When The Mountains Moved: How Pakistan Built A Nuclear Bomb

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When The Mountains Moved: How Pakistan Built A Nuclear Bomb
When The Mountains Moved: How Pakistan Built A Nuclear Bomb

PSF presents a fun, easy-to-understand and exciting chronological thread on the extraordinary journey that led to Pakistan’s finest hour and the most pivotal moment in our national security.

Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of some of the best brains in the business, South Asia has remained on a slippery slope over the years, lurching dangerously towards strategic instability. “Strategic” here does not only imply nuclear stability alone, but rather the much larger and wholesome concept of strategic stability, encompassing in its fold, the many elements of national power and strategy. The reality today is that in South Asia, Pakistan must shoulder the responsibility of maintaining the vital strategic balance in the conventional and nuclear equation with India as the critical determinant of the state of strategic stability in South Asia. If Pakistan does not do this, it would lead to catastrophic consequences in view of India’s historically persistent and insatiable drive for regional domination, especially given India’s current irrational, unstable and belligerent internal and external policies.

Our country’s nuclear story starts in the 1950s, when the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) was formed, primarily so that Pakistan could participate in the Atoms for Peace program announced by the Eisenhower administration in the U.S., but development was slow in its early years.

In 1960, Dr. Ishrat H. Usmani was appointed Chairman of the PAEC. He would be responsible for setting in motion many of the critical programs and institutions that would later be used in nuclear weapons: Dr. Usmani started PINSTECH (Pakistan Institute of Nuclear Sciences and Technology) at Nilore in Islamabad in 1955 and the Karachi Nuclear Power Plant (KANUPP) in 1966 as well.

In 1962, Pakistan officially started its national nuclear program with the installation of a 5 MW light-water research reactor known as the Pakistan Atomic Research Reactor (PARR-1), which began operating in 1965 at PINSTECH in Nilore.

In 1964, it was noticed with concern that Hindu religion-political factions in India were openly agitating for nuclear weapons to be developed “to gain an insurmountable advantage” over the Pakistanis.

It was then in mid-1965, that Prime Minister Zulfiqkar Bhutto, then the Foreign Minister, uttered his famous and prophetic oath about matching India’s nuclear capability, “If India builds the bomb, we will eat grass or leaves, even go hungry, but we will get one of our own. We have no other choice.”

Scarcely more than a month after taking the highest political office and the Fall of Dhaka, on 24 January 1972, President Bhutto held a secret meeting at Multan (“The Multan Meeting”) with Pakistan’s top scientists including Dr. Abdus Salam, Dr. Ishrat Usmani, and Dr. Munir Ahmad Khan in which he for the first time seriously committed and issued a directive for Pakistan to acquire nuclear weapons. Dr. Ishrat Usmani, then head of the PAEC, said it was not possible and that, “Pakistan did not have the technology or infrastructure to tackle such a project.” Dr. Usmani was soon replaced as head of the PAEC that year by Dr. Munir Ahmad Khan, who assured the President that the project will get completed and Pakistan will attain nuclear weapons technology in 15 years or less (and he was right). The weapons development project was named ‘Project-706’.

 

The foundation of any nuclear weapons program is the production of crucial nuclear fissile materials required for weapons – plutonium or highly enriched uranium for a basic program for producing fission weapons. Without these materials no weapons can be made. Plutonium is collected by separating it from the spent fuel of a nuclear reactor, while highly enriched uranium (HEU) is collected from spinning centrifuges which separate uranium from its raw ore form.

The initial direction taken by Pakistan was to pursue the use of plutonium. For this, there was already some headway as Pakistan already had a nuclear plant in Karachi which went critical in 1971, and in the next few years a small heavy water production facility was added. So, a Plutonium fueled bomb was the obvious choice. But now Pakistan required a means of separating plutonium from spent fuel so the Government of Pakistan contracted with both British and French companies to design a pilot plutonium separation facility. The facility subsequently designed was capable of separating up to 360g of fuel a year. After the Multan Meeting, it was also decided to build a plutonium reprocessing facility called the “New Labs” at PINSTECH.

This plant was also followed by a contract signed in March 1973 for a large-scale reprocessing plant, one with a reprocessing capacity of 100 tons of nuclear fuel per year. This would be known as the Chashma plant and would have the capability to produce 200 kg of weapons-grade plutonium a year.

In March 1974, Hafeez Qureshi, the head of the Radiation and Isotope Applications Division (RIAD) at the Pakistan Institute of Science & Technology (PINSTECH) at Nilore was summoned by the Chairman of the PAEC, Munir Ahmad Khan in a meeting that was attended, among others, by Dr. Abdus Salam, who was Adviser for Science and Technology to the Government of Pakistan and Dr. Riaz-ud-Din, Member (Technical), PAEC. Qureshi was told that he would join hands on a “project of national importance” with another expert, Dr. Zaman Sheikh, then working with Pakistan’s Defense Science and Technology Organization (DESTO). The word “bomb” was never used in the meeting but Qureshi knew exactly what he was being asked to do. Their task would be to build the actual structure and mechanics of a future nuclear weapon. The project would be located at Wah, appropriately next to the Pakistan Ordnance Factories (POF) and conveniently close to the capital, Islamabad.

The work at Wah began under the very simple codename of “Research” and the physicists and their team of engineers and scientists came to be known as “The Wah Group”.

Initial work was limited to research and development of the trigger explosives to be used in the nuclear device, since the device would be an implosion-type, pure-fission weapon. Later, the Wah Group’s work expanded to include the chemical, mechanical, precision engineering and triggering mechanisms and especially the implosion system. (In very simple terms, implosion-type weapons work by placing and very precisely exploding concentric circles of explosives around a uranium bomb core, which then reaches criticality and starts nuclear fission).

The Wah Group procured equipment where it could and developed its own technology where restrictions prevented the purchase of equipment.

Then, on 18 May 1974, India attempted a small but first-ever Indian nuclear explosion at Pokhran Test Range (PTR) in Rajasthan, barely 100 miles from the Pakistani border. The revisionist Indians were again attempting to unbalance strategic stability in the region, and as per usual Pakistan was duty-bound to rebalance it.

The test also had two unintended effects: the Government of Pakistan got truly serious that building a nuclear weapon as soon as possible was essential for the future survival of Pakistan and the funding for the program increased exponentially, given national priority number one. An unfortunate consequence of the Indian test was that it escalated international attention to nuclear proliferation which led to increased restrictions on nuclear exports to all nations in the name of nonproliferation. This would also lead to the governments of the UK and France to cancel their contracts with Pakistan to build the Plutonium reprocessing and separating facilities.

In the fall of 1974 however, a Pakistani metallurgist, Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, working for the Physical Dynamics Research Laboratory (FDO) in Amsterdam wrote to the Pakistani Prime Minister and offered services to Pakistan in regards to uranium enrichment.

Hence in September 1974, Pakistan began receiving information on advanced uranium enrichment technology and a new avenue for obtaining much needed fissile material opened up.

In August 1975, Pakistan began purchasing components from Europe in general and Germany in particular for a uranium enrichment program.

In January 1976, Dr. A.Q Khan left the Netherlands and came to Pakistan to work in the PAEC, at that time headed by Dr. Munir Ahmed Khan. PAEC at that time was fully focused on the plutonium path, and friction quickly developed between the two groups, the Uranium group and the Plutonium group, on which path should be chosen for nuclear weapons development.

In July 1976, the Prime Minister decided to split the effort into the two groups in order to create healthy competition and speed up the program, and allowed Dr. A.Q. Khan autonomous control of the uranium enrichment project, reporting directly to the Prime Minister’s Office.

Hence Dr. A.Q. Khan founded the Engineering Research Laboratories (ERL) on 31 July 1976 at Kahuta near Islamabad, with the exclusive task of indigenous development of a Uranium enrichment plant. Having two different technologies for production would Pakistan more resistant to any foreign efforts to restrain its program, and producing both U-235 and plutonium would give Pakistan greater flexibility in weapon design.

Up until now, the primary focus remained with the plutonium group and uranium enrichment was probably seen as at most a co-equal program for fissile material production.

But, during 1976 and 1977, the French government started backtracking over the agreements to build the Chashma reprocessing plant and in late 1977 proposed to change the design so that the plant would produce a mixture of uranium and plutonium rather than pure plutonium. This would prevent it being used for producing plutonium for weapons. Pakistan refused to accept the modification. But by that time Pakistan had received 95 percent of the detailed plans for the plant, and was thus in a position to secure components and build the plant itself, which it did later on. But this would take up many valuable years and time was of the utmost importance. Because of this situation the plutonium route was sidestepped and the importance of the ultracentrifuge project inevitably grew and Pakistan initiated a massive purchasing program in Europe to build the centrifuges.

Meanwhile, in May 1976, the Chief of Staff of the Pakistan Army V Corps in Quetta, Brigadier M. Sarfraz, received an urgent message from GHQ Rawalpindi asking him to make available a helicopter as a team of PAEC scientists were arriving for operational reconnaissance of some areas in Balochistan.

Little did Brigadier Sarfarz know that the team of scientists were scouting a suitable location for a future underground nuclear test, preferably a mountain. Over a span of three days, the PAEC scientists made several reconnaissance helicopters tours of the area between Turbat, Awaran and Khusdar in the south, and Naukundi-Kharan in the east.

After a hectic and careful search, they found a mountain which matched their specifications. This was a 500-metre-high granite mountain in the Ras Koh Hills in the Chagai Division of Balochistan.

Among the PAEC’s requirement was that the mountain should be “bone dry” and capable of withstanding a 45-kiloton nuclear explosion from the inside. Tests were conducted to measure the water content of the mountains and the surrounding area and to measure the capability of the mountain’s rock to withstand a nuclear test, and a three-dimensional survey of the area was conducted.

This survey took one year and in 1977 it was decided that the proposed tunnel to be bored in the mountain should have the overburden of a 700-metre-high mountain over it, being sufficient to withstand 45 kilotons of nuclear force. In the same year, the Special Development Works (SDW) was created as a subsidiary of the PAEC which was entrusted with the task of preparing the nuclear test sites. The SDW was a nuclear variant of the Pakistan Army’s famous Frontier Works Organization (FWO) which built the Karakorum Highway.

The primary task of the SDW was to prepare underground test sites with both horizontal and vertical shafts for nuclear device testing along with all the allied infrastructure and facilities. The sites had to be designed in such a way that they could be utilized at short notice (in less than a week) and were to be completed by December 1979 at the latest.

After a series of meetings between SDW and PAEC officials and the President of Pakistan, it was decided that SDW should prepare 2-3 separate sites. Therefore, a second site for a horizontal shaft was located at Kharan, in a desert valley between the Ras Koh Hills and Siahan Range.

Subsequently, the Chagai, Ras Koh and Kharan areas became restricted zones and were closed to the public, prompting rumors that Pakistan had given airbases to the United States.

A 3,325 feet long tunnel was bored in the Ras Koh Hills which was 8-9 feet in diameter and was shaped like a fishhook for it to be self-sealing. The test site at Kharan was 300 by 200 feet and was L-shaped. Both test sites had an array of extensive cables, sensors and monitoring stations. In addition to the main tunnels, SDW built 24 cold test sites, 46 short tunnels and 35 underground accommodations for troops and command, control and monitoring facilities. At Ras Koh, some of these were located inside the granite mountains.

Both the nuclear test sites at Ras Koh and Kharan took 2-3 years to prepare and were operational in 1980.

In the late 70s, Pakistan attempted to purchase refined uranium ore, also known as yellowcake uranium, from Germany but was unsuccessful. This presented a hurdle in the program until in 1977 when Pakistan discovered uranium deposits in western Punjab and had begun to mine them successfully.

By 1978, the CIA had become aware of a nuclear weapons design group in Pakistan because of the massive amounts of dual-use materials Pakistani companies were buying from Europe to build the centrifuges.

After that, Pakistan made rapid progress in developing U-235 production capability. The first enrichment was done at ERL Kahuta on 4 April 1978. The plant was made operational in 1979 and by 1981 was producing substantial quantities of enriched uranium.

On May 1 1981, in recognition of Dr. A.Q. Khan’s contributions to uranium enrichment the ERL was renamed the A.Q. Khan Research Laboratories (KRL) by the President of Pakistan.

Pakistan’s first cold test of a nuclear device was carried out on March 11, 1983 in the Kirana Hills near Sargodha, home of one of the Pakistan Air Force’s Major Operational Bases (MOB) and the Central Ammunition Depot (CAD). A Cold Test is a means of testing the working of a nuclear device without an actual nuclear explosion. This is achieved by triggering an actual completed bomb without the fissile material needed to start it.

Prior to the cold test, an advance team was sent to de-seal, open and clean the tunnels and to make sure the tunnels were clear of the wild boars that are found in abundance in the Sargodha region. The damage which these wild boars could do to men and equipment could not be understated when one such wild boar later cost the PAF an F-16 when it sheared off the aircraft’s front undercarriage as it came in to land at Sargodha Air Base. Luckily, the pilot ejected with minor injuries. The multimillion-dollar F-16 was, however, destroyed and had to be written off.

After clearing of the tunnels, a PAEC diagnostic team headed by Dr. Mubarakmand arrived on the scene with trailers fitted with computers and diagnostic equipment. This was followed by the arrival of the Wah Group with the nuclear device, in sub-assembly form. This was assembled and then placed inside the tunnel. A monitoring system was set up with around 20 cables linking various parts of the device with oscillators in diagnostic vans parked near the Kirana Hills. The Wah Group had indigenously developed the explosive, HMX, which was used to trigger the device.

The device was tested using the push-button technique as opposed to the radio-link technique used at Chagai fourteen years later. The first test was to see whether the triggering mechanism created the necessary neutrons which would start a fission chain reaction in the real bomb. However, when the button was pushed, most of the wires connecting the device to the oscillators were severed due to errors in the preparation of the cables. At first, it was thought that the device had malfunctioned but closer scrutiny of two of the oscillators confirmed that the neutrons had indeed come out and a chain reaction had taken place and the Pakistani nuclear weapon design would be successful in initiating a fission explosion. Pakistan’s first cold test of a nuclear device was successful and 11 March 1983 became a red-letter day in the history of the Pakistan nuclear programme. As fissile material was available in sufficient quantities at the time, we can say that Pakistan achieved true nuclear weapons capability in 1983.

A second cold test was undertaken soon afterwards which was witnessed by the President, Army Chief and Chairman PAEC.

The need to improve and perfect the design of Pakistan’s first nuclear device required constant testing. As a result, between 1983 and 1990, the Wah Group conducted more than 24 cold tests of the nuclear device at Kirana Hills. Later, due to excessive US intelligence and satellite focus on the Kirana Hills site, it was abandoned and the cold test facility was shifted to the Kala-Chitta Range.

By March 1984, KRL had also independently carried out its own cold tests of its uranium nuclear device near Kahuta. However, in 1984, China conducted a nuclear explosion in a series of tests to “revalidate” their testing program. Many intelligence agencies believed that due to a high presence of Pakistani scientists at the test, it was actually the first live test of a Pakistani weapon. This was never proven.

During the same 1983-1990 period, the Wah Group also went on to design and develop a bomb small enough to be carried on the wing of a fighter such as the F-16, since missile technology had not developed enough at the time to be a credible delivery method. The Wah Group worked alongside the Pakistan Air Force to evolve and perfect delivery techniques of the nuclear bomb using combat aircraft including ‘conventional freefall’, ‘loft bombing’, ‘toss bombing and ‘low-level laydown’ attack techniques. Today, of course, the PAF has perfected all four techniques of nuclear weapons delivery and now the primary delivery method for the PAF’s strategic command includes the Ra’ad Air Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM). This of course is only the air part of Pakistan’s nuclear delivery triad which also includes highly advanced, reliable and accurate Ground Launched Cruise Missiles (GLCMs), Submarine Launched Cruise Missiles (SLCMs) as well as Tactical/Battlefield, Short, Medium and Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles. These are able to provide for all three domains of nuclear use: Tactical, Operational (Counterforce Strike), and Strategic (Countervalue Strike).

In the early 1990s, American intelligence officials told the U.S. Congress that they believe that “Pakistan has quite sufficient computing power in the country to run all the modeling necessary to adequately verify the viability of the country’s nuclear weapons technology.”

Once again around this time, Pakistan proposed to India the commencement of a multilateral conference on the nuclear proliferation in South Asia. And once again, it was rejected. Pakistan also proposed to India the creation of a missile-free zone in South Asia. The treaty was not accepted.

Then, in December of 1992, after the Americans had completed their goals in Afghanistan, and the Mujahideen and Pakistan had defeated the Soviet Union there, the U.S. Government asked Pakistan to return eight US Navy frigates and a supply ship that had been leased to the Pakistan Navy, which accounted for more than half of Pakistan’s major surface combatants. In the same month, Senator Larry Pressler stated in a press interview that he had been told by the CIA that Pakistan had assembled 7 weapons and could air drop one in a matter of hours.

At the same time, KRL and the Government of Pakistan, sensing the shifting geopolitical priorities, purchased 5000 ring magnets from China. The ring magnets would allow Pakistan to effectively double its capacity to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons production.

On 01 January 1996, India and Pakistan exchanged lists of atomic installations which each side had pledged not to attack under a confidence-building agreement signed in 1988. Both nations will continue to do so on the first of January of every year till date.

In July 1997, Pakistan confirmed test firing of the first indigenous ballistic missile: Hatf.

After achieving nuclear weapons capability in the early 1980s, it was decided that the fallout from economic sanctions in the early 1990s would be too great and the international condemnation too high to warrant an actual nuclear explosion so testing was put off until a later date in the future.

Then on 11 and 13 May 1998, Indian conducted what it claimed were a total of 5 nuclear tests at Pokhran, Rajasthan near the Pakistan border and consequently declared itself an overt “nuclear weapons state”. This act by India destabilized the balance of power in South Asia heavily. The dust at Pokhran had yet to settle when high-ranking Indian government officials, military personnel and Hindutva leaders began issuing provocative statements against Pakistan. India declared that it would pursue a “proactive” policy on Jammu & Kashmir. Pakistan was told to realize the “new geopolitical realities in South Asia”.

The underlying message for Pakistan was this: give up your claim on Jammu & Kashmir and become forever subservient to Indian hegemony in South Asia. India was now the nuclear weapons power and Pakistan wasn’t. In the event of another India-Pakistan War, India would be able to use nuclear weapons if its Armed Forces were not able to break through the Pakistan Armed Forces’ defenses or put in a tight corner by Pakistani counteroffensives. Indian war planners even felt that the use of small battlefield nuclear devices used in tactical counterforce strikes against Pakistan Army cantonments, armored and infantry columns, PAF bases, nuclear and military industrial facilities would not meet with an adverse reaction from the international community so long as civilian casualties could be kept to a minimum. Such was the madness in the saffron-hued eyes of our eastern neighbor. They thought that this way, India would defeat Pakistan, force its Armed Forces into a humiliating surrender and occupy and annex the Northern Areas of Pakistan and Azad Jammu & Kashmir. India would then carve up Pakistan into tiny states based on ethnic divisions and that would be the end of the “Pakistan problem” once and for all.

Such a plan could never be allowed to succeed. In the face of national survival, all other things become secondary.

Therefore, it became absolutely necessary for Pakistan to go overtly nuclear in order to establish a nuclear deterrent and guarantee its security and survival.

A day after the last Indian test, on the morning of 15 May 1998, a meeting of the Defense Committee of the Cabinet of Pakistan (DCC) was convened at the Prime Minister’s Office at the Pakistan Secretariat in Islamabad to discuss the situation. The meeting was chaired by the Prime Minister of Pakistan and attended by the Ministers of Defense, Foreign Affairs, Finance, the Foreign Secretary and the Chiefs of the Pakistan Army, Air Force and Navy.

Since Dr. Ishfaq Ahmed, Chairman of the PAEC was on a visit to the United States, the responsibility of giving a technical assessment of the Indian nuclear tests and Pakistan’s preparedness to give any potential matching response fell on the shoulders of Dr. Samar Mubarakmand, Director General of the PAEC’s Directorate of Technical Development (DTD). Dr. Mubarakmand had supervised several cold tests since 1983 and was responsible for overseeing all of PAEC’s classified projects. Also, in attendance was Dr. A.Q. Khan, Director of the Khan Research Laboratories (KRL), Kahuta.

There were only two points on the DCC’s agenda that day: Firstly, whether or not Pakistan should carry out nuclear tests in order to respond to Indian’s nuclear tests? Secondly, if Pakistan does go ahead with the tests, then which of the two organizations, PAEC or KRL, should carry out the tests?

The discussions went on for a few hours and encompassed all the financial, diplomatic, military, strategic and national security aspects of the options available. Finance Minister Sartaj Aziz was the only person who opposed the tests on financial grounds. Then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif neither opposed nor proposed the tests. The remainder all spoke in favor of conducting the tests.

While giving his technical assessment on behalf of the PAEC, Dr. Mubarakmand said that Pakistan had a modern, state-of-the-art international-standard seismic monitoring station near Islamabad and also had seismic stations located all over Pakistan including at locations near the Pakistan-India border. He said that these seismic stations had recorded only one nuclear device on 11 May 1998 at Pokhran and not three as India was wrongfully claiming. He said that the remaining two, in all probability, had fizzled out, i.e., were failed to induce nuclear fission. He also said that no thermonuclear or hydrogen test was carried out on either 11 or 13 May 1998 by the Indians as none of the yields were big enough for such a test. In all likelihood, the Indians may have attempted a thermonuclear test, but it too had failed.

Dr. Mubarakmand added that if it is decided that Pakistan should go ahead with nuclear tests of its own, then the PAEC is fully prepared to carry out the nuclear tests within 10 days.

Dr. A.Q. Khan, speaking on behalf of KRL, also asserted that KRL was fully prepared and capable of carrying out nuclear tests within the next 10 days. Dr. A.Q. Khan reminded the DCC that it was KRL which first enriched uranium, converted it into metal, machined it into semi-spheres of metal and designed their own atomic bombs and carried out cold tests on their own. All this was achieved without any help from PAEC. He said that KRL was fully independent in the nuclear weapons field. Dr. Khan went on to say that since it was KRL which first made inroads into the fissile material and nuclear weapons field for Pakistan, it should be given the honor of carrying out Pakistan’s first nuclear tests and it would feel let down if it wasn’t conferred the privilege of doing so.

Thus, both the PAEC and KRL were equal to the task. However, PAEC had two additional advantages which KRL didn’t. Firstly, it was PAEC which had constructed Pakistan’s nuclear test site at Chagai, Baluchistan. Secondly, PAEC had conducted a greater number of cold tests than KRL.

The DCC meeting that day concluded without any resolution of the two agenda points.

By that time chairman of the PAEC, Dr. Ishfaq Ahmed, cut short his foreign trip and returned to Pakistan on the night of 16 May 1998.

On the morning of 17 May 1998, he received a call from GHQ informing him to remain on standby for a meeting with the Prime Minister. He was thereafter summoned to the Prime Minister House, Islamabad where he went accompanied by Dr. Mubarakmand. The Prime Minister asked the PAEC Chairman for his opinion on the two points which were discussed in the DCC meeting of 15 May 1998. Dr. Ahmed told the Prime Minister that the decision to test or not to test was that of the Government of Pakistan. As far as the PAEC’s preparedness and capability was concerned they were ready to their duty as and when required to do so. The Prime Minister said that eyes of the world were focused on Pakistan and failure to conduct the tests would put the credibility of Pakistan’s nuclear programme in doubt. The PAEC Chairman reply was, “Mr. Prime Minister, take a decision and, Insha’Allah, I give you the guarantee of success”.

He was told to make preparations for the tests but remain on standby for the final decision.

That night on the 17th of May 1998 another meeting was held, attended only by the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister, the finance minister and the three Chiefs of Staff.

In this meeting, the two agenda points of the DCC meeting of 15 May 1998 were decided. Firstly, Pakistan would indeed give a matching and befitting response to India by conducting nuclear tests of its own. Secondly, the task would be assigned to the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC), who were better equipped and more experienced to carry out the tests, as nothing could be left to chance.

On 18 May 1998, the Chairman of the PAEC was again summoned to the Prime Minister House where he was officially ordered to conduct the test. The official order was simple: “Dhamaka kar dein” (“do the explosion”). The PAEC Chairman went back to his office and gave orders to his staff to prepare for the tests.

Shortly after the Prime Minister’s order to test, GHQ and Air Headquarters issued orders to the relevant quarters in Pakistan Army Southern Command, the National Logistics Cell (NLC), the Army Aviation Corps and the PAF No. 6 Air Transport Support Squadron to extend support to the PAEC. The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) directed the national airline, PIA, to make available two Boeing 737 passenger aircrafts at short notice.

When news reached Dr. A.Q. Khan at KRL that the task had been assigned to PAEC, he lodged a strong protest with the Chief of Army Staff. The Army Chief, in turn, called the Prime Minister and relayed Dr. A.Q. Khan’s protest. The Prime Minister then decided that KRL personnel would also be involved in the final preparation of the nuclear test site alongside those of PAEC as well as being present at the time of testing.

In the meantime, PAEC convened an internal meeting to decide the modus operandi of the tests and how many tests to carry out. This meeting was chaired by Dr. Ahmed Munir and attended by Dr. Mubarakmand and the other scientists and engineers of the PAEC. In PAEC, there was jubilation that the Indian nuclear tests had given an opportunity to Pakistan to conduct nuclear tests after 14 years of conducting only cold tests, and now the maximum benefit should be derived from this opportunity. It was, therefore, decided, that multiple tests would be carried out of varying yields as well as the live testing of the triggering mechanisms. Since the tunnel at the Ras Koh Hills had the capability to conduct six tests, therefore, six different nuclear devices of varying designs, sizes and yields were selected, all of which had been previously cold tested. The first 5 of these were uranium bombs and the last one was a plutonium bomb. Such an extraordinarily complex operation as a five-device nuclear test was planned and conducted within 10 days by PAEC.

Immediately afterwards, began the process of fitness and quality checks of the various components of the nuclear devices and the testing equipment. A large but smooth logistics operation also got underway with the help of the Pakistan Army and Air Force. This operation involved moving men and equipment as well as the nuclear devices to the Ras Koh test site from various parts of the country.

On 19 May 1998, two teams of 140 PAEC and KRL scientists, engineers and technicians left for Chagai, Balochistan on two separate PIA Boeing 737 flights. Also on board were teams from the Wah Group, the Theoretical Group, the Directorate of Technical Development and the Diagnostics Group. Some of the men and equipment were transported via road using NLC trucks escorted by the members of the Special Services Group (SSG).

The nuclear devices were themselves flown in a completely knocked-down, sub-assembly form on a Pakistan Air Force C-130 Hercules tactical airlifter from Rawalpindi to Chagai, escorted by four PAF F-16s armed with air-to-air missiles. The security protocols in place were so strict that the PAF F-16 escort pilots had been given standing orders that in the unlikely event of the C-130 being hijacked or flown outside of Pakistani airspace, they were to shoot down the aircraft before it left Pakistan’s airspace. The F-16s were ordered to escort the C-130 at a designated airfield in Balochistan with their radio communications equipment turned off to maintain radio silence due to OPSEC concerns. They were also ordered to ignore any orders to the contrary that got through to them during the duration of the flight even if such orders originated from Air Headquarters.

Once in Chagai, the parts of the nuclear devices were separately taken to the five ‘zero rooms’ in the kilometer-long tunnels at Ras Koh Hills in Chagai.

Dr. Samar Mubarakmand personally supervised the complete assembly of all five nuclear devices. Diagnostic cables were thereafter laid from the tunnel to the telemetry stations. The cables connected all five nuclear devices with a command observation post 10 kilometers away. Afterwards, a complete simulated test was carried out by tele-command. This process of preparing the nuclear devices and laying of the cables and the establishment of the fully functional command and observation post took 5 days.

On 25 May 1998, soldiers of the Pakistan Army V Corps arrived to seal the tunnel. They were supervised by engineers and technicians from the Pakistan Army Engineering Corps, the Frontier Works Organization (FWO) and the Special Development Works (SDW).

Dr Samar Mubarakmand himself walked a total of 5 kilometers back and forth in the hot tunnels checking and re-checking the devices and the cables which would be forever buried under the concrete. Finally, the cables were plugged into nuclear devices. The process of sealing the tunnel thereafter began with the mixing of the cement and the sand. It took a total of 6,000 cement bags to seal the tunnel.

The tunnel was sealed by the afternoon May 26, 1998 and by the afternoon of 27 May 1998, the cement had completely dried out due to the excessive heat of the desert. After the engineers certified that the concrete had hardened and the site was fit for the tests it was communicated to the Prime Minister that the site was ready.

Subsequently, the date and time for Pakistan’s rendezvous with destiny was set for the afternoon of 28 May 1998.

In the pre-dawn hours of 28 May, Pakistan cut the communication links for all Pakistani seismic stations to the outside world. All strategic and military installations in Pakistan were put on high alert, and Pakistan Air Force air defense fighters, including F-16s and F-7s, were placed on strip alert – ready to begin their take-off roll at any moment.

At Chagai, it was a clear day, bright and sunny, without a cloud in sight. All personnel were evacuated from ‘Ground Zero’ except for members of the Diagnostics Group and the firing team.

Ten members of this team reached the observation post located 10-kilometres away from Ground Zero. The firing equipment was checked one last time and Zuhr prayers were offered. An hour later, at 1430 hours, a Pakistan Army helicopter carrying the team of observers including PAEC Chairman, Dr. Ishfaq Ahmed, KRL Director, Dr. A.Q. Khan, and four other scientists from KRL arrived at the site.

At 3:00 p.m. a truck carrying the last of the personnel and soldiers involved in the site preparations passed by the OP. Soon afterwards, the all-clear was given to conduct the test as the site had been fully evacuated.

Amongst the 20 men present, one young man, Muhammad Arshad, the Chief Scientific Officer, who had designed the triggering mechanism, was selected to push the button. He was asked to recite Alhumdulillah first (All praise be to Allah) and push the button. At exactly 3:16 p.m. the button was pushed and Muhammad Arshad stepped forth from obscurity into history.

As soon as the button was pushed, the control system was taken over by computers. The signal was passed through the airlink, initiating six steps in the firing sequence while at the same time bypassing, one after the other, each of the security systems put in place to prevent accidental detonation. Each step was confirmed by the computer, switching on power supplies for each subsequent stage, with each and every step and date being continuously recorded by computers via telemetry. On the last leg of the sequence, the high voltage power supply responsible for detonating the trigger mechanisms of the nuclear devices was activated. As the firing sequence continued through its stages, 20 pairs of eyes were glued on the mountain 10 kilometers away.

A radiation-hardened television camera with special lenses recorded the outer surface of the mountain.

The voltage reached the triggers on all five nuclear devices simultaneously in all the explosive lenses with microsecond-level synchronization. There was deafening silence within and outside of the observation post.

Then, about 30 seconds after the button was pushed, the earth in and around the Ras Koh Hills started to tremble as if a very strong earthquake was happening. Observers say they say the ground on top of the mountain physically moving. The observation post, 10 kilometers away, vibrated intensely as smoke and dust burst out through the five points where the nuclear devices were located. The mountain shook, and then started changing color as dust and sand of a thousand years was dislodged from its surface. The black granite rock on the mountain turned white due to deoxidization from nuclear radioactivity. A huge cloud of dust then enveloped the mountain.

For those in the observation post, watching in pin-drop silence with their eyes focused on the mountain, these thirty seconds between initial activation of the trigger and the nuclear detonation were the longest in their lives. It was the culmination of a long and difficult, but crucial journey which started decades ago. It was a moment of triumph against almost impossible odds, trials and tribulations. At the end of those thirty seconds lay Pakistan’s date with destiny.

The Pakistani Ministry of Foreign Affairs would later describe it as “Pakistan’s finest hour”. Pakistan had become the world’s 7th nuclear power and the first nuclear weapons state in the Islamic World. Two days later, on 30 May 1998, Pakistan conducted its sixth nuclear test at Kharan, a flat desert valley 150 km to the south of the Ras Koh Hills. The maximum yield of a single device in the Chagai series of tests was recorded at 36-40 kilotons of TNT, according to the Government of Pakistan.

Pakistan desires peaceful relations with all countries of the world, but will never allow the swinging pendulum of strategic stability to tilt too much towards instability due to the belligerent and revisionist regime in our neighborhood. The national security of our country is paramount and primary, and everything else is secondary. Pakistan continues to advocate for a reduced arms buildup in the region, but will never compromise on the collective security of a country of 220 million people, and by extension 1.4 billion people in the South Asian subcontinent, due to the belligerence of extremist and fascist organizations like the BJP and RSS masquerading as the Government of India.

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