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Return of a spectre

Is Pakistan’s arsenal secure? Sacking of staff with the country’s nuclear programme could fuel the debate.

By: Express News Service |
March 21, 2015 12:26:17 am

I’m confident that we can make sure that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is secure”, US President Barack Obama said in 2009, “primarily, initially, because the Pakistani army, I think, recognises the hazards of those weapons falling into the wrong hands.” News that an unknown number of employees have been sacked from Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme since 2003, after failing reliability tests, is certain to reopen debate on the issue. In theory, there is little that could go wrong. Nuclear sites in Pakistan have three levels of state-of-the-art security, modernised with at least $100 million in assistance from the United States. Like India, Pakistan stores its delivery systems, triggers and fissile cores in separate locations, making theft by jihadists or accidental use almost inconceivable. The country is thought to have permissive action links in place, complex locks that should prevent unauthorised use, for example, by rogue officers. Even a successful attack by jihadists on a nuclear-weapons repository, of the kind that took place at the Kamra air base in 2012, is profoundly unlikely to yield the perpetrators a deliverable nuclear weapon. Indeed, news that Pakistan has a thoroughgoing personnel reliability programme in place is good news.

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Yet, the fear persists. Not because of the security systems guarding Pakistan’s nuclear weapons systems, but the people who operate them. Last year’s attempt to hijack the naval ship, Zulfikar, the uncovering of jihadist plots involving Air Force officers, the defection of army personnel to the Taliban — each of these speaks of the growing hold of the jihadist worldview in Pakistan’s military. There is a possibility — small, perhaps, but nonetheless real — that these elements could one day hold power over Pakistan and its nuclear assets. A number of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, moreover, are designed to be dispersed in the battlefield in fully-assembled condition, for rapid use against advancing Indian formations. These weapons could conceivably be misused during a crisis by military personnel sympathetic to the jihadi cause.

For Pakistan’s military, there is good reason to keep working to mitigate the risks. The cost of the misuse of a nuclear weapon, after all, will likely be borne by Pakistan too. There isn’t a lot India, or the world, can do to mitigate the risk, except to persuade Pakistan to change course.

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