"Eating Grass- The Making of the Pakistani Bomb" Launched in Silicon Valley
By Riaz Haq
Unlike most Western accounts of Pakistani nuclear program which begin and end with A.Q. Khan's network, Brig Feroz H. Khan's scholarly work "Eating Grass" offers a very comprehensive story of the "Making of The Pakistani Bomb". Feroz Khan takes the reader through the interdisciplinary nature and the inherent complexity of what it takes to develop, build and operationalize a nuclear weapons arsenal.
Setting the Record Straight
The standard Western and Indian narrative has us believe that A.Q. Khan stole the uranium enrichment technology and built the Pakistani atom bomb, and then proliferated it to Iran, Libya and North Korea. To put it in its right perspective, Feroz Khan explains that it takes at least 500 scientists and 1300 engineers with relevant training and skills to have a nuclear weapons program, according to a 1968 UN study . In a piece titled "Laser Isotope Enrichment - a new dimension to the nth country problem?", Dr Robert L. Bledsoe writes as follows: "A United Nations study conservatively estimates that at least 500 scientists and 1300 engineers are needed to develop and maintain warhead production facilities, and an additional 19,000 personnel (more than 5000 of them scientists and engineers) are required to produce delivery vehicles of the intermediate ballistic missile variety ".
Khan's book was launched in Silicon Valley at the Fremont Marriott, with about 100 invited guests, including this blogger, in attendance. The author was introduced by Ms Sabahat Rafique, a prominent local Pakistani-American. The author, currently a lecturer at Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, spoke briefly about the extensive research he undertook to write the book. He was joined by Prof Rifaat Husain, visiting scholar at Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation, to answer questions.
L to R: Sabahat Rafiq, Feroz Khan, Riaz Haq, and Yasmeen Haq at "Eating Grass" Book Launch
Human Capital Development
"Eating grass", published by Stanford University Press, traces the origins of Pakistani nuclear program to the work of Dr Rafi Mohammad Chaudhry in 1950s and of Dr Ishrat Husain Usmani in 1960s, both of whom were graduates of Aligarh Muslim University. Dr Chaudhry did his doctoral research in physics under the supervision of the famous British physicist Ernest Rutherford at Cambridge and Dr Usmani got his PhD in physics from the Imperial College, University of London, with Nobel Laureate Professor P.M.S. Blackett as his adviser. Along with Pakistani Nobel Laureate Dr Abdus Salam, Chaudhry and Usmani built laboratories and academic institutions and inspired generations of Pakistanis to study subjects in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields to produce the scientific and engineering talent for the young nation beginning in 1950s and 1960s.
Darra Adam Khel cottage industry making copies of sophisticated firearms is a testament to the reverse engineering prowess in Pakistan. Faced with multiple layers of sanctions, Pakistanis have now developed industrial scale reverse engineering capabilities. The best example of it is Pakistan's cruise missile Babur derived from a few US Tomahawks. Some of these missiles landed intact in Pakistani territory when Clinton ordered cruise missile attack on Bin Laden in August 1998 in response to USS Cole attack by Al Qaida.
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's Role
The title of the book "Eating Grass" alludes to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's famous quote "we will eat grass, even go hungry, but we will get one of our own (atom bomb). We have no other choice". Khan goes beyond the quote to highlight Bhutto's substantial role in promoting Pakistan's nuclear program in the 1960s. After India's humiliating defeat at the hands of the Chinese in 1962 and the Chinese nuclear test in 1964, Bhutto realized that India, too, would follow suit with a bomb of its own. He started lobbying with President Ayub Khan to start the bomb effort as early as mid-1960s. Ayub and most of his cabinet dismissed the idea but Bhutto remained committed to it and started taking modest steps toward building the scientific capability for it. As part of this effort, Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) and Pakistan's Institute of Nuclear Science and Technology (PINSTECH) were established in 1960s under the leadership of Dr. I.H. Usmani. These were followed by the construction of Karachi Nuclear Power Plant (KANUPP) in 1970s. These institutions became training grounds for thousands of engineers and scientists in Pakistan in the field of nuclear science and technology.
1971 India-Pakistan War
It was Pakistan's dismemberment after a humiliating defeat in India-Pakistan war of 1971 and India's first successful nuclear test in 1974 that, according to Khan, strengthened Pakistanis' resolve to weaponize the country's nuclear program. This new resolve gave strong impetus to expanding research and development activities and covert acquisition of a range of components necessary to build indigenous capability to produce nuclear warheads and delivery mechanisms. This was done in the face of strict international controls mandated by NPT and MTCR to control proliferation of nuclear and missile technologies.
Parallel covert efforts started with the establishment of a uranium enrichment facility at Kahuta which was headed by A.Q. Khan. A graduate of Karachi University Khan had been working on uranium enrichment in Europe for many years. He had the knowledge and the experience. He also had a wide range of contacts he had developed over the years in Europe which he used to establish a procurement network. A.Q. Khan succeeded in acquiring the components and building thousands of gas centrifuges to produce highly enriched uranium (HEU) well ahead of a similar plutonium (Pu) reprocessing program underway at PAEC.
The book explains that HEU from Khan Research Lab (KRL) alone was not enough to make a bomb. It was PAEC that did the R&D to metalize UF6 into bomb core, and designed and built trigger mechanism with specialized explosives, lenses and detonators. It also required lots of cold testing to test the bomb design before conducting hot tests.
May 1998 Nuclear Tests
Pakistan finally decided to go ahead with its atomic weapons tests in response to India's tests in May, 1998. It took only two weeks for Pakistan to do so after the Indian tests. Pakistan's then-prime minister Nawaz Sharif ordered the tests in the face of intense international pressure, particularly from the US President Bill Clinton who made multiple phone calls to Sharif asking him to refrain from it. The tests were followed by severe international sanctions led by the United States against Pakistan.
Ballistic and Cruise Missiles
In addition to the work on the bomb, both PAEC and KRL labs also pursued development of reliable delivery vehicles for nuclear warheads. While PAEC worked on solid fuel rockets based on Chinese M-11 design, KRL focused on liquid-fueled variety based North Korean Nodong, writes Khan in "Eating Grass". Khan says Pakistanis have also reverse engineered American Tomahawk cruise missile as part of their efforts to add stealth capability to hit targets deep inside India from air, land and sea.
Command and Control
Khan goes into the efforts made by Pakistan under President Musharraf since 2000 to put in place robust security of its nuclear assets and sophisticated command and control structures. A separate strategic command has been established to operationalize its nuclear weapons capability. And it is continuing to develop with changing needs.
Response to Indo-US Nuclear Deal
Khan claims in the book that there are eight Indian reactors exempted by US-India nuclear deal from IAEA safeguards leaving India free to process and accumulate 500 kg weapons-grade plutonium per year. In addition, India is rapidly expanding its HEU production for its nuclear submarine by adding thousands of centrifuges.
Pakistan has responded by increasing its plutonium production at its indigenously built Khushab reactor complex which is not covered by IAEA safeguards, according to Khan. KRL is also continuing to produce about 100 kg per year HEU with a new generation of P-3 and P-4 centrifuges at much higher separation rate.
Khan does not gloss over the severe damage done to Pakistan by AQ Khan's proliferation network and concerns raised by a meeting of Pakistani nuclear scientists Sultan Bashiruddin Mehmood and Abdul Majeed with Osama Bin Laden. He discusses at length how AQ Khan turned his procurement network into a proliferation network for personal profit. Musharraf saw the AQ Khan proliferation as the "most difficult thing to deal with". The author quotes Musharraf as saying, "(T)he public image of A.Q. Khan was that of a legend and father of the bomb. He certainly was a hero for his role and contribution to the nuclear program, but at the same time no other person brought so much harm to the nuclear program than him".
As to Mehmood and Majeed, Khan says that they designed Khushab reactors. Their expertise was in reactor design, not bomb-making, and they couldn't have helped Al Qaeda acquire a bomb. Nonetheless, they reinforced international suspicions about Pakistan's primarily defensive nuclear efforts.
Criticism of the Book:
As expected, the main criticism of the book has come from Indian reviewers. In a 500-page book, Indian critics have singled out a one-line citation by the author that on December 16, 1971, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi stood before the Indian Parliament and, amid a thunderous standing ovation, stated that India had “avenged several centuries of Hindu humiliation at the hands of Mughal emperors and sultans”. Khan has cited his reference for it as follows: V. Langer, The Defence and Foreign Policy of India (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers, 1998), 205. Cited in Sattar, Pakistan's Foreign Policy 1947-2005, 119.
Brig Feroz Khan's "Eating Grass" is an erudite work that offers the first authentic insider account of the making of the Pakistani bomb. It details a story of spectacular scientific and strategic achievement by a nation dismissed as a temporary "tent" and a "nissen hut" at birth by Viceroy Lord Mountbatten in 1947. That same "nissen hut" is now a nuclear power about which Brookings' Stephen Cohen has said as follows:
“One of the most important puzzles of India-Pakistan relations is not why the smaller Pakistan feels encircled and threatened, but why the larger India does. It would seem that India, seven times more populous than Pakistan and five times its size, and which defeated Pakistan in 1971, would feel more secure. This has not been the case and Pakistan remains deeply embedded in Indian thinking. There are historical, strategic, ideological, and domestic reasons why Pakistan remains the central obsession of much of the Indian strategic community, just as India remains Pakistan’s.”
Brig Feroz Khan concludes his book on a somber note by mentioning "massive corruption" and "stagflation" in the country he served. "Perhaps it never crossed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's mind that his words (eat grass...even go hungry) would become a self-fulfilling prophesy."