WASHINGTON, Aug 25: Pakistan has between 24 and 48 nuclear weapons made from enriched uranium and perhaps three to five more powerful plutonium-based weapons, estimates the Federation of American Scientists (FAS).

In a recent report, the official Voice of America radio quoted FAS estimates of nuclear arsenals in South Asia, which showed India as possessing 30 to 35 nuclear bombs and warheads, far less than similar estimates by other organisations.

FAS is a non-profit organisation formed in 1945 by scientists from the Manhattan Project who built America’s first nuclear bomb. Endorsed by 68 Nobel Laureates, FAS now focuses on preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Paul Leventhal, a nuclear weapons analyst, at the independent Nuclear Control Institute in Washington, said that Pakistan was “working on significantly increasing its ability to produce plutonium for weapons”.

Corey Hinderstein of the Nuclear Threat Initiative monitoring group in Washington said that Pakistan’s desire to maintain a military parity with India “motivates … its quest for a larger atomic arsenal”.

“The Pakistanis have been behind India in their strategic arsenal of nuclear weapons. And they’ve been trying to catch up,” she said.

“Part of that is to achieve some sort of strategic parity. But also, there are domestic and regional audiences, and the Pakistanis need to show their own population that they’re not falling behind India.”

“If a nation’s nuclear weapons are to serve as a deterrent against an attack, there has to be a way to make good on the threat to use them,” notes the VOA report while explaining Pakistan’s efforts to improve its weapons delivery system.

India has weapons-capable aircraft and several types of ballistic missiles, including one that can carry 1,000 kilogram payload some 2,500 kilometres, the report adds.

“In contrast, Pakistan’s nuclear weapons delivery systems are more limited,” Michael Levi, with the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, said.

“Pakistan is certainly capable of attempting to deliver a nuclear weapon by aircraft. As far as missile delivery goes, it’s unclear what their capabilities are, but they are probably not able to have a significant missile delivery,” said Mr Levi. “It probably has the capability to deliver something by truck, though that’s a bit trickier to do.”

Mr Levi also made a surprising revelation claiming that part of Pakistan’s nuclear war strategy might be to ‘detonate atomic weapons on its own soil to slow or halt an advance by India’s army.”

Corey Hinderstein at the Nuclear Threat Initiative suggested that the US needs to make nuclear safeguards a top priority in its relations with Pakistan.

“When it comes to Pakistan, it has never been the first item on the agenda (between Washington and Islamabad),” said Ms Hinderstein. “And unless it is, we (the United States) are not going to be able to exert influence on (President Gen Pervez) Musharraf, or on any Pakistani regime, to take seriously the risk of leakage or theft of their nuclear materials.”