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Security of Pakistan’s Nuclear Weapons

Reshmi Kazi was Associate Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for profile
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  • November 29, 2007

    President Pervez Musharraf’s claim that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are safe as long as he is in charge has raised widespread speculation about the safety of Islamabad’s nuclear arsenal. Musharraf’s statement comes at a time when Pakistan is going through one of its worst period of domestic instability. While the Pakistani Army is ostensibly portrayed as the least corrupt institution within Islamabad, most of the officers are radically Islamized having links with terrorist organizations like the Jamaat-i-Islami, Lashkar-e-Toiba, Hizb-ul-Mujahiddeen, Harkat-ul-Mujahiddeen and Jaish-e-Mohammed. These groups share similar ideology with the Al Qaida and pro-Talibans. The Nuclear Threat Initiative in its latest commissioned report, ‘Securing the Bomb 2007’ has identified armed jihadi groups operating in POK having merged with Al Qaida and, as the report claims, have demonstrated their willingness to use nuclear weapons. The Pakistani Army having total control over the country’s nuclear weapons and increasingly getting indoctrinated by the Al Qaeda can spell cataclysmic circumstances not only for India but also for the entire world.

    The above contention has been disputed by many who regard the Pakistani Army as a safe bet. However, facts present a contrary view. President Musharraf has faced seven known assassination attempts in which military officers were involved. In a New York Times report of May 28, 2004, Pakistani military and intelligence officers were suspected of plotting to kill Musharraf. Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Ron Suskind in his book The One Percent Doctrine has penned that Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, the suspected mastermind of the 9/11 attacks was arrested in the “safe house” of a serving Pakistani military officer having close links to Jamaat-i-Islami. Reports further indicate the illegal trafficking of nuclear material and technology by AQ Khan was known to the Pakistani Army since the nuclear arsenals were under its control. The decipherable links between the Pakistani Army in charge of nuclear weapons and terrorist groups undoubtedly poses grave threat to the country’s nuclear security. These evidences starkly reflect the incompetence of the Army to ensure the safety and security of its nuclear assets. Musharraf’s assurances to the international community about the efficiency of the Pakistani Army in securing its nuclear weapons should thus be viewed with scepticism.

    The extremist organisations angered over the US-led war on terror and the consequent operations along the West Pakistan border are incessantly targeting the rank and file of the Pakistani Army to undermine support for Musharraf and weaken his position. With questionable loyalties within the army and sympathetic overtures to the cause of extremist groups, Musharraf can hardly vouch in favor of the Army to undertake responsibility for protecting Pakistan’s nukes.

    Pakistan has in place a C2 (command and control) system for its strategic forces based on C4I2SR (command, control, communication, computers, intelligence, information, surveillance and reconnaissance) since February 2000. However, doubts exist over the technical capabilities of the C4I2. There is also a general understanding and acceptance that there cannot be any foolproof C2 system as indicated by the recent unauthorised loading of six advanced cruise missiles armed with nuclear warheads on a US-based B-52 bomber that was flown for more than three hours over several states.

    Pakistan asserts that its warhead cores are physically separated from its detonation components. Concurrently, Islamabad claims that its weapons can be assembled quickly implying that though the weapons are de-mated, they are nonetheless collocated close to each other in an estimated six storage sites as reported by the Washington Post on November 11, 2007. Terrorist groups with proven intent can take advantage of the proximity and secure vital components like nuclear trigger devices. The physical security of Pak nukes gets further eroded when the nuclear devices and materials are transported from their original storage sites for routine testing and upgrading. Nuclear weapons and components held in extreme secrecy will become visible during such movements to an informed observer who can predict quite confidently the deployment sites of weapons.

    Pakistan’s nuclear arsenals face considerable threat from its scientific community as well. As documented evidences indicate, Pakistan’s top nuclear scientists – Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood and Chaudhry Abdul Majeed met Al Qaeda members on two occasions in 2000 and in 2001 and shared sensitive nuclear secrets. In the face of these dangerous revelations, the US responded with tens of millions of dollars worth of equipment ranging from helicopters, night-vision goggles, intrusion detectors and ID systems to help Pakistan secure its nuclear material, warheads and laboratories. However, the infamous AQ Khan Nuke-mart once again revealed the vulnerability of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.

    The US has categorically stated that Pakistan’s stockpile is safe. US Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice’s statement, “We have noted the problem, and we are prepared to try to deal with it….” in a January 2005 Congressional hearing is far from reassuring. By all counts, it appears that Washington is confident about the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and does not foresee any grave consequences. But that the nukes can fall into unauthorised hands is a possibility that cannot be brushed aside. Unlike the US nuclear weapons that are based upon the sophisticated Permissive Action Links (PALs), a system which has two separate electronic operators that requires enter codes to arm and launch nuclear warheads, Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are physically separated, i.e., the trigger is isolated from the weapon. However, they are no guarantees that the Pakistani nuclear custodians with jihadi outlook will simply switch allegiances and pass the sensitive materials that they guard to terrorists groups.

    The US claims of “contingency plans” to safeguard Pakistan’s nukes are also contentious. The plans at best refers to the hope that the Pakistani military officials will cooperate with Washington to exterminate any imminent threat. But this is merely a hope which can be always belied. Noteworthy enough, this cooperation lacks adequate trust and understanding between the Americans and the Pakistanis. The US has limited knowledge about the location of the arsenal that they have offered to protect. More so, Pakistan has refused US experts any direct access to the six bunker sites where the Pakistani nuclear arsenal of an estimated 50 nuclear bombs is located. Any attempt by the US to take control of these weapons would make the situation further complicated. This creates sufficient grounds of concern for the safety of Pakistan’s nukes in the world particularly in India because of the proximity in distance and rising terrorism.

    The US must refrain from conceding to face value assurances from Pakistan about the security of their nuclear arsenal. Several notable non-proliferation institutions have raised legitimate concerns about the dangers involved over loose nukes from Pakistan. The NTI in its report, ‘Securing the Bomb 2007’ has highlighted the presence of pro- Al Qaeda armed terrorist groups operating in Pakistan. The Pakistan Security Research Unit (University of Bradford) in its report dated November 18, 2007 has reiterated the inherent vulnerabilities in Pakistan’s nuclear security arrangements. With the deteriorating political situation persisting within Pakistan, the military can be stretched thin if the protest level rises and be unable to safeguard its nuclear assets.