Chaos in Pakistan: Are the nuclear weapons safe and secure?

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nuclear weapons in pakistan
Representative photo

Prevailing Unstable Environment in Pakistan: If events were not so tragic, the fast moving violent, dynamic, unpredictable politico-social drama being enacted in Pakistan would appear to be ‘comic-action film’ on TV. Nevertheless, being a transactional, impersonal world, people are watching with great interest and unfortunately great amusement. But, a nuclear crisis is certainly no laughing matter, and powers that be will do well to plan and be ready for all contingencies.

The situation is exacerbated by the rivalry and obvious power games between the military, judiciary and executive, with Imran Khan as the ‘invincible, highly popular action hero’. Lost in the turmoil and violence, is the constant fear about the safety and security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons ecosystem – the warheads, the missiles, delivery vehicles (land, air, sea, undersea), the readymade, high grade, unused fissile material, communication systems and aspects like security of the launch codes. I am quite sure that the heads of governments of specifically USA, China and India and their national security advisors (NSAs), and intelligence agencies must be having sleepless nights. The contingency plans to be put into operation for securing the nuclear assets must be getting finetuned. Why specially these three; USA the superpower still fighting global war on terrorism (GWOT) and wants to keep the nuclear club exclusive with no additions, China with her Xinjiang and fundamentalist elements despite Pakistan being her client state (like North Korea), and India, Pakistan’s arch rival for eternity. At the outset it is important to highlight that the two most relevant but worrying aspects are, whether effective state control would be asserted at all times, and whether there are conditions where weapons could be used without due authorisation?; secondly, how to prevent subversion and theft both of physical nuclear assets and technical and communication details, including launch codes, by the very people who are guarding/protecting it. Pakistan’s capability and capacity to protect their nuclear assets along with a historical perspective, followed by contingencies in case the international powers need to intervene has been analysed. This article has used credible open source material [i].

Pakistan’s Nuclear Arsenal:Pakistan currently has 170 nuclear warheads, and claims a triad status which indicates the capacity to launch from land, air and sea. Details of her assets are listed below:

 

Source: Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

Notes:          

  • Experts believe that Pakistan could well be the world’s fourth-largest nuclear weapon state; with a stockpile of some 350 warheads in a decade (2030).
  • Air: Apart from Mirage III and V, Pakistan can also deploy F-16s (24) and Chinese J 17s (186 in pipeline) for nuclear delivery.
  • Sea:    abur III, range 470 kms; deployed on the air-independent-diesel-electric Agosta class submarines (ordered 8; deployed 4?); some Babur IIIs are pre-mated for second strike capability.
  • Tactical Nuclear Weapon (TNW):NASR/HATF 9 has a range of 60 k.m. only, most probably pre-mated, some deployed with forward troops, and possibly under command and control of HQs at operational level (Corps HQ); raising the probability and its vulnerability of misuse/rogue use/panic use, and finding its way in wrong hands including terrorist organisations; and starting a nuclear Armageddon. In 2016 Obama said, “Battlefield nuclear weapons, by their very nature, pose [a] security threat because you’re taking battlefield nuclear weapons to the field where, as you know, as a necessity, they cannot be made as secure”.
  • Pak does not possess enough launchers compared to the warheads it holds; and

all launchers are dual capable!

Nuclear Policy: Pakistan boasts of ‘full spectrum deterrence capability’. Policy similar to NATOs ‘flexible response strategy’, with threat of use when her red lines/threshold will be crossed without explicitly spelling it out. Pakistan claims that she has a formal policy which is classified, and believes that ambiguity adds to the value of deterrence.

Source: Taylor and Francis Online (https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14751798.2023.2178069)

Command and Control of Nuclear Assets: The apex body which exercises command and control is the Nuclear Command Authority (NCA) headed by the PM, with the Strategic Plans Division (SPD) under a three-star army general, which is responsible for the protection of its tactical and strategic nuclear weapons stockpile, and the strategic assets. Special Response Force (SRF) is the special forces unitof SPD Force with the strength of 25 to 28000 personnel which secures the assets. The selection standards in terms of intelligence and physical standards for the force are even higher than army due to very sensitive nature of their duty. After initial training in army training establishments, they are now trained in Pakistan’s Centre of Excellence for Nuclear Security (PCENS), located in Chakri near Rawalpindi. Training is modelled on US National Nuclear Security academy.

Regarding Pakistan, it will be fair and reasonable to assume, that the military (COAS) would have the final and decisive vote for exercising the nuclear option.

International Opinion and Observations on Nuclear Weapon State (NWS) Pakistan : Ashley J. Tellis in his book (Striking Assymetries: Nuc Transitions in Southern Asia) says Pakistan is building “the largest, most diversified, and most capable nuclear arsenal possible”, which is endorsed by Peter Lavoy, a US intelligence officer. The Trump administration’s South Asia strategy in 2017 urged Pakistan to stop sheltering terrorist organizations, and noted the need to “prevent nuclear weapons and materials from coming into the hands of terrorists”. President Biden in Oct 2022 said ““Pakistan “may be one of the most dangerous” countries in the world having “nuclear weapons without any cohesion”.

Deployment/Location of Nuclear Assets:

Note:  Areas shown as Azad Kashmir and Northern Areas are an integral part of India (map not to scale)

Even when nations proclaim transparency, as exists(ed) between USA and Russia, regarding holdings and deployment of nuclear assets, in terms of agreements (SALT II, which now stands abrogated/suspended), there is always uncertainty and ambiguity regarding accuracy of details, especially when most delivery mechanisms are dual-capable (can fire both conventional and nuclear warheads) and also co-located which is a new dangerous trend followed specially by China and Pakistan. US aggressive anti-nuclear stance against North Korea is mainly because she can never be 100% sure of deployment of nuclear assets, thus not confident of knocking them out in a ‘first strike’ if ever the need arises. However, Pakistan nuclear assets locations are known to a fair degree of certainty, both due to diligence and ISR by the big powers, specially USA, as also with an existing agreement between India and Pakistan[ii] to notify each other. Details of known locations are placed below:

  • Fissile Mtrl Production Complex – Pakistan has a well-established and diverse fissile material production complex that is expanding at Kahuta, enrichment plant at Gadwal North of Islamabad. Four heavy water plutonium reactors in Khushab and thermal power plant (helps in estimation of production of fissile material). A new Reprocessing plant at Nilore, E of Islamabad, and second at Chatham in NW Punjab processing spent fuel and extracts plutonium.
  • Fissile Mtrl – In 2020, the International Panel on Fissile Materials estimated that Pakistan had an inventory of approximately 3,900 kilograms of weapon-grade (90 percent enriched) highly enriched uranium (HEU), and about 410 kg of weapon-grade plutonium. This material is theoretically enough to produce between 285 and 342 warheads.Pakistan uses tritium to boost fission process and reduce size of warhead. Possesses 690 gms, enough to boost over 100 weapons. Most short range missiles like NASR, Abdali, Babur, Ra-‘ad will need small, lightweight tritium boosted fission warhead.
  • Production of Msl and Mob Lrs – National Defence Complex at Kala Chitta Dahr mountain range West of Islamabad with two sections;
  • West – development, production, test launching of missiles and rocket engines;
    • East – production and assembly of road mobile transporter erector launchers (TELs)
    • Some launcher and missile-related production and maintenance facilities may be located near Tarnawa and Taxila.
  • Warhead Production- Pak Ord Factories near Wah, NW of Islamabad.

Safety and Security of Nuclear Assets

Pakistan has put in place all safeguards expected from an NWS and as per international norms of IAEA’s Nuclear Security Strategy (NSS)[iii]. During late 2000 a US report stated “we’re, I think, fairly confident that they have the proper structures and safeguards in place to maintain the integrity of their nuclear forces and not to allow any compromise”. The SPD is the institutional link between civilian and military facilities. Pakistani sites have three “rings” of security. The first is within each facility itself with SPD personnel responsible for physical searches, Nuclear Media Acess Control (NMAC)[iv] protocols; while the second ring is formed of physical means (limited Access Areas, physical barriers). Outside of each site, the third ring of security is provided by a wider counter intelligence effort. Being aware of the dangers of subversion, NCA has put in place a very rigid system of vetting regularly; different for scientists, civilian staff and military personnel. Screening involves four of Pakistan’s intelligence agencies. Some important measures incorporated are:

  • The National Institute of Safety and Security (NISAS) of the Pakistan Nuclear Regulatory Authority (PNRA) has become an IAEA collaborating centre for Nuclear Security Education, Training and Technical Support in Oct 2022.
  • Working with the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT) in different areas. The GICNT is an international partnership intended to improve international capacity for prevention, detection, and response to nuclear terrorism, particularly the acquisition, transport, or use of nuclear and radiological materials.
  • Advanced-level training in American National Laboratories and applied it to improve the overall security practices in the country. 

Additional measures in terms of equipment enhancement are:

  • Specially trained – as per IAEA and Nuclear Security Series.
  • Permissive Action Links[v] (PAL) –electronic codes.
  • Special theft and tamper-proof vehicles and containers are also used.
  • SPD and PNRA operate radiational detection portal monitors at nuclear sites.
  • Contingency planning.
  • All round and fool proof communications.
  • Nuclear Security Emergency Coordination Centre (NuSECC) in Islamabad.
  • Mobile Radiological Monitoring Laboratory (MRML) established.

Historical Statistics and Vulnerabilities:But impressions, reputation and opinions has gone steadily downhill in the last decade, more due to the socio-politico-unstable internal security situation, rise of political Islam and fundamentalism, Pakistan’s unrelenting dalliance with terrorist organisations, which has come back to bite them like the proverbial snake. There are credible intelligence reports that Al Qaeda, IS, TTP have shown renewed interest in acquiring both warhead, fissile material and technology. The two main constant and real worries are theft (material and intellectual) as also ‘insider operations.

The latest mob violence on Imran Khans arrest, has ignited violence and instability, and specter of even civil war. There are worrying reports of dissension within the Army ranks, both within the highest (rift between COAS, CJSC, Corps Commanders), middle and lower echelons; reports of mutinies in old established army units; soldiers abandoning their posts and duties, increasing insubordination which should cause grave apprehension regarding the safety and security of nuclear assets. If the most disciplined force can be beset with insubordination and desertion, the paramilitary, intelligence agencies and most importantly the personnel manning the security protocol of nuclear assets are equally susceptible. The vulnerability is not only physical theft of warheads and fissile material, but technical data and electronic codes which can operationalize the weapons and missile systems. In the current unrest and fragile security environment ‘when it is time to implement the harshest security measures, is ironically the time when it is at its most vulnerable to subversion and theft. Some historical lapses concerning security of nuclear assets are listed below: –

  • In November 2007, suicide attack killed seven PAF staff travelling between Mushaf Mir Airbase and the Central Ammunition Depot, Sargodha. Both sites have been associated with Pakistan’s nuclear programme.
  • A double bombing in August 2008 killed 64 people in Wah Cantt. One explosion took place outside the Pakistan Ordnance Factories (POF), which is believed to house the Gadwal Enrichment Plant.
  • In July 2009, a bus carrying KRL workers was attacked by a suicide bomber at Chor Chowk, Peshawar Road.
  • In October 2009, the Minhas air force base in Kamra was attacked. The site is widely assessed to host Pakistani nuclear weapons, although the attacker is reported to have detonated a bomb at “a checkpoint on a road leading to the complex,” rather than the base itself.
  • The biggest of them all; AQ Khan both stealing sensitive information from the Physical Dynamics Research Laboratory, a subcontractor to the URENCO enrichment consortium, and then going on to sell indigenised versions of that technology to North Korea, Iran, and Libya.
  • Subversion at the highest level revealed when Lieutenant General (retired) Javed Iqbal and Brigadier (retired) Raja Rizwan who received 14 years’ imprisonment and the death penalty, respectively for nuclear espionage.
  • Note: – If staff can be identified for attack, they may also be coerced into becoming “insiders. Insiders have been a real concern to Pakistani authorities.

Scenario Building and Recommendations.   

  • Pakistan will obviously remain the first responder for most contingencies, and is expected to act immediately and decisively in case of theft of warhead or fissile material, or loss of critical technological information; assuming the command and control of nuclear assets is still intact and not broken (contingencies like civilian and/or military control, or break up of both is a realistic probability). They are expected to act responsibly and alert the international community immediately specially the ‘Three’ (USA, China and India the immediate neighbour), and United Nations Security Council (UNSC).
  • In case, the UN and world body led by USA and China feel that there exists conditions where the nuclear assets are NOT under the command and control of any responsible body, be it the civil or military, and safety and security of the assets are compromised, and real and present threat to them exists (terrorists, breakaway military leader/group(s) and rogue elements); there is a need for physical intervention to secure them, with or without the sanction/permission of Pakistan authorities. The current scenario does warrant planning and coordinating for such a contingency specially by the ‘Three’.
  • In the eventuality of the above, and if the unstable situation of a civil war like situation persists, there is a case of following a variation of the Ukraine model* with Pakistan. Pakistan naturally will be loath to give up her nuclear assets. The process will take time, but the world cannot afford to have the spectre of a Nuclear Armageddon hanging over its head all the time.

*Note: When the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, there were thousands of former Soviet nuclear warheads, as well as hundreds of intercontinental ballistic missiles and bombers, left on Ukraine’s territory (some in Belarus and Kazakhstan too), which they decided to transfer to Russia. Ukraine never had an independent nuclear weapons arsenal, or control over these weapons, but agreed to remove former Soviet weapons stationed on its territory. In 1992, Ukraine with the other two, signed the Lisbon Protocol[vi] and joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as a non-nuclear weapon state in 1994. The transfer of all nuclear material took some time, but by 2001, all nuclear weapons had been transferred to Russia to be dismantled and all launch silos decommissioned. Interestingly, the Protocol in itself does not talk of any security guantantees by either USA or Russian Federation. However, The Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances comprises three substantially identical political agreements signed at the OSCE conference in Budapest, Hungary, on 5 December 1994, to provide security assurances by its signatories. The three memoranda were originally signed by three nuclear powers: the Russian Federation, the UK and the USA. China and France too gave somewhat individual assurances in separate documents.

The memoranda, prohibited the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the United States from threatening or using military force or economic coercion against Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, “except in self-defence or otherwise in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations”. The memorandum did accelerate the handing over of nuclear weapons.

Conclusion: Pakistan has always led a rather unstable existence ever since its independence. Its nuclear weapon status provides the proverbial edge, which does keep world powers and India on their toes. Pakistan has institutionalised systems in place to secure the nuclear assets. However, given the unstable internal security situation, which can deteriorate in an accelerated manner, and possibly weaken the command and control chain, and security of nuclear assets, it makes eminent sense to plan and put procedures in place to secure the nuclear assets by external agencies led by the ‘Three’. India must make it her business to ensure the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear business.

(This article was earlier published in bharatshakti.in)


[i] Current geo-polical-social situation in Pakistan is being widely covered in the internet and other media sources. Nuclear aspects have been covered by sourcing the following articles online: –

[ii] ‘Non-Nuclear Attack Agreement’, signed between  Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and Prime minister Rajiv Gandhi on 21 December 1988 in Islamabad (ratified 1991), according to which, both countries have to inform each other of the nuclear facilities. Accessed on 12 May 2023.

[iii]Assessing the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapon programme’, by Tahir Moahmood Azad, and Karl Dewey, 27 Feb 2023, Taylor & Francis Online>Defence and Security Analysis, available at https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14751798.2023.2178069.  Accessed on 13 May 2023.

[iv] ‘Media Access Control Protocol’, ScienceDirect, available at https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/computer-science/media-access-control-protocol#:~:text=The%20proposed%20MAC%20protocol%20considers,for%20sensing%20and%20data%20transmission. Accessed on 15 May 2023.

[v] Permissive Action Links (PALs) – ensures that even if an unauthorized person gets hold of a weapon, he cannot activate it unless he also has access to electronic codes.

[vi] ‘Protocol to the Treaty between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the Reduction and Limitation Of Strategic Offensive Arms’, signed on May 23, 1992, between representatives of USA, Russian Federation, Republics of Ukraine, Byelarus and Kazakhstan; available at https://2009-2017.state.gov/documents/organization/27389.pdf. Accessed on 17 May 2023.

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