Pakistan is on the verge of overtaking Britain as the world's fifth largest nuclear power at a time when the country faces an unprecedented threat from extremists. American intelligence agencies believe that Pakistan now has more than 100 deployed nuclear weapons, an increase of nearly 40 per cent in two years. It means that one of the countries considered the most unstable in the region is ahead of both Britain and, significantly arch-rival India, to own the fifth largest nuclear arsenal behind the United States, Russia, France and China.
Pakistan showed they had nuclear weapons after their display three years ago though President Asif Ali Zardari could face questions as to how the country can afford to keep investing in weapons.
The Pakistan military says it needs more nuclear weapons to counter and deter India's more conventional military might. The two countries conducted nuclear tests in 1998, and have fought three wars since partition and independence in 1947. The U.S. analysis is based on the recent increase in the production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium and some experts put the figure for nuclear weapons as high as 110.
Many of these have been miniaturised to be mounted on ballistic missiles with ranges of more than 1,245 miles bringing many Indian cities within reach. The weapons have been kept at depots all over Pakistan - some are said to be near the main air bases. The revelation of the growing size of its nuclear weapons will throw the spotlight on the massive aid packages given to Islamabad by the West, especially the U.S..
It will also raise questions about how the beleaguered administration of President Asif Ali Zardari can justify spending on nuclear weapons when so many in his country live in poverty and appalling conditions. Last year millions was raised worldwide by charities for victims of Pakistan's devastating floods.
There have been concerns, too, that some working within the nuclear programme are sympathetic to Al Qaeda - following the 9/11 attacks on the U.S., several Pakistani scientists were arrested for alleged links to the terror network. Pakistan's first nuclear reactor was established with the help of the U.S. in 1965 and a nuclear weapons programme was launched in 1974 as India and Pakistan competed in a south Asian arms race