in strengthening our defence and technological prowess.
Like in such large projects there were shortcomings both in planning and execution. Greater scrutiny and restraint in financial expenditures should have been exercised reducing the burden on the country’s meagre resources.
The missile programme that was a part of the overall strategic capability that Pakistan developed over the years has not received similar recognition that it deserves. Missiles are an integral part of our strategic and conventional systems and Pakistan ranks among those few countries that are producing a wide spectrum of missiles for all the three services. The armed forces are currently equipped with indigenously produced surface-to-surface missiles, surface-to-air missiles, and air-to-air missiles. Pakistan can be justifiably proud that it is now producing missiles that can be fired from submerged submarines.
Advancement in missile programmes has contributed in developing our capabilities in the field of space programmes that are now a critical component of the fourth-dimension warfare. Apart from its military value, missile technology has vastly contributed in the development of weather and defence capable satellites that help in understanding the planetary and stellar world of ours.
The spin-off from defence technology in the civilian sector remains constrained due to secrecy and security considerations. Nonetheless, cross flow of technologies does take place and benefits the overall technological and industrial development of a country. It is a widespread belief that the US civil industry’s technological advancement owes a lot to the military- industrial complex.
In India there is an ongoing effort to integrate where possible civil and the military industries. India’s industrial infrastructure and technological base is fairly advanced and their IT sector is world class and this gives them a huge advantage.
The induction of nuclear-armed submarines by India would be another highly destabilising factor.
In Pakistan several civilian firms are contributing to the defense sector, including in the nuclear and space industry, but more need to be involved.
The establishment of civil nuclear power reactors under IAEA safeguards is another area in which Pakistan has made commendable strides.
Experience reminds us that possessing nuclear capability is no guarantee to foolproof security. In fact, it has provided India an umbrella to engage actively in low and medium level insurgency against Pakistan. Taking advantage of the nuclear cover India has been using proxies to destabilise certain areas in Balochistan, Fata and Karachi. Although they maintain that it is in retaliation for our support to the Kashmiri freedom struggle.
Former US president Bill Clinton maintains that territorial issues get frozen once adversaries are nuclear capable. How far this line of thinking will impact in the context of India and Pakistan on the Kashmir issue only time would tell. It is evident that since India and Pakistan have become nuclear powers a certain level of strategic equilibrium has been established. And the politics of South Asia has changed dramatically ever since. Analysts describe the present scenario as “cold peace” — neither war nor complete peace.
Pakistan maintains that in the event of a conflict with India its use of nuclear weapons will not be based on the premise that it will be used only after its conventional capability is exhausted.
Full benefit of being a nuclear power can only be derived if all elements of national power are balanced. What it implies is that the country’s economy is sound and self-sustaining, political institutions are mature and its civil society is peaceful and vibrant. This may appear as a tall order but if Pakistan sheds its dependence on international monetary organisations and close allies for financial assistance and achieves a modicum of political and macroeconomic stability it will earn international respectability. And maximise the potential of being a nuclear power.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 31st, 2018.