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.

Little Games

Connecting the dots in Waziristan, Afghanistan, Islamabad, Davos and London

The United States ‘offers’ to send special forces and military assistance to the Pakistani army fighting the Taliban militia in South Waziristan and other tribal areas. Politicians, pundits and even ordinary people around the world publicly express worries about Pakistan’s nuclear weapons falling into jihadi hands.

Baitullah Mehsud, until recently the anointed leader of the Pakistan Taliban, gives an interview to Al Jazeera, stating that it was the United States that posed a threat to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, not he.

Around this time, Mullah Omar—he with only one eye—sacks Baitullah Mehsud, for attacking Pakistani forces instead focussing on the US-NATO troops on the Afghanistan side of the border.

General Musharraf is in Europe finding it hard going answering questions about his own role in Pakistan’s political crisis. Around this time, back home in Rawalpindi, General Khalid Kidwai, the most public face of Pakistan’s nuclear command, reassures the media on custodial control. And then, Pakistan announces that it has raised the state of alert over nuclear weapons.

So what’s happening?

Mullah Omar’s public signal—that Afghanistan should be the focus of the Taliban insurgency—indicates that he would rather not have US forces fighting on the Pakistan side of the border, sandwiching the insurgents. It also serves Musharraf’s interests. He can now tell the insistent Americans that their ‘help’ is less necessary now.

Baitullah Mehsud’s statement on the danger to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons sounds identical to what the Gul & Co faction of the military establishment would argue. The message is directed at the Pakistani people, but it is almost certain that the signal is also meant for external parties with an interest in the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.

Here’s an hypothesis: Musharraf & Co and Mullah Omar’s Afghan Taliban have found reason to strengthen their long-standing alignment. The threat of US military intervention in Pakistan have compelled them to distance Gul & Co and the Baitullah-led Pashtuns on the Pakistani side. But this not a ‘hard’ split—for Mullah Omar & Co can’t do without help from the Pakistani side. And Baitullah Mehsud & Co can’t do without access to the lucrative drugs smuggling trade centred around Afghanistan.

That leaves us with the announcement about the raised alert levels. Why announce this publicly, at a time when General Kidwai & Co are playing down the risk of losing custodial control? Well, Musharraf probably reckons this kind of news will make European audiences more favourably disposed to his protestations of indispensability.

Nuclear disarmament? Great idea…

But talk is cheap, but let’s see some credibility first

Some of America’s foremost strategic experts have proposed that nuclear weapons are a threat for the entire world, and it is time for everyone to get rid of them. Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, William Perry and Sam Nunn have gone beyond the vision thing and actually outlined policy directions to achieve nuclear disarmament. [More on this from Lawrence Wittner over at HNN]

As K Subrahmanyam reminds us, disarmament, non-use of nuclear weapons for warfighting and no-first use have been the longstanding hallmarks of India’s nuclear policy. Moreover last time universal disarmament was proposed seriously at the highest international level was by Rajiv Gandhi in 1988. Mr Subrahmanyam argues that it is in India’s interests to participate in discussions that might arise from this new American initiative.

And why not? Maintaining a dynamic minimum credible deterrent is not inconsistent with India being an active participant in international discussions aimed at universal disarmament.

Realists like Dr Kissinger would recognise, though, that the idea of getting states to proceed towards universal nuclear disarmament is contingent upon three things. First, not only the destination but the process of getting there should reflect geopolitical realities. It would be futile to expect nuclear disarmament when say, the UN Security Council and other international organisations remain reflective of geopolitics of the last century [Related post: The tragedy of climate change geopolitics]. Second, international fuel supply and energy markets must be made more competitive. Cartelisation of uranium or crude oil supplies and locking up of supplies at source has implications for the nuclear industry. Reforming the international civilian nuclear trade is therefore crucial.

Finally—and crucially—the call for the extraordinary goal of universal disarmament requires an extraordinary amount of credibility. India, for instance, won’t be misplaced in calling for the US, Russia, China and others to reduce their warhead and feedstock inventories to the same levels as India’s before taking any such steps of its own. For instance, India can commit that it will sign treaties banning nuclear tests or cutting off fissile materials after all states have reduced their arsenal to an equivalent level.

And let’s not forget that even the new Kissinger-Shultz-Perry-Nunn plan for universal disarmament applies only to states. Without overstating the risk of nuclear weapons and materials falling into the hands of non-state/quasi-state actors, it would be incorrect to assume that this is sufficient to protect the world from the risk of nuclear attack.

From the archives: Why the NPT is bunk, why it cannot prevent proliferation and what might.

How China went back on its commitment

…and India doesn’t even realise that it has been had

Did anyone notice how China’s support for the India-US nuclear deal has been matched by its backward movement on settling the border dispute? While Prime Minister Manmohan Singh came away with a “Chinese nod for him to underwrite India’s independent foreign policy”—as the Indian Express put it with dreadful (and unintended) irony—the Chinese breach of promise over settling the border dispute went unnoticed. The clever men in Beijing have every reason to be happy with Dr Singh’s visit: they gave away nothing while appearing to give a great deal, and in the bargain, ensured that they clawed back what little they had conceded in the border dispute. The best part for them was that despite all this, it was the Indian media that was celebrating!

Here’s the net outcome of Dr Singh’s visit: China has gone back on its position that the eventual border between the two countries will not disturb existing population centres. It did not show any enthusiasm to exchange official maps—a step that would have set the parameters of a final settlement. It is now not only quibbling over the meaning of the term population centres, but also sending its troops to demolish Indian bunkers. It is bleeding obvious that China wants to keep the dispute alive.

The gains that India achieved under the Vajpayee government have been lost under the UPA. Dr Singh’s visit only confirmed that. China could do this because it realised that Pakistan could no longer be used as a strategic lever against India after 9/11. It also realised that it could use the divisiveness of India’s domestic politics instead. The Left parties were anyway batting for Beijing, the BJP played into its hands and the Congress Party lacked the political sagacity to forge a non-partisan consensus on the nuclear deal. The Communists have reason to be pleased with the visit. But for others, there is no reason to celebrate.

The passage of the nuclear deal was only a matter of time. It was essentially a fait accompli for Beijing. Yet the UPA government and sections of the media projected Beijing’s blessings as a way to secure the approval of the Indian Communists. This came at a terribly expensive price: India didn’t lift as much as finger while China turned back on what it had agreed on the border dispute.

Related Posts: K Subrahmanyam, Brahma Chellaney & Manoj Joshi

Be scared, very scared

Worries over Pakistan’s crown jewels

When B Raman says what he says, it is time to start worrying.

They have succeeded in killing her. They will now step up their efforts to eliminate Musharraf. Whoever was responsible for killing her could not have done it without inside complicity. If Al Qaeda is already having sleeper cells in the GHQ, there is an equal danger that it already has sleeper cells inside Pakistan’s nuclear establishment too. [SAAG/Outlook linkthanks Swami Iyer]

Dear Sir, Would you like to purchase a Bomb?

What would you do if A Q Khan wrote to you?

Bashar Assad, Syria’s president, told a German newspaper that he rebuffed a Pakistani offer to sell him nuclear technology in 2001. Like Saddam Hussein before him, he too suspected a ‘sting’ operation.

Q:Does Syria have contacts to atomic engineers of Pakistan?

Assad: Actual was it like that: At the beginning of of 2001 brought someone a letter of a certain Khan (the father of the atom bomb of Pakistan; Note). We did not know whether the letter was genuine or a falsification of the Israelis, who into a trap wanted to lure us. We rejected anyhow. We were not interested to have nuclear weapons or a nuclear reactor. We never met Khan.[Die Presse/Translation by Babelfish]

A Q Khan’s offer, then, lacked credibility. That begs the question: how credible, in turn, is Assad’s denial of an interest in nuclear weapons?

From the archives: If it’s Monday, it must be Tripoli. If it’s Tuesday, it must be Cairo.