The Atlantic Magazine, an American monthly, has recently run a report titled ‘The Ally from Hell’. Though the Atlantic story--- filed by Jeffrey Goldberg and Marc Ambinder--- focuses on Pakistan Army’s links with Jihadis yet it has some chilling tidbits that should concern every citizen in Pakistan: the theft of country’s nuclear weapons. The Viewpoint has sought A H Nayyer’s opinion on the Atlantic report. Leading peace activist, A H Nayyer is a physicist and an educationist. Read on:
The Atlantic says: “At least six facilities widely believed to be associated with Pakistan’s nuclear program have already been targeted by militants. In November 2007, a suicide bomber attacked a bus carrying workers to the Sargodha air base, which is believed to house nuclear weapons; the following month, a school bus was attacked outside Kamra air base, which may also serve as a nuclear storage site; in August 2008, Pakistani Taliban suicide bombers attacked what experts believe to be the country’s main nuclear-weapons-assembly depot in Wah cantonment.”
Can we consider these attacks as attacks on nuclear facilities? Or is it mere sensationalism?
Let me state at the outset that while the Atlantic report seems a little too sensationalizing and may have been written with suspect motives, and hence worth trashing on various counts, I firmly believe that the combination of raging militancy, religious extremism and nuclear weapons is a very dangerous mix, not only for us in the country but also for the world at large. The combination makes nuclear weapons unsafe, and increases the risk of nuclear terrorism by a large factor. The militancy we are facing in the country is by forces which have the following characteristics: (1) they are vying to capture state power to impose their ideology on the society; (2) death does not scare them. They are looking for rewards in the world hereafter and hence eager to face martyrdom and have a huge stock of suicide bombers; (3) they are in the middle of a war of survival and hence desperately looking for lethal weapons to use, and (4) they have sympathizers in nearly all walks of life in Pakistan, including the military and defence science establishments.
As the Atlantic article correctly mentions, these forces have been waging a war against the Pakistani society. They have killed civilians indiscriminately through terrorist bombings in cities, and have pointedly attacked and hurt Pakistani military. They have launched brazen attacks against very heavily guarded military garrison, bases and headquarters. Many of the attacks may have taken place perilously close to facilities connected with the production of components and materials for nuclear weapons and with storage of nuclear weapons. We are therefore all very concerned about the challenge to the security of nuclear weapons from them. The inside support their attacks have received so far indicates that these forces have made ideological inroads into the military and the nuclear establishment.
No country possessing nuclear weapon can afford to keep them in one place because that makes them susceptible to pre-emptive strikes from the enemy, eroding the deterrent value of the weapons. They have to be dispersed, and dispersed in locations not easily locatable. The larger the number of nuclear weapons, larger will be the number of places of storing them. The dispersal must be accompanied by a dispersal of command and control also, or they may not be usable when needed. The dispersal therefore increases two risks: security of weapons, and unauthorized use of weapons. The world has faced this problem for decades, and has devised ways to reduce the risks. The command and control system has been perfected to meet this challenge, and the system of permissive action links reduces the risk of unauthorised use. Pakistan seems to have diligently implemented such protective measures. In additions, the weapons are claimed to have been stored in a state of separated components so that a single heist may not let the robbers acquire a usable nuclear weapon.
But we continue to have our fears as the state continues to be challenged by the Islamic militants. Recall that a little while ago, the Pakistani Taliban had wrested away control of Swat, Shangla nd Buner out of the Pakistani state. Had a nuclear weapon storage site been located in any of these areas, it would have come under the control of the Pakistani Taliban. Nuclear weapons could have become theirs. We thank our luck that it did not happen. But if the Pakistani state does not mend its ways and continues on the path of degeneration, the void is most likely to be filled by Taliban-like forces. In such a situation, they would naturally become the legitimate owners of nuclear weapons which they may not hesitate to share with other international jehadists. The choice before Pakistan is very stark: either improve your governance or give up your nuclear weapons.
According to Atlantic: “Nuclear-weapons components are sometimes moved by helicopter and sometimes moved over roads. And instead of moving nuclear material in armored, well-defended convoys, the SPD prefers to move material by subterfuge, in civilian-style vehicles without noticeable defenses, in the regular flow of traffic. According to both Pakistani and American sources, vans with a modest security profile are sometimes the preferred conveyance. And according to a senior U.S. intelligence official, the Pakistanis have begun using this low-security method to transfer not merely the “de-mated” component nuclear parts but “mated” nuclear weapons.”
Do you think in case of a road accident, such a method of transporting nuclear material can pose nuclear danger?
There is nothing new in the mobility of nuclear weapons. They are moved from place to place in all nuclear weapon states, and moving around by road or railways is considered safer than by air because it limits the extent of damage in case of an accident. But usually they are moved in de-mated form, component by component. However, one should not be surprised to see them moved around in fully deployable form. After all, mobile launchers of nuclear tipped missiles move around with loaded nuclear weapons from place to place. They contain a battery of several vehicles including TEL (Transporter, Erector, Launcher), fuel injector, weapon system, guidance system, and so on. Being able to launch missiles from mobile launchers means that the weapons are taken out of their storage sites and moved around to suitable places for launching. Similarly, TELs are mounted on railway trains also. All of this needs to be done in an inconspicuous manner, and there has to be an optimum combination of security and stealth. Obviously if you move them around in the company of a battalion of soldiers with sirens blaring out in front and at the back, you will fail to serve the purpose of their movement.
Take the case of need of movement in Pakistan's nuclear program. Pakistan's nuclear installations, even the military ones, are located far from each other. Thus, uranium mined and milled in Isakhel is transported by road to Kundian for fuel fabrication. The fuel is then transported to Khushab for burning in the reactors there. The burned (spent) fuel is then transported to Rawalpindi for reprocessing which yields plutonium for weapons. This plutonium is transported to another location, perhaps near Wah, for turning into metallic form and machining into shape for nuclear weapons. These cores are then transported to yet another facility where the bomb is made. Following the uranium route for nuclear weapons, uranium from Isakhel is sent to some place, perhaps near Multan, for turning it into uranium hexafluoride gas, which is sent to Kahuta, Rawalpindi, for enrichment. The enriched gas is sent back to a plant for turning it into uranium metal, which is taken to another place for machining into a weapon core, and then to another facility for making weapons out of the uranium cores.
All of this is done by road, and one or the other movement is taking place at nearly every instant of time. So, what The Atlantic has said only sensationalizes what happens all the time in Pakistan as it happens in India, in Russia, in China, in the US, etc.
It is true that an accident in transportation can cause serious problems, not as much when a vehicle carrying weapons or weapon components meets one, but when, for example, a vehicle transporting spent fuel from Khushab to Rawalpindi for reprocessing suffers an accident. The contents are extremely toxic and remain lethally radioactive for thousands of years. If such an accident occurs, anyone directly exposed will surely die in a short while. Others to whom radioactivity is carried by winds will get cancers and eventually die. Radioactivity will also cause genetic mutations in a large number of people resulting in abnormal child births, like it happened in Chernobyl. The place of accident will be unusable for several decades.
Atlantic claims: “Nuclear bombs capable of destroying entire cities are transported in delivery vans on congested and dangerous roads. And Pakistani and American sources say that since the raid on Abbottabad, the Pakistanis have provoked anxiety inside the Pentagon by increasing the pace of these movements. In other words, the Pakistani government is willing to make its nuclear weapons more vulnerable to theft by jihadists simply to hide them from the United States, the country that funds much of its military budget.” Your comments on this situation?
I think an article like this adds much more to the fear than inter-government communications. As has been explained above, mobile missile launchers travel by commonly used roads, and are mobile most of the time. They carry fully deployable nuclear warheads, although Pakistan has now claimed that it keeps its nuclear weapons in de-mated state. Every country that has mobile nuclear missile launchers in its arsenal will have them constantly on the move.
We need to also look at the question of USA raiding Pakistan to grab or destroy its nuclear weapons. USA will not embark on such a mission unless it is one hundred percent sure that it can take out ALL the nuclear weapons, because leaving behind a few would mean inviting more dangers for the US. Please note that there are many different voices from the USA, and as many views as there are voices. Some raise unnecessary alarm out of their political compulsions. I think when looking at such news from the USA, we need to also see who is saying what. The government policy is articulated only by the Departments of State (i.e., USA’s ministry of foreign affairs) and Department of Defense.
Stephen P. Cohen, the Brookings Institution scholar, is quoted in Atlantic report as saying that if ‘Pakistan were not in possession of nuclear weapons, the problem would not be nearly the same. Pakistan without nuclear weapons, he says, would be the equivalent of “Nigeria without oil”—a much lower foreign-policy priority’. Do you agree or disagree with Cohen’s assessment?
The Atlantic article is pretty offensive in tone and tenor. It starts with the words, "Pakistan lies." Full stop. Quoting Steve Cohen's statement is meant to trash Pakistan. But unwittingly it also means that the article admits that nuclear weapons have imparted value to Pakistan, implying that Pakistan is not going to give them up easily, which means that the US will have to find ways to live with a nuclear Pakistan.
Atlantic reveals: “In the recent past, the U.S. has spent as much as $100 million to help the SPD build better facilities and safety-and-security systems”. Does this not contradict the hype in Pakistani media that the USA wants to destroy Pakistan’s nuclear facilities? And your comment on Pakistani media for not highlighting this fact?
How can we blame Pakistanis for the hype when articles of this kind are the primary source of the fears. Looking at it logically, there is no contradiction between the USA spending money to safeguard Pakistan's nuclear installations, and wishing to also destroy Pakistan's nuclear facilities. The first could be in the hope that things could be brought under control, while the second could be an act of desperations when things seem to be going out of hand. Let me also remind you that Pakistan is not the only country where the USA spent money to guard against nuclear dangers. Russia after Soviet Union was the first such place. Under the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program of 1992, USA extended a lot of financial assistance to the economically weak Russia to ensure that its huge nuclear complex does not sink and lead to nuclear black marketing. It extended hard cash for paying salaries of scientists, erected safety portals on nuclear installations to remove the danger of smuggling in nuclear materials, and it bought off thousands of tons of Russian highly enriched uranium, took it to the US and in the presence of Russian scientists blended it down to non-weapon usable low enriched uranium. The bill was much larger than that for securing Pakistan's nuclear facilities.
Before the Nunn-Lugar program, the Russian weapons labs were in a very bad financial condition. Scientists had not received salaries for over 6 months. I knew some Russian scientists from weapon labs who used to economize even on their cigarettes by extinguishing them after a couple of puffs each time. What the USA did was to buy security for itself. Spending money in Pakistan was for the same purpose.
Atlantic claims: “military planners, preparations for the emergency denuclearization of Pakistan are on par with only two other priority-one global-crisis plans: one involves the possible U.S. invasion of Iran and the other involves a possible conflict with China. All three of these potential crises are considered low-probability but high-risk, to be prepared for accordingly”. Does this not compliment the fears expressed in Pakistani media?