Concerns about the crown jewels

Regarding custodial security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons

In the wake of international concerns over the safety of its nuclear weapons (not least during Pervez Musharraf’s trip to Europe), the Pakistani army went out of its way to brief journalists and diplomats on their security arrangements. Gordon Corera writes:

Pakistan has begun to reveal some of the measures it takes:
* The weapons are kept in parts, with the fissile material and the delivery system (the missile) separate from the rest of the weapon
* The exact location of those facilities is kept secret and they are well guarded by a Strategic Forces Command consisting of thousands of soldiers
* The weapons themselves can only be launched by someone who has access to electronic codes

These codes are a Pakistani version of Permissive Action Links (PALs), used by the US and other countries.

“Pakistan has developed its own PAL systems which obviously ensures that even if an unauthorised person gets hold of a weapon he cannot activate it unless he also has access to electronic codes,” explains retired Brig Gen Naeem Salid. [‘BBC’]

As Mr Corera’s article goes on to show, not everyone is reassured by this. But there is a degree of inconsistency even among these three measures: that’s because keeping weapons in a de-mated state, and using PALs to prevent unauthorised use are usually mutually exclusive.

The logic of using PALs is that the entire weapon becomes unusable (or even destroyed) if a wrong password is keyed in. A system safeguarded by PALs requires warhead and the delivery system to be mated. Proponents of PALs argue that such a system is more secure compared to simply keeping the pieces separate. Now, Pakistan may well have developed its own PAL systems (they’ve got to say this, because the arms control regime does not allow the United States to share this technology with Pakistan) but claiming that its nuclear weapons are both de-mated and secured with PALs raises some questions on the security framework used.

It may well be that this is a deliberate obfuscation aimed at impressing the general public. But it is also possible that some weapons are kept in a de-mated state (eg aircraft-mountable ones) and others are secured by PALs (missile-mounted ones). In fact, we should expect this to be the case: for the Pakistanis are unlikely to completely trust the United States enough to completely allow a piece of American technology to govern their trigger. This also means that there are at least some warheads that are at a greater risk of unauthorised use, even if they are locked up in secret solid steel cupboards the keys to which are locked in other secret solid steel cupboards. The risk remains.

11 thoughts on “Concerns about the crown jewels”

  1. And despite the technology-based measures the weakest link remains the biggest threat, i.e. the personnel involved in the Strategic Forces Command. Consider what B. Raman has to say in his articles written in the past few months while analysing the pattern of explosions in and around Rawalpindi and other military areas. His point, that attackers had help from people on the inside. Should we assume that it is only a matter of time before subversion infects people involved in SCF?

  2. Nitin: you’re probably giving them entirely too much credit. Unless Uncle Sam is quarterbacking the whole thing (unlikely), the competence of the Pakistani state to establish anything close to international standards is seriously suspect. And given the Alibaba-ish air around the whole thing, even more so. Mush likely read Janes’ before inventing some of this fiction.
    Personally, would derive ghoulish delight watching this terrorist, dysfunctional state dissolve if it weren’t for those messy weapons.

  3. libertarian:

    Why do you think that “Uncle Sam quarterbacking the whole thing” is unlikely? I’d think that there’s more than random chance the the United States is closely monitoring the safeguards for these weapons, if not actually controlling them, considering the stakes that are involved, and reprieves that Musharraf has had in the past for his impotence against Al Quaida, A.Q Khan network, Bhutto’s assassination, etc.

  4. Well this begs the question. Have India’s nuclear safegaurds been revealed to the public and are they (on paper) better or worse?

  5. Libertarian, RF,

    Let’s say that the total number of Nasty Weapons is A. Only Musharraf’s gang know the value of A.

    The Americans, of course, are helping secure the weapons, with PALs and all. They probably ‘officially’ know about B weapons, where B < A .

    So there is a component (A-B) which the Pakistanis have kept away from the Americans. Let’s call this C. This is either likely to be de-mated, or perhaps installed with other PAL-like mechanisms. The Americans probably know a little about this, as they too are not stupid. Let’s call this number D.

    There’s a good chance that C-D > 1

    C-D constitutes the primary headache. It’s quite likely to be compartmentalised within the SPD, and only a small number of people would know about it. Both good and band news.

    Note: This comment was garbled up because the > and < symbols got interpreted as HTML. It’s fixed now.

  6. Nitin: agree that C-D is the primary headache. The thought of some moron with a messianic vision inside the SFD is an alarming prospect. With ultimate human control, this system is only as good as the sanity of the controlling humans.

    TFR: Agree with Nitin that the Pakistanis would be stupid to trust Uncle Sam with all information. I’d expect them to keep an ace in the back-pocket. They may have demonstrated extreme dumbness in running the state – but these are the crown jewels. Mush may have had to give a lot after 9/11, but it only takes one weapon to create chaos.

  7. As far as I know, Mush has still not made Khan available to American agents for questioning. I agree that the exact situation may be a combination, with some weapons with PALs and others de-mated.

Comments are closed.