Pakistan’s Nuclear Compulsion

Pakistan’s Nuclear Compulsion

Pakistan’s nuclear programme is based primarily on realpolitik considerations and driven by necessities of national security, territorial integrity, and strategic stability. The raison d’être for acquiring a nuclear deterrent was to ensure its security by redressing the balance of power in the region, which India had tried to tilt in its favour with its nuclear tests. Despite international reservations, Pakistan successfully tested its nuclear devices on May 28 and 30, 1998, responding to the Indian nuclear tests conducted earlier, thus settling the score with India. Fortunately, policymakers in Pakistan were not oblivious to the profound value of nuclear weapons in ensuring its security.

It is a well-known fact that Pakistan’s decision to acquire nuclear weapons capability was shaped by its security environment and threat perceptions, with no aspirations for a regional power status or prestige. The country’s threat perceptions find their roots in the turbulent history of India-Pakistan relations. As Pakistan’s perceived security threat remains Indian centric, the country’s military planning also aims to establish parity with its adversary. Pakistanis are convinced that India seeks regional hegemony and a resolution of disputes in its favour. The two nations went to war three times in 1948, 1965 and 1971, respectively and engaged in numerous other skirmishes. However, the 1971 war had dreadful consequences for Pakistan, resulting in its dismemberment through the employment of covert and overt actions by India.

Arguably, the impulse for maintaining strategic stability with India engendered during the 1960s when India started developing its reprocessing plant and achieved significant progress in its nuclear programme. However, apart from conventional military asymmetry and persistent disputes, two events including the dismemberment of Pakistan in 1971 and India’s so-called peaceful nuclear explosion (PNE) in 1974 played a significant role in Pakistan’s nuclear weapons development programme. The dismemberment of Pakistan, which led to the creation of Bangladesh, provided India with an opportunity to attain a dominant position in the region and a strategic advantage over Pakistan.

Meanwhile, the Indian PNE acted as a force multiplier. The Indian government tried to allay international concerns over the test by calling it a peaceful nuclear explosion aimed at harnessing peaceful uses of nuclear energy. The test received little criticism from all major powers, particularly by the US and Canada. However, the US and Canada did negate India’s rhetoric on the PNE and refuted any possibility of peaceful applications. Furthermore, Dr Raja Ramanna, Director of Bhabha Atomic Research Centre who led the team that carried out the test, not only differed on the Indian rationale behind the PNE but also acknowledged in 1996 that it was a nuclear weapons test. Therefore, the 1974 Indian nuclear explosion elevated Pakistan’s threat perceptions and radically affected its defence policies. While dismissing the Indian assurances that the country had no military or political intentions attached with the PNE, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, as the Prime Minister of Pakistan, termed the explosion a ‘threat to Pakistan’s security’ and termed it a ‘fateful development’. Bhutto declared that Pakistan was unsafe without a credible defence.

Consequently, Pakistan’s pursuit of a nuclear bomb led to readjustments in its nuclear non-proliferation policies. Though Pakistan during the 1950s and 60s was a proponent of nuclear disarmament and an active participant in the formulation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the Indian 1974 nuclear explosion made it clear for the country that no international regime or alliance could ensure its survival. After India refused to sign the NPT in 1968, Pakistan followed suit because accession to the Treaty without India doing so would have been politically suicidal. Nevertheless, Pakistan continued to articulate that the country would accede to the NPT simultaneously with India.

During the 1970s, Pakistan, accelerated progress in its nuclear weapons development programme, as it pondered upon regional or bilateral approaches to nuclear non-proliferation. In December 1974, Pakistan submitted a proposal in the UN General Assembly calling for the establishment of a nuclear weapons-free zone in South Asia. India, however, rebuffed the proposal. Similarly, in 1991, Pakistan once again proposed to the US, the Soviet Union, and China to make efforts aimed at keeping the region free of nuclear weapons, based on its earlier proposal of a nuclear weapons free zone in South Asia. Though the three major powers welcomed the move, India rejected the proposal without giving it a serious thought. Apart from these proposals, India also refused to pay heed to other similar proposals offered by Pakistan including the bilateral proposal of Joint Renunciation of Acquisition or Manufacture of Nuclear Weapons in 1978; proposal of jointly opening their nuclear facilities for International Atomic Energy Agency-administered inspections in 1979; simultaneous adherence to the NPT in 1979; simultaneous acceptance of IAEA Safeguards in 1979, a proposal for Conference on Nuclear Non-proliferation in South Asia in 1987; proposal for a Regional Nuclear Test Ban Agreement in 1987; and proposal of South Asia Zero Missile Zone in 1994.

Notwithstanding Pakistan’s numerous efforts to prevent nuclearisation of South Asia, India, under the National Democratic Alliance, led by the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), conducted nuclear tests in May 1998, shaking the balance of power in the region. To safeguard its national sovereignty and integrity and to restore the strategic balance in the region, Pakistan was left with no other choice but to conduct its own nuclear tests. With these tests, Pakistan overtly and unambiguously demonstrated its nuclear weapons capability. Experts, in Pakistan, believe that if India had not conducted nuclear tests, Pakistan would not have tested its nuclear devices, and have followed a policy of nuclear ambiguity. However, this historic event marked the successful culmination of Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent, which is a direct outcome of coupling of Pakistan’s security policies with India.

The direct linkage of Pakistan’s security policies to that of India’s has increased manifold over the last 22 years since the 1998 nuclear tests. Owing to this entanglement of policies, any military doctrinal change or any significant quantitative or qualitative addition to India’s military arsenal carry direct bearings on Pakistan’s security. It is, therefore, imperative for the international community to remain mindful of the hyphenated policies of India and Pakistan. Unfortunately, the West has always viewed Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent with suspicion. It has largely ignored the circumstances and necessities that led to Pakistan’s acquisition of a nuclear deterrent. Meanwhile, the unfounded international criticism and propaganda highlighting Pakistan’s defiance of international norms and regimes, its fastest growing nuclear weapons arsenal and the mantra of its so-called Islamic Bomb continues. This discriminatory approach to South Asia, where India’s nuclear status is being accommodated while Pakistan is being subjected to political, economic and diplomatic pressures, could be detrimental not only to the regional strategic balance but also to the overall nuclear non-proliferation architecture.

Pakistan’s Nuclear Compulsion

About Moiz Khan 2 Articles
Moiz Khan is a Research Fellow at Strategic Studies Institute Islamabad (SSII). He can be reached at [email protected], and on Twitter @MoizKhanKakar


  1. In 1971, Indian subverting and destabilizing activities resulted in disintegration of East Pakistan. India till today is covertly sponsoring terrorism through its agents in Iran and bases in Afghanistan to weaken Pakistan. In 1998, India tested nuclear weapons while openly threatening to sabotage Pakistan. Therefore, on 28 May 1998 Pakistan as a direct response also tested nuclear weapons to deter Indian aggression at any cost. “If India had not exploded the bomb, Pakistan would not have done so. Once New Delhi did so, we had no choice because of public pressure” – Former Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif.

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