Outcry Over Pakistani Nuke Security Could Have Consequences, Expert Says

(Jul. 19) -A member of Pakistan's military fires a tank-mounted machine gun last week during an operation against militants near the border with Afghanistan. Islamabad might disperse its nuclear weapons and place them on higher-alert status in response to news reports that raise concerns about the atomic arsenal's security, a U.S. nonproliferation expert said on Monday  (A. Majeed/Getty Images).
(Jul. 19) -A member of Pakistan's military fires a tank-mounted machine gun last week during an operation against militants near the border with Afghanistan. Islamabad might disperse its nuclear weapons and place them on higher-alert status in response to news reports that raise concerns about the atomic arsenal's security, a U.S. nonproliferation expert said on Monday (A. Majeed/Getty Images).

WASHINGTON -- Concerns raised in the U.S. media and elsewhere about the security of Pakistan's nuclear weapons could have unintended consequences by leading the nation to disperse its atomic assets and put its arsenal on a higher-alert status, a U.S. nonproliferation specialist warned on Monday (see GSN, July 7).

"Fear-mongering" by various news outlets in recent months about the prospects for Pakistani-based terrorists to acquire or attack nuclear assets plays into the government's longstanding paranoia about foreign nations plotting to seize the nation's atomic arsenal, said Toby Dalton, deputy director of the Nuclear Policy Program for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Islamabad "fears that the outside world is going to get Pakistan's nuclear weapons and that fear I think is likely to drive Pakistan for a time to want to disperse its nuclear weapons and to have higher alert postures for fear of some sort of disarming strike," Dalton said during a panel discussion in Washington on the South Asian nuclear arms race.

Pakistan is widely believed to have the world’s fastest growing nuclear stockpile, with recent reports estimating the arsenal at between 90 and 110 warheads (see GSN, July 1). The nation is generally thought to store its nuclear warheads separately from their modes of delivery, though the locations of the armaments are closely held secrets.

The South Asian state has been under scrutiny for some time due to international concerns that internal instability could provide an opportunity for terrorists to seize a warhead or, more plausibly, enough weapon-grade material to build a crude nuclear explosive of their own.

The United States in the last decade has given Pakistan billions of dollars in financial support aimed in part at helping the nation to secure its nuclear weapons against extremists. However, that assistance has had only a moderate effect in persuading Islamabad to crack down on domestic insurgents, according to previous news reports (see GSN, April 18).

The drumbeat of news stories about the international dangers posed by Pakistan's nuclear arsenal ratcheted up following the May raid by U.S. Navy SEALs on al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s compound in the town of Abbottabad and particularly after a subsequent militant assault on a naval base in Karachi. It took authorities much of a day to regain full control over the navy installation. The ability of the militant Islamists to pass through multiple security points and seemingly to identify the location of surveillance cameras has raised questions on whether the attackers had inside support.

Some U.S. lawmakers have publicly questioned whether the Pakistani security establishment is merely incompetent or is deliberately misleading Washington over the true level of its ties with local extremists. The Obama administration has moved to freeze or cancel $800 million in financial assistance to Pakistan's military.

Dalton, though, indicated that these recent incidents should not be taken to mean that the Pakistani nuclear arsenal has equally lax security.

"I think that the issue of Pakistan's nuclear security has been well overblown in the media here. I don't think the concerns are really necessarily supported by the facts," said Dalton, a former Energy Department nuclear safeguards chief who at one point was posted to the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan.

The U.S. military and the Obama administration have also repeatedly voiced confidence in Islamabad's ability to protect its nuclear assets.

Earlier this month, U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen touted Pakistan's reliability program that employs 'a very difficult screening process' for personnel involved in the nation's nuclear weapons program. The Pakistani program is reportedly not unlike the U.S. system for regularly vetting military personnel as a requirement of their continued access to U.S. nuclear arms (see GSN, July 8).

"Of all the things that are protected in Pakistan, the nuclear weapons are probably the best protected things," Dalton said. "Pakistan's military has great incentives to secure them."

"Pakistan has implemented a wide array of nuclear security measures and has been quite public about these," Dalton said. He added that "it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t worry because I think as this [nuclear weapons] program increases these concerns and the chances that something could go wrong can increase."

Dalton also questioned the security of neighboring India’s nuclear arsenal.

"We don't know how India goes about nuclear security. It’s not particularly transparent. There hasn't been a lot of interaction with the outside world," he said, though noting that India did take part in the 2011 Global Nuclear Security Summit in Washington.

The expert noted that as India moves to expand its civilian atomic energy, the risks of some nuclear material or technology being seized by extremists in midshipment could also grow.

"It's clear that there is a terrorism problem in India too," Dalton said, adding, "It's quite possible that there is just as much possibility of some sort of nuclear security, nuclear terrorism incident in India as there is in Pakistan."

Another speaker on the panel, retired Indian Strategic Forces Command chief Vijay Shankar, rejected that conclusion.

Shankar acknowledged that India is confronted with domestic extremists, "but it is not the same as what we are talking about in Pakistan. The nature of the problem is very different."

Unlike Indian extremists, Pakistani terrorist organizations have a sworn belief that acquiring and using a nuclear warhead would be good for them, he said.

The Pakistani security establishment is known to contain some elements that are sympathetic to the aspirations of hard-line Islamist extremists (see GSN, June 24). Additionally, the Pakistani intelligence agency has a history of supporting militant groups that target India and has even been accused of supporting the 2008 Lashkar-e-Taiba assault on the city of Mumbai (see GSN, May 24).

Retired Pakistani Air Vice Marshal Shahzad Chaudhry, speaking at the same event, said his nation's leadership is aware that it is under intense international scrutiny and that there is little margin for error.

July 19, 2011
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WASHINGTON -- Concerns raised in the U.S. media and elsewhere about the security of Pakistan's nuclear weapons could have unintended consequences by leading the nation to disperse its atomic assets and put its arsenal on a higher-alert status, a U.S. nonproliferation specialist warned on Monday (see GSN, July 7).

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