The nuclear arms race that Pakistan is running

…is not as much against India as it is against Iran (by proxy)

That old canard is being repeated again. Pakistan, we are told, is cranking up a fissile material because “because India has the power to mount a lightning invasion with conventional forces” and that the India-US nuclear deal “frees up older facilities that India can devote to making its own new generation of weapons”. But you would expect the New York Times to lose objectivity and journalistic scepticism of official claims and take its old dogmatic ‘non-proliferation’ line on these matters, when even President Barack Obama says that the danger is about nuclear terrorism.

Now, to contend that there is an arms race between India and Pakistan requires the presentation of two bits of evidence. First, that Pakistan is cranking up its production of fissile materials in response to, second, the growth in India’s. Now, satellite images have shown that Pakistan is activating new reactors and production facilities—built with China’s grandfathering assistance, so check the first requirement.

But where is evidence of the other runner in the race? India, it turns out, has not built a single reprocessing facility over the last decade, despite having the capability to do so. When you consider this, you realise that the claim that “Pakistan is running an arms race because of India” is spurious. It requires either analytical laziness or intellectual dishonesty or both to make such a claim.

Worse, it distracts attention from the real reasons why Pakistan’s military-jihadi complex might be producing fissile material and warheads.

There are two serious possibilities: first, that it is building them for Saudi Arabia so that they can be transferred to Riyadh’s operational control should Iran weaponise its nuclear capability; and second, that it is building a secret second arsenal away from American scrutiny. [See this post and op-ed for details]

Papers like the New York Times will not publish reports about a Pakistan-Saudi nuclear nexus for want of citable evidence. Strangely, they do not require the same standards when it comes to asserting that India is running a nuclear arms race.

The real tragedy has to be the fact that when Mr Obama wants to discuss nuclear terrorism, the biggest risk (not least for the United States)—of Pakistan’s possible secret second arsenal falling into the control of some extreme elements of its military-jihadi complex—goes unnoticed and without comment. There’s a precedent for this: throughout the 1990s, US analysts and newspapers were focussed on the India-Pakistan ‘rivalry’ over Kashmir, totally ignoring Pakistan’s nexus with al-Qaeda until one day in the month of September, 2001.

Schelling questions the abolition of nuclear weapons

First check if there is better than here

The professor has set the question paper. And it’s not an easy exam.

The desirability of a world without nuclear weapons, Thomas Schelling argues in a brilliant essay in Daedalus, is being treated as axiomatic, and “hardly any of the analyses or policy statements that I have come across question overtly the ultimate goal of total nuclear disarmament.” After pointing out that nuclear deterrence has prevented major wars on the scale of the Second World War, he warns that “this nuclear quiet should not be traded away for a world in which a brief race to reacquire nuclear weapons could become every former nuclear state’s overriding preoccupation.”


If a “world without nuclear weapons” means no mobilization bases, there can be no such world. Even starting in 1940 the mobilization base was built. And would minimizing mobilization potential serve the purpose ? To answer this requires working through various scenarios involving the expectation of war, the outbreak of war, and the conduct of war. That is the kind of analysis I haven’t seen.

A crucial question is whether a government could hide weapons-grade fissile material from any possible inspection verification. Considering that enough plutonium to make a bomb could be hidden in the freezing compartment of my refrigerator or to evade radiation detection could be hidden at the bottom of the water in a well, I think only the fear of a whistle-blower could possibly make success at all questionable. I believe that a “responsible” government would make sure that fissile material would be available in an international crisis or war itself. A responsible government must at least assume that other responsible governments will do so.

We are so used to thinking in terms of thousands, or at least hundreds, of nuclear warheads that a few dozen may offer a sense of relief. But if, at the outset of what appears to be a major war, or the imminent possibility of major war, every responsible government must consider that other responsible governments will mobilize their nuclear weapons base as soon as war erupts, or as soon as war appears likely, there will be at least covert frantic efforts, or perhaps purposely conspicuous efforts, to acquire deliverable nuclear weapons as rapidly as possible. And what then?

In summary, a “world without nuclear weapons” would be a world in which the United States, Russia, Israel, China, and half a dozen or a dozen other countries would have hair-trigger mobilization plans to rebuild nuclear weapons and mobilize or commandeer delivery systems, and would have prepared targets to preempt other nations’ nuclear facilities, all in a high-alert status, with practice drills and secure emergency communications. Every crisis would be a nuclear crisis, any war could become a nuclear war. The urge to preempt would dominate; whoever gets the first few weapons will coerce or preempt. It would be a nervous world.[Daedalus/BNet]

It’s a brilliant piece—not only for the intellectual content—but also for its debating strategy. Prof Schelling challenges the proponents of complete nuclear disarmament to prove, analytically, that their desired outcome is actually better than a world where mutual deterrence keeps a lid on the outbreak of major war. In doing so, he exposes how the bandwagon of the Global Zero has gained momentum in the last two years—not because everyone on it believes that it is desirable even if it were possible, but because the perception that the world is negotiating complete disarmament is useful to many. For instance, as Prof Schelling himself points out—the possibility that the Global Zero project might be motivated by a need for the world to perceive that the nuclear weapons states are keeping their end of the NPT bargain. In addition to being consistent with its long held position, India will go with the new disarmament discussions out of pragmatism—there are tangible benefits to be had by being part of a nuclear technological mainstream. (See M Vidyasagar’s article in the January 2010 issue of Pragati)

The Acorn has argued that nuclear weapons are the New Himalayas—preventing the outbreak of direct military conflict between India and China. It is important that the new strategic barrier remain high. Perhaps China’s transformation into a liberal democracy, as K Subrahmanyam mentioned at December’s Takshashila event in New Delhi, might make the need for this barrier less salient. Perhaps, but it is unlikely to entirely eliminate the need for it.

Related Post: A modest proposal to create disincentives for the usage of nuclear weapons

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!”

Regarding terrorist attacks on Pakistan’s nuclear sites

When to worry a little and when to worry a lot

In an article for West Point’s CTC Sentinel (pdf) Bradford University’s Shaun Gregory draws attention to a serious matter—the terrorist threat to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. (linkthanks Swami Iyer)

Before we discuss the controversial part, let’s look at his conclusion.

The risk of the transfer of nuclear weapons, weapons components or nuclear expertise to terrorists in Pakistan is genuine. Moreover, knowledge that such a transfer has occurred may not become evident until the aftermath of a nuclear 9/11 in Pakistan or elsewhere in the world. It remains imperative that Pakistan is pressured and supported, above all by the United States, to continue to improve the safety and security of its nuclear weapons and to ensure the fidelity of those civilian and military personnel with access to, or knowledge of, nuclear weapons. The challenge to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons from Pakistani Taliban groups and from al-Qa`ida constitutes a real and present danger, and the recent assaults by the Pakistan Army on some of these groups in FATA and in the NWFP is a welcome development. Nevertheless, more steps must be taken before the threat is neutralized and Pakistan’s nuclear weapons no longer pose an existential danger to the rest of the world. [Shaun Gregory/CTC Sentinel]

Despite reassurances by the heads of governments of Pakistan, the United States and India, this is a conclusion that few serious analysts can find fault with. Unless you are the editorial board of the New York Times you will use every opportunity available to mitigate the risk that terrorism and nuclear proliferation will come together from and/or in Pakistan. Prof Gregory does well to bring this important issue into public discussion.

The controversial part of Prof Gregory’s article was his assertion that “Pakistan’s nuclear facilities have already been attacked at least thrice by its home-grown extremists and terrorists over the last two years.” Unless he has more evidence than he reveals in the article, this argument is tenuous.

Pakistan observers have known about jihadi attacks on military and nuclear complexes and personnel, but there is little evidence in the public domain to suggest that these attacks involved an agenda to take control of nuclear weapons or radioactive material. There are a number of other possible motives: opportunism, signaling, publicity and probing.

In other words, it is possible that these targets were attacked because it was possible to attack them; they were attacked as a way of scaring Pakistanis and international donors; they were attacked because this would gain them a lot more publicity; or they were attacked to find out how well-secured the nuclear weapons complex is. Only the last is connected to nuclear terrorism, but it is still at the lower end of the scale at the other extreme of which lies an attack specifically intended to snatch or damage a nuclear weapons site. As one US official told a NYT blogger, these are large complexes (and therefore present easy targets) and an attack at the front gate cannot immediately be assumed to be the worst case scenario.

Indeed, the leadership of the military-jihadi complex might want you to believe the worst-case scenario, especially when that means you will open up your wallet to prevent it from happening. So while Prof Gregory is not wrong any analysis of terrorist attacks on Pakistan’s nuclear sites must not ignore the possibility of nuclear blackmail: the use of deliberate, calibrated insecurity to rustle up some no-strings-attached foreign aid.

Like many other analyses of the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, Prof Gregory neglects the opacity with respect to how the weapons are secured: do they use permissive-action links (PALs) or are they kept in a physically de-mated state? The two methods are likely to be mutually exclusive. As discussed in earlier posts, the answer to this question opens up a very little studied—at least in the public domain—area of risk. If there is an secret arsenal-within-an-arsenal then we should all be much more worried than we already are.

Towards nuclear disarmament – a modest proposal

Three big steps against nuclear weapons—and one big one towards removing the poison in the India-US strategic relationship

Here are two ironies: First, that the political establishment around the US Democratic Party should think (via Atanu Dey’s blog) that the Obama administration ought to deliver ‘a tough message’ to India on nuclear weapons. Ironic, because India is perhaps the only nuclear weapons state where nuclear disarmament is state policy. It is perhaps the only country whose strongest proponents of nuclear weapons are also signed-up members of the Global Zero initiative.

Second, that for a president who came to power with promises on new approaches to everything from climate change to Iran, President Barack Obama’s chose the dogmatic dead-end of non-proliferation & arms control to move towards his idealistic vision of a nuclear weapons-free world. Ironic, because all the energy spent on flogging the dead mule could have been invested in a new path that would in the short-term minimise nuclear risks, boost international security and in the long-term, if future generations so wish, actually rid the world of nuclear weapons.

Nuclear non-proliferation does not have a future. It does help a lot of people—and there are many in Washington DC—who have invested their intellectual, professional and public lives in negotiating through the arcane world of non-proliferation treaties (the alphabet soup) make a living. The Democrats in government (like the Republicans who came before them) believe that they can resume from where they left off the last time they were in power. Strobe Talbott’s ‘tough message’ being a case in point. What they refuse to see is that the world has changed profoundly since then: Iran and North Korea have shown how easy it is to sign-out of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, develop and test nuclear weapons, and live in the knowledge that the United States can now only blow hot air at them…from a safe distance. If the United States could not prevent this—notwithstanding the NPT—at the apex of its power in the two decades after the Cold War ended, what chance does it have now, when China intends to challenge its supremacy?

If President Obama is sincere about his vision and serious about securing US interests in the emerging geopolitical configuration, he would do well to face down the non-proliferation community and let a new disarmament community take its place. If he does so, he’ll find an a partner in India. But what would a real global nuclear disarmament plan (as opposed to non-proliferation/test-ban/fissile material cutoff treaty plans) look like? Continue reading Towards nuclear disarmament – a modest proposal

Regarding the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal

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

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.