Pakistan, The World's Fifth Largest Nuclear Power

  • Playlist
  • Download
  • Embed
    <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Karen DeYoung, Washington Post staff writer
Barry Blechman, co-founder and distinguished fellow, Stimson Center

The Washington Post reported on Monday that Pakistan has quietly become the world's fifth largest nuclear power, surpassing both Britain and France. Many nuclear weapons experts worry about what a nuclear arms race between Pakistan, India and others could mean for regional security.


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Mary Louise Kelly in Washington. Neal Conan is away.

Here's one of the scarier headlines we read this week: Pakistan is steadily expanding its nuclear arsenal. It may have more than 100 deployed weapons, and it's on track to overtake Britain and France as a nuclear power.

Now, Pakistan insists its weapons are secure, and that's the official U.S. position too. Still, the U.S. has spent $100 million and counting to help Pakistan protect its nuclear arsenal. That's because Pakistan sits in one of the world's most unstable regions, its government is shaky, it has a long history of coups, and then there's the problem of al-Qaeda's leaders and other terrorists believed to be hiding within its borders.

In a moment, we'll be joined by the Washington Post reporter who broke this story this week, that's Karen DeYoung, and we'll be talking about the risks posed by Pakistan's growing stockpile of nuclear weapons.

What are your questions and concerns about stability and security in South Asia? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our email address is, and you can join the conversation at our website too. Go to and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, we have an update on what's happening in Egypt with NPR's Corey Flintoff, and we'll take a moment to contemplate the slow fade into history of that daily ritual, the trip to the mailbox.

But first, we begin with the new figures on Pakistan's nuclear capability and with Karen DeYoung, who's a staff writer for the Washington Post. She joins us from their studio. Welcome, Karen.

Ms. KAREN DeYOUNG (Staff Writer, Washington Post): Hello.

KELLY: Hi. So flesh out your headline for us a bit. You're reporting that Pakistan has doubled its nuclear stockpile over the last several years. How many does that mean it now has?

Ms. DeYOUNG: Well, most estimates put it at more than 100. These things are always imprecise because the Pakistanis keep the numbers secret, and both the U.S. government and a lot of experts who keep track of such things sort of extrapolate the figure by looking at satellite photos, both government and commercial satellite, pictures that indicate where fissile materials are being produced, where delivery systems are being produced.

They look at the amount of fissile stockpiles that they believe each country has. They look at public statements, weapons tests, and basically come up with numbers.

In Pakistan's case, they've seen a very sharp increase in Pakistan's production of plutonium. They had one reactor producing weapons plutonium in about 2000. They now are about to bring their third one online.

KELLY: And when you say about 100 weapons, and you're describing how difficult it is to track exactly what's happening in Pakistan - the Pakistanis obviously have an interest in protecting their programs and being secretive about what exactly they've got - how confident are your sources? How confident are the intelligence officials you're checking with that they have the full picture of what's happening in Pakistan?

Ms. DeYOUNG: I think they're pretty confident. And the Pakistanis have not disputed those numbers. In fact, unlike a lot of countries, they're quite proud of the robustness of their nuclear program.

They feel like they want to be ahead of India, who's their main rival. India also has nuclear weapons. And the Indians also do not release the figures of the number of warheads that they have. And so it's - in part it's kind of a psychological game, where the Pakistanis are quite happy within certain kind of vague parameters to be thought of as ahead.

KELLY: Right, and when we talk about ahead, the key nuclear rival here for Pakistan is, of course, India. These numbers would put it ahead of India in terms of the actual just physical number of deployed weapons they have.

Ms. DeYOUNG: Yes, I think since they both conducted extensive tests in 1998, the thinking has been that they were more or less at parity, that they had more or less the same amount of weapons, which were estimated four or five years ago to be somewhere between 30 to 60 deployed weapons.

The Indians have also added to their arsenal, but the Pakistanis have done it more quickly. They've put a lot of effort into this, and they believe, quite rightly, that the Indians have conventional superiority after them, over them. India's much bigger. India is much richer. And they feel like this is the advantage that they can have.

KELLY: And that's why they're saying we need to be continuously producing nuclear weapons, to maintain some sort of parity there.

Ms. DeYOUNG: Right.

KELLY: Let me see if we can get a caller in here for you, Karen. I'm going to take a call here. This is Mark in Kansas City. You're on the air.

MARK (Caller): Hello, thanks for taking my call.

KELLY: Sure.

MARK: My question - it's a question, not a comment. My question is: Could the - could you discuss how we know Pakistan got the bulk of their technology for nuclear development and how that should affect us as citizens of this country in looking at the worldview and what's happening there?

KELLY: Karen DeYoung, question about how Pakistan got this technology.

Ms. DeYOUNG: Well, I think initially they had some assistance from China and other places, but a lot of it they've developed themselves. They're quite proud of their scientists and the way this has been developed. I think it's - the actual producing the weapons is no big secret anymore. The question is: How do you get the fissile material, the nuclear material that will explode?

And the Pakistanis, you know, they've gotten reactors from China. They've gotten assistance from other countries, and they've figured out how to put it together and make enough materials to produce the number of warheads that they feel like they need.

KELLY: All right, thanks so much for that call, Mark. Karen DeYoung, let me ask you about the role of the U.S. in all of this. U.S. officials, as we mentioned, if you speak to them on the record officially, they'll tell you they're completely confident in Pakistan's ability to secure these weapons. Are they really that confident? What are the challenges here for U.S. policymakers?

Ms. DeYOUNG: I think they're pretty confident that the Pakistani military has a good system in order to secure the weapons. There was, as you mentioned earlier, a program that actually kind of ran out of money several years ago to help the Pakistanis improve their command and control systems.

The U.S. is limited in the amount of help it can give Pakistan, or India, for that matter, because neither country, along with Israel, has signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and that limits the amount of - it limits the nuclear relationship that the United States by law can have with them.

You know, the Pakistanis keep to generally recognized safeguards, keeping warheads and delivery vehicles separate from each other. They don't have their forces on alert status.

But I think that one of the perceived dangers is that - the problem would be in transporting materials, that that's when they're most vulnerable to some kind of terrorists attack, to sabotage, that Pakistan is not that big a country and that putting these things separate does not actually impose that much distance between them.

Of course, in the past there have always - there have also been problems with Pakistan proliferating some of this information themselves. You remember the A.Q. Khan scandal in 2004, where Pakistan's nuclear scientists were charged with selling information and some technology to North Korea, to Libya and to others.

KELLY: Well, and I suppose another obstacle to U.S. efforts to try to help with securing these weapons is Pakistan itself. Pakistanis, understandably, I suppose, are worried that the U.S. has some sort of designs on their weapons and would like to perhaps have some means of having control of them themselves. Is that - how big an obstacle is that in terms of the U.S. trying to provide help?

Ms. DeYOUNG: This has always been a fear in Pakistan. You know, after the 1998 tests, the United States imposed sanctions against both Pakistan and India. And those sanctions were lifted right after the September 11th attacks in 2001 because, largely because the United States believed it needed the assistance of Pakistan to go after terrorists groups, and they felt like they couldn't very well do it for Pakistan without doing it for India. And so sanctions were lifted against both.

But I think that the Pakistanis believe they're not - they don't trust U.S. intentions. They believe the United States is tilted toward India. They - it's a very kind of nationalistic issue in Pakistan, and whenever it comes up, it's also a convenient way for the government and the military there, who sometimes feel insecure, to defend themselves against charges that they're too pro-American.

KELLY: Karen DeYoung, an email here that I'll put to you. This is from Greg(ph), writing from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. And he writes: With respect to Pakistan becoming a nuclear power, why does the U.S. or the U.N. recognize their nuclear weapon program? He writes: I thought the goal was to do away with all their nuclear weapons.

You mentioned Pakistan, one of the countries who's not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Ms. DeYOUNG: Right. Well, I'm not sure recognize is the word you'd want to use. You know, there are there are - among those countries that are known to have nuclear weapons, there are three of them that have never signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty - Pakistan, India and Israel, which has an undeclared program. And of course North Korea, which is believed to have some nuclear capability, withdrew from the treaty in 2003.

So you know, again, the word is not recognize. They're there. Everybody knows that they're there. And the effort is to get them to put their programs under international safeguards that are required by the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

KELLY: Okay. We just have about a minute left, but I want to raise that this is all, of course, unfolding against the backdrop of President Obama trying to push a worldwide non-proliferation agenda. Is Pakistan's slow but steady increase of its arsenal a problem for him?

Ms. DeYOUNG: Well, it's an immediate problem in terms of what is the kind of front-burner issue on that agenda right now, which is to get an international treaty that would ban the production of these fissile materials, highly enriched uranium and plutonium, that are used to build bombs.

The United States has been hoping for some time to get substantive negotiations launched to head toward this treaty. Those negotiations have largely been stopped singlehandedly by Pakistan.

Pakistan believes that although it has more weapons than India, India actually has more fissile materials, and they think the cutoff will put them at a long-term disadvantage.

KELLY: All right, thanks so much. That's Karen DeYoung, staff writer at the Washington Post. She joined us from the paper's studio in Washington. Thank you. We'll be talking more about Pakistan's growing nuclear arsenal after the break. I'm Mary Louise Kelly. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

KELLY: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

Much of the world has been focused on Egypt this week and the uprisings across the Middle East. We'll get an update from NPR's Corey Flintoff in Cairo a bit later.

Meanwhile, a continent away in Pakistan, new estimates show that Islamabad has doubled its nuclear weapons stockpile in recent years, and it's still growing. Pakistan, and the region in general, already face threats from terrorism, war and corruption.

What are your questions and concerns about stability and security in South Asia? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.og, and you can join the conversation at our website. Go to, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Well, we have Barry Blechman here with us. He's a co-founder of the Stimson Center, which is a nonprofit for international peace and security. He's here with me in Studio 3A. Welcome.

Mr. BARRY BLECHMAN (Co-founder, Distinguished Fellow, Stimson Center): Thank you.

KELLY: Let me follow on. We've been talking about Pakistan's new estimates of its nuclear capability. We don't know yet what India's response to these new numbers will be, but that's obviously a big question mark. Tell me: Where are we in terms of talking about a nuclear arms race in South Asia? Does this mark an escalation?

Mr. BLECHMAN: Well, it certainly does. And it's more complicated because India sees itself mainly as a rival of China, two emerging, great economic powers and military powers in Asia. So India really casts itself and its nuclear planning with regard to China. It sees Pakistan more as a problem but one that plays in a different stage.

KELLY: And Pakistan, meanwhile, says they need nuclear weapons, they need this number of nuclear weapons, as a deterrent against India. Do they have a point?

Mr. BLECHMAN: Yes, well, India has conventional military superiority. So Pakistan sees its nuclear weapons as offsetting that. And because they would be the one to initiate nuclear war, they believe they have to have a dominant nuclear position to make that threat credible.

KELLY: As you say, this is all complicated and gets into regional concerns, not just issues between India and Pakistan, per se. That said, when we talk about an escalation in arms race in this part of the world, how great do you see the risk as being of some sort of nuclear conflict emerging between the powers that actually have these weapons?

Mr. BLECHMAN: Well, I think the far greater risk, really, is in Pakistan itself. Your opening comment from Bruce Riedel, I think, hit it on the head. Pakistan is a very unstable country. We're not sure about the loyalties of the rank and file on the army. There's an Islamist extremist movement there. The whole country could fall apart quickly, and then no one knows what would happen to their nuclear weapons. So that's the real danger, not their deliberate use by governments.

KELLY: Okay, let me see if we can get a call in here. I'm going to take a call. This is Frank(ph) calling from Mountain View, California. Hi, Frank, thanks for calling.

FRANK (Caller): Hi. Yeah, my question is around chain of command and control of the nuclear weapons. Is it the army, the air force? We've heard much about the ISI, the military intelligence and some of the rogue activity that's been going on. I guess my concern is: How much are they going to really follow orders, or are they, you know, doing things that are off the reservation?

KELLY: Barry Blechman, the caller there asking about the nuclear chain of command, who actually controls the weapons. Is it the military? Is it the civilian leadership? Who's actually running the show here?

Mr. BLECHMAN: Oh, they don't let the civilians anywhere near them. It's clearly under military control. And the U.S. military has - the U.S. military has worked with the Pakistani military to strengthen the command and control.

So as long as the Pakistani military stays intact, we're reasonably assured things will be safe and secure.

KELLY: The political scene there notoriously shaky, historically shaky, history of coups. But you say as long as the military remains the stable force that it has been and the stronger force in terms of politically running the country, the actual hand on the nuclear button is a safe one?

Mr. BLECHMAN: Yes, but the question is whether the rank and file of the Pakistani military is being slowly Islamicized, becoming more and more extreme and opposed to the policies of the government now supported by the military leadership.

KELLY: When you talk about rogue activities, this is concern about some sort of insider sympathies that might lead to risks with the weapons?

Mr. BLECHMAN: Yes. As you know there I'm sure, there was recently assassination in Pakistan of one of the leading governors. And the bodyguard who conducted, carried out the assassination, was vetted by the same program that vets the people that secure the nuclear stockpile.

So clearly, it's possible for people with extremist tendencies to get -to clear this hurdle and get within the program, and then they could either facilitate the stealing of weapons or just sell them or somehow get them out of the chain of command.

KELLY: And what can Pakistan do to prevent that? I mean, they're obviously aware of this as a potential problem. They say they have increased security clearance protocols, that type thing. What all are they doing to try to protect against this, which seems to be a real concern among U.S. officials, certainly, watching the situation there.

Mr. BLECHMAN: Well, that certainly is a real concern, and they're doing the best they can. The problem is that the institutions themselves are not stable in Pakistan. The whole country can fall apart.

We could see a chaotic situation like we're seeing in Egypt right now, with massive demonstrations but with more of a radical Islamist twist. And the army could split. It could split on ethnic lines.

So as long as the institution is intact, everything's okay, but the risks are huge.

KELLY: Is this the kind of thing that keeps you awake at night, worrying about what the risks may be there?

Mr. BLECHMAN: It does actually. I think it's the most dangerous situation in the world for American interest, certainly.

KELLY: And the specific revelations this week, in terms of Pakistan increasing its stockpile, how much does that increase the risk? If they have 60 weapons, if they have 100 weapons, how much scarier does that make the picture there?

Mr. BLECHMAN: It certainly aggravates it, and therein it's hard to understand what advantage they see from this. And another question is: Who else might they sell fissile material to or nuclear weapons to at some point?

They have close to the Saudis, for example. If Iran acquired nuclear weapons, many people believe Pakistan would make nuclear weapons available to Saudi Arabia.

KELLY: Let me get another call in here. This is Sam(ph), and he's calling from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Hi Sam.

SAM (Caller): Hi, how are you?

KELLY: Hi, we're great. Thanks for calling.

SAM: My comment is, you can forge a peace between India and Pakistan and solve the nuclear issue if you can forge a peace. They have fought several wars. Kashmir is the burning point between those two countries. And that needs to be resolved to forge a peace and have security and safety for everybody there living in the region.

KELLY: Kashmir always the elephant in the room when talking about Pakistani tensions, yeah.

Mr. BLECHMAN: Right.

SAM: We have not done enough to resolve the issue.

Mr. BLECHMAN: That is, of course, the real solution to the problem there. And they have made some progress, and they've shown restraint in the face of various provocations. The Indian government particularly has been restrained, after the raid on Mumbai, for example, conducted by Pakistani militants. The Indians did not carry out any sort of military reprisal.

And in fact, the two governments have confidence-building measures. They've agreed - they have a variety of agreements where they notify each other of military movements, of missile tests, of nuclear - changes in their nuclear installations. And all this fabric has held despite the various provocations.

So there is some glimmer of hope of more responsible behavior and possibly a true peace between them, which would be the way to solve the problem.

KELLY: Okay, thanks very much for your call there, Sam. We appreciate it.

SAM: Thank you.

KELLY: Let me turn the conversation a bit, Barry Blechman, to the question of the U.S. role in all of this. And we have an email asking about U.S. money and the U.S. aid to the region. This is an email from Sam(ph), writing from Cleveland. And it goes: We have given $10 billion to Pakistan since 2001. How do we know that this money has not been diverted to their nuclear bomb program? Do we know?

Mr. BLECHMAN: We think we know. We try to audit the money and keep it out of the program. But the fact is that our concerns about nuclear proliferation have always taken second place in Pakistan to other interests.

Early in the program, when they first started, during the Carter administration, we had listening posts in Pakistan, which tracked Soviet missile tests and listened to their communications. So we kept quiet about their nuclear program.

Later, we needed Pakistan to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, and now we need them to help us in the war against terror and the Taliban and so forth. So we've always been willing to set these nuclear concerns aside and not take strong actions to stop the program.

KELLY: Okay. One more email that I'd love to let you respond to. This is Matt, writing from Independence, Missouri. And he asks: What happens if we do not support stability in the region? He says: I'm asking for a real answer, not a you-don't-want-to-know comment. Thank you, he writes.

So that's kind of a - what keeps you up at night? How bad could things get if things fall apart in South Asia?

Mr. BLECHMAN: Well, the danger to Americans is that these weapons fall in the hands of terrorist organizations, al-Qaeda or the other extremist groups, and they manage to smuggle them into this country and detonate them in American cities. This would be a huge calamity. It could kill hundreds of thousands if not millions of Americans. This is the danger, and this is why I personally think we should be pursuing, as President Obama announced early in his term, a world free of nuclear weapons. That's the only way we'll ultimately be safe from them.

KELLY: He is, of course, pursuing a global nonproliferation agenda and has taken several active steps on it. How alarming is this news out of Pakistan for the Obama administration? We'd like to see overall reductions in nuclear stockpiles. They see Pakistan, an ally, a confounding ally, but a U.S. ally going in the opposite direction.

Mr. BLECHMAN: It certainly hurts the agenda, but as Karen DeYoung mentioned, hurting it more directly now is Pakistan standing in the way of negotiations for a fissile material cutoff treaty. That's the immediate roadblock to the administration's agenda.

KELLY: Okay. Barry Blechman, thanks very much for your time.

Mr. BLECHMAN: Thank you. I enjoyed it.

KELLY: We've been speaking with Barry Blechman, who is co-founder and a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center. He joined us here in Studio 3-A. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

NPR thanks our sponsors

Become an NPR sponsor

Support comes from