The Father of the Pakistani h-bomb has died, apparently from long-term complications from COVID-19.
I remember when the US and European powers were trying to make him out to be a bad guy, and maybe he was – but I suspect it’s more complicated than that. He seems to have been a fellow who did what he did, for his own reasons, and didn’t care much for what other people thought. He’s listed as “the father of the Pakistani bomb” but other sources such as Feroz Khan, the author of Eating Grass [wc] portray him more as a technological posturer like Steve Jobs who was good at organizing and framing projects but tended to bungie in and out where the cameras were running.
We’ll eat grass but build the bomb – Zulfikar Bhutto
In the 80s, the “AQ Khan Network” was a thing that was discussed in Washington intelligence circles, and Khan’s associates were blamed for a wide variety of proliferation activities. At the time I was skeptical and thought that it sounded more like the intelligence community trying to blame Khan for the fundamental inability to keep nuclear weapons processes secret. As Richard Feynman said, “there wasn’t a lot of theory, but it was a great deal of complicated engineering.” The big secret, as Feynman also said, was that it works at all.
To be fair, it does appear that Khan’s Pakistani RP-1 centrifugal enrichment device did get around – the Libyans and Iranians both, at various times, had centrifuge cascades bought or designed after the Pakistani model. But, as you can see from the illustration above, the cat has exited the bag a long time ago.
The story I read, somewhere, was that A Q Khan learned his uranium enrichment as a young scientist, working for Siemens AG in Germany and simply took that knowledge home with him and built a simpler, cheaper, version of what Siemens used. If that’s the case, it’s always a case of engineering brilliance to simplify someone else’s design, but it’s hardly being an inventor. Should we say that Siemens were the proliferators, or Khan? It’s complicated, which is appropriate because A Q Khan led a complicated life.
It’s easy to say that the world doesn’t need more nuclear weapons, and I think that’s true as far as it goes. But the problem is that what the world really doesn’t need is more nuclear weapons under the control of powerful states that are likely to start wars with them. The Pakistanis’ development of their bomb was a make-or-break project wherein they felt they were going to be subjected to endless nuclear blackmail by India if they were not able to establish a credible deterrent. They were probably right, as far as that goes – India, like the US, was fond of teasing the use of nuclear weapons whenever they encountered a stumbling-block, and they might have proven unable to resist the temptation. Nowadays that certainly is not an option – the Pakistanis would blow up Mumbai and Calcutta in response and cause inconceivable suffering.
When I think about the nuclear standoff between Pakistan and India I sometimes think that proliferating to weaker states is not a bad idea. The problem is that, since those states are weaker, they are more likely to lose control of their weapons, too. Pakistan is not exactly politically stable (… says the American, sitting in his nation that is also not exactly politically stable)
By the way, it was the USSR that proliferated nuclear tech to N. Korea, not Pakistan. It was those ever-apologetic Canadians who proliferated nuclear tech to India. So, spare me all the hand-wringing about what a bad guy A Q Khan was.
Also, by the way, an enrichment centrifuge is a really incredible piece of engineering. First off, it’s got to withstand highly corrosive uranium hexaflouride, while magnetically levitated and spinning at close to (just above or below) the speed of sound. All that stuff about the Iraqi “steel tubes” that the US was peeing itself over: they’re made of teflon and carbon fiber nowadays and the US analysts who were humping the steel tube conspiracy knew they were lying while they did it. There is an amazing/scary account in Eating Grass of when the Pakistanis fired up their first full centrifuge array and started getting atoms of plutonium coming out the other side – and, shortly thereafter, the array happened to be right in the middle of an earthquake. I can’t imagine what the clean-up was like – the centrifuges were knocked off their axes at full spin, and crashed into eachother, exploding like bombs. Bombs full of uranium hexaflouride.