Editor’s note: The Nuclear Notebook is researched and written by Hans M. Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project with the Federation of American Scientists, and Matt Korda, a research associate with the project. The Nuclear Notebook column has been published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists since 1987. This issue’s column examines Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, which may include approximately 165 warheads. The authors estimate that the country’s stockpile could realistically grow to around 200 by 2025, if the current trend continues. To see all previous Nuclear Notebook columns, click here.
Pakistan continues to expand its nuclear arsenal with more warheads, more delivery systems, and a growing fissile materials production industry. Analysis of a large number of commercial satellite images of Pakistani army garrisons and air force bases shows what appear to be launchers and facilities that might be related to the nuclear forces.
We estimate that Pakistan now has a nuclear weapons stockpile of approximately 165 warheads (See Table 1). The US Defense Intelligence Agency projected in 1999 that Pakistan would have 60 to 80 warheads by 2020 (US Defense Intelligence Agency 1999, 38), but several new weapon systems have been fielded and developed since then, which leads us to the higher estimate.
With several new delivery systems in development, four plutonium production reactors, and an expanding uranium enrichment infrastructure, however, Pakistan’s stockpile has the potential to increase further over the next 10 years. The size of this projected increase will depend on several factors, including how many nuclear-capable launchers Pakistan plans to deploy, how its nuclear strategy evolves, and how much the Indian nuclear arsenal grows. Speculation that Pakistan may become the world’s third-largest nuclear weapon state––with a stockpile of some 350 warheads a decade from now––are, we believe, exaggerated, not least because that would require a buildup two to three times faster than the growth rate over the past two decades. We estimate that the country’s stockpile could more realistically grow to around 200 warheads by 2025, if the current trend continues. But unless India significantly expands its arsenal or further builds up its conventional forces, it seems reasonable to expect that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal will not continue to grow indefinitely but might begin to level off as its current weapons programs are completed.
Analyzing Pakistan’s nuclear forces is fraught with uncertainty, given that the Pakistani government has never publicly disclosed the size of its arsenal and media sources frequently embellish news stories about nuclear weapons. Therefore, the estimates made in the Nuclear Notebook are based on analysis of Pakistan’s nuclear posture, observations via commercial satellite imagery, previous statements by Western officials, and private conversations with officials.