For just over three years, from June 1998 to September 2001, Western governments overstated Pakistan’s nuclear weapons capabilities and discredited India’s. The result of this: the idea, whether more fiction or more fact, of a South Asian nuclear flashpoint. Pakistan, on the other hand, has indulged in rhetoric to obscure its activities and engage international intervention in its dispute with India.
Curiously, some bomb blast data from the May 1998 nuclear tests seems to suggest evidence of two possibilities: first, that Pakistan hasn’t the nuclear capabilities it claims, and, second, that China may have been a party to the “deception.” If so, two articles of the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty have been violated.
Indian scientists maintain that there were only two 1998 detonations: one on May 28 of 7-8 kilotons (KT), and one on May 30 of 1-3 KT. On the first, U.S. seismic experts said the force was 8-15 KT. U.S. intelligence confirms the second claim, calling it a “faint echo.” These two sets of conflicting reports, coming from different agencies, give substance to doubts that at the very least there were fewer nuclear tests on May 28 and 30 of that year than Pakistan had claimed.
Some of the inconsistencies can be attributed to Abdul Qadeer Khan, architect of Pakistan’s nuclear program, who indicated that at least one device was not detonated on May 30, that officials had made this decision only at the last minute. Khan then said that all the tests were of fission devices, apparently foregetting his earlier claim that the tests involved a boosted fission device as well.
India surmised that there were two tests each day, and that one of each pair fizzled. The successful May 28 detonation was a fission device, and the successful May 30 a boosted fission. Neither produced any seismic signature. Therefore, India asserted, another state was in fact performing the tests, as a way to circumvent the existing moratorium on testing. From this, India was inclined to think that Pakistan had planned for two tests for each day, one with a proven device (to ensure some success), and another with an uncertain one. Questions arose from this line of thought. Where did the proven devices come from, given that Pakistan didn’t already have them rightfully? Were they those reportedly turned over to Pakistan after China’s 1966 tests? Did China, in return for technical assistance and support, do any testing of its own?
Collected air samples revealed plutonium , which characterizes China’s nuclear arsenal. Pakistan, it should be noted, had at the time (1998) the means to produce only highly enriched uranium [HEU]. Its plutonium producing reactor did not go on line until 2000.
Unconfirmed reports suggest that Pakistan made a bid for the technological assistance it needed to bridge the gap between its device and a successful test. Could China have used this opportunity to test its warheads? Or could China, having condemned U.S. sub-critical tests, have used this opportunity to validate its own technological potential? Or was this simply a convenient opportunity to “stock test?”
Indian and Western estimates of Pakistan’s HEU inventory varied substantially. Seven nuclear tests, according to India, would have accounted for over 100 kilograms of HEU, which would have severely compromised Pakistan’s capabilities–in terms of available fissile material–to undertake a weaponization program. One way to account for this amount of expended material, and for Pakistan’s indulging in more tests than were necessary, is that weapons from the Chinese stockpile were being tested.
Another event difficult to explain unfolded on the day between the two tests. China stalled, by veto, the UN Security Council Resolution condemning Pakistan’s tests. Then, after the second round of tests, it allowed the Security Council’s second bid to go through unhindered.
This Faustian bargain might well have involved China providing its computer simulation software, along with other test data, to Pakistan, as well as security assurances and a dip into its large dollar reserves to help tide Pakistan through the initial stages of sanctions that would otherwise cripple it.
Political compulsions notwithstanding, there is a need to examine all the issues that make such an elaborate piece of subterfuge necessary. If true, the American nonproliferation regime has become susceptible to a new threat, one staved off for twenty-eight years: violations of the nonproliferation treaty.
A reluctant Washington now admits that there is sufficient evidence to show that China has played a major role in the development of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and missile programmes. It has supplied Pakistan with highly enriched uranium, a proven nuclear warhead design, provided ready to fire missiles and completed the Chasma plant (giving Pakistan access to plutonium). Then Foreign Minister Gohar Ayub Khan candidly admitted China’s collusion in Pakistan’s nuclear weapons development in an interview on May 30, 1998.
The record of clandestine interaction between Pakistan and China is formidable. In light of 9/11, the question arises: Could the collusion between these states be a model for collusion between Beijing or Islamabad and nonstate players in their respectives spheres of influence? The events of May 1998 need closer scrutiny.
1. [U.S.] National Earthquake Informational Center.
2. Terry Wallace, a seismologist at the University of Arizona, who works with the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology, in Washington concluded that the blast had a preliminary magnitude of 4.3, equal to about 1 KT.
3. Magoo Strategic Infotech Pvt Ltd. Report by Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Brigadier Vijai K. Nair VSM (retired) is a defense analyst specializing in nuclear strategy formulation and author of two books, including “Nuclear India.”