Crown Jewel Panic

Joint India-US planning is a must given the asymmetric risks of snatch operations

The only interesting new thing in Seymour Hersh’s New Yorker report on the issue of the security of Pakistan’s crown jewels is that a US nuclear emergency response team was activated recently but asked to stand down before it landed in Pakistan. The existence of such teams is not in doubt—NEST, for instance, even has a web page. If, as Mr Hersh claims, a snatch team was indeed activated earlier this year, the United States might have, paradoxically, increased the risk of a nuclear explosion in the region. Crown Jewel Panic is perhaps the most dangerous game in the world today.

But the risks are asymmetric: India within easy reach of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, not to mention Pakistan itself, are at a greater risk, compared to the American homeland, of being attacked with a nuclear weapon because of a crisis caused by a US nuclear snatch operation in Pakistan. The Acorn has long argued that alarming Pakistan’s nuclear custodians might actualise a “use it or lose it” psychology in their minds. This sets of a number of risk pathways: mating of warheads and delivery systems; movement of missiles and aircraft to deployment locations and interception/hijacking by ‘unauthorised’ factions of the military-jihadi complex. Such risks get magnified if, as this blog has argued, there is a secret arsenal-within-an-arsenal—and Mr Hersh’s report suggests that some Pentagon officials think so too.

Loose talk about snatch plans, leave alone actual snatch missions, is likely to spook commanders of the Pakistani army charged with managing the nuclear arsenal. Given that these people have been selected on the basis of personnel reliability programmes designed by General Musharraf (notice the irony?) spooking them is not a good idea.

Given the asymmetry of the risks, and the apparent readiness in the United States to activate NEST-like teams, there is a case for India to be very concerned about such operations. There is a clear and urgent case for joint planning between the Indian and US military and political authorities, even if such operations are entirely carried out by US personnel. If this isn’t already happening, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh would do well to place it on the top of the agenda of his upcoming meeting with President Barack Obama.

In his comments to Dawn Mr Hersh connects US ‘oversight’ of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal as allowing India to pull away from the border.

The (Obama administration’s) policy required Pakistan to deploy more troops at the Afghan border to go after the Taliban.

The Americans, he said, wanted the Indians to pull away first, so that Pakistan could focus on the Afghan border. “The Indians said, no. We have 80 nuke weapons pointed at us, we cannot pull back.”

The Americans thought they could encourage the Indians to do so if somehow they had “some control or insight into Pakistan’s nuclear command and control system,” Mr Hersh said.

“The idea is to reassure the Indians that we are in a position to prevent someone from doing something crazy,” he said. “If the Indians are satisfied, it will allow Pakistan to focus on the Afghan border.”

To enable the Indians to reach that point of comfort, the Americans needed to “reassure India that nothing crazy will not happen (sic). After all only target of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons is India, not America,” said Mr Hersh. [Dawn]

Now, no serious Indian strategist would be convinced that Pakistan would reveal all its nuclear assets to the Americans. Similarly, no serious Indian strategist would take US reassurances that it has ‘some control and insight’ over Pakistan’s nukes—it is not even clear how many nukes Pakistan has in the first place. It’s not likely that they’ll want to hear “Sorry folks, we missed that one!”

9 thoughts on “Crown Jewel Panic”

  1. don’t know how seriously shud one take Seymour Hersh. i hope we have our own snatch teams which’ll try to de-nuke Pakistan in the event of a crazy escalation. wonder if those bunker busting bombs are operational.

  2. Yup! Thats it! Whatever you do, just dont scare the mad man! Who knows what the insane do when they are scared…

    In the meanwhile, we are happy to live in his fear, until one day the mad man does get scared for whatever reason and does what he’s been itching to do for so long!

    It just shows how helpless we are…

  3. Does what Sy Hersh says make any sense? What would Indian soldiers on border do if Pakis were to use nuclear weapons on India?

    Indian soldiers border are there to push back incoming regular Paki army or Islamic jihadi army if Pakiland falls apart quickly. It would be silly to say if Paki nukes were pointing north, towards Uzbek, India doesn’t have a threat from extremely unstable Af-Pak area and that India doesn’t need an alert border.

    But this is the usual stuff Sy Hersh peddles – give credence to one or two sources in CIA or pentagon and it’s never the complete or real picture.

  4. @ Chandra

    Good point 🙂 May be the “cold start” doctrine is another reason why Indian offensive formations are stationed close to the Pakistani border. That way important Pakistani cities also become more vulnerable.

    Of course, don’t ask me why seemingly nothing happened after 26/11…

  5. Nitin,
    I come to this blog quite often and like the ideas presented here. If i could give you a word of caution, that would be NOT TO RELY on anything that Sy Hersh reports.

    This was the same guy who breathlessly reported Bush admn plans to attack Iran over its “alleged” nuclear program in 2007 – only of course reality intervened and nothing of that sort happened. As we later on found out Bush refused to greenlight former Israeli PM Olmert’s decision to bomb Iran – why? because he was concerned about the retaliation that the US military would have to likely face in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Hersh is a sensationalist and should be working for any of the British trash tabloids.. instead he uses his one or two resources in the US military to spin fantasy tales.

    For those who have a reality based analytical process Obama is now openly wondering how fast he can retreat US forces from Afghanistan… and we are now supposed to believe that Obama has the balls to conducts an ultra sensitive “snatch” operation…

    Sy Hersh – epic fail

  6. Not only does NEST exist, there’s even a recent book by Jeffrey Richelson on it. (Richelson’s earlier book, Spying on the Bomb is also interesting by the way)

  7. What does pointing nuclear weapons at India have to do with the Indian military not retreating? As someone pointed out earlier, soldiers are not instrumental in diverting or preventing nuclear weapons from being deployed against India. In fact they become the first line of casualty and are defenseless. The military had increased its numbers at the border due to provocations stemming from 26/11. The whole argument is confusing since its based on an unviable premise.

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