Pakistan’s Nukes – the truth that cannot be ignored

The international community shares deep apprehension over the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. These concerns persist despite repeated assurances from Pakistani government officials, its army and the academia that the country’s nuclear arsenal is well safeguarded from terrorists groups. A recent article on the Generation Why website questions international concerns regarding the “threat of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons falling into the hands of the extremists.” The author dismisses global concerns over the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons by claiming that the possibility of “terrorists [taking] up the reins of state [Pakistan] ultimately has no legs to stand on.” Are such claims enough to assure that the international community including India can put their apprehensions to rest?

Back in 1976, distressed by the dissemination of nuclear technologies and expertise to ‘politically unstable countries’, military intelligence historian Roberta Wohlstetter warned that a nuclear-armed Pakistan increased ‘the probability of terrorist use of nuclear weapons considerably. Thirty-six years later in 2012, the Harvard Kennedy School in a study concluded that in Pakistan, the perils of nuclear theft is worsening, as the risks from a swiftly growing stockpile of nuclear weapons and increasingly capable adversaries offset nuclear security improvements. Earlier in 2008, the Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism in it report “The World at Risk” identified Pakistan at the “geographic crossroads for terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.” The report premised its claims among other facts on the ground that Pakistan’s border provinces provide a safe haven for terrorists. Eminent Pakistani physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy in his recently published edited volume Confronting the Bomb: Pakistani and Indian Scientists Speak Out made candid disclosures over the vulnerability of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons to insider threats. While questioning the efficacy of the security of the country’s nuclear weapons, Hoodbhoy “assesses the threat to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons from within the country.”[1]

Does Pakistan face potential outsider threats to its nuclear arsenal? The answer is in the affirmative. In August 2012, militants attacked Pakistan’s most heavily protected Minhas nuclear air base at Kamra. Earlier, the base was consecutively attacked thrice in 2007, 2008 and 2009. In May 2011, a small team of insurgents stunned the world by launching an attack on the Mehran naval air base. These incidents are a sinister pointer to the terrorists’ determination to hit at Pakistan’s most sensitive installations and target its military capability. These trends pose significant threats to the security of Pakistani nuclear weapons and the sites housing nuclear materials.

Pakistan faces a two-pronged challenge – Islamic militant groups with sinister motives and ideologies to attack the US and India, and an Army having a high level of radicalization within its ranks.  Radicals have demonstrated their willingness to eliminate their superior officers and leaders of their country. Former President Pervaiz Musharraf who worked up enormous expenditure on his security arrangement was subject to seven known assassination attempts in which army personnel were involved. In 2003, General Musharraf was targeted twice by his army and air-force officers. The assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto further questions the credibility of the Pakistani army and the security services of the country. The assassination of Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer in June 2011 by one of his elite police guards in Islamabad is again a grim reminder of the risks insiders pose to the Pakistani establishment. When the country’s security apparatus has repeatedly failed to provide adequate security to its leaders, one can be skeptical about Pakistan’s efficiency in safeguarding its nukes.

The above-mentioned article claims that Pakistan’s nuclear command and control is as good as that of any other nuclear state. True, following the revelation of the AQ Khan global black-market in 2004, Pakistan undertook major reforms of its nuclear command, control, and security systems. Its nuclear inventory is protected by an authenticated code technology- permissive action links [PAL] -equipped with systems that will prevent any unauthorised access to the nuclear weapons. However, there exists a lot of uncertainty about claims whether Pakistan possesses any state-of-art code system technology. Pakistan’s nukes are kept in a de-mated state; hence there arises sufficient doubt whether PAL system is at all required. Moreover, even if Pakistan possesses PAL technology, there is no means to verify the efficacy of such a system and whether they are resilient enough to withstand system breakdown especially in crisis situations. Given the intensity of insider threat, SPD’s personnel reliability programme meant for screening personnel manning sensitive positions remains vulnerable to several questions.[2] There are reports claiming that SPD faces political pressure in matters of appointment. Such compromise in selection procedure can adversely affect the working culture and efficiency of strategic organizations and accelerate insider threats within Pakistan.

Contrary to the article’s claim, no security apparatus is foolproof and hence it cannot be vouched with absolute claim that Pakistan’s nuclear apparatus is 100 percent secured. In spite of claims of Pakistan’s foolproof nuclear apparatus, the author admits that the militants can get hold of nuclear weapons. Once these lethal weapons fall into wrong hands, whether the terrorists will use them or proliferate them to prospective sellers can be answered easily. Certainly the terrorists will not hand the nukes back to the Pakistani establishment. Apocalyptic terrorists groups can use these weapons against the western countries, India and even against Pakistan. Such eventualities will lay Pakistan open for further accusations of being an unsafe nuclear weapon state. Should the security situation in Pakistan deteriorate, it is not difficult to contemplate what the security scenario will be like in the whole of South Asia. This situation is neither acceptable to Pakistan nor to India and the international community.

The possibility of Pakistan’s nukes falling into the wrong hands cannot be simply dismissed as “hallucinatory.” Nuclear issues are simply not matters of national means and methods. It is binding on every state possessing nuclear weapons to make a commitment to the international community for the security of their nuclear assets. Pakistan’s efforts towards this end will not only display its political intentions on the safety and security of its nuclear assets but also establish itself as a responsible state with nuclear powers.

[1] Pervez Hoodbhoy, Confronting the Bomb: Pakistani and Indian Scientists Speak Out  (Pakistan: Oxford University Press, 2013), p.168.

[2] Ibid, pp. 197-198.

Posted in , Internal Security, Militancy, Nuclear, Nuclear Security, Nuclear Weapons, Pakistan, Policy, Security

Reshmi Kazi

Dr. Reshmi Kazi is Associate Professor in the Jamia Milia Islamia (Central University). She specializes in nuclear security, nuclear non-proliferation, and nuclear disarmament. Her doctoral thesis is on “Evolution of India’s Nuclear Doctrine: A Study of Political, Economic and Technological Dimensions” from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She has written extensively on nuclear security issues and made several presentations including a paper on "Nuclear Terrorism and UN Resolution 1540: A South Asian Perspective" at the UN Headquarters, New York. Her publications include monographs on "Post Nuclear Security Summit Process: Continuing Challenges and Emerging Prospects" (2017) and "Nuclear Terrorism: The New Terror of the 21st Century" (2013). She is an alumni of National Defense University’s Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Study, Washington DC and a Visiting Fellow (Summer 2016) for the South Asia programme in the Stimson Center, Washington DC. Her aim is to research and publish on critical areas pertaining to nuclear issues that can contribute to future policy making.

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5 thoughts on “Pakistan’s Nukes – the truth that cannot be ignored

  1. The threats to Pakistan’s Nuclear weapons are many and diverse. The greatest threat is internal and from the loyalty of those guarding them. After years of indoctrination there are many in the Security Establishment and citizens wedded to the ideals of an Caliphate and conversion of the world to Islam. No one has any idea about the command and control of these weapons but what is clear is that the Government does not control them, he Military does. It is a lethal brew that needs only a spark to ignite.

  2. Reshmi, while discussing the possibility of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons falling into the wrong hands you did not differentiate strategic weapons from non-strategic ones (TNWs). Time and again, Pakistan has reiterated that nuclear weapons are stored in de-mated and scattered form for the purpose of safety and security. If an individual or more, either from inside or outside, get hold of some part or parts, how they could use incomplete weapon for their nefarious designs?

  3. Sadiq, there is enormous debate on the so-called distinction between nuclear weapons and tactical nuclear weapons and even if there is any such view that you adhere to has no relevance to the core issue that is discussed above. In any case, a nuclear weapons is a nuclear weapon posing the same fear as any nuclear weapon will pose. Having said that, you affirmation to the possibility of insiders or outsiders getting access to nuclear part or parts raises significant concerns which I have highlighted in the above opinion. Any nuclear part or parts will bear substantial importance to all the wrong people for all the wrong reasons. Successful acquisition of any nuclear part or parts will definitely bring the terrorists and non-state actors aspiring for the nuclear weapons capability one step closer towards their sinister intentions. That is worrisome.

  4. This opinion lacks research on the current command and control system of Pakistan’s strategic assets. Unlike India, Pakistan has developed a unique C&C setup to ensure that neither an external threat nor an internal one poses any risk to the safety of nukes. In a hierarchical system, no one is solely responsible for production, maintenance, movement and deployment of the weapons. The NCA has strict standards of hiring the right people for sensitive jobs. As for the doubt on the military, no existing organization was assigned the job and thus NCA was created which is hybrid constituents-wise, employing both military, ex-military and civilians. While the whole safety, security and C&C structure is indigenously developed and is mostly secret, several testimonials from many observers and watchdogs approve of the known Pakistani efforts to secure their SWs. So any such opinions which present a scenario in which Pakistani nukes are being fixed on rocket launchers and are operated by terrorists like AK-47s really is far-fetched if not hilarious. This type of threat is faced by every nuke possessing nation. *bow*

  5. The real danger is from radicalized insider, a very large portion of Pakistani society is radicalized, the radicalization has eliminated rationality. Many in Pakistan marry under aged girls and quot Mohammad paigamber’s marrige with 6 years old Iyesha.
    There is every chance of Pakistani nuclear weapons falling in hands of radicalized terrorist, who may not be able to assemble the devise, but definitely use it as dirty bomb.

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