Offence is the best defence

But who says Americans can’t learn about nuclear security from the Pakistanis?

The Pakistani Army’s Brigadier Atta M. Iqhman and Colonel Bom Zhalot are not the ones to take questions from uppity Western journalists lying down. In the Bulletin Online, Hugh Gusterson reports that they were concerned about the custodial security of nuclear weapons. America’s.

“The United States needs to develop new protocols for storing and loading nuclear weapons, and it needs to do a better job of recruiting and training the personnel who handle them,” Iqhman said.

Iqhman added the Pakistani government would be willing to offer technical advice and assistance to the United States on improving its nuclear weapons handling procedures. Speaking anonymously because of the issue’s sensitivity, senior Pentagon officials said it is Washington’s role to give, not receive, advice on nuclear weapons safety and surety issues.

(Col Zhalot said), “We also worry that the U.S. commander-in-chief has confessed to having been an alcoholic. Here in Pakistan, alcohol is ‘haram,’ so this isn’t a problem for us. Studies have also found that one-fifth of U.S. military personnel are heavy drinkers. How many of those have responsibility for nuclear weapons?”[Bulletin Online]

The good reader (“BOK”) who drew attention to this suggested that it is good material for the Sunday Levity series. That it is.

But isn’t it rather rich of those anonymous Pentagon officials to declare that their role is only to give advice. Scary.

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.