Political instability and increasing militancy in Pakistan have led to growing concerns about the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. Some observers fear scenarios such as the theft of nuclear weapons by terrorists, the ascension of religious extremists in Islamabad, or the proliferation of weapons by radical sympathizers within Pakistan’s nuclear complex. The assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto in December 2007 and the kidnapping of two nuclear officials inPakistan’s tribal areas in February 2008 have only heightened these worries. While U.S. and Pakistani officials have expressed confidence in controls over Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, serious concerns remain regarding the impact of continued instability in the country on these safeguards.
Pakistan developed its nuclear weapons clandestinely beginning in the early 1970s. Many details of the program remain secret. According to October 2007 estimates, Pakistan has produced enough fissile material for up to sixty nuclear bombs or warheads. The bulk of Pakistan’s weapons are fueled by highly enriched uranium (HEU), including those detonated in the May 1998 tests that announced Pakistan’s emergence as a nuclear power. A 2007 report (PDF) from the International Panel on Fissile Materials, an independent group of arms-control and nonproliferation experts, states that Pakistan continues to produce highly enriched uranium for weapons at a rate of at least one hundred kilograms per year. In 1998, Pakistan also began producing plutonium for more advanced nuclear weapons. In all, experts say Pakistan’s nuclear program involves at least twenty facilities, including uranium mines, gas-centrifuge plants to produce HEU, light- and heavy-water research reactors, and plutonium reprocessing facilities.
When Pakistan set out to become a nuclear power, it found itself at odds with much of the rest of the world, which was focused on stopping proliferation, says Peter R. Lavoy, former director of the Center for Contemporary Conflict at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. Nearly every country signed the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which limited nuclear weapons to the five states that already had them: the United States, France, Great Britain, Russia, and China. Pakistan and rival India, however, did not sign, and India tested its first fissile weapon in 1974. Pakistan “turned to clandestine means to acquire nuclear technology—cooperating with shady middlemen, financiers, and front companies overseas,” Lavoy and Feroz Hassan Khan, a retired brigadier general in the Pakistani Army, wrote in a January 2004 op-ed in the San Jose Mercury News. “In a sense, they were experts at illicit procurement,” says David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security.
Control Over the Nukes
Since 2000, the nation’s key nuclear institutions have been under the unified control of the National Command Authority (NCA), a ten-member body, comprising the president; prime minister; chairman of the joint chiefs of staff; ministers of defense, interior, and finance; director-general of the Strategic Plans Division (SPD); and the commanders of the army, air force, and navy. Decision-making power regarding nuclear deployment rests with the NCA. Its chairman, who is the president of Pakistan, casts the final vote. The army, air force, and navy each have a strategic force command responsible for planning, control, and directives on the use of nuclear weapons. The Strategic Plans Division acts as National Command Authority’s secretariat, is in charge of developing and managing nuclear capability and exercises day-to-day control. The operational security of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, experts say, is the responsibility of General Khalid Kidwai, the three-star general who runs the SPD.
On December 13, 2007, President Pervez Musharraf formalized these authorities and structure under the National Command Authority Ordinance, 2007. A 2008 Congressional Research Service report (PDF) points out that “the timing of the ordinance was meant to help the command and control system weather political transitions and potentially preserve the military’s strong control over the system.”
Before Musharraf took control of the government in a the 1999 coup, Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program enjoyed considerable autonomy under the military’s oversight, many experts say. Because the program was secret, the scientists working on it were allowed great latitude. In particular, some experts say there was very loose governmental control of the nation’s main nuclear research laboratory, which was named after and run by the nuclear physicist known as the father of the Pakistani bomb, Adbul Qadeer Khan. “It was a no-questions-asked regime for the KRL [Khan Research Laboratory],” one long-serving Pakistani nuclear scientist told The Washington Post in 2004. “Dr. Khan was never supposed to answer or explain his frequent trips. He spent billions of dollars without any significant financial oversight.” In February 2004, Khan admitted on Pakistani television that he had shared nuclear technology with other countries for more than a decade.
Pakistan’s government denied any knowledge of Khan’s sales of nuclear-related parts, plans, and designs to Iran, Libya, and North Korea. According to Pakistani investigators, at least two Pakistani nuclear scientists also met with al-Qaeda representatives in 2000 and 2001, but authorities could not prove they shared nuclear-related information. And in 1990, A. Q. Khan’s nuclear laboratory reportedly sent a letter to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein offering assistance with building nuclear centrifuges. An International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) investigation concluded that the Iraqis never took up the offer—they already had sophisticated enrichment technology and suspected a scam, The New York Times reported.
In his televised statement, Khan took full responsibility for the transfers. “There was never, ever any kind of authority for these transfers from the government,” he said. But some experts inside and outside the government say it is difficult to believe that Pakistan’s nuclear secrets could have been exported without the knowledge of some in the military and the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence agency, especially because some shipments were made on Pakistani military aircraft. Former CFR Fellow Kathy Gannon argues it is likely that scientists had at least tacit approval from sympathetic elements in the Pakistani military and intelligence services. The Pakistani government inquiry into the nuclear transfers found that senior military and intelligence officials were guilty of “omissions” in the proper performance of their duties but did not actively take part in the scheme.
Safeguards for the Arsenal
Little is known about the precise safety procedures. According to various media reports, the weapons are stored with their fissile cores separated from the nonnuclear components, so they cannot be fired at a moment’s notice or without the cooperation of a number of military officials. According to Lavoy, Pakistan could assemble and deploy several nuclear weapons within a week. “I know there are apprehensions around the world, but I’m extremely sure they [Pakistan’s nuclear weapons] are in very secure hands,” Musharraf told the UN General Assembly shortly after the September 11 attacks.
Since September 2001, the Bush administration has spent almost $100 million on a highly classified program to help Pakistan secure its nuclear arsenal, according to a November 2007 New York Times report. The aid, part of the federal budget, paid for the training of Pakistani personnel in the United States and the construction of a nuclear security training center in Pakistan that is not yet complete.
Media reports also point out that the United States helped Pakistan develop Permissive Action Links (PALs), a protective fail-safe system that the United States uses to guard against accidental or unauthorized launches of nuclear systems. PALs requires a code to be entered before a weapon can be detonated. Pakistan reportedly requires the “standard two-man rule,” that two separate operators enter codes or turn keys to arm and launch nuclear weapons. The Strategic Plans Division has about ten thousand troops to ensure security at nuclear sites.
India’s National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan said in December 2007 the country had “a contingency plan in place [to deal with a situation] of nukes falling into wrong hands and getting used by elements in Pakistan.” Experts say India’s primary strategy to deter Pakistan from using its weapons has been by possessing its own nuclear arsenal. But Ashley J. Tellis, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says “I don’t think it makes sense for India to think of a unilateral action. There is only one country who can do this and that’s the United States.” Experts find it highly improbable that China, Israel or any other country with regional interests may try any unilateral action to secure Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program in case of breakdown of safeguards.
Concerns about Breakdown in Order
Many experts say they believe that in the short term, oversight from Pakistan’s professional military is tight enough that the risk of theft or accidental deployment of a weapon is low. If Musharraf were assassinated by Islamic fundamentalists or other enemies, another military general with similarly pro-Western views would likely take his place, many experts say. “The army is the glue of society and will continue to be so ... and it has a very firm hold over the military facilities,” says Nicholas Platt, a former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan. In his opinion, “the specter of radical Islamists taking over and brandishing the Islamic bomb is rather far-fetched.” U.S. military and defense department officials have also repeatedly expressed confidence in the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal despite rising militancy and political instability in the country.
But the safeguards are not foolproof, say experts. In this May 2007 CFR meeting on nuclear black markets, Mark Fitzpatrick, senior fellow for nonproliferation at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, pointed out that A.Q. Khan’s network may not be dismantled, as Pakistani officials claimed. “The assessment we heard was that it is not airtight, that there is still some leakage,” he said. Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says “There’s basically a whole series of checks and balances in the system, but it’s also inevitably true that checks and balances can be bypassed,” he says. Experts say the risk increases if Pakistan moves to a wartime footing with nuclear-armed India. Then, the missiles or other delivery systems would be matched with their plutonium or uranium cores and accidents or theft would be easier, experts say. In the longer term, some experts fear that domestic instability in Pakistan could eventually lead to a situation in which the security around the weapons breaks down.
In January 2008, Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the IAEA, expressed his fears about Pakistan's nuclear weapons. But Pakistan dismissed his concerns and reiterated that its nuclear arsenal was secure. Pervez Hoodbhoy, chairman of the department of physics at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad, writes in an International Herald Tribune op-ed that Pakistanis live in a state of denial. He says safety procedures and their associated technologies are only as safe as the men who use them and “the deliberate nurturing of jihadism by the state has, over 30 years, produced extremism inside parts of the military and intelligence.”