Loose Nukes or Loose Talk?
By Adnan Gill
Once again, an open season has been declared on Pakistan Nuclear Program. Wild, unsubstantiated, and hysterical speculations are thrown around every which way. To be specific, this time around, it's the mass-hysteria of Pakistani nuclear arsenal falling in the hands of Islamic extremists. Depending on whom you ask, the opinions on the security of Pakistani nuclear weapons vary from ‘distorted and exaggerated’ to American ‘contingency plans to secure Pakistani nukes’. It can be argued, that both extremes hold at least a bit of truth.
Among the fear mongers, David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security had been leading the mass-hysteria. For the last several years, he had been crying wolf to anyone willing to listen, that "Pakistan's nuclear weapons and stocks of nuclear explosive material [are] dangerously vulnerable to theft by militant groups". Joining the chorus, a The New York Times report alleged, that many nuclear experts “considered Pakistan’s arsenal among the world’s most vulnerable to terrorist groups“.
In its defense, the Pakistani government had been ridiculing the mounting fears as nothing more than wild speculations. Recently, in an effort to calm the fears of speculators, the Pakistani Ministry of Foreign Affairs reiterated, 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“. Responding to a question in the New York Times documentary, ‘Nuclear Jihad: Can Terrorists Get the Bomb?’ President Musharraf also assured, “we guarantee that the custodial arrangements that we brought about and implemented are already the best in the world.“
It's hard to rule out, that Pakistani nuclear weapons can never fall in the hands of extremist groups, but this could be true for any other Nuclear Weapons State. In case of the United States, nihilists like Timothy McVeigh wouldn't think twice before using a W-54 nuclear weapon. These low-yield weapons (marked for disposal), with most primitive security devices, could carry a punch of 20 ton fission explosion. Despite having the most sophisticated Command and Control structure, just recently in a major security breach, a US Air Force B-52 flew the length of the US loaded with six nuclear-armed cruise missiles. These missiles carried W-80 warheads of yields up to 150 kilotons. Similarly, if given opportunity, would Jewish militant groups like Hagana Bet, Irgun and Lehi, or Stern Gang be averse of using Israeli nuclear weapons for their cause? Analogously, what would stop the ultra-religious Hindu militant groups, like Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Shiv Sena (whose stated ideology prescribes for the extermination of the Muslims) from using the nuclear weapons on Pakistan, or even on one of their own Muslim dominated city?
Western estimates of the number of Pakistani nuclear weapons range from 50 to 200. Experts believe these devices are distributed among half a dozen or more locations. They consider the security around these sites to be extremely tight and multilayered. Some reports suggest Musharraf has improved the security system by centralizing control in a single government agency commanded by the pro-American Lt. Gen. Khalid Kidwai, who has put the Strategic Plans Division (SPD) in charge of operations and security.
These experts are also of the opinion that Pakistan does not use the electronic systems that require the input of access codes to arm warheads; instead these weapons are stored disassembled, with key components kept in separate, secure vaults. The US twice, once after Pakistan's nuclear tests and then right after 9/11, debated on whether to share with Pakistan its one of the most sophisticated and guarded technology, known as “Permissive Action Links,” or PALS to enhance the security of its nukes. What most of experts do not understand, or do not want to disclose is the fact that such a technology is no longer difficult to mimic. It doesn't take billion dollars in research to integrate a bank ATM access-code circuit board with the firing circuits/triggers. Such devices can also cause a small explosion within the warhead to safely render it useless after certain number of incorrect tries, or due to an unauthorized tampering.
In a worst case scenario, even if some militant group is somehow able to get their hands on a Pakistani nuclear device, they will have to either smuggle it out to the target or they will have to get a viable delivery system too (which are stored separately). In addition, they will need expertise in matting the warhead with the delivery system and arming the device. Since the components of Pakistani nuclear devices are allegedly stored disassembled and separately, the rouge group will have to be lucky in securing all of the components. This will be next to impossible to do without triggering security countermeasures. In case, they are able to smuggle out highly enriched material and they have all the expertise at their disposal, still it will be next to impossible to fashion a nuclear bomb. It takes a highly sophisticated infrastructure and other materials to build a nuclear weapon. It may be worth noting, that even the states bent on developing nuclear weapons can rarely put together such an infrastructure; or today there would have been a lot more nuclear weapons states than 10 (declared and undeclared) nations.
Regardless, whatever security measures the Pakistanis might have put in place to safeguard their nuclear devices, it doesn't mean that the US has not drawn up contingency plans to secure, or at minimum, destroy the nuclear weapons and their delivery systems.
Most likely, the US is going to take multi-pronged approach to secure the Pakistani nuclear weapons. First of all, it will be imperative to have actionable intelligence on every single nuclear warhead. Since Pakistanis are allegedly storing their nuclear weapons in at least six different highly classified storages, this means an accurate intelligence cannot be viably gathered through the conventional means, like spy satellites, communication intercepts, and/or through U2 atom-sniffing flights. Therefore, the US intelligence will have to rely on a Pakistani source with a complete knowledge of whereabouts of every warhead. Which means, it had to be a highest rank Pakistani from the SPD? Having access to such a senior and dependable source by itself negates the necessity of US securing weapons, because it would mean, the Pakistani Command and Control is still functioning.
For arguments sake, if we would to assume, that actionable intelligence presents a clear and present danger, requiring the US action to secure the Pakistani weapons; the US will have one of the following or a combination of the following options:
1. Special Services Groups from the Afghan bases and from the leased Pakistani military bases, backed up by the air assets from the Afghanistan and Aircraft Carriers off the Pakistani coast, would be sent to the storage sites to secure and transport the warheads out of Pakistan. At minimum, these Groups will try to permanently disable the warheads. It takes an absolute perfection to cause a nuclear explosion. Neutralization can be achieved by damaging/disabling any single piece of explosion-chain, like a detonator or a piece of explosive lenses. Even a millisecond difference of electrical pulses can render a warhead inoperable. But such an operation is highly improbable, because it can expose the men to fatal doses of radiation, and because Pakistani nuclear storage sites are believed to have multiple layers of security, including antiaircraft weapons.
2. B-52 or B-2 Stealth Bombers carrying GPS guided 30,000-pound "bunker buster" bombs, also known as Massive Ordnance Penetrator or MOP, out of Diego Garcia could be sent to destroy the storage sites. There could be hardly a deep-earth storage that these massive bombs cannot obliterate. As an insurance policy the US bombers can also use B61-11 -- Deep Penetration Nuclear Weapons. The drawbacks of such missions could be profound. Such bombings can release tremendous amount of highly radioactive pollutants in the atmosphere that can be carried by the prevailing winds over and through Afghanistan, China, or India; which can cause a major human catastrophe as well as a Global P.R backlash against the US. Plus such an operation does not guarantee the destruction of 100% nuclear weapons.
3. The safest and cleanest option for the US would be to use the highly classified non-kinetic weapons that will deliver high energy microwave pulses to fry the circuit boards of the warheads and their delivery systems. In all likelihood, these weapons would be employed by the combination of (stealthy) Global Hawk HAE UAVs, and F-22 Raptors. These weapon systems could also be used to paralyze the Command-and-Control systems by rendering the Communications Systems inoperable. The drawbacks of this method would be that these weapons will be of little use on the deeply buried targets, or on systems shielded by lead plates.
4. Most effective option for the US would be to activate its embedded saboteurs who would disable the warheads and their delivery systems through very simple techniques, like pulling out circuit cards; just as departing Italian technicians did after the Iranian Revolution by pulling out and damaging the circuit cards in the Iranian F-14s. The problem with such approach is it takes many years to embed saboteurs in desired places without detection. Pakistani warheads are dispersed all around the country which makes it almost next to impossible to implant saboteurs in all of the sites.
5. As a last line of defense, PAC-3 Patriot missile batteries in Afghanistan, and AEGIS equipped ships off the Pakistani coast will provide layered Theater Ballistic Missile Defense against a missile launch. But such a defense would work only against ballistic missiles and aircrafts, and that too will not cover 100% of Pakistani air space.
When all said and done, the best guardians of their own house and affairs should be their own habitants and not outsiders. There is lot of loose talk about the so-called Pakistani loose nukes, and no foolproof method for securing the weapons. If such a US operation would miss securing even single nuclear weapon, it could turn out to be one too many. Since there are no practical options to secure 100% of Pakistani nuclear warheads, especially when the intelligence is so sketchy that the planners are not even sure about the exact number of nuclear weapons in the Pakistani arsenal, it would be grandiosely irresponsible and monumentally dangerous effort to secure Pakistani nukes. In all likelihood, such a misguided adventure will result in a catastrophe of unparalleled proportions.
The best option would be a political and diplomatic one. Through which the US will provide the necessary technology and training for the Pakistanis to enhance the security of their weapons, so they could not be tampered or used without legal and proper authentication.
- Asian Tribune -