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Holes in Pak nuke net?
It may still take Pakistan decades to surpass France as the fourth-largest nuclear power as nuclear potency is not just about the number of warheads but also the number and quality of its delivery systems. The audacious Taliban attack on the Mehran naval air base in Karachi, though, has given rise to fears, almost bordering on paranoia, that some of Pakistan's nukes (estimated at around 100 warheads) and copious fissile material reserves could be seized by jihadist elements.
Are Pakistan's nuclear weapons safe? Can the US, which has for long been tracking all suspicious shipments to Pakistan (as revealed in Wikileaks cables recently), secure its nuclear facilities? And if there indeed is a concerted, US-led attempt to secure Pakistan's nukes, what are the chances of its success? These are some of the questions which people all over the world are asking. India's concerns are manifold because it is the Kashmir-centric Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), going by several intelligence inputs in the past, which has shown the propensity to acquire CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear) materials and weapons.
While agreeing that security of Pakistan's plutonium-based weapons and fissile material is a serious issue, some of the world's foremost nuclear and terrorism experts says it is the steadfastness of its government and infamous army generals in not revealing even the location of all nuclear weapon storage sites that is stopping attempts to secure them. Federation of American Scientists' Nuclear Information Project director Hans Kristensen told TOI-Crest the US might already have provided some assistance to Pakistan but without much success. "I suspect that there has been some assistance provided to increase security at some facilities, but this effort is probably hampered by the fact that the Pakistani government most likely does not want to tell the United States at which facilities it stores its nuclear weapons," he says.
Bruce Riedel, former CIA officer and counter-terrorism expert at the prestigious Brookings Institution, was more direct. "Pakistan's generals do everything they can to ensure that the US does not know where all of their nuclear weapons are stored and deployed. These are the crown jewels of the Pakistani national security establishment and it is very careful to keep them concealed and to practice denial and deception to prevent any foreign intelligence service from finding them, " he says, adding that it was actually a "fantasy" to think US can secure Pakistan's nuclear arsenal in a crisis.
Riedel, who earlier helped President Barack Obama review his Af-Pak policy, went on to say that the Abbottabad raid which killed Osama bin Laden had, ironically, only underscored and reinforced Pakistani paranoia about American plots to grab their nukes. "So the army is certain to be even more careful in keeping its jewels hidden from American and Indian intelligence collectors, " he says. From whatever little is known, some of these storage bunkers are in the western part of the country, now heavily infested by jihadis.
It is perhaps worth pondering whether or not there is any difference in security measures at a weapons storage centre and a military base like Mehran. Unlike a regular military base, weapon bunkers are mostly located in isolated areas and are controlled by the Pakistan army's strategic plans division. The army claims that it follows the international command and control protocol in protecting these weapons and that each of these centres is guarded by thousands of heavily armed soldiers. Those working are said to be subjected to intense scrutiny, including moral and psychological tests, by army intelligence.
Former Pakistan Air Vice Marshal Shahzad Chaudhry attributed the disaster at the naval base to what he described as organisational inertia, or a problem with larger organisations. "India and Pakistan both have similar organisations and organisational ethos as people and society. I will not doubt the Indian capacity to know what is more important, and I would grant a similar level of awareness to the Pakistanis, " Chaudhry says, talking to this paper.
Despite the measures being taken by Pakistan, there is always the threat of complicity between insiders, Islamist jihad sympathisers within the Pakistan army and those working in the nuclear establishment, and jihadi operatives looking out for weapons or fissile material. Pakistan may also want to constantly shift its weapon storage centres from one place to another to not allow the US to strike them in a crisis. But keeping the nukes at the same place for too long in the western region makes them susceptible to attacks. In the case of another Mumbai-like attack, Pakistan can be expected to rapidly, and desperately, shift some of its low-intensity or tactical nuclear weapons to the eastern periphery to prevent any Indian incursion into Pakistani territory under India's recently formulated, but ambiguous, cold start doctrine.
There is no doubt Pakistan will further augment physical security at all storage sites, as it keeps assuring the Americans, to repel any attack, but the threat of theft still exists. There is also talk about the US using PAL, or permissive action link, an electronic device meant to prevent unauthorised detonation, to stop the use of nukes. But it can't stop fissile material and other components from reaching the likes of Taliban, LeT and al-Qaida. If the world is concerned, India must surely panic. Or should it?
Short of Pakistan breaking up as a nation or some well-organised cell within the military stealing or selling a weapon, says Kristensen, the risk of theft is probably very limited. "The Mehran attack raises the question of whether terrorists could fight their way into a nuclear weapons facility, but even if they were able to get in they would still need to get into the warhead bunkers themselves and be able to leave the facility again with the weapon, " he says. In addition, the weapons themselves are probably not stored in a fully functioning configuration and are equipped with some form of usecontrol mechanisms. So, even if someone ran off with a weapon they most likely would not be able to use it.
"They could potentially use the fissile material to try to make their own nuclear bomb, but terrorists don't have the industrial skills to do that. More likely is that they could use the fissile material to create a "dirty" bomb that could spread radioactive materials, " Kristensen says. But, he adds, it would be a great deal easier to steal radioactive materials from the nuclear industry than trying to break into a nuclear weapons storage site.
There are many who believe that if the situation in Pakistan deteriorates further, the US will have no option but to take out nuclear weapons through surgical strikes. According to Chaudhry, Washington realises Pakistan's sensitivities and will never venture into something as "horrendous".
"I only hope India does not find it opportune to raise the bogey of nuclear assets in Pakistan to partake of what clearly is a difficult time for Pakistan," says Chaudhry. For now, as he says, Pakistan will continue to treat its nuclear capability with utmost priority.
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