What U.S. Could Do if Pakistan Loses Control Over Nuclear Weapons

A Pakistani nuclear-capable Hatf 2 ballistic missile is displayed during a 2007 military parade in Islamabad. RAND terrorism expert Brian Jenkins said Washington and other world powers should assess a wide range of response options in case atomic arms go missing (AP Photo/Anjum Naveed).
A Pakistani nuclear-capable Hatf 2 ballistic missile is displayed during a 2007 military parade in Islamabad. RAND terrorism expert Brian Jenkins said Washington and other world powers should assess a wide range of response options in case atomic arms go missing (AP Photo/Anjum Naveed).

WASHINGTON -- A longtime expert on terrorism and nuclear arms is calling on the United States and others to identify fresh responses to a potential crisis in which a nation such as Pakistan or North Korea loses control over nuclear weapons or fissile material, without the West necessarily intervening by force.

“Outside intervention in these circumstances is a long shot, at best,” in terms of entering a nation in crisis and attempting to locate and secure any so-called “loose nukes” held by rogue actors or extremists, Brian Jenkins, a senior adviser to the RAND Corp. president, said at a Wednesday presentation.

“One should not have any degree of optimism that we can do this,” he said, speaking at the Stimson Center. “This is much more complicated than, for example, going after Osama bin Laden.”

The U.S. Defense Department for years reportedly has war-gamed the possibility of forcibly securing Pakistani or North Korean nuclear warheads in the event of a serious crisis.

Both nations have maintained strict secrecy about their nuclear arms. Pakistan is estimated to have roughly 100 warheads, while North Korea might have a half-dozen or more.

Reports about the Pentagon drafting contingency plans for possible intervention in an emergency scenario have triggered outrage in Pakistan, as well as concerns elsewhere about the feasibility or wisdom of such action.

Jenkins said the need for a U.S. armed initiative in this type of scenario should not be ruled out. However, he underscored the unforeseen risks of any military intervention.

“This really gets complicated,” he said, suggesting that domestic or external armies or insurgents might pose serious obstacles. “The notion that we’re going to be operating in a benign environment is … nonsense.”

A former Army officer who served in the Green Berets, Jenkins urged the world community to think creatively about what it might do short of inserting boots on the ground.

He noted that during the Cold War, Russia and the United States agreed on hotlines and other stability measures that could be used in the event that rogue elements were to gain control of nuclear arms, despite extensive systems aimed at keeping them secure.

“It may be appropriate to start revisiting some of those things in what would be a more complex situation,” Jenkins said. “Is it realistic to think that we can -- where a weapon goes missing or there’s a situation like that -- can we actually quarantine, effectively quarantine, a nation?”

He said he was doubtful of that prospect, but suggested this idea and others nonetheless should be further explored.

“In terms of intelligence, can we rapidly mobilize a swarm of sensors and other things to try to quickly locate and track [missing items]?” he asked. “I’m talking about an all-out push.”

In the end, a lack of effective options might suggest that Washington or other world powers would be limited in the support they could provide to a nation grappling with dangerous weapons or materials on the loose, he said.

“What, if anything, could we do?” said Jenkins, noting he lacked the technical background to comment in detail. “If the answer is ‘not a lot,’ then that’s a conclusion and let’s not have any illusions about what we can do.”

May 17, 2013
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WASHINGTON -- A longtime expert on terrorism and nuclear arms is calling on the United States and others to identify fresh responses to a potential crisis in which a nation such as Pakistan or North Korea loses control over nuclear weapons or fissile material, without the West necessarily intervening by force.