How safe are Pakistan’s nuclear weapons?

Increasing urban terrorism and uncontrollable radical extremism in the tribal areas in NWFP and FATA in the tribal areas in the north-west have contributed to the unstable political and internal security situation in Pakistan. The ongoing crisis can be attributed to the resurgence of fundamentalist forces and the army’s inability to fight them effectively. Consequently, the world faces the spectre of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorist organisations. Western commentators have begun to call for contingency plans to physically secure or destroy the nuclear warheads in the event of a meltdown in the country. The seriousness of the threat of nuclear weapons falling into the wrong hands and the feasibility of successful intervention to secure or destroy these, need to be analysed in detail.

Grave Danger of Physical Possession 

The possession of nuclear weapons by Islamist fundamentalist terrorists will pose a grave danger to international security. The al Qaeda has declared war on the United States (US) and it allies and Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri are known to have made attempts to buy nuclear warheads. Whether the al Qaeda leadership will actually detonate nuclear warheads over civilian targets or plan to use them for coercion can only be speculated upon; however, given their predilection for senseless terrorist strikes, they are unlikely to be averse to actually exploding a bomb or two to achieve their nefarious goals. Among Pakistan’s neighbouring countries, India will be particularly vulnerable if hard-line LeT or JeM terrorists and their al Qaeda and Taliban brothers ever lay their hands on Pakistan’s nuclear warheads. India is one of the nations that the al Qaeda has named as an enemy. Being a contiguous land neighbour, it is also easier to target even if sophisticated delivery systems like ballistic missiles are not available.

Islamist terrorists can gain possession of nuclear warheads by physically breaching the security ring around them, by subverting the personnel on guard duty or if they succeed in overthrowing the regime in power in Islamabad through a coup with support from radical elements within the Pakistan army. The Pakistani military authorities are extremely concerned about such eventualities and have made elaborate arrangements to ensure that all their nuclear warheads are stored safely. General Musharraf and his lieutenants had reiterated several times that Pakistan’s nuclear warheads are safe and are in no danger of falling into the hands of radical extremists. They had claimed that carefully formulated personnel reliability policies and electronic safety mechanisms have been developed and incorporated by Pakistan’s Nuclear Command Authority (NCA). Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a recent statement: “As a responsible nuclear weapon state Pakistan has always attached great significance to the security of its strategic assets. These assets are completely safe and secure under multi-layered security and Command and Control structures that are fully indigenous.”

Pakistan’s nuclear warheads (about 60 to 80 in number) are reported to be stored at six to eight separate locations. The warheads are stored separately from the launchers so as to guard against accidents and unauthorised use. Kenneth M. Luongo and Naeem Salik have written that the warheads are equipped with electronic locks (Permissive Action Links). A three-tier security system has been instituted for the physical protection of the various components of the warheads. The fissionable atomic core made of highly enriched uranium and the high explosive trigger assembly are handled only by the respective agencies and are in their custody. These are stored in fortified underground storage sites. Entry and exit into these “bunkers” is controlled by armed and well-equipped specially selected and meticulously trained personnel of the Security Directorate of the Strategic Plans Division (SPD). These personnel form the second tier. As part of the Personnel Reliability Programme (PRP), these personnel are screened carefully before induction, are kept under constant surveillance and are frequently rotated. 

The third tier comprises a well-guarded and fortified perimeter fence with strictly controlled entry. Most of these sites have air defence assets allotted to them to defend against attacks from the air. Personnel selected for the security of the outer perimeter are reported to belong to elite infantry battalions of the Pakistan army. The possibility of any of these personnel being subverted is guarded against by counter-intelligence teams who keep them under constant surveillance. Military regimes have very strong survival instincts and the Musharraf regime had ensured that hard-line radical elements are ruthlessly weeded out from the nuclear security detail. Hence, it can be concluded that if some rogue elements were to try to gain control over the nuclear warheads, they would have to be prepared to fight their way through several layers of highly motivated personnel who are armed to the teeth. 

The delivery systems of Pakistan’s Strategic Forces Command, comprising Chinese supplied M-11 and M-9 and the North Korean Nodong and Taepo Dong nuclear-capable surface-to-surface missiles and their launchers, are also based at well dispersed locations. They are well defended against possible commando raids. In the improbable eventuality that radical hard-liners take over Pakistan in the near future, their rag-tag fighters will have to fight the elite army guards to the bitter end before they can lay their hands on the delivery systems. A terrorist organisation must get hold of both a nuclear warhead and a launch system and must acquire the expertise to mate the warhead with the launcher. Or, it must smuggle a warhead undetected to the target and somehow break the electronic code to activate it. These are all extremely complex challenges as highly sophisticated expertise is required to test, mate, activate and launch a nuclear warhead.

Commando Strikes

Soon after General Musharraf’s military coup in October 1999, reports of joint US-Israel plans to seize control of Pakistan's nuclear weapons had made headlines the world over. Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh of Watergate fame had written in The New Yorker that commandos of Israel's elite Unit 262 and US Special Forces had been rehearsing plans to prevent Pakistan's nuclear warheads from falling into the hands of Islamist fundamentalists within and outside the Pakistan army (“Watching the Warheads,” The New Yorker, November 5, 2001). It had even been speculated that India would willingly provide logistics support for such a venture (Steven Mufson, “U.S. Worries about Pakistan Nuclear Arms”, Washington Post, November 4, 2001). These reports continued to circulate for many years.

Similar stories have again been appearing in the media, particularly the Western press. Contingency plans are reported to exist for the Special Forces to “take out” or “secure” Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, even though it is acknowledged that it is a complex and daunting challenge. Thomas E. Ricks quotes retired Marine Colonel Gary Anderson as having said: "The bottom line is, it's the nightmare scenario... It (Pakistan) has loose nukes, hard to find, potentially in the hands of Islamic extremists, and there aren't a lot of good military options." Planners in the Pentagon sometimes fail to appreciate that even though Pakistan is bleeding from serious blows struck by the Frankenstein monster of radical extremism, it still has a professionally trained combat-ready army that will fight tooth and nail to defend Pakistan’s strategic assets against foreign intervention. Hence, a joint US-Israel commando operation to secure or take out Pakistan's nuclear warheads in the event of a serious crisis is a far-fetched idea that does not have even a remote chance of succeeding. 

There is a possibility that an Islamist fundamentalist regime might overthrow the civilian government with support from a radicalised faction of the army. In such an eventuality, the US and its allies may justifiably form another ‘coalition of the willing’ to bomb the nuclear warhead storage sites in Pakistan from the air. The coalition forces could employ cruise missiles and fighter-bombers from stand-off ranges to physically destroy the warheads with deep penetration bombs. Several repeat bombing runs would be required after strike damage assessment and even then there will be no guarantee that all the warheads have been destroyed or rendered ineffective. In fact, a non-kinetic option that employs high-energy microwaves to “fry” the electronic circuitry of the nuclear warheads may also be considered, either in conjunction with physical destruction of the warheads or as a stand alone strike. These options presuppose that accurate information of the locations of all the warhead storage sites would be available in advance for accurate targeting. The intelligence fiasco about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and other recent revelations do not generate confidence that this might be so. 

Some Pakistani commentators have been scathing in their criticism of Western doubts about the safety and security of Pakistan’s nuclear warheads. Adnan Gill has called it mass hysteria and loose talk. However, others like Farah Zahra make out a case for bolstering Pakistan’s nuclear safety. Indian political leaders and analysts have shown restraint in commenting on Pakistan’s nuclear worries. Former National Security Advisor, M K Narayanan, had rated the probability of Pakistan’s nuclear warheads falling into the hands of extremist elements as remote. Bharat Karnad laments the lack of Indian capability to intervene deep inside Pakistan if it becomes necessary to do so: “The Indian Army has ten Special Forces (SF) battalions, four of them parachute commando, but absolutely no capability to inject commando teams deep into Pakistan via high-altitude air-drop or by helicopters flying extremely fast and low to avoid Pakistani radar.” It is a moot point whether a weak coalition government in India will have the political courage to join a coalition of the willing to secure or destroy Pakistan’s nuclear warheads.

Nuclear Terrorism 

The clear and present danger, however, and one that continues to be underestimated, is from nuclear terrorism. Terrorist organisations may assemble radiological dispersal devices (RDDs) – ‘dirty bombs’ in which high explosives (RDX or TNT) are used to blow up and scatter uranium or other radioactive materials over a densely populated area, or to pollute a major water source. Crude RDDs do not require a very high degree of technological sophistication and can be assembled quite easily. Spent nuclear fuel rods that are stolen and commercial radiation waste from cancer facilities in large hospitals and irradiation centres, such as Cobalt 60, could be used. Though such dirty bombs will not cause horrendous casualties initially, they will cause long-term damage from residual nuclear radiation. They will also serve to create a fear psychosis that will add to the paranoia that has already got a deep hold over ordinary people in this age of terrorism. If there is even the slightest suspicion that the terrorist organisation that orchestrated the attack had the backing of a state, an RDD strike could set into motion a chain of events that may eventually lead to an inter-state conflict. It is imperative that commercial nuclear materials are also stored safely and are fully accounted for at all times.

Another area of concern is that one or more Pakistani nuclear scientists with fundamentalist inclinations may have volunteered to work for the al Qaeda, as has been reported off and on over the last few years. Three Pakistani nuclear scientists were arrested and handed over to US intelligence agencies for questioning in 2001. Two of the three were senior scientists who had set up an NGO called Ummah Tameer-e-Nau (Reconstruction of the Muslim Ummah) in Afghanistan after retirement. This NGO, with its membership comprising mainly nuclear scientists and military officers, is known to have had close links with the Taliban and the al Qaeda. It is possible that these scientists may have been actively engaged in assembling rudimentary nuclear weapons for the Afghan terrorists with fissionable material smuggled from the former Soviet states or stolen from Pakistan’s nuclear power plants. Other reports have affirmed that at least one Central Asian nuclear weapons expert works for Osama bin Laden. Hence, the possibility that a crude, untested, nuclear warhead may have been developed by bin Laden's al Qaeda cannot be ruled out.

Finally, contingency plans must be debated, analysed, made, approved, rehearsed and readied for execution to meet unforeseen eventualities. Maximum cooperation must be extended by the nuclear weapons states (NWS) to Pakistan by way of technology, intelligence and training to help Pakistan to secure its own nuclear warheads. While the world waits with bated breath for the crisis in Pakistan to blow over, the government of Pakistan would do well to ensure that all possible measures are adopted to further enhance the safety and security of the country’s nuclear warheads and delivery means.
(The writer is Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi.)