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How Pakistan's nuclear weapons could be jeopardised

Published Jun 01, 2011 11:10am


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The PNS Mehran Base attack occurred 19 months since GHQ in Pindi was raided and came in the wake of three deadly attacks against navy personnel in Karachi in recent weeks. – AFP Photo

ISLAMABAD: It's a nightmare scenario: al Qaeda militants gain control of a Pakistani nuclear weapon, either through a base assault, theft or a rogue commander's cooperation, possibly in the event of hostilities with nuclear-armed neighbour India.

While most experts believe Pakistan's strategic nuclear arsenal is safe, items such as low-yield, mobile nuclear delivery systems -- called "shoot and scoot" tactical nuclear weapons -- could be highly vulnerable.

The Nasr (Hatf-9) system being developed is a short-range, surface-to-surface multi-tube ballistic missile system. With a range of 60 km (37.5 miles), it's designed for battlefield use.

Deploying small, portable nuclear weapons onto a battlefield increases the risk of things going wrong, either through miscalculation, an accident or possible infiltration by militant groups, nuclear experts say.

Here are some scenarios of how Pakistan might lose control over some of its nuclear arsenal.

Fog of (Nuclear) War

In the event of hostilities between India and Pakistan, militants could seize control of a Hatf-9 system -- essentially a rocket launcher on a truck. But could they use it?

It's necessary to understand the circumstances. In case of war between Islamabad and New Delhi, India is developing a "Cold Start" doctrine, which envisions armored battle groups quickly pushing into Pakistani territory, holding key pockets and then forcing Islamabad to the negotiating table.

The plan is to avoid antagonizing Pakistan to the point that it would retaliate with ballistic missiles against Indian cities, but Pakistani doctrine -- and the Hatf-9 system -- appears to envision using tactical nuclear weapons, possibly on its own soil, against the invaders.

But deploying tactical weapons to the battlefield means command and control has to be dispersed to individual military units.

And while Pakistan normally separates warheads and delivery systems, in times of crisis, weapons would be armed and deployed, although still "locked" by authentication codes, says Professor Shaun Gregory, director of the Pakistan Security Research Unit at the University of Bradford.

"However in a fluid battlefield context such codes will likely be released to prevent the weapons being overrun before they can be used," he told Reuters in an email. "In such a 'release delegated' state ... it's possible that terrorists could seize a functioning weapon."

Pakistan says its weapons have indigenously developed safety systems to prevent misuse, but it has never allowed outsiders to inspect these systems, Rahul Roy-Chaudhury, senior fellow for South Asia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, told Reuters.

Rogue Commanders

Another scenario is the "rogue commander". Militant groups have had varying degrees of success in infiltrating the Pakistani military, but it's unclear how deeply they go.

In addition to mechanical safety systems, Pakistan says its nuclear weapons are secure because of rigorous background checks and continuous monitoring of personnel for extremist sympathies.

That monitoring appears insufficient.

As far back as 2006, the United States was reporting in diplomatic cables, recently published by Wikileaks, that Pakistani pilots and flight crew were engaging in "petty sabotage" of American F-16s to prevent them being used against Taliban militants in the northwest.

The bodyguards for Punjab governor Salman Taseer were also heavily screened, but he was killed by an extremist who managed to get assigned to his security detail.

Speculation is also rife that the Taliban assaults on the PNS Mehran naval base in Karachi this month and on the Army General Headquarters in Rawalpindi in 2009 were aided by sympathisers from within the military.

While a commander going rogue is unlikely, "this is an ongoing struggle," Roy-Chaudhury said. "The expected increase in radicalisation, especially within the Pakistani army after the U.S. raid and killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad ... raises additional concerns."

Rogue commanders could, in a conflict with India, hand over codes and weapons to militants or cooperate with them. The more mercenary types might simply sell them.

Seizing A Tactical Weapon From A  Base

Another possibility doesn't require a fight with India. The PNS Mehran attack shows militants have developed the ability to attack and hold ground inside sensitive military bases. And while no nuclear facilities have been penetrated yet the possibility has caused great concern.

"I think the attack on PNS Mehran (and on the GHQ in 2009) show that terrorists are developing tactics which enable them to penetrate highly-secure bases and hold space within them for hours," Gregory said. "This suggests nuclear weapons security is increasingly vulnerable."

Because of their smaller size, tactical weapons are more portable. And while the warheads wouldn't be armed, the fissile materials of the cores could conceivably be extracted and used with conventional explosives to create a "dirty bomb".

Militants could attack a base, seize a warhead or its core materials and then escape. A Pakistani tactical nuclear weapon might contain as little as 15-20kg (33-44 lbs) of enriched uranium.

"Responsible Pakistani stewards of their nuclear assets have no choice but to re-evaluate their security requirements and procedures," said Michael Krepon, director of the South Asia and Space Security programs for Stimson, a Washington-based think tank for international security.


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Comments (26) Closed

Usman Jun 01, 2011 05:10pm
I would assume Reuters to have at least an iota of intelligence before publishing such an article. A nuclear weapon is not a single component that can be 'stolen' like that!! they are not stored in a box, or a compound, that extremists can come, take over and flee. Where they talk about the Nasr (Hatf-9) is only a delivery system which can be 'armed' with a nuclear warhead. raiding a base and attacking outdoor targets is not something that can be 100% avoided. lapses can and do take place...Pakistan is not the only country that has suffered from this!
Ali-Hassan Ayub Jun 01, 2011 07:42pm
our nukes are safe...get over it!!!!!!
ishtiaq Jun 01, 2011 09:05pm
This is a totally unnecessary article and serves no purpose. While I don't have as much confidence as I used to before PNS Mehran episode in Pak armed forces I do trust that Pak armed forces will guard their Nukes against any attempt to steal them.
sami Jun 01, 2011 09:50pm
Recently japnise tsunami put whole world into disastrous situation by their nuclear facilities but things got quieter like nothing happen. we have people & media in our country, constantly talking about the safety of our nuclear programme.our country is more in threat by these finding & so called intellectuals then Al-qeida or PNS incidents.
TM Jun 01, 2011 11:51pm
This article is a good example of imagination running wild. Looks like educated have started crying wolf!
Asif Jun 02, 2011 12:13am
Such episodes can happen in hollywood movies only, extremists ve been targeting US and other nuclear states but it is not a peanut to capture WMDs and use it.
Muhammad Anwar Jun 02, 2011 02:03am
This is only foreign propaganda against our nuclear deterrence. They just are taking the advantages of media to feel like this.Pakistan is fully capable of maintaining the security of His nuclear assets. As Pakistan is the only Muslim state having nuclear deterrence so they are trying to vanish this ability of Pakistan..
sam the man from pak Jun 02, 2011 02:38am
This is only a propaganda by enemies of Pakistan. In reality pakistani nukes are more safer then other countries.
Manish Jun 02, 2011 05:08am
All Scenario described here are not in normal conditions when Security are tight but one when attention is diverted to more serious issues and when there are chances of leaking of secure information.They are safe as long as they are in their security areas but in case of cold war or any such situation definitely they will come out and so on high risk.
Gustavo Jun 02, 2011 05:22am
I agree with above message.
salman Jun 02, 2011 06:17am
in the event of hostilities between India and pak, i think we Will have bigger problems then militants getting hold of a haft missile......
Tariq K Sami Jun 02, 2011 06:50am
Accidents can happen and I remember the most recent one less than a few years ago that happened in the USA where a A-bomb was carried around the country by mistake. Also look what happened in Japan when the Tsunami destroyed the Nuclear Power plant. I think Pakistan should welcome serious and sincere technical exchange of ideas. Most importantly with India.
The Forbidden Fruit Jun 02, 2011 06:56am
The grave risk of militants infiltrating our institutions is what needs to be probed and combated at once! It's the enemy within us that's sabotaging us and has the world pointing its finger towards us. It's a bitter truth but a good number of people sympathize with the Taliban!
Abid Hussain Jun 02, 2011 07:47am
Never read such a fake and silly article about nuclear warhead. I think writer has just copy paste idea from some source. Well it was a nice joke to laugh for a while, at least for me :)
Shahid Jun 02, 2011 10:17am
The British based news agency is indeed an expert in Hyping unnecessary stories.
khan Jun 02, 2011 10:42am
I am exteremely disappointed to see that Dawn News publishes such articles which have no base at all and only considers speculations and hypothetical situations just to spread rumours. I have to say that I have lost faith in the credibility of Dawn news over the last few months.
Nudrat Jun 02, 2011 11:05am
It is difficult or may be impossible for me being a Pakistani to believe that there is some support to Taliban from our Army, Navy and Air Force. Everybody who is patriotic are mostly in our forces. Their training & other teaching can not lead them to do this to their own civilians or fellow. I can not believe. The thing i can foresee is that there is a propaganda that people of Pakistan should lose their trust in their forces. This is because of our unfortunate & wrong media reports. I urge Pakistani nation to just stick together & face the challenges, be patriotic & helpful to each other including the law enforcement agencies.
Zaka ud din Jun 02, 2011 12:09pm
I appreciate all the comments. It may be possible in Hollywood but this is a real world. Security lapse may occur but I fear the west is unleashing plans of their own.
AJAY Jun 02, 2011 12:23pm
Guys. Its good to have faith in your defense system. But closing your eyes would not be a good idea in today’s Pakistan.
iqbal ahmed Jun 02, 2011 12:30pm
May this remain imagination of foreign media but an attack on navy base has shown the capabilities of terrorist. In such a scenario the terrorist could get hold of nuclear bomb as one do not know how many informers of them are in arm forces. Whats worse is that they do not use it on Pakistan soil against Pakistan to settle there differences with the government. ALLAH forbid such a situation but in the past our own people has turned against us.
saad masood khan saa Jun 02, 2011 12:30pm
Can the American administration recall that one of their General mistakenly flew in a cargo plain with two tomahawk cruise missiles with attached nuclear warheads in the plain that could blew two of their states ?I think Americans should get tips from us how safe guard nuclear weapons. Let me remind, there is not a single evidence of nuclear leakage, proliferation, breach of security or any control and command confusion in our nuclear assets.and that's the only nuclear country to claim that.As a nation we are sure about one thing, and that is;how to protect the thing we have acquired by paying an infinite cost...uOur nuclear assets. would you please leave us alone for that?
Javed Jun 02, 2011 01:23pm
Not a news worthy article at all. Full of heresay, unconfirmed reports and assumptions, would have looked good in foreign media but on a Pakistani newspaper... disgraceful.
Faraz Jun 02, 2011 02:32pm
Questioning our armed forces loyalties does not mean not being patriotic and by this I don't mean the poor soldiers who actually fight but those who make the decisions.
Jaspinder singh Jun 02, 2011 04:41pm
Yes US security is so good is it not?? thats why 9/11 happened, India has its own Hind exremists that could take over their neuclear arsenal, asksd the Sikhs post 1984 and the Khanpur massacre of 1991, one of many incidents of Hindu exremism that never makes the media.Pointless and useless article
Maheen Jun 02, 2011 04:54pm
I literally laughed my head off!! Another senseless piece compiled together from the western media and their hoax and lies! We love our Armed forces and would stand by them no matter what happens! We don't believe or second the lies and propaganda's projected on our own media which is working on the enemy agenda!
Mirza Tanveer Ahmed Jun 15, 2011 02:26pm
I do not agree with Mr.Tariq comments to share Technical matters with India.I have full confidence on our Armed Forces and they are capable to defend our Nuclear Assets .Why we should share with India and accept western media immaginary propaganda.As far as Meharan Base and GHQ incident is concerened all of us know that there are some black sheeps in our Armed forces and with their support Talibaan pentrated these Military bases.Pak Army should now take action against these animals involved in killing of innocent Pakistanis and responsible for giving bad name to Islam. Last but not least i would like to appeal Dawn that they should spread westeren propoganda through their news paper.