It has been two decades since Pakistan conducted a series of nuclear tests. The journey had never been a smooth sailing largely due to the civil military tussles, institutional rivalries, lack of funds and the existence of non-proliferation regimes. However, in the presence of these hurdles Pakistan still became successful in developing nuclear weapons which Feroz Hassan Khan, a retired Pakistani Army Brigadier aptly described as a ‘story of defiance and ingenuity’. Talking about the events, the history of Pakistan’s nuclear buildup is usually divided into three segments: the set up of a civil nuclear programme (1954-1965), shifts in nuclear policy (1965-1971) and the making of the bomb and the tests (1972-1998).
Efforts of physicists and later President Dwight Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace proposal provided a framework for the making of a Civilian Nuclear Programme. The establishment of High Tension Laboratory and Pakistan Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (PCSIR) in early 1950s created an atmosphere for nuclear research. Moreover, successful Atoms for Peace exhibition in Bahawalpur in January, 1955 eventually led to the creation of Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) in 1956.
Initially, the progress of PAEC was quite slow. However, things started changing when a young, enthusiastic and western educated Zulfikar Ali Bhutto took the charge of the Ministry of Fuel, Power and Natural Resources in President Ayub’s cabinet in 1958. He approved the setting up of the Pakistan Institute of Nuclear Science and Technology (PINSTECH) in 1961. Furthermore, Dr. Abdus Salam, a Cambridge educated Pakistani physicist and a future Nobel laureate came in handy for sending about 500 physicists to pursue higher education in UK and US. Apart from that, Dr. Salam also facilitated the appointment of Ishrat H. Usmani as the new Chairman of the PAEC.
The establishment of High Tension Laboratory and Pakistan Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (PCSIR) in early 1950s created an atmosphere for nuclear research. Moreover, successful Atoms for Peace exhibition in Bahawalpur in January, 1955 eventually led to the creation of Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) in 1956.
Dr Ishrat H. Usmani established two research centers, one in Lahore and another one in Dhaka. Moreover, PAEC with the help of the Canadian government first established Karachi Nuclear Power Plant (KANUPP) and later signed a contract with the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Agency (UKAEA) for a downscaled nuclear fuel reprocessing plant. Meanwhile, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto became the Foreign Minister in 1963. This time Bhutto’s trajectories started to revolve around the notion of building a bomb. His argument became more concrete after the Chinese nuclear test in 1964, where Bhutto concluded that India would also go nuclear, leading Pakistan to follow suit.
Political differences started to become evident between President Khan and Bhutto. Ayub Khan focused towards conventional superiority whereas Bhutto wanted the bomb. The gravity of the situation could be gauged from the fact that Mr. Bhutto visited Vienna in October 1965, where he met Munir Ahmad Khan, a Pakistani physicist who was serving as director of the IAEA’s Nuclear Power and Reactor Division. Munir told Bhutto that he visited Indian nuclear facilities in Trombay in 1964. Furthermore, he told Bhutto about the presence of a plutonium production reactor and a reprocessing plant. However, when Munir told President Ayub about the incident through a meeting arranged by Bhutto, Ayub was totally unmoved. The situation further exacerbated when Ayub dismissed Bhutto in June 1966.
Formation of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), departure of Ayub Khan and the Fall of Dhaka changed the power dynamics of the country. Consequently, Bhutto came to power with the view that the development of nuclear deterrence became an existential imperative. First, he created a new Ministry of Science, Technology and Production. Second, he took direct control of PAEC and appointed Munir Ahmed Khan as its Chairman. Third, he convened a meeting of nuclear scientists at Multan to accelerate the nuclear programme to acquire explosion capability. Moreover, Pakistan started planning to design a bomb with the creation of the Theoretical Physics Group in December, 1972 and later established a Wah Group around March, 1974 to work on a nuclear device. However, the dynamics changed significantly when India successfully conducted a nuclear test (which they considered as peaceful) on 18th May, 1974.
After the Indian test, Bhutto called a meeting of the Defense Committee of the Cabinet (DCC) on 15th June, 1974 and decided to initiate a nuclear weapons programme. To expedite its programme, the PAEC started working on the production of weapons grade plutonium. For this route, Pakistan required a reprocessing plant. Henceforth, PAEC entered into negotiations with France. However, persistent pressures by the US compelled Canada and France to refuse to live up to the agreements they had with Pakistan. Meanwhile, in late September, 1974, Bhutto received a letter via Pakistan’s Ambassador in Netherlands from a Pakistani nuclear scientist, A.Q. Khan. Khan had gained knowledge of centrifuge-based enrichment processes by working at the Uranium Enrichment Consortium (UNRENCO) in Netherlands. Bhutto was impressed by Khan and advised him to remain in Netherlands to gain further prerequisite information. Apart from that, funds were allocated for the construction of yellowcake plant at Baghalchur, a chemical plant at Dera Ghazi Khan and a gas-centrifuge plant at Kahuta. The enriched uranium route started gaining currency.
After the Indian test, Bhutto called a meeting of the Defense Committee of the Cabinet (DCC) on 15th June, 1974 and decided to initiate a nuclear weapons programme.
Institutional rivalry started to manifest itself especially after A.Q. Khan joined PAEC (under Project-706) in January, 1976. However, Khan’s grievances led to the creation of Engineering Research Laboratories (later changed to Khan Research Laboratories). Nonetheless, both PAEC and ERL/KRL were assiduously working towards their goal. Khan was able to purchase equipment through his connections in the west despite strict regimes. KRL’s focus was towards enriching UF6 into weapons grade material, whereas from mining to yellowcake to gasification and back again from gas to metal to mining and weapons fabrication fell under the domain of the PAEC. Moreover, PAEC developed its first nuclear weapon design using uranium-238 around 1978 and conducted its first cold test on 11 March, 1983 under the supervision of nuclear scientist Dr. Samar Mubarakmand. Moving towards the other side of the coin, Khan claimed that KRL carried out its own independent cold test of a nuclear device in March, 1984. PAEC also developed a missile-delivery capability in 1995. It was now time to wait for the right moment.
On 11th May, 1998, India successfully conducted three nuclear tests, including a thermonuclear test. Two days later, India again claimed to have two more tests. On the other hand, Islamabad held the meeting of DCC on 15th May. After hours of deliberation it was decided to go ahead with the tests. Dr. Samar Mubarakmand was moved to the test site in Chaghai in Balochistan. At the same time Pakistan Air Force C-130s escorted by F-16s were ferrying the sensitive material to Quetta from where it was moved by helicopters and ground transports to test sites. Finally, on 28th May, 1998 at 3:16 PM, Pakistan detonated five nuclear devices. Two days later another device was detonated at the Kharan test site 150 kilometers away from Chaghai.
The journey of the bomb was full of twists and turns. However, persistent efforts by scientists and leaders at various phases yielded viable results. From the initiation of the civil nuclear programme to the conduction of nuclear tests, the process was unequivocally an uphill task.
The writer currently studies at the Department of Defense and Strategic Studies, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. His area of interests are South Asia’s nuclear stability and nuclear nonproliferation.