Weekday Squib: From centrifugist to columnist

It’s about spinning anyway

Okay, your extra strong dose of irony supplements comes from Pakistan’s The News daily. Their new columnist, a certain Abdul Qadeer Khan, delivers Urdu couplets, self-justification, Musharraf-vilification, Bhutto-sycophancy and a couple of nuggets about Pakistan’s nuclear and missile deals with China and North Korea. But the what touches the heart is advice about “Yes-men who dare not say anything against their views may be good for their egos, but not for the country. Sycophants go out of their way to praise their beneficiary…This often results in destruction of national institutions and unimaginable damage to the country concerned”.

And for the record he “never asked for any favours from the government and never received any.”

Update:It looks like The News carried a sanitised translation of Khan’s original Urdu column in Jang. The erudite Sepoy, over at Chapati Mystery, has an authentic—and even more colourful—translation.

New Zealand’s misplaced opposition at the NSG

Neither India’s nuclear weapons programme nor its nuclear power projects will be to New Zealand’s detriment

Regarding the proceedings at the Nuclear Suppliers Group where small states like New Zealand have shown reluctance to admit India into the nuclear mainstream, here’s what an astute and knowledgeable person said in an email:

A broad stance against testing nuclear weapons is central to nonproliferation, however India already has a voluntary moratorium in place. As long as India perceives no immediate deterioration in its local nuclear security environment the moratorium should hold. By contrast a multilateralised commitment on testing might mislead the Pakistanis and elements of the proliferation underworld that provocative behaviour will go without a response from the Indian side. The Nuclear Supplier Group’s history of failures when it comes to checking Pakistani proliferation little by way of comfort to anyone in India.

It is difficult to imagine parallels between New Zealand’s opposition to French nuclear testing and India’s posture on nuclear testing. India has not tested any nuclear weapons in waters off New Zealand’s coast and nor does it intend to. If India does decide to conduct an atmospheric test, it would need to first withdraw from the Partial Test Ban Treaty. Such a withdrawal requires a three months notice be given to the depository countries and that should allow for enough time for New Zealand to take steps to ensure that India doesn’t just drop 20 MT on some atoll in the Southern Pacific. So what is the point of putting 50 conditions on India right now, when all New Zealand should be interested in is one condition when the time comes.

While one can argue that ensuring visible compliance of norms is the key to ensure the spread of non-proliferation ideology—one can also examine any gains on this front against losses from criminalising routine commerce. India’s energy needs are well known at this stage and every nuclear energy company in the world wants to access that market. By keeping the barriers at the Nuclear Suppliers Group artificially high—a large volume of trade is forced underground. In light of the peculiar auditing practices followed by NSG members states when keeping track of the A Q Khan network, one might ask if excessive regulation created circumstances ideal for putting nuclear weapons into the hands of terrorists?

With an increased dependence on carbon fuels in India will produce enough greenhouse gases to make nightmare scenarios on global warming a reality. Blocking India’s path to nuclear energy seems like sensible alternative to some non-proliferation pundits, but then most of them live in countries with plenty of high ground. Surely, a small country like New Zealand can be expected to take a different view the perils of rising water levels.

When will Iran have its Bomb?

Watch out for the Big Bad Row

The IAEA submitted its latest report on Iran’s nuclear programme to its board of governors on 26th May. (via V Anantha Nageswaran). The report points out that Iran has been operating its assembly of 3000 IR-1 centrifuges at the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant with greater efficiency and is in the process of adding another similar assembly. It is experimenting with advanced centrifuge designs (modified Pakistani P2 designs, replacing maraging steel rotors with carbon fibre composite ones), although these remain employed in the pilot stage.

The IAEA report finds Iran guilty of both procedural violations (reporting installations post facto, rather than in advance) as well as for not providing satisfactory accounts of alleged weapons development activities (preparing an underground shafts for testing, testing detonators and warhead designs, and modifying the Shahab-3 ballistic missile to carry a nuclear warhead). [See Arms Control Wonk‘s post]

So what does this tell us about the all important question: when will Iran have a bomb ready?

Assuming that Iran does not have other secret nuclear plants well hidden from the public eye, the reasonable assumption is that Iran will use the Natanz facilities to produce highly enriched uranium (HEU) that will go into its bomb. According to Jeffrey Lewis’ handy calculator, Iran will need between 156 to 293 days to produce enough HEU for a bomb. If it gets the second assembly of 3000 centrifuges operating, that period will be halved, to about 78-147 days. As Dr Lewis’s calculations show, the time to produce sufficient HEU gets shorter if more centrifuges become operational, or their efficiency improves.

In addition to having sufficient quantities of HEU, Iran must also have a functioning weapons design—again thanks to Pakistan and A Q Khan, that should not be too difficult.

But Iran’s centrifuges are not yet producing HEU. The IAEA is keeping watch over the nuclear material and the centrifuge cascades in the Natanz facility. It is likely to know if and when the Iranian authorities decide to go into the bomb mode. A possible indicator of this happening is when Iran and the IAEA have the Big Bad Row. Depending on how many centrifuges Iran has working then, we can estimate the time it will take to produce and assemble a bomb. That could be anywhere between 78 days (if the second assembly is operational) to 293 days (if only the existing one is operational). If you are looking for a ready reckoner: you can assume that Iran has the bomb three months from the Big Bad Row.

(Some Europeans are going to look silly when that happens. So will the some Americans. But other events—both ugly ones and not-at-all-ugly ones—might well spare them from the embarrassment. )

My op-ed in Mint : Ten years after Pokhran-II

The payoffs are clear, unambiguous and long-term

In an op-ed to mark the tenth anniversary of India’s second round of nuclear tests, I argue that they made India a far more credible international actor. And that while India is reconciled to the ownership of nuclear weapons but remains unclear what they are for. I also point out that the conventional military balance remains as important despite nuclear deterrence being in place; and that our political leadership needs an altogether different level of skill to translate the nuclear advantage into foreign policy outcomes.


“Real strength lies in restraint,” Sonia Gandhi said ten days after India conducted its second series of nuclear tests on May 11th and May 13th 1998, “not in the display of shakti.” She could not have been more wrong.

At the time of Mrs Gandhi’s speech, India had spent a decade fighting a proxy war against a Pakistan that China had brazenly armed – with American connivance – with nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. India’s protestations that it is a victim of both cross-border terrorism and illegal nuclear and missile proliferation got nowhere. The nuclear powers had perverted the entire edifice of nuclear disarmament by legitimising their own nuclear arsenals in perpetuity. They were coercing India to constrain and give up its nuclear weapons programme. It was abundantly clear that India’s display of restraint was being exploited as a sign of weakness.

Pokhran-II changed that. Because it demonstrated to the world that India was ready to incur costs in the defence of its national interests. [Mint]

Thanks to Kedar Wagle, Anand Sampath & V Anantha Nageswaran for providing inputs and comments

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.