By Dr Subhash Kapila
Pakistan’s nuclear weapons arsenal safety has been a source of serious concern for the international community ever since Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal came into existence. Initially, international concerns focused on the unreliability of Pakistan as a ‘responsible stakeholder’ in nuclear stability, Pakistan’s propensity for conflict including nuclear conflict against India and nuclear weapons proliferation to ‘rogue nations’.
Pakistan’s nuclear weapons arsenal safety acquired menacing contours more significantly ever since 9/11when Pakistan emerged as the repository of nuclear weapon’s proliferation and also the repository and citadel of Islamic Jihadi terrorism.
Osama Bin Laden’s 9/11 was hatched, planned, and launched from the soil of Pakistan-Occupied Afghanistan and Pakistani soil itself and facilitated in a major way by Pakistan Army’s notorious intelligence agency, the ISI.
The United States major unstated military concern ever since has been focused on the eventuality of Pakistani nuclear weapons or nuclear materiel’s for making a ‘dirty bomb’ falling into the hands of the various terrorist organizations affiliated to Pakistan Army’s ISI..
From 2006 onwards, Pakistani terrorist organizations at repeated intervals have endangered Pakistan’s nuclear weapons storage sites and production complexes by launching attacks or moving into threatening proximity to locations like the Sargodha Air Base and the Wah military complex. In 2010 they had swooped from Swat to close to another Pakistan Air Force Base housing nuclear strike aircraft and the Pakistan Army was forced to move on threats of direct US military intervention.
Overtly, the United States pretends to agree with Pakistan Army’s assertions that its nuclear weapons arsenal is safe and secure in the hands of Pakistan Army’s special security organizations created for this purpose.
However, the United States misplaced trust on Pakistan Army’s iron-clad guarantees on the safety of its nuclear weapons arsenal is taking a beating and wearing thin with repetitive incidents of Pakistani terrorist attacks on vital Pakistan Army installations and the General Headquarters itself.
In all such terrorists attacks on “High Security& Heavily Fortified Complexes” the common assessment of respected analysts has been that these would not have been possible without ‘insider complicity’ from within Pakistan Army’s security organizations.
This weeks audacious attacks on the Pakistan Navy Aviation Base at Mehran in close proximity of the Karachi International Airport and alongside the Pakistan Air Force Base, once again brings renewed focus on the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons arsenal
It would therefore be in order to renew ones focus on the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons arsenal once again when contextually Pakistan-United States strategic partnership itself stands endangered and dangers of Pakistan’s implosion from within exist. The main theme of this Paper is examined under the following heads:(1) Pakistan Army’s Nuclear Weapons Arsenal: Vulnerabilities of Storage Sites and Location of Production Complexes (2)Imperatives of Constant Shifting & Its Vulnerabilities (3) Islamist Sympathizers Within Pakistan Army Officers and Soldiery (4) The China Factor in Pakistan Army’s Nuclear Weapons Arsenal Safety (5)Pakistan’s Fail-Safe Measures Not Credible
Pakistan Army’s Nuclear Weapons Arsenal: Vulnerabilities of Storage Sites and Location of Production Complexes
Pakistan in the initial stages had selected its nuclear weapons production complexes and storage sites related to its perceived military threat from India. To keep them out of reach from Indian air strikes it sited all its nuclear weapons sites on its Western peripheries or very nearly so.
Ironically, Pakistan Army’s nuclear weapons storage sites and production complexes now fall into the very areas of Pakistani terrorist organizations sway or in close proximity to such areas.
With Pakistan Army having a tenuous hold on its Western frontier explosive regions, its nuclear weapons storage sites and production complexes perforce cannot be shifted. Currently they stand at increased risk of attacks and penetration by terrorist organizations which perceive that the Pakistan Army has sold its soul to the Americans and fighting America’s war against them.
With the Pakistan Army itself as the main target of the Pakistani Taliban and it being besieged on other fronts, one wonders what military effectiveness the Pakistan Army can employ to combat its many threats not the least being the safety of its nuclear weapons arsenal.
Imperatives of Constant Shifting and Its Vulnerabilities
Pakistan Army is faced with a piquant situation where military imperatives exist for it to constantly shuttle its nuclear weapons storage sites even when they are stored in de-mated mode.
More than the Indian strikes threat, the Pakistan Army and its military hierarchy have become paranoid about the likelihood of a United States surgical strike to take out its nuclear weapons arsenal. This is found in the utterances of Pakistani Generals and analysts.
The shuttling around of Pakistan Army’s nuclear weapons offers increased exposure to Pakistani terrorist organizations when such strategic assets are on the move irrespective of the most intense security cover provided.
Another aspect that finds mention in Pakistani discourse on the subject is that the Pakistan Army has the propensity to move its tactical nuclear weapons every time Pakistani terrorist attacks take place against India and the dangers of an Indian riposte. Under such situations Pakistani nuclear weapons assets are once again exposed to increased risk of falling in terrorists hands.
Some even go to the extent of suggesting that Pakistani terrorist organizations may deliberately engineer a Mumbai26/11 type attack so that in the ensuing scenario they can lay their hands on a Pakistan Army nuclear asset.
The reverse should also be accepted as a possibility in that the ISI engineers such an incident in which a plausible deniability exit would exist if it perceives that Pakistan strategic ends are being served.
Islamist Sympathizers Within Pakistan Army Officers and Soldiery
The real threat to Pakistan Army’s nuclear weapons arsenal is not from the terrorists organizations per se. For such organizations to breach the multi-layered security that is claimed to be in place by the Pakistan Army would be a daunting task as breaching each ring would start alarm bells ringing and invite preemptive actions before the inner ring is breached.
The real threat to the safety and security to Pakistan Army’s nuclear arsenal is posed from within by Islamist fundamentalist sympathizers amongst the Pakistan Army officers and soldiery. It is these elements who would act as the Trojan Horse for facilitating an inside access to Pakistani nuclear weapons arsenal.
It is these elements who can be instrumental in passing-on nuclear radioactive materials for a ‘dirty bomb’ to terrorists’ organization. In this connection the reliability of Pakistani nuclear scientists is also worrisome as the past record shows.
The Pakistan Army would like the United States to believe that the selection and screening process for personnel of the security set-up for their nuclear weapons arsenal is stringent and credible. However that argument does not carry weight when a whole string of inside jobs in terrorists attacks against Pakistan military targets are taken into account.
The China Factor in Pakistan Army’s Nuclear Weapons Arsenal Safety
The Pakistan Army’s nuclear weapons arsenal owes its existence, follow-up production of increased number of nuclear weapons and technology updates to China. China therefore has a vested interest in the safety and security of the Pakistani nuclear arsenal. This vested interest arises not from any urges of being a responsible stakeholder in regional nuclear stability and security.
China’s vested interest in the security of the Pakistan nuclear weapons arsenal stems from its strategic imperatives in the continued existence of a credible nuclear weapons arsenal of Pakistan to serve the ends of China’s Grand Strategy focused on India and the United States.
If Pakistan’s nuclear weapons arsenal is breached then surely it would invite United States military intervention and taking out of the Pakistan nuclear weapons capabilities. That would be a strategic catastrophe for China.
Would China be involved or is already involved in the security set-up of Pakistan Army’s nuclear weapons arsenal is something only the United States, Pakistan and China would know?
Relatedly, it was strange that at the PNS MEHRAN attack by the Pakistani Taliban there were both Chinese and US military personnel at the same base. What were the Chinese doing there when the Pakistani Naval Aviation Base had only US origin aircraft stationed there?
Pakistan’s Fail-Safe Measures Not Credible
Much has been written about the credibility of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons security and fail-safe measures put into existence with millions of US dollars spent for this purpose. Much is also talked about the Permissive Action Links (PAL) mechanisms in place.
Experts point out that PAL comes into play only when the nuclear warhead is mated with the delivery system and not before. Therefore even if the United States is in a position to electronically jam Pakistani PAL systems to prevent launch of nuclear strikes, the United States with the information available in the public domain is not in a position to ensure that nuclear warheads or related nuclear materiel enroute for mating do not fall into the hands of terrorists organizations targeting the United States and India.
That can only be ensured by the Pakistan Army and by all current patterns the Pakistan Army either by incompetence or due to complicity with terrorists’ organizations by Islamist fundamentalists within its officers and soldiery, has been unable to ensure.
The credibility of the fail-safe systems of Pakistan Army’s nuclear weapons arsenal is therefore questionable?
Pakistan Army’s nuclear weapons arsenal safety stands seriously endangered from the twin dangers of a deliberate operation by Pakistan Army’s former terrorists organizations affiliates and the bigger danger of an ‘insider job’ facilitating the former by Islamist fundamentalists sympathizers within Pakistan Army officers and soldiery. It also adds to the trust-deficit in this critical field.
The Pakistan Army hierarchy has become paranoid about the likelihood of the United States military intervention to take out its nuclear weapons arsenal. This complicates the safety of Pakistani nuclear arsenal in multiple ways. The reliability of the Pakistan Army in such a scenario becomes doubly doubtful.
With dangers of Pakistan’s internal implosion and strategic denouement in US-Pakistan strategic relationship and the ensuing trust-deficit, the credibility and the trust in the Pakistan Army to safeguard its nuclear weapons becomes that much eroded.
The United States alone has to ensure the neutralization of the Pakistan Army nuclear weapons arsenal.
(The author is an International Relations and Strategic Affairs analyst. He is Consultant, Strategic Affairs with South Asia Analysis Group. Email: [email protected])