Anonymized Deterrence

One of the news stories that has received less attention than it should are the Obama administration’s attempts to negotiate a nuclear arms “deal” with Pakistan following what they regard as a successful pact with Iran.  The Chicago Tribune writes:  “after reaching a deal to restrict Iran’s nuclear capabilities, President Barack Obama may seek to curtail Pakistan’s fast-growing arsenal of atomic weapons.


Obama hosts Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at the White House on Thursday amid speculation that their nations are in talks to limit the scope of Pakistan’s nuclear arms program in return for greater access to technology and fuel for civilian purposes, similar to a U.S. deal with its arch-rival India. Obama also wants Pakistan’s commitment to curb Islamic militants operating within its borders and to play a role in brokering an accord with the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan. …

Satellite images indicate Pakistan started up its fourth reactor earlier this year, making it capable of more than doubling the amount of weapons-grade plutonium it produces, according to the Institute for Science and International Security.

In general, Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal represents the collapse of nonproliferation.  But of particular concern to the administration were Pakistan’s avowed plans to use tactical nuclear weapons in a conventional conflict with India.   An article in the Diplomat explained: “According to Pakistani Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudhary, Pakistan is formalizing it’s plans to use these low-yield nuclear bombs to forestall the advance of Indian troops under New Delhi’s ‘Cold Start’ doctrine. Chaudhary’s statement marks the first time Pakistani officials have acknowledged their intent to use low-yield, or so-called ‘tactical,’ nuclear weapons in a potential future conflict with India. India does not currently operate or plan to develop tactical nuclear weapons.”

This has worried the administration.  Unfortunately according to Reuters Obama’s pleas for restraint cut no ice in Islamabad:

With tensions high between Pakistan and India, Washington has been concerned about Pakistan’s development of new nuclear weapons systems, including small tactical nuclear weapons, and has been trying to persuade Pakistan to make a unilateral declaration of “restraint.”

However, Pakistani officials said Islamabad will not accept limits to its weapons programme and argue that smaller tactical nuclear weapons are needed to deter a sudden attack by India.

The strategy of restraint does not necessarily benefit Pakistan.  On the contrary it may benefit from projecting itself as unpredictable. During the Cold War a concept called the Nuclear Madman theory came into brief vogue.  “The madman theory was a primary characteristic of the foreign policy conducted by U.S. President Richard Nixon. His administration, the executive branch of the federal government of the United States from 1969 to 1974, attempted to make the leaders of other countries think Nixon was mad, and that his behavior was irrational and volatile. According to Nixon’s theory, leaders of hostile Communist Bloc nations would then avoid provoking the United States, fearing an unpredictable American response.”


To understand how being perceived as a madman could be advantageous to Islamabad, imagine a barkeeper faced with a customer who comes in ordering one beer after another, each costing the barkeeper $2.50.  Even if the barkeep suspects the customer won’t pay, if the client acts mentally unbalanced and dangerous the barkeep may elect not to collect on the beers  because it is cheaper to keep serving the man at $2.50 a pop until he goes home instead of risking a brawl. Some powers like India may benefit from being predictable, but Pakistan may gain from being wild to force Obama to keep serving it free beers.

However to pay for the advantages conferred by the madman act Pakistan imposes two costs on the strategic landscape.  The first is that deploying tactical nukes lowers the threshold of nuclear war with India.  The second and less obvious cost is that tactical nukes requires looser command and control raising the risk of loss to terrorism.   Unlike strategic nuclear weapons which are centrally controlled Pakistan’s tactical nukes must be delegated to subordinate commanders, or at least delegated more, with all the risks that entails.  As Charles Tiefer writes in Forbes, Pakistan’s gambit is dangerous:

This is life and death for India. Tactical nuclear weapons are provided, in theory, to army units for use during regular military campaigns, just like those army units might use conventional weapons. But by using these during a conventional war with India, Pakistan’s army would escalate an ordinary battle up to the nuclear level, potentially leading to an exchange of strategic nuclear weapons. The lives of millions could be at risk, and, in the worst case – an all-out nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan — incalculable scores, if not hundreds, of millions of lives.

India and Pakistan each have large arsenals of strategic nuclear weapons. These are controlled directly from the top of the armed forces. Hopefully, they have strong control systems, and exist only to deter the use of such weapons by the other country. But, tactical nuclear weapons are different. They are small, short-range nuclear weapons, and their use may get delegated down the chain of command. A relatively small army unit, during the heat of battle, might possess such a weapon and have the discretion to use it. And, a Pakistani army unit with such a weapon might have a jihadist element in it — say, a commander who happens to have a fanatical hatred of India — that could divert the tactical nuke for its own radical purpose, unconcerned with the looming awful prospects in any use.


Pakistan’s nuclear buildup and force structure therefore creates major proliferation risks.  Assurances by administration officials that it knows the location of Pakistani nuclear weapons must ring hollow in the face of recent reports in the Washington Post that Islamabad hid Osama bin Laden for years.

Earlier this year, Lt. Gen. Asad Durrani, a former Pakistani spy chief, said it was “probable” that the country’s main military intelligence organization, known as the ISI, knew of bin Laden’s whereabouts and was possibly keeping him as leverage for future dealings with Washington.

And this week, Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar, Pakistan’s defense minister between 2008 and 2012, told Indian TV station CNN-IBN that they knew that bin Laden was in Pakistan.

If Pakistan can hide Bin Laden for years it may hide a nuke or two.  Jeffrey Golberg and Marc Ambider in a 2011 Atlantic article reported that Pakistan moves its nukes around in unmarked vans to protect them not from al-Qaeda but from the prying eyes of the CIA.   The bigs in Pakistan move around the pea under the shell.  Round and round it goes.  Where it stops does al-Qaeda know?

Nuclear-weapons components are sometimes moved by helicopter and sometimes moved over roads. And instead of moving nuclear material in armored, well-defended convoys, the SPD prefers to move material by subterfuge, in civilian-style vehicles without noticeable defenses, in the regular flow of traffic. According to both Pakistani and American sources, vans with a modest security profile are sometimes the preferred conveyance. And according to a senior U.S. intelligence official, the Pakistanis have begun using this low-security method to transfer not merely the “de-mated” component nuclear parts but “mated” nuclear weapons. Western nuclear experts have feared that Pakistan is building small, “tactical” nuclear weapons for quick deployment on the battlefield. In fact, not only is Pakistan building these devices, it is also now moving them over roads.

What this means, in essence, is this: In a country that is home to the harshest variants of Muslim fundamentalism, and to the headquarters of the organizations that espouse these extremist ideologies, including al-Qaeda, the Haqqani network, and Lashkar-e-Taiba (which conducted the devastating terror attacks on Mumbai three years ago that killed nearly 200 civilians), nuclear bombs capable of destroying entire cities are transported in delivery vans on congested and dangerous roads. And Pakistani and American sources say that since the raid on Abbottabad, the Pakistanis have provoked anxiety inside the Pentagon by increasing the pace of these movements. In other words, the Pakistani government is willing to make its nuclear weapons more vulnerable to theft by jihadists simply to hide them from the United States, the country that funds much of its military budget.


Pakistan and perhaps Iran cannot be indefinitely discounted as a sources for a radiological or low-yield nuclear terrorist weapons.  The failed attempts by Obama to replicate the Iran “deal” in Islamabad show an awareness to that danger. But in the face of the Pakistani refusal what can Obama do to shore up a failing nonproliferation regime?

Deniable nuclear bombs create special problems for countries without their own nuclear deterrent.  Countries sheltering under the Obama administration’s extended nuclear umbrella must be wondering whether it will keep out the rain in a downpour.  Britain, arguably America’s closest ally, found it could not absolutely depend on Washington to risk  US cities to protect British ones.  They decided to build their own independent nuclear deterrent. The UK Defense Chiefs of Staff wrote in 1954:

When New York is vulnerable to attack the United States will not use her strategic weapon in defence of London. The United Kingdom must, therefore, have its own retaliatory defence. Similarly, however, we will not be prepared to sacrifice the United Kingdom in the defence of say Darwin, and eventually each political unit must have its own means of retaliation.

A city like Darwin is less covered by the deterrent umbrella against a terror weapon in 2015.  In 1954 the attacker would at least be clearly identifiable.  Today the first problem following an attack will be whodunit? Although the movies and media convey the impression that the “signature” of a WMD can easily be forensically traced to the perpetrator things are actually less clear cut. Nuclear forensics is a far from perfect field. The Nuclear Forensics and Attribution Act (HR 730), still working its way through Congress, aims to establish a process to reliably identify the sources of nuclear detonation that we lack at present. The first two paragraphs of the Bill should debunk the myth that “we always know” where a bomb came from.

(1) The threat of a nuclear terrorist attack on American interests, both domestic and abroad, is one of the most serious threats to the national security of the United States. In the wake of an attack, attribution of responsibility would be of utmost importance. Because of the destructive power of a nuclear weapon, there could be little forensic evidence except the radioactive material in the weapon itself.

(2) Through advanced nuclear forensics, using both existing techniques and those under development, it may be possible to identify the source and pathway of a weapon or material after it is interdicted or detonated. Though identifying intercepted smuggled material is now possible in some cases, pre-detonation forensics is a relatively undeveloped field. The post-detonation nuclear forensics field is also immature, and the challenges are compounded by the pressures and time constraints of performing forensics after a nuclear or radiological attack.


Since only a handful of technically advanced countries — the US, Russia, China, Japan, India, the EU — are likely to possess reliable nuclear forensics most victims a terror bomb must rely on foreign lab findings to identify their attackers. Given the need for “incontrovertible” events to authorize a retaliatory strike, the bar may be too high for victims to clear.

Deniable terrorist weapons threaten nonproliferation even more than growing conventional nuke arsenals.  Unless something is done to redress the balance, the Pakistani nuclear program could unleash a demand for independent national nuclear arsenals.  But maybe there’s a solution.

The  situation for non-nuclear powers would change radically if anonymized low-yield nukes were available for sale to potential victims of terrorist WMD attacks.  If Darwin — or Singapore or Wellington or Lagos — were nuked, the existence of a market selling anonymized retaliatory weapons would convince the attacker that retribution would not be long in coming based on a preponderance of intelligence, not necessarily “incontrovertible” forensic evidence.  Since sponsors of a deniable terror weapon would be vulnerable to equally deniable retribution they would think twice.

To go back to the analogy of man feigning insane aggression so he can get free beers, imagine if he had reason to suspect that other clients in the bar were uncontrollably driven to attack persons who cadged free beers by imposture.  It would collapse his scam. He might pay for the beers and leave the bar, or better yet, quit drinking.

For this to have a beneficial deterrent effect, the market in anonymized retaliatory nukes would have to be informally regulated by the Great Powers, the understanding being that any country attacked had the prima facie right to buy a limited number of proportionately retaliatory weapons in return.  Otherwise, an unregulated black market in anonymized weapons could be used by terrorists in the first place to attack their victims.

Interestingly, a Great Power sanctioned black market in anonymized nukes need not actually exist.  It’s enough that it could exist so that any would-be aggressor would be deterred from finding out if the rumors were true.  It is interesting to consider whether Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran actually represent an attempt by the administration to achieve exactly this effect, by balancing the Pakistani Sunni nuclear power with a Shi’ite one in the face of the collapsing non-proliferation regime.


Arming Iran effectively gave Shi’ite proxies a potential source of deniable WMDs to counter the possible Sunni ones. After all, if Tehran were to suffer a nuclear car bomb the Ayatollahs could hardly convince Congress to declare war on Pakistan.  While many pundits have remarked that arming Iran might start a regional Westphalian nuclear arms race, the conflict between the warring Islamic factions is much more likely to consist of nuclear car bombs than missiles exchanged in conventional combat.  If so, the relevant market to control is the market in deniables.

The strategy of allowing the Iranians to build up their own nuclear infrastructure is inferior to a Great Power sanctioned black market in retaliatory weapons against unprovoked WMD terror attack.  If the nuclear genie is coming out of the bottle, it might be best for the Great Powers to keep a hand on the cork rather letting the warring parties pour their own.

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