Belmont Club

The Incredible Dissolving State

Pakistan struck back at reports which said that its nuclear arsenal was being shuffled around the streets in vans to protect them from attack. Karin Bullard at the Washington Post wrote “The catalyst was a story in this week’s Atlantic magazine, which cast strong doubt on the security of those weapons. According to the article, Pakistan moves its nukes in unmarked trucks on public roads – the same used by militant groups that have attacked military bases – while a worried United States hones plans to secure them in the event of a terrorist takeover.”

In a statement on Sunday, Pakistan’s foreign ministry slammed the article, dismissing it “pure fiction, baseless” and “part of a deliberate propaganda campaign meant to mislead opinion”

The same day, the Pakistani military released what appeared to be its own, more oblique response, saying that 700 new graduates had joined a special nuclear security force that has been augmented in recent years by 8,000 additional “handpicked officers and men, who are physically robust, mentally sharp and equipped with modern weapons and equipment.”

Trent Trelenko commenting in the Belmont Club was also doubtful about the van story. He wrote:

I don’t believe a word of it for two simple reasons.

First, the Pakistanis fear each other more than they fear Americans.

Motoring complete nukes and relying on local mobile security forces means the first a Pakistani government — such as it is — will know of a coup attempt is when a nuke detonates in Islamabad.

Second. the Pakistanis are known to keep their nukes in a disassembled state in different fixed locations for some very good reasons.

Optimum performance with implosion style nukes of either the Plutonium or highly enriched uranium (HEU) requires the components be one-off to match the production qualities of the fissile materials used. You cannot remove components of one physics package and replace them in another and get the same results.

And these one-off components — think in terms of cast parts with serialized and to secret to the individual physics package machined specification final assembly — have to be put together by knowledgeable & skilled nuclear technicians *just right* under controlled conditions in fixed conditions (The Pakistanis lack Cold War Era US Navy Super carriers with the equivalent facilities) to avoid the nuke being a fizzle rather than the intended high yield nuclear detonation.

If the Pakistanis are putting those nuclear components on their poor roads with their thread bear human capital, they have effectively disarmed themselves through;

1. Road damage to the components,

2. Road Damage to the calibrated tools required to combine the components, and

3. Dispersal of their weapons away from their at best one person deep skilled nuclear technicians.

I cannot emphasize enough the skilled technical manpower limitations the Pakistanis work under here that make the idea of scattering nuclear weapons away from the existing fixed facilities a bad idea in terms of having operational weapons — as opposed to low-tech radioactive scrap.

Still, someone was gunning for Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, according to the Times of India, citing US sources. “Amid reports that US may dismantle Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, the American embassy here on Monday said there were ‘potential threats’ to Islamabad’s atomic weapons from terrorists and that the country could still improve its nuclear security programmes.”

If this is true then how does a society like Pakistan defend the security of its nukes essentially from itself? Thomas Ricks asks “what if insurgency in Pakistan began to threaten that country’s nuclear arsenal, and the Pakistani army concluded that it needed our help in stabilizing their country?” The Global Post argues that the “insider threat” is much the biggest danger.

The insider threat is considered more likely. An estimated 8,000 to 12,000 people work on Pakistan’s nuclear program, so there are plenty of opportunities for well-organized terrorists to get inside the door. Although only a smaller number have real access, it’s not hard to imagine that someone senior enough to do real damage could be persuaded to cooperate.

There is, in fact, precedent. Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood, the former head of Pakistan’s plutonium program, became radicalized while working on the weapons program. In the latter years of his service, he shocked colleagues by telling them he wished to share Pakistan’s bomb with Muslims intent on making Islam the world’s dominant religious force, according to a NY Times report. He was forced to resign in 1999. Two years later, just as Al Qaeda was making final preparations for its attack on the U.S., he met with Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Times reported. He was later arrested. (He was never prosecuted, probably to protect nuclear secrets; instead he’s been kept at home under tight surveillance, as has A.Q. Khan, father of Pakistan’s nuclear program, who shared technology with North Korea, Libya and Iran).

To counter the threat of a secretly-hostile insider, Pakistan has been exposed to the “personnel reliability programs” that the U.S. uses — essentially, screening operations to ensure the stability and trustworthiness of people working at nuclear facilities — according to Scott Sagan, a Stanford professor who co-directs the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Global Nuclear Future Project.

Admiral Mike Mullen expressed confidence in the ability of Pakistan to secure its weapons against insider threats, citing a “personnel reliability program”. The most discussed scenarios were an attack on a nuclear base or the theft of fissile material somewhere in the production or handling process. But in the light of the discovery of Osama Bin Laden in Abbotabad there were fears that “personnel reliability programs” would not be enough to secure things.

Against such a danger one solution would be to disperse the weapons and their componentry so that no single theft could acquire an operational nuclear weapon. All they could get were parts. Although Pakistan is growing its nuclear stockpile at an unprecedented rate, such a strategy would reduce the number of “ready use” nukes. “In recent years, Pakistan has launched a nuclear surge. Its arsenal — already twice the size of China’s, and more than adequate to level India’s cities — is the world’s fastest growing, poised to surpass France’s within the next decade.”

But dispersal brings problems of its own. Shaun Gregory at the University of Bradford said transporting stuff around multiplied the risks of component loss as well.

“The more nuclear weapons you have, the more nuclear weapons storage sites you have to have, the more nuclear weapons in transit at various times you have to have,” he says, “the more people involved in the safety, security, manufacture, deployment, preparedness for use you have to have.”

The bottom line is probably that with Pakistan, safety is relative. Islamabad both relies upon and fears the US; it regards Washington in some dysfunctional way as both its friend and its worst enemy. In the long term, Thomas Ricks’ fear may be the most prescient. If Pakistan falls apart and there is no one left to the diplomats to talk to, where does the world look for the weapons?

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