A recently-released study by British academic Shaun Gregory that claims Pakistani nuclear complexes have been attacked on three occasions in the last two years has stirred fresh concerns about the safety and security of Pakistan’s nuclear assets. Ensuring that Pakistani nukes stay out of the hands of terrorists certainly must be priority number one for the U.S. government. However, there is little need to panic about this issue, at least in the short-term.
The study cites three attacks since November 2007 – one on a nuclear missile facility, one at a nuclear air base, and one a year ago at an armament complex at one of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons assembly sites – as evidence that terrorists are getting closer to gaining access to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. But as one unnamed U.S. intelligence official noted to reporters, these facilities are well-known, large military facilities and it is not surprising that militants would target them. A more recent attack on a bus traveling through Rawalpindi carrying workers from one of Pakistan’s nuclear labs also has raised concern, since it demonstrates that al-Qaeda does likely have some information about the location and activities of Pakistan’s nuclear programs.
Before jumping to conclusions that al-Qaeda is about to grab a Pakistan nuke, though, observers should note that the U.S. has been assisting Pakistan with improving the security of its nuclear assets since 9/11 and has spent some $100 million on programs to increase personnel reliability and to establish permissive action links on nuclear facilities. Second, even before 9/11, the Pakistan army had an interest in safeguarding its nuclear facilities and therefore almost certainly has dispersed its nuclear assets throughout the country, making it nearly impossible for terrorists to gain access to an assembled nuclear weapon, especially through a single violent attack.
A more plausible scenario is one in which extremists infiltrate the nuclear establishment slowly over time and gain access to nuclear materials or technology that could help them eventually build a nuclear device themselves or even a dirty bomb. The fact that elements of Pakistan’s army and intelligence service retain links to extremists who they view as strategic assets in pursuing goals vis a vis Afghanistan and India opens the door for the unwelcome possibility of Pakistani officials (with access to nuclear information) developing sympathy for al-Qaeda goals. Earlier revelations about a group of former Pakistani military officials and nuclear scientists who met with Osama bin Laden in August 2001 remind us of the very real possibility of al-Qaeda gaining nuclear know-how from former Pakistani officials with access to such information.
The U.S. should have in place contingency strategies in the event the Pakistan military becomes less capable of protecting its nuclear assets. This scenario could arise if the Pakistan military begins to lose resolve in fighting the Taliban in the northwest parts of the country. This seems rather unlikely at the moment. The Pakistan military has demonstrated its ability to oust the Taliban from the Swat Valley, thereby significantly diminishing the possibility of the Taliban gaining increased legitimacy and influence within the country. The recent apparent elimination of Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud in a drone missile strike last week also has given a fillip to Pakistan’s efforts against the extremists.