Pakistan’s unsafe yet growing N-arsenal

As terrorism spreads and the security situation in its north-western region worsens, reports of Pakistan increasing its nuclear arsenal have raised fears over its safety and security. There is serious concern about the possibility of non-state operators acquiring a dirty bomb in the event of the government crumbling or a successful coup led by radical extremists, which could be catastrophic. As Pakistan’s immediate neighbour, India will have to bear the brunt of such a fallout. 

DESPITE growing concerns regarding the safety and security of Pakistan’s nuclear warheads, fissile material stocks, and nuclear facilities, recent reports indicate that Islamabad has managed to amass a nuclear stockpile of approximately 110 warheads—a steep upward climb from earlier international estimates. 
According to a statement in The Washington Post by David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security, “Pakistan has expanded its nuclear weapons production capability rapidly.” The paper also quoted Dr. Peter Lavoy, US national intelligence officer for South Asia, as having told NATO officials in December 2008, that "despite pending economic catastrophe, Pakistan is producing nuclear weapons at a faster rate than in any other country in the world". The frenzied activities by Pakistan’s nuclear establishment will soon place it on the fifth spot as the world’s largest nuclear weapons power in terms of the number of warheads stockpiled. In fact, it has now edged ahead of India, which is reported to have 60 to 80 nuclear warheads. 
Pakistan could not have accelerated production of plutonium and enriched uranium, which it uses for warheads, without substantial outside support. China has been its principal nuclear and missile technology benefactor. Pakistan’s Chasma-I reactor was imported from Beijing during the 1990s followed by Chasma-II in the early 2000s. Now China is supplying Pakistan with two new 650-MW nuclear reactors, Chasma-III and Chasma-IV. While these reactors are ostensibly for electricity generation, they will produce plutonium as a byproduct. It is not yet clear whether these will be subject to full-scope IAEA safeguards.
The China-Pakistan deal is in violation of China’s NPT obligations and transgresses the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG, having 46 NPT states including China) guidelines that forbid NPT-signatory states from supplying nuclear technology and fissile material to states not a party to the NPT. Pakistan has a poor non-proliferation track record as it is known to have passed on nuclear technology to states like Iran, Libya and North Korea through the AQ Khan network. As Pakistan Air Force aircraft ferried nuclear goods and the army tightly controls the nuclear programme, it is facetious for the Pakistan government to continue to claim that proliferation occurred without its knowledge. 
Confirmation regarding the deal to supply new reactors has come in from China National Nuclear Corporation, which announced that China Zhongyuan Engineering is the general contractor for the project. Beijing has sanctioned a low-interest loan to Pakistan for 82 percent of the $1.9 billion cost of the reactors. The leading Chinese political daily and mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Renmin Ribao, lashed out against the US for “being soft on India and deriding the NPT”. Commenting on the spillover effect of the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal and choosing to ignore India’s spotless nuclear non-proliferation record, Renmin Ribao stated that if the US made a “nuclear exception for India”, other powers could “do the same with their friends” — apparently a clear reference to Pakistan. As a matter of fact, by virtue of this latest nuclear reactor deal, Beijing has done precisely that. 
However, going by the experience in setting up Chasma-I and Chasma-II, it will be quite some time before the Chasma-III and Chasma-IV reactors begin producing power – and plutonium to add to Pakistan’s fissile material stockpile. Meanwhile, the Kahuta facility has been producing highly enriched uranium for a quarter century. Additionally, two un-safeguarded plutonium and tritium producing reactors are operational at the Khushab facility for advanced compact warheads and the intensified construction of a third facility has been reported. 
Pakistan has been testing ballistic and nuclear-capable cruise missiles at an average rate of one every two months. It is apparently engaged in improving the accuracy of its North Korean origin No Dong and Taepo Dong missiles and of the Chinese origin missiles M-9 and M-11. Its indigenous arsenal include the Hatf, Shaeen and Ghauri series of ballistic missiles and the Babur cruise missile. 
Pakistan does not have any tactical or battlefield nuclear weapons. However, low yield fission bombs can be employed against tactical targets by means of aerial delivery or missiles. Pakistan is reportedly working towards miniaturising its nuclear warheads for use on the Babur cruise missile. As and when this capability is acquired, Pakistan will also be able to develop tactical nuclear warheads for its short-range missiles. 
On the other hand, Indian missiles are indigenous but these have not been tested as often as Pakistan’s. Also, there is a question mark over the efficiency of India’s fusion warhead. India has an edge by establishing a genuine triad, that is, land, sea and air based deterrence that enhances survivability for retaliatory strikes. This may give the impression of an overall nuclear parity with Pakistan, but is not true. Nuclear deterrence is not a numbers game and if deterrence breaks down, India has the capability to destroy major Pakistani cities several times over. Hence, credible deterrence prevails between both nations. 
With the spectre of terrorism having taken hold of Pakistan’s polity, there are serious doubts whether Pakistan’s nuclear warheads are safe from falling into Jihadi hands. The death of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer at the hands of a specially selected bodyguard has fuelled apprehensions of guards being subverted and diverting fissile material or even a warhead or two. Western commentators have for long expressed grave reservations about the safety and security of Pakistan’s nuclear warheads and have called for contingency plans to “take out” all of them in the eventuality of their imminent loss to the jihadis. 
According to US-based columnist Seymour Hersh, US and Israeli Special Forces have even rehearsed such plans in the Negev Desert. So long the warheads are in the custody of the Pakistan army, such reservations are misplaced. However, in case there is ever a successful coup led by radical extremists with the support of disgruntled elements in the Pakistan army, nuclear warhead storage sites will need to be bombed so as to render the warheads ineffective. For this contingency, India must consider providing military and logistics support to the US and its allies. 
As fighting intensifies in the NWFP-Pakhtoonkhwa and other tribal regions in Pakistan’s FATA, the worsening security situation in the “Af-Pak” region, continuing radical extremism elsewhere in Pakistan, creeping Talibanisation, a floundering economy and the failure of the civilian government to govern effectively, have raised deep concerns regarding the safety and security of Islamabad’s nuclear arsenal. In the event of President Zardari’s government crumbling due to the Pakistan army’s failure to root out militants and terrorists, a situation could well arise where extremist infiltration within the military and intelligence services could compromise the security of Islamabad’s nuclear weapons. This could be catastrophic for the entire region. As Pakistan’s immediate neighbour, India will have to face the brunt of such a collapse. 
There is serious unease about the possibility of non-state actors seizing an opportunity to acquire a nuclear warhead or a “dirty” weapon. Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, has expressed doubts regarding the “continuing safety” of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. Going by assurances provided by Zardari in May 2009, the Obama administration maintains Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are secure “at least for the moment”. However, apprehensions continue to grow not just in Pakistan’s immediate neighbourhood but across the globe even though Gen Tariq Majid, Chairman of Pakistan’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, has categorically rejected such propositions. 
It is imperative for Pakistan’s nuclear authorities to come clean on the system of checks and balances instituted by them. These organisations include the National Command Authority, responsible for policy formulation and control over all strategic nuclear forces, the Strategic Plans Division, in charge of developing and managing nuclear capability in all dimensions, and the Strategic Forces Command, responsible for planning and control as well as for issuing operational directives for the deployment and use of nuclear weapons. Potential loopholes in the system through which sensitive WMD technology could slip into the hands of non-state actors must be effectively plugged. 
The authors are director and senior fellow, respectively, at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi