The siege by militants on a Pakistani military base on Monday is expected to again increase concerns about the South Asian state's capacity to protect its nuclear arsenal, the Los Angeles Times reported (see GSN, May 23).
Four to six militants were initially believed involved in the physical operation that killed no fewer than 10 and hurt another 15 at the Mehran Naval Station in Karachi. The number of attackers as of Tuesday was being assessed at up to 12.
The attackers used two ladders and wire cutters to overcome the security perimeter of the installation, where they proceeded to destroy two high-tech spy aircraft provided by the United States. It took Pakistani authorities the better part of the day to overpower the attackers who were armed with grenades, rocket launchers and guns.
The Pakistani Taliban has taken credit for the siege, which it said was retaliation for the U.S. killing earlier this month of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden (see related GSN story, today).
Pakistani officials have long asserted that domestic extremist activity does not threaten the nation's nuclear weapons. The warheads are built for delivery by missiles or bombers and are kept at undisclosed facilities generally located throughout Pakistan's Punjab region, according to experts.
The Mehran Naval Station, though, is just 15 miles away from the Masroor Air Base, which could potentially house large numbers of nuclear weapons.
While figures vary, recent analyses indicate Pakistan might hold in excess of 110 nuclear weapons.
"I'm sure there will be concerns around the world about this [attack], there's no doubt about it," retired Pakistani Gen. Talat Masood said. "I think Pakistan will have to make certain that anything like this cannot be repeated from the standpoint of nuclear installations."
Earlier this month, the Pakistani army and intelligence service were embarrassed when it was determined that bin Laden had been evading detection for years in the town of Abbottabad, which is close to Islamabad and has a substantial military presence.
Masood said the Monday attack was "a very strong indictment of Pakistan and its security forces and their ability to defend themselves. It will have a very demoralizing effect on the people, because if the security forces are unable to secure themselves and defend themselves, what expectations can the people have that the security forces will be able to defend the population?"
Former U.S. Army Lt. Gen. David Barno said the siege "comes at a tough time for the Pakistani military. Not only was the U.S. able to infiltrate Pakistan and kill Osama bin Laden under their noses, now militants attack a Pakistani base. This has a shock value."
One-time deputy U.N. envoy to Afghanistan Peter Galbraith, however, said the attack did not by itself indicate "that the military is incompetent."
"It is the dynamic of having lots of military locations and militants that can try to fight their way onto one of them," said Galbraith, who now works at the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation in Washington.
A higher degree of ability than has yet been demonstrated by Pakistani extremists would be required to gain access to installations housing Pakistan's nuclear weapons, Galbraith said.
"It is one thing to be able to get 18 people into a secure base and kill 12 security guards," the expert said. "It is another thing to try to grab a nuclear weapon and take it out. And then what would they do it? Some of these concerns are overwrought."
Barno said Washington has "pretty high confidence" in the safeguards surrounding Pakistani nuclear bombs, as officials had been assured multiple times that Islamabad has created a sophisticated program of defensive screens that includes leaving the weapons disassembled and stored separately from the missiles and bombers (Rodriguez/Bennett, Los Angeles Times, May 24).
There is no indication that any nuclear arms were held at the Mehran naval base, the New York Times reported.
Pakistani army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani in recent closed-door discussions with journalists and military experts signaled he wishes to bolster the confidence of the military and eliminate suggestions of inadequacy by increasing antiterrorism operations.
The general also underlined multiple times that the nation's nuclear arsenal was well defended, one expert who attended a discussion said (Masood/Sanger, New York Times, May 23).
Leaked U.S. diplomatic cables reportedly show, though, that the United States' chief atomic security concern in Pakistan is that someone employed in the nation's expanding nuclear weapons program could gradually pilfer away enough bomb-grade material to construct a crude weapon for militants.
"There is more concern about the plutonium and highly enriched-uranium in production facilities and laboratories, which involve considerably more people and facilities that aren't as protected as well as military bases," Institute for Science and International Security President David Albright told the Financial Times.
"You (would worry that extremists) could try to size a reactor in order to have a very visible suicide mission where they could threaten to damage the reactor or cause a massive radiation release," he said.
"The biggest assurance is that Pakistan's nuclear weapons are not deployed" one-time Pakistani national security adviser Mahmud Durrani said. "They are kept disassembled and in different locations" (Financial Times, May 23).
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen on Tuesday said while he believes Pakistan's nuclear arsenal is secured against attack, he acknowledged that the Monday siege was cause for "concern," Agence France-Presse reported.
"I feel confident that Pakistan's nuclear arsenal is safe and well protected," Rasmussen said. "But of course it is a matter of concern and we follow the situation closely" (Agence France-Presse/Yahoo!News, May 24).
The assault "reinforces the fear that terrorists have now developed a range of tactics -- foreknowledge, use of uniforms, simultaneous attacks on different entry points, etc. -- which enable them to penetrate high-security bases and, crucially, hold space within them for hours," Shaun Gregory, director of the Pakistan Security Research Unit at Bradford University, told Reuters by e-mail. "This is a blueprint for an attack on a nuclear facility" (see GSN, Aug. 11, 2009).
Select observers have said that the attackers must have received assistance from inside the installation, the sort of action that might be repeated at a nuclear site.
Keeping weapons disassembled and dispersed also has potential security drawbacks.
"Separate storage may provide a layer of protection against accidental launch or prevent theft of an assembled weapon, it may be easier for unauthorized people to remove a weapon's fissile material core if it is not assembled," according to a January report from the U.S. Congressional Research Service (Alistair Scrutton, Reuters, May 24).