Cooperative Threat Reduction and Pakistan

The Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) programs, originally designed to deal with proliferation threats in the former Soviet Union (FSU), provide a model for enhancing nuclear safety and security through international assistance. Despite certain implementation problems, CTR programs have proved to be efficient and successful. In 2003, the original U.S. CTR legislation was expanded to authorize funding of CTR projects outside the former Soviet Union. A key question for nonproliferation analysts and policymakers is whether a CTR mechanism can be applied in other regions of proliferation concern, including Pakistan. This issue brief juxtaposes conditions in the FSU and Pakistan and examines the prospects of CTR-type assistance for Pakistan.

CTR in the Former Soviet Union[1]

The CTR programs are rooted in legislation sponsored by Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar in 1991.[2] The original Nunn-Lugar CTR program administered by the U.S. Department of Defense has being dealing with an array of nonproliferation tasks in the former Soviet Union, the most important being the denuclearization of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine.[3] It later evolved into a number of different programs administered by the Department of Energy, the Department of Commerce, the State Department, and other U.S. government agencies. Existing programs address a range of issues including fissile material protection and accounting, safety and security of WMD-related facilities, mitigation of bio-threats, chemical weapons destruction, and redirection of weapons scientists.[4]

There were several conditions that allowed CTR to succeed. Although U.S. policymakers debated the urgency and scope of the threat, they realized that the threat from FSU nuclear facilities was real. It was uncertain whether sub-state actors or rogue states would take advantage of Russia's nuclear materials, but it was understood that if they decided to do so, they would probably have the conditions to succeed (this concern was more valid in respect to nuclear material rather than weapons). It was obvious to key decision-makers in the United States that it was in the best interest of the United States and the international community for the three non-Russian republics (Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine) to denuclearize. Since initially it was unclear whether the new governments in those three republics would be ready to give up the nuclear weapons they inherited, CTR was seen as an important incentive and mechanism for them to disarm.

To support the initial CTR concept, there was a fortunate combination of key individuals in the United States from academia, government, and Congress who argued for the program. A group of Harvard University scholars carried out a timely study of potential nuclear proliferation threats and risks stemming from the disintegrating Soviet Union. The study (Soviet Nuclear Fission: Control of the Nuclear Arsenal in a Disintegrating Soviet Union) was published in November 1991,[5] just a month before the Soviet Union collapsed. Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar created momentum on Capitol Hill and pushed for relevant legislation ("Soviet Nuclear Threat Reduction Act") to be adopted by the U.S. Congress. A number of individuals supporting the CTR concept were brought into the Departments of Defense and Energy during the first Clinton administration.

At the time of CTR's inception, Russia was undergoing a deep economic and financial crisis and the proposed dismantlement assistance was seen by some in Russia as a tool for the country to meet its arms reduction obligations and to ensure that the country did not become a source of uncontrolled proliferation.

On a larger scale, U.S.-Russian relations were going through a post-Cold War "honeymoon" period: both sides had high hopes for the transformation that was underway. The West believed Russia's integration into the international community and its path to democratization would be relatively fast. The Russian leadership at the time was willing to demonstrate that the "new" Russia was striving to be a modern open society and this also contributed to making CTR programs possible.

Despite the historic events that gave rise to the CTR program, the introduction of CTR programs in the former Soviet Union was not an easy process. Several factors created challenges for U.S.-Russian cooperation. First, although international experts raised serious concerns about what could happen to nuclear weapons and materials in the disintegrating Soviet Union, there was no evidence of an imminent loss of control over the weapons. Neither the imminence nor the magnitude of the risk was certain.

Secondly, the CTR programs required collaboration on matters that were considered highly sensitive state secrets by the FSU countries. All U.S.-funded nonproliferation assistance required a varied degree of access to sensitive sites, data, and expertise. Close cooperation in the nuclear field was unprecedented for former adversaries.

CTR was a "hard-sell" both in the United States and Russia. Opposition to CTR was especially strong at the initial stage when the first program (the original Nunn-Lugar CTR program) was getting off the ground. Serious concerns were raised within the U.S. Congress. Critics doubted the wisdom of channelling funds to Russia. They feared that the assistance would free up Russia's own resources which it would then use for modernization of its nuclear weapons.[6] At the same time, some political groups in Russia voiced concern that the United States would use CTR as a mechanism for obtaining sensitive information. Some CTR critics in Russia also suspected the United States had ulterior motives and would "undermine" Russia's nuclear arsenal from within. Non-Russian republics receiving CTR assistance were more open to cooperation because they welcomed the end goal of complete denuclearization, while Russia wanted to preserve its nuclear forces.

CTR programs have experienced considerable bureaucratic problems in implementation. Differing organizational interests and inefficient bureaucracies have led to regular delays in carrying out the projects. Bureaucratic problems were exacerbated by political issues (e.g. obtaining U.S. and Russian visas for travel is already a cumbersome process and CTR-related travel is even more complicated due to more stringent and time-consuming procedures connected with security concerns on both sides). Some U.S.-Russian programs faced problems caused by technical issues and disagreements over liability issues.[7]

Despite the numerous obstacles to CTR in the former Soviet Union, the process has advanced and evolved over time. Instead of one initial CTR program administered by the Department of Defense, there is now an array of programs with specific goals and objectives in multiple U.S. agencies. The CTR process has also expanded from dealing only with nuclear threats and risks to working in the area of bio-security and chemical weapons destruction.[8]

Discreet CTR in Pakistan

Pakistan's candidature for CTR-type assistance stems from the uncovering of the A.Q. Khan nuclear supply network in 2003-04 and the realization that Islamabad's nuclear weapons, facilities, and personnel might be at risk from both state and non-state actors. Prior to that, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 had raised fears over the possibility of terrorist groups acquiring nuclear weapons and materials from elements within Pakistan.[9] Reports of a meeting in 2001 between some Pakistani nuclear scientists and Al Qaeda leaders further increased such threat perceptions.[10] More recently, the upsurge and expansion of terrorist violence and political turmoil in Pakistan have given rise to concerns that instability in the country would weaken controls over nuclear weapons and facilities.[11]

Initially, during the October 2001 visit of Secretary of State Colin Powell to Islamabad, assistance on nuclear security matters was offered to Pakistan.[12] In subsequent years, components of a CTR-type initiative were put in place in Pakistan, according to news reports in late 2007.[13] U.S. assistance for strengthening nuclear security in Pakistan, worth about $100 million, has included training personnel, supply of nuclear detection equipment, surveillance equipment, night-vision goggles, helicopters, and the construction of a nuclear security training center (that remained unfinished as of November 2007).[14] Other examples of such cooperation includes training of Pakistani security personnel by the United States National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) while Pakistani officials have also been briefed on issues related to personnel reliability and export controls, including discussions in 2003-04 prior to the enactment of Pakistan's Export Control Act.[15]

The "brain-drain" of scientists toward suspect entities such as proliferation and/or terrorist groups is another perceived nuclear security threat, and Islamabad has reportedly put in place a comprehensive Personnel Reliability Program. From the available information, U.S. involvement in this program appears to be limited to providing basic guidelines, coupled with interactions on this initiative with the NNSA, as mentioned above.[16] There is no indication, however, that Washington is providing any direct assistance, financial or best practices, to ensure continued employment for Pakistan's nuclear scientists.

Clearly there is limited public information on the exact levels of cooperation on nuclear security matters. For example, a key question is whether the United States has transferred Permissive Action Links (PALs) technology that helps secure warheads against unauthorized use. Although some reports have contended that the U.S. might have transferred this technology to Pakistan, so far Washington has not done so;[17] but it is likely that Islamabad has installed its own variant of PALs on its warheads.[18]

Dealing with Potential Problems

While there has been significant nuclear security cooperation between the United States and Pakistan, substantial problems may prevent formalization and expansion of CTR-like assistance. Some of these hurdles are similar to those encountered in the original FSU CTR programs. For instance in the midst of concerns expressed over Pakistan's nuclear security,[19] some policymakers and experts believe that there is no imminent threat to Islamabad's nuclear weapons, especially because the Pakistan military exercises strict control over nuclear facilities.[20] Nevertheless, the A.Q. Khan network shows the dramatic potential of the insider threat. CTR-like assistance for Islamabad has therefore been considered as a way to deter proliferation networks, terrorist groups, and insiders from threatening the security of Islamabad's nuclear weapons.

However, in Pakistan there is much resistance to a formal U.S. CTR program. Important constituencies in Islamabad suspect that through such assistance Washington would somehow control and rollback Pakistan's nuclear capability.[21] These fears are linked to the reluctance of the United States to recognize Pakistan as a de facto nuclear weapons state. Commentators and political figures in the United States have heightened this suspicion in Pakistan by making public statements speculating about the security of Pakistan's nuclear assets. Periodic reports in the media that military contingency plans for forcibly securing Pakistan's nuclear weapons are being or should be considered by the United States invariably provoke protests within Pakistan[22] and add to the mistrust between the two countries.

In fact, there is some suspicion in Pakistan that even if the United States does transfer PALs technology, it might contain a "kill switch" through which Washington could neutralize Islamabad's nuclear weapons.[23] For Washington, the trust issue is relevant when considering that providing PALs technology could divulge sensitive information about U.S. nuclear weapons.[24] Relatedly, it is possible that U.S. reluctance to provide PALs could also stem from fears over potential Pakistani transfers of such information to China, although there is no indication in the open source media of any such specific concerns.

Therefore, even if the Pakistani government realizes the benefits of such aid, it is difficult for it to formally and publicly cooperate on nuclear issues with Washington. Given the discontent in Pakistan across the political spectrum toward security cooperation with the United States, upgrading cooperation to the level of nuclear security matters, carries with it significant risk for the Islamabad government. Thus, after news media reported in November 2007 that Washington had provided CTR-type assistance, Islamabad downplayed this cooperation.[25] This is understandable, given the sensitive political implications, but it also underscores the difficulty of additional CTR-type projects.

The question of access by non-Pakistani officials to Islamabad's nuclear facilities demonstrates the uneasiness in Pakistan toward U.S. assistance. In April 2008, there was a brief uproar over reports that the U.S. State Department had put forward a proposal that an American official be stationed at the embassy in Islamabad to coordinate nuclear matters and have access to the National Command Authority (NCA), Pakistan's main nuclear decision-making body.[26] The opposition to this apparent proposal is indicative of the suspicion in some quarters in Pakistan toward providing any information or access to the country's nuclear facilities to foreign personnel. Another long-standing issue is that of allowing international investigators to question A.Q. Khan on the proliferation network that he masterminded. Islamabad has repeatedly stated that direct access to Khan will not be allowed as he has knowledge of sensitive state defense secrets and because such a move would lead to domestic political upheavals.[27] Given such suspicions over U.S. contact with entities related to the nuclear sector, the need to ensure a firewall between any U.S. input or assistance and Pakistan's nuclear weapons complex could be a hurdle toward formalization or expansion of such assistance.

From the U.S. perspective, provision of CTR assistance requires some assurance that the expertise and technology provided is being used in an optimum manner and for the intended purpose.[28] This would entail access to information on how Islamabad has been utilizing this assistance. The Pakistani authorities are unwilling to share this information with the United States out of fear that it would permit Washington to pinpoint the location of Pakistan's nuclear warheads and reveal other sensitive strategic data such as Islamabad's fissile material production capabilities.[29]

More broadly, an additional complication could be Washington's increasing dissatisfaction with the lack of accountability for the billions of dollars of counter-terrorism operations aid provided to Pakistan since 9/11. An April 2008 report by the Government Accountability Office concluded that at least $2 billion in Coalition Support Funds transferred to Islamabad since 2001 may not have been used for their specified purposes.[30] Prior to that, in 2007 administration officials had expressed concern that a large part of these funds were actually used to buy weapons more suitable for combating Indian forces.[31]

A second hurdle concerns nonproliferation regime regulations and U.S. legislation that could restrict such initiatives. Article I of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) prohibits supply of technology or expertise to any non-nuclear state (i.e., a country not recognized by the NPT as a nuclear state), that would augment its nuclear weapons capability. Pakistan is not a party to the NPT and tested nuclear weapons in 1998. Furthermore, Nuclear Suppliers Group guidelines also favor full scope International Atomic Energy Agency Safeguards (which Pakistan does not have) for supply of certain items, and an assurance that such assistance would not be used for nuclear weapons development.[32] Strengthening the security of Pakistan's nuclear weapons might also have the effect of improving its overall nuclear capability, and its confidence in its nuclear deterrent. However, such assistance would assist Islamabad in securing its nuclear facilities against horizontal proliferation, arguably a higher priority than preventing Pakistan from improving its nuclear arsenal. Nonproliferation analyst Sharon Squassoni argues that to avoid the NPT and NSG issues, it might be more feasible for the United States to assist Islamabad in securing its nuclear materials and personnel instead of its nuclear weapons.[33]

Formalization or expansion of CTR-like assistance to Pakistan might also run into U.S. domestic laws, especially the Atomic Energy Act, which requires a nuclear cooperation agreement ("123 agreement") before transfer of non-nuclear parts of an atomic device[34] (although the United States and Russia did not have a 123 agreement in place before the launch of the CTR program[35]). Prospects for such an agreement seem highly unlikely, and U.S. officials have already turned down Islamabad's calls for such an arrangement.

Finally, although there are many hurdles to a Pakistan-specific CTR program, Washington and Islamabad have extended cooperation in some other multilateral mechanisms.[36] In 2007, as part of the operational testing of the U.S. government's Secure Freight Initiative, systems for scanning containers for radiological and nuclear materials were installed at Port Qasim in Pakistan.[37] The same year, Pakistan also joined the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, although Islamabad is firm that the scope of this program will not extend to the military side of its nuclear program.[38]

Thus, there are some global cooperative measures already in place to alleviate the threat of nuclear terrorism and proliferation that can potentially be used to assist Pakistan. The multilateral nature of these measures might alleviate suspicions in Pakistan over the actual intent of such assistance and advice, since other countries would also participate. (However, these programs might not surmount the hurdles of nonproliferation regime-related regulations and domestic legislative constraints). Some believe that it might be preferable for Washington to pursue a low-key strategy of encouraging "best practices" without necessarily requiring direct regulation of cooperative assistance in Pakistan[39] – which might be similar to the discreet components of CTR already in place. (Indeed, "best practices" is the term used by the Pakistani foreign office to describe the ongoing informal nuclear assistance cooperation.[40])

If there is a need to formalize a CTR-like program with Pakistan, it might be beneficial to have sponsoring parties more acceptable to Pakistani domestic audiences. China could be a possible partner here, especially given the long-standing ties between the two countries, although there are no reports of any cooperation in nuclear security matters between the two countries. The participation of other countries could be a good way to solve the trust problem, at least from the Pakistani perspective.


It is not surprising that Pakistan is considered a possible recipient of CTR-type assistance, and some informal mechanisms are already in place, despite challenges to a more robust program. Some of these problems are a throwback to those encountered in the original CTR initiative to aid the former Soviet Union. One major parallel remains the suspicion on the part of the (potential) recipient state about actual U.S. objectives; this suspicion was gradually alleviated in the FSU case. The United States managed to overcome Russian suspicions by continuing dialogue and working on purely technical problems despite difficult political controversies; this strategy might work in Pakistan. Similar to the situation in the former Soviet Union, although there is a perception that Pakistan's nuclear weapons are not secure, there is no specific public information on deliberate targeting of Islamabad's nuclear facilities for proliferation or terror purposes.

While there are hurdles to formal CTR measures with Pakistan, the United States and Pakistan have cooperated on initiatives that work to prevent nuclear and radiological materials trafficking and strengthen export controls. To a certain extent, they cover some cooperative activities that would come under the scope of a potential CTR mechanism. Nevertheless, given the political instability and terrorist violence in Pakistan, CTR assistance, whether informal or as a specific program, is likely to be part of the debate on the security of Islamabad's nuclear weapons.

The authors would like to thank Sarah Diehl for her valuable comments on this issue brief.

Key Sources

[1] Togzhan Kassenova, From Antagonism to Partnership: The Uneasy Path of the U.S.-Russian Cooperative Threat Reduction (Stuttgart: ibidem-Verlag,2007).
[2] "Soviet Nuclear Threat Reduction Act," Public Law 102-228.
[3] The program was known as the "Nunn-Lugar Program" until the Clinton administration gave it the formal name "Cooperative Threat Reduction Program" in 1993.
[4] For more information, see Richard Weitz, Progress Continues in U.S.-Russian Nuclear Cooperative Threat Reduction Efforts, WMD Insights, December 2007-January 2008 Issue, at
[5] Soviet Nuclear Fission: Control of the Nuclear Arsenal in a Disintegrating Soviet Union, Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University, November 1991.
[6] For more information on the background of the programs see Nonproliferation Review, Vol. 7, No. 1, 2000,
[7] R. Douglas Brubaker and Leonard S. Spector, "Liability and Western Nonproliferation Assistance to Russia: Time for a Fresh Look?" Nonproliferation Review, Spring 2003, Vol. 10, No. 1, pp. 1-39,
[8] See Partnership for Global Security Reports on CTR accomplishments,
[9] See for example, Steve Mufson, "U.S. Worries About Pakistan Nuclear Arms," The Washington Post, November 4, 2001,
[10] Nadeem Iqbal, "Nuclear Nightmare?" Newsline, January 2002,; Jeffrey Kluger, "Osama's Nuclear Quest," Time, November 12, 2001,
[11] For a recent discussion of nuclear issues related to Pakistan, including the security of the arsenal, see Paul Kerr & Mary Beth Nikitin, "Pakistan's Nuclear Weapons: Proliferation and Security Issues," CRS Report for Congress, January 14, 2008,
[12] Alex Wagner, "U.S. Offers Nuclear Security Assistance to Pakistan," Arms Control Today, December 2001,
[13] David E. Sanger and William J. Broad, "U.S. Secretly Aids Pakistan in Guarding Nuclear Arms," The New York Times, November 18, 2007,
[14] Ibid.
[15] Author's communication with Naeem Salik, former director, Arms Control & Disarmament, Strategic Plans Division, National Command Authority, Pakistan, June 2008. See also Michelle Marchesano, "Meeting the Nuclear Security Challenge in Pakistan," Partnership for Global Security, April 2008 (Conference report),
[16] Kenneth N. Luongo & Brig. Gen. (Retd.) Naeem Salik, "Building Confidence in Pakistan's Nuclear Security," Arms Control Today, December 2007,
[17] Peter Wonacott, "Inside Pakistan's Drive to Guard Its A-Bombs," Wall Street Journal, November 29, 2007,; Rahul Bedi, "Security of Nuclear Arsenal Now a Major Concern," The Irish Times, December 31, 2007, Lexis-Nexis; Sanger and Broad, "U.S. Secretly Aids Pakistan in Guarding Nuclear Arms."
[18] Wonacott, "Inside Pakistan's Drive to Guard Its A-Bombs"; Luongo & Salik, "Building Confidence in Pakistan's Nuclear Security."
[19] David E. Sanger, "So, What About Those Nukes?" The New York Times, November 11, 2007,
[20] Kristin Roberts, "U.S. Says Not Worried About Pakistan Nuclear Weapons," Reuters, November 14, 2007,; Gurmeet Kanwal, "Are Pakistan's Nuclear Warheads Safe?" Pakistan Security Research Unit, Brief No. 27, January 2008,
[21] Syed Saleem Shahzad, "US Eyes Pakistan's Nuclear Arsenal," Asia Times, November 15, 2007,
[22] See for example, Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark, "Bush Handed Blueprint to Seize Pakistan's Nuclear Arsenal," The Guardian, December 1, 2007,
[23] Sanger and Broad, "U.S. Secretly Aids Pakistan in Guarding Nuclear Arms."
[24] Ibid.
[25] "Pakistan Clarifies Report of American Newspaper Regarding Safety of Nuclear Assets," Associated Press of Pakistan, November 20, 2007,
[26] Mariana Baabar, "US Seeks Direct Access to NCA," The News,
[27] Mark Hibbs, "Pakistan Says Access Denied to Khan to Avert Threat to Government," NuclearFuel, December 18, 2006. It might be noted that in summer 2008, Khan recanted his confession in 2004 that he was solely responsible for the proliferation network emerging from Pakistan. He also said that in one specific instance in 2000, the Pakistan army supervised a transfer of P-1 centrifuges to North Korea, a claim that was denied by the Pakistan government; see Munir Ahmad, "Scientist Says Pakistan Knew of Korea Nuke Deal," Yahoo News, July 4, 2008,
[28] Sanger and Broad, "U.S. Secretly Aids Pakistan in Guarding Nuclear Arms."
[29] Ibid.
[30] Robin Wright, "U.S. Funding to Pakistan Plagued With Problems, GAO Report Says," The Washington Post, June 25, 2006,; and "Combating Terrorism: The United States Lacks Comprehensive Plan to Destroy the Terrorist Threat and Close the Safe Haven in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas," Report by Government Accountability Office, GAO-08-622, April 17, 2008,
[31] David Rohde, Carlotta Gall, Eric Schmitt, and David E. Sanger, "U.S. Officials See Waste in Billions Sent to Pakistan," The New York Times, December 24, 2007,
[32] Fred McGoldrick, "Limits on Assisting the Protection of Pakistan's Nuclear Assets," Partnership for Global Security, February 22, 2008. If the NSG changes its guidelines to permit India to take part in nuclear commerce, such a move would be relevant to U.S.-Pakistan nuclear security assistance only if the NSG rules modification is criteria-based rather than country-specific. The NSG is due to meet in late August 2008. It might be noted that on the eve of the adoption of the Indian safeguards agreement by the IAEA Board of Governors in August 2008, former U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said that Islamabad was not eligible for a nuclear agreement along the lines of the U.S.-India deal, especially because of its past proliferation record, see "Pakistan Not Eligible for Similar N-Deal: Burns," The Hindu, August 1, 2008, At the same time, some IAEA Board members, speaking in context of the safeguards agreement between India and the IAEA, expressed concern that such an agreement would set an unfortunate precedent for Pakistan to claim a similar arrangement, see Siddharth Varadarajan, "Most IAEA Members Worried About Precedent Being Set for Pakistan," The Hindu, August 1, 2008,
[33] Sharon Squassoni, "Nuclear Threat Reduction Measures for India and Pakistan," CRS report for Congress, February 17, 2005, pg. 2.
[34] McGoldrick, "Limits on Assisting the Protection of Pakistan's Nuclear Assets."
[35] The U.S. and Russian governments signed the 123 agreement in May 2008, see Dipka Bhambhani, "US and Russia Ink Nuclear Cooperation Pact, But Congress Wary of Iran Ties," Inside Energy, May 12, 2008, Lexis-Nexis.
[36] However, Pakistan remains outside the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI).
[37] "Radiation Detection Testing Underway at Two Foreign Sea Ports," Press Release, Department of Homeland Security, April 11, 2007, For more on such cooperation see Michelle Marchesano, "Meeting the Nuclear Security Challenge in Pakistan."
[38] "Pakistan Says It's Joining International Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism," International Herald Tribune, June 10, 2007,
[39] Michael Krepon, "How Safe and Secure Are Pakistan's Nuclear Weapons?" Testimony to Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, June 12, 2008,
[40] Mariana Baabar, "Pakistan Admits US Help in Securing Nukes," The News, November 20, 2007, Lexis-Nexis.

August 4, 2008

Sharad Joshi and Togzhan Kassenova examine the feasibility of extending Cooperative Threat Reduction-type assistance to Pakistan.

Sharad Joshi

Center for Nonproliferation Studies

Togzhan Kassenova

Associate, Nuclear Policy Program, Carnegie Endowment, Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow

This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of and has not been independently verified by NTI or its directors, officers, employees, or agents. Copyright 2019.