Monday, May 23, 2011

Naval base attack raises questions over safety of Pak nukes

Television screenshot of the first known Pakis...Image via Wikipedia
NEW DELHI: The Taliban attack on Pakistan's Mehran naval base raises an oft-repeated question: can Pakistan save its nuclear weapons?

Pakistan's nukes evoke a curious reaction -- every leader, in India or US, stress their safety, yet everybody stays up at night wondering whether they are really safe. Pakistan's failure to save its prized maritime reconnaissance aircraft has only deepened the worry.

Rahul Roy Chaudhury of International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), London, sums up the fears. "The attack on Mehran, a well-guarded military installation, at a time when Pakistan is on its highest alert status following the Abbottabad raid, raises serious questions over the security of Pakistan's nuclear assets. Not merely weapon storage sites, whose locations may be secure, but more likely, nuclear plants and research facilities whose locations are well known. This could be exacerbated by the passing of 'insider' information on their security systems by employees angered and radicalized by the Abbottabad raid."

How can Pakistan's nukes fall into the wrong hands? Either Taliban/al-Qaida getting a hold of the weapons, jihadis accessing fissile material which could be used to make a "dirty bomb" or, extremist officials within the Pakistani military establishment itself accessing weapons or material.

Taliban/al-Qaida have flirted with the idea of a "dirty bomb" or capturing nuclear assets for some time now. But as strategic experts have said, it's not easy getting a nuclear weapon, leave alone use it. The supporting infrastructure needed is fairly large. George Perkovich of Carnegie wrote, "Pakistan's...nukes are its crown jewels. The army cares about them in ways that it does not about bin Laden's whereabouts or fighting the Haqqani network."

Besides, Pakistan's weapons are not holed up in traditional silos. The military keeps them secret, but they are generally believed to be in storage sites (most probably in Punjab) and not in a high state of alert. Pakistani experts say they are also mobile to keep their locations secret. Shireen Mazari, Pakistani strategic expert, dismissed Taliban takeover fears in a post-Osama briefing. "The nuclear programme has matured, is robust, self-sustaining and widely dispersed." It's well guarded, but after a breach at their naval airbase, the question being asked is, how well is well guarded?

A new danger comes from the sophistication of Pakistan's nuclear weapons capability. In April 2011, Pakistan showed it could build tactical nuclear weapons with NASR. These are low-yield short range plutonium-based weapons and they are mobile. Which can give Pakistan's nuclear capability the jihadi edge, because they can be transported and used easily. The temptation to use them as a terror weapon just got easier.

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