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Belmont Club

All Quiet on the Eastern Front

May 22nd, 2011 - 11:21 pm

Militants believed to be linked to al-Qaeda or the Taliban have attacked a Pakistani naval base, killing several servicemen and taking foreign nationals, believed to be Chinese, hostage. Bill Roggio reports that “a large terrorist assault team, thought to be between 15 to 20 men strong, stormed Pakistani Naval Station Mehran Sunday night in a coordinated, complex attack. A Taliban spokesman claimed 22 fighters, who have enough provisions for three days, executed the assault.”  There are some reports the attackers have taken hostages. The Los Angeles Times says it “was believed to be a revenge attack for the killing of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.”

The attack was a heavy blow to the Pakistani navy.  The assault team blew up 2 of Pakistan’s 3 P3-C Orion ASW aircraft, which  donated only last year by the United States at an impressive ceremony on the very base under assault. The fires within the base were visible for miles around.

Live in fame or go down in flames ...

The BBC reported the attackers were holding hostages, including Chinese military personnel and that the attackers had enough food and ammunition to “fight and survive for three days”.  Recently the Times of India reported that Pakistan was urging China to build a naval base in Baluchistan as “relations with Washington falter”

“We would be … grateful to the Chinese government if a naval base is … constructed at the site of Gwadar for Pakistan,” defence minister Ahmad Mukhtar said is a statement, referring to a deep-water port in Pakistan’s southwest. …

China invested $200 million in the first phase of the construction of the port, which was inaugurated in 2007.

The development, 70 km (45 miles) east of the Iranian border and on the doorstep of Gulf shipping lanes, was designed to handle transhipment traffic for the Gulf.

China recently delivered 50 combat aircraft to the Pakistani airforce, but may be about to learn that alliances with Pakistan can be somewhat complicated. Reuters says the attack on the naval base raised “fears about the safety of the country’s nuclear arsenal”. The weapons are stored in supposedly safe areas far from the Taliban heartland guarded by elite troops specially screened for reliability. “Pakistan maintains there is no chance of Islamist militants getting their hands on atomic weapons.”

Pakistan has the fastest growing nuclear arsenal in the world and in a decade could pass France as the fourth-largest nuclear power, so such brazen attacks on secure military establishments — militants also attacked the General Headquarters in Rawalpindi in 2009 — give Western leaders nightmares about militants acquiring nuclear materials, or worse, an entire weapon. …

President Barack Obama said in 2009 he was confident about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal although he was “gravely concerned” about the overall situation in Pakistan because of its weak government.

Despite that, there is a growing concern among U.S. officials that militants might try to snatch a nuclear weapon in transit or insert sympathizers into laboratories or fuel-production facilities. …

Analysts say Pakistan is believed to have developed its own Permissive Action Link system, modeled on one used in the United States, to electronically lock nuclear weapons. It also relies on a range of other measures including physical security, separation of warheads from missiles and warheads from explosive devices.

Here is presentation of US nuclear control mechanisms from the year 1963.  The Pakistanis probably have technical command tools far superior those of that distant age.  But even then SAC’s control system emphasized removing, insofar as possible, the possibility of human error and malevolence in the use of nuclear weapons, a task made considerably harder by the fact that the warheads were deployed on strike platforms. If the Pakistani nuclear weapons are on any form of nuclear alert, it seems inevitable that some of the weapons are out of storage and forward deployed in a Pakistani air force — or naval — base.  If one of these weapons were captured, it would be interesting to speculate whether the Pakistanis would admit it, or whether national pride and the desire to maintain the facade of Pakistani military invincibility would lead to its suppression.

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Part 2 here.

Part 3 here.


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