Nuclear learning in Pakistan since 1998

Naeem Salik

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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Nuclear learning is a process through which states that acquire nuclear weapons capability learn to manage it through the development of nuclear doctrines, command and control structures, safety and security mechanisms, regulatory regimes and acquire an understanding of both the technological characteristics of these weapons as well as their politico-strategic ramifications. This enables them to achieve a stable strategic balance through a sagacious application of these formidable instruments of power. Pakistan’s nuclear programme has always been beset with controversies and viewed with concern by the international community. These concerns have been accentuated by the spill over of the war in Afghanistan and the widespread incidence of terrorism and extremism within the country itself. In the pre-1998 period Pakistan had adopted a policy of ambiguity and denial of a nuclear weapons programme which combined with the secrecy surrounding the programme had stifled any discussion of issues related to management of an operational nuclear capability and it only started coming to grips with these issues after the May 1998 nuclear tests.

This study about Pakistan’s learning experience in managing its nuclear capability suggests that a state that is perpetually afflicted by political instability and weak institutional structures could effectively handle its nuclear arsenal like a normal nuclear state provided it expends requisite effort and resources towards this end. The ability of the state and its institutions to learn through their experiences and from others is also very important in this regard. While the literature on ‘nuclear learning’ is not very exhaustive, the concept is sufficiently well developed to provide an adequate framework for study of Pakistan’s evolution as a nuclear power since 1998.The study helps ascertain the nature and the magnitude of learning by Pakistan to manage various facets of its nuclear capability in the past decade and a half. The study has tried to identify the discernible manifestations of nuclear learning and has tried to determine the reasons for disparity in learning amongst the civilian and military institutions in view of the troublesome civil-military balance in Pakistan.

This study brings out Pakistan’s difficult progression to a nuclear weapons capable state and how this bitter historical experience has predisposed it to adopt a particular learning path. It also highlights the dynamic nature of Pakistan’s evolving nuclear doctrine which has been adjusted and adapted to meet the demands of its ever changing security environment. It establishes that Pakistan’s nuclear command and control is a reflection of the existing civil-military balance and is line with the traditional division of labour between the two institutions in the realm of security policy making.

The study finds sufficient evidence to suggest that given its precarious internal and external security situation Pakistan has invested heavily in augmenting its nuclear safety and security and this effort has clearly manifested itself and has also received international recognition. After the embarrassment of the AQ Khan episode as well as the emerging international trends evident in the form of UNSC Resolution 1540, Pakistan has also paid attention to strengthening its export control system and to bring it in conformity with international standards. Discernible learning is also apparent in the field of nuclear regulation which has also been acknowledged by the IAEA.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Publication statusUnpublished - 2015


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