Pakistan’s Evolving Nuclear Weapons Infrastructure
By Hans M. Kristensen
In our latest Nuclear Notebook on Pakistani nuclear forces, Robert Norris and I estimate that Pakistan has produced an estimated stockpile of 130-140 nuclear warheads for delivery by short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and fighter-bombers.
Pakistan now identifies with what is described as a full-spectrum nuclear deterrent posture, which is though to include strategic missiles and fighter-bombers for so-called retaliatory strikes in response to nuclear attacks, and short-range missiles for sub-strategic use in response to conventional attacks.
Although there have been many rumors over the years, the location of the nuclear-capable launchers has largely evaded the public eye for much of Pakistan’s 19-year old declared nuclear weapons history. Most public analysis has focused on the nuclear industry (see here for a useful recent study). But over the past several years, commercial satellite pictures have gradually brought into light several facilities that might form part of Pakistan’s evolving nuclear weapons launcher posture.
This includes 10 facilities, including 5 missile garrisons (soon possibly 6) as well 2 (possibly 4) air bases with fighter-bombers.
The nuclear warheads that would arm the launchers are thought to be stored at other secure facilities that have not yet been identified. In a crisis, these warheads would first have to be brought to the bases and mated with the launchers before they could be used.
Security at these and other Pakistani defense facilities is a growing concern and many have been upgraded with additional security perimeters during the past 10 years in response to terrorist attacks.
There are still many unknowns and uncertainties about the possible nuclear role of these facilities. All of the launchers are thought to be dual-capable, which means they can deliver both conventional and nuclear warheads. So even if a base has a nuclear role, most of the launchers might be assigned to the conventional mission. Further analysis in the future might disqualify some and identify others. But for now, this profile of potential road-mobile launcher garrisons and air bases are intended as a preliminary guide and accompany the recent FAS Nuclear Notebook on Pakistani nuclear forces.
Nuclear-Capable Road-Mobile Missile Launcher Bases
The total number and location of Pakistan’s nuclear-capable missile bases is not known. But analysis of commercial satellite photos has identified features that suggest that at least five bases might serve a role in Pakistan’s emerging nuclear posture. This includes army garrisons at Akro (Petaro), Gujranwala, Khuzdar, Pano Aqil, and Sargodha. A sixth base at Bahawalpur (29.2829, 71.7955) may be under construction. There is also a seventh base near Dera Ghazi Khan (29.9117, 70.4922), but the infrastructure is very different and not yet convincing.
An obvious difficulty in identifying nuclear missile bases is that the infrastructure is not yet publicly known, that commercial satellite photos do not have sufficient resolution to positively identify nuclear-capable launchers with certainty (especially smaller shorter-range types), that all launchers are dual-capable (not all bases with a certain launcher may have a nuclear role; and not all nuclear-capable launchers at a particular base may be assigned nuclear warheads), and that Pakistan (like other nuclear-armed states) most likely is engaged in considerable efforts to conceal and confuse identification of nuclear launchers.
With these caveats, here is a description with images of what we consider to be the five primary nuclear-capable bases and the primary TEL (Transporter Erector Launcher) production facility in Pakistan:
Akro Garrison: This base is located (25.5483, 68.3343) approximately 18 km (11 miles) north of Hyderabad between Akro and Petaro in the southern part of the Sindh Province approximately 145 kms (90 miles) from the Indian border. The garrison covers an area of 6.9 square kms (2.7 square miles) and has been expanded significantly since 2004 (the base was first pointed out to me by Martin Bulla, a German amateur satellite imagery enthusiast). The Akro Garrison includes a unique underground facility located under what appears to be a missile TEL garage complex. The underground facility consists of two star-shaped sections located along a central corridor that connects to two buildings with covered access ramps. The six TEL garages appear to be designed for 12 launchers.
It is not possible to identify the suspected launchers in the TEL complex from the available photos. But analysis of a vehicle training area in the northeast corner of the garrison shows what appears to be five-axel TELs for the Babur cruise missile weapon system.
In a hypothetical crisis the launchers presumably would load their complement of missiles at the base and disperse outside to predetermined launch locations in the region. The range of the Babur is uncertain; NASIC reports it as 350 km (217 miles) while the Pakistan government claims a range of more than 500 kms (373 miles), sometimes as much as 700 kms (435 miles). The Akro unit would be able to defend all of the southeastern part of Pakistan, including Karachi.
Gujranwala Garrison: This sprawling base complex covers an area of approximately 30 square kms (11.5 square miles) and is located (32.2410, 74.0730) in the northeastern part of the Punjab Province approximately 60 kms (37 miles) from the Indian border. Since 2010, the base has added what appears to be a TEL launcher area in the western part of the complex. There is also what appears to be a technical area for servicing the launchers. The TEL area became operational in 2014 or 2015. The TEL area appears to be made up of two identical sections (each consisting of launcher garages, a weapons loading hall, and a weapons storage igloo), each similar in design to the TEL area at Pano Aqil. The security perimeter appears to have room for a third TEL section. (This and other facilities have also been spotted by https://twitter.com/rajfortyseven.)
Several trucks have been seen on the satellite pictures that strongly resemble the NASR short-range missile launcher. It is impossible to identify the launchers with certainty due to the relatively poor quality of the pictures (the launchers could potentially also be multiple rocket launchers), but the resemblance is strong with a drivers cabin, a power and hydraulics unit, and a twin box launcher seen on NASR test launch photos published by the Pakistan military. The range of the NASR is equal to the base’s distance from the Indian border.
Khuzdar Garrison: Of the missile garrisons located so far, the Khuzdar Garrison some 220 kms (136 miles) west of Sukkur in south-east Balochistan Province is the one located (27.7222, 66.6241) the farthest from the Indian border (295 kms or 183 miles). The base is split in two sections: a northern section and a southern section (where the TELs are based).
Possible launchers have not been seen and identified in Khuzdar photos, but the TEL garages are longer than at all the other bases except the Sargodha Garrison. This could potentially be a base for Shaheen-2 medium-range missile launchers.
The TEL area includes what appears to be an underground facility similar to the one identified at the Akro Garrison. It consists of two buildings on covered access ramps that probably provide TEL access to an underground weapons storage and handling facility.
Khuzdar appears to also have a second underground facility approximately 600 meters (1,800 feet) east of the TEL area. This facility has roughly the same overall dimensions as the suspected underground facility between the access ramps inside the TEL area, but the second facility has no TEL facilities on top of it and does not appear to have clear access points. One potential possibility is that this facility may be intended for a second TEL area in the future.
Pano Aqil Garrison: The Pano Aqil Garrison is split up in several sections that cover a combined area of nearly 20 square kms (7.7 square miles). This includes the main garrison area, a TEL area (27.8328, 69.1575), a munitions depot, an airfield, and a shooting range. The base is located approximately 80 kms (50 miles) from the Indian border in the northern part of the Sindh Province.
The TEL area is located 1.8 kms (1.2 miles) northeast of the main garrison and includes five TEL garages (a sixth is under construction) and a service building. At the north end of the facility are located a weapons storage igloo and a weapons handling hall. The layout of the TEL area is similar to the Gujranwala Garrison (which appears to have twice the capacity). The five TEL garages can potentially hold 25 TELs although some of the spaces are probably used by support vehicles.
Identification of TEL type is difficult due to the relatively poor quality of the satellite pictures, but it could potentially be NASR, Shaheen-1 or Ghaznavi short-range missile launchers.
Sargodha Garrison: The large munitions storage depot at Sargodha has long been rumored to include TEL garages. The facilities date back to the mid-1990s when Pakistan was first reported to have acquired M-11 missiles from China (DF-11 or CSS-7), which was used to produce what is now known as Pakistan’s Ghaznavi and Shaheen-1 short-range ballistic missiles. But the garages (31.9722, 72.6838) at Sargodha are nearly twice the size that would be needed by short-range Ghaznavi and Shaheen-1 launchers and seem better sized for medium-range Ghauri or Shaheen-2 launchers. There appear to be 10 TEL garages plus two garages with different dimensions that might be used for maintenance.
Yet the Sargodha complex has less of the type of infrastructure seen at other potential TEL bases. Much of the infrastructure seen might be used by personnel that maintain the large weapons depot itself. Whatever the large garages are used for, they are currently being upgraded and additional infrastructure is being added.
The Sargodha complex also includes several underground facilities, including a section with two large buildings that could potentially be missile handling halls. Additional tunnels are under construction.
National Development Complex: Several of the TEL types seen or suspected at the different missile garrisons are assembled at the National Development Complex (sometimes called National Defense Complex), or NDC. It consists of a string of facilities scattered across the Kala-Chitta Mountain Range west of Islamabad. But the heart of the complex is the TEL assembly section north of Fateh Jang (33.6292, 72.7106). NDC reportedly emerged in the mid-1990s to produce Gazhnavi and Shaheen-1 short-range ballistic missiles based on technology supplied by China.
Since then NDC has expanded considerably to include facilities west and east of the central TEL assembly area. The central area has expanded considerably since 2003, with the addition of a TEL truck assembly facility as well as three large high-bay TEL assembly halls for mounting missile compartments onto TEL trucks. For the past ten years, these facilities have been busy producing Shaheen-2 medium-range ballistic missile launchers and Babur ground-launched cruise missile launchers.
Satellite pictures give an example of the flow of production of different TEL types at NDC and also provide valuable reference points for comparing dimensions of TELs seen at individual missile garrisons. Several pictures from 2016, for example, show both 6-axel Shaheen-2 TELs and 5-axel Babur TELs, and possibly also 4-axel Shaheen-1 TELs, in the process of assembly or maintenance. The 8-axel Shaheen-3 TEL has not yet been seen as this weapon system is still very early in production and not yet operationally deployed.
Pakistan has a large number of air bases but only a small number is thought to be involved in the nuclear mission. This includes bases with Mirage and F-16 fighter-bombers. United States officials have stated that F-16s were sold to Pakistan on the conditions that they could not be uses to deliver nuclear weapons, but other sources have indicated that some of the planes were converted nonetheless. French-produced Mirage aircraft are widely assumed to be equipped to deliver the Ra’ad air-launched cruise missile.
Masroor Air Base: This base is located (24.8855, 66.9280) west of the city of Karachi and has long been suspected of serving a role in Pakistan’s airborne nuclear deterrent. The base is home to the 32nd Fighter Wing with Mirage fighter-bombers and is located only 5 kms (3 miles) from a potential nuclear weapons storage site (24.9429, 66.9083).
Over the past decade, unique facilities have been construction at Masroor Air Base that might potentially form part of Pakistan’s nuclear posture. This includes a large underground facility that is located inside a high-security area. The purpose of the facility has not been confirmed and could potentially also involve command and control. Yet the facility is clearly unique compared with other Air Bases and might potentially serve as an underground nuclear weapons storage and handling facility. (Update: the underground facility is possibly a command center.)
Another unique facility at Masroor Air Base is a hardened aircraft shelter connected by an underground tunnel to what appears to be a weapons storage facility. The purpose of this facility (first spotted by https://twitter.com/rajfortyseven) is unknown but could potentially be designed to enable concealed nuclear weapons loading of Mirage fighter-bombers.
It should be emphasized that despite the interesting features of some of the facilities at Masroor Air Base, there is no official publicly available information that explicitly identifies them as nuclear.
Mushaf Air Base: One of Pakistan’s oldest suspected nuclear-capable air bases is Mushaf Air Base located (32.0431, 72.6710) near Sargodha in the Punjab Province. The base is the home of the 38th Wing with F-16 squadrons that have long been suspected of forming part of Pakistan’s air-borne nuclear deterrent.
One pair of hardened aircraft shelters at the base are located inside an area with additional security perimeter but there is little visible evidence of nuclear facilities at the base. The munitions storage area shows no unique structures that suggest a nuclear weapons storage role.
Instead, nuclear bombs for the F-16s at Mushaf Air Base might be stored at the nearby Sargodha weapons storage facility less than 10 kms (6 miles) to the south.
Others Air Bases: There are a couple of other Mirage and F-16 Air Bases that could potentially also serve a role as part of Pakistan’s airborne nuclear strike mission. This includes the Mirage-equipped base at Rafiqui (30.7580, 72.2822), which has been upgrade over the past three years. The F-16 base at Shahbaz (28.2825, 68.4506) has been upgraded considerably to accommodate the new F-16s (Block 52).
These and other bases could potentially serve a dispersal bases for Mirage and F-16 nuclear-capable bombers. But there is little visible physical evidence to suggest they serve a nuclear role. Likewise, Kamra (Minhas) Air Base (33.8697, 72.4004) has often been suspected to have a nuclear role but appears to serve as conversion facility for aircraft.
Conclusions and Implications
Commercial satellite pictures provide new information about Pakistan’s emerging nuclear weapons posture that includes missile garrisons for short-range nuclear-capable missiles, unique underground facilities potentially intended for nuclear weapons storage, and air bases with possible nuclear-related facilities.
The tactical nuclear-capable launchers do not present a strategic threat to India due to their short range, but their introduction into the Pakistani armed forces raises important questions about early dispersal of nuclear warheads and launch authority in a crisis as well as potential earlier use of nuclear weapons in a conflict with India.
We estimate that Pakistan currently has a stockpile of 130-140 nuclear warheads and is building more. But we also take note of statements by some Pakistan officials that the country might not intend to continue to increase it arsenal indefinitely but may soon reach the goal for the size of its full-spectrum deterrent. Whether and when that will happen remains to be seen. For now the Pakistani arsenal is in a dynamic phase.
- FAS Nuclear Notebook: Pakistani Nuclear Forces, 2016
- Pakistan’s Strategic Nuclear and Missile Industries
This publication was made possible by a grant from the New Land Foundation and Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.
The FAS Nuclear Notebook is one of the most widely sourced reference materials worldwide for reliable information about the status of nuclear weapons, and has been published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists since 1987.. The Nuclear Notebook is researched and written by the staff of the Federation of American Scientists’ Nuclear Information Project: Director Hans […]
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