October 14, 2008deterrenceForeign Affairsnuclear terrorismnuclear weaponsPakistanproliferationSecurityterrorismUnited States

Regarding the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal

The right time to worry about it is also the wrong time to worry about it

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

Brigadier Gurmeet Kanwal of the Centre for Land Warfare Studies describes the various issues concerning the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal in a piece on Rediff titled Are Pakistan’s nuclear warheads safe?”. He hints that the Pakistani army’s custodial control is robust, but there is a clear and present danger” of nuclear material falling into the hands of terrorists and the ensuing risk of dirty bombs. He also suggests that rogue Pakistani nuclear scientists might help al-Qaeda put together rudimentary nuclear bombs.

Now, thinking through the various scenarios that might obtain from the risks to the custody of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and material is an important activity for strategic affairs analysts. But unless there are significant political developments or specific new intelligence, there is little to be gained by sounding public alarm.

Discussion about how Western troops will enter Pakistan and neutralise its nuclear arsenal are dangerous—not least because they cause wholly unnecessary alarm among those in the Pakistani nuclear command. Nuclear neutering operations, albeit by American forces, come with severe risks for India—for while the United States and Israel may well be outside the range of a Pakistani retaliatory strike, India certainly is. And although Brig Kanwal points out that India lacks the capability to insert its own special forces deep into Pakistan to carry out such missions, such assurances are hardly likely to convince the Pakistanis. (For surely, the Pakistanis would think, Indian commandos can get a lift from those who have such transport and logistics capabilities.)

Also, Brig Kanwal’s piece repeats an assertion about the use of permissive action links (PALs)—electronic combination locks—on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. As The Acorn has pointed out earlier, this doesn’t add up to the other assertion about Pakistan’s arsenal being in a de-mated state. A satisfactory answer to the question of the extent of use of PALs or lack thereof is vital to further analysis of the question of custodial security.

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