The (shallow) Atlantic!

In all the silly controversy over The Atlantic-National Journal article, one underlying United States unease has gone unnoticed, a deeply satisfying fact for me as a student of strategy: the US, despite all the scenario-building over several years and consistent attempts through technical and other means to pick up intelligence on Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal – directly and through allied efforts – remains clueless about critical aspects of Pakistan’s programme. The Strategic Plans Division, an otherwise open organisation that serves as the Secretariat of the National Command Authority, deserves credit for this.

The second aspect deals with our reaction. The Foreign Office spokesperson should have responded to the question about it with a one-line, does-not-merit-comment response. The next step which Pakistan took, getting the State Department to debunk it, was a much smarter move.

Now to the article.

First, concerned officials at the Inter-Services Public Relations, the Strategic Plans Division and the Inter-Services Intelligence deny anyone authorised to speak with the media on this subject ever met with or spoke to these reporters. “No request was ever filed, no one ever spoke to them, no one had heard their names before the publishing of this article,” I was told.

Second, going by what they have written, both reporters are singularly ignorant of the technicalities of the subject they undertook.

The first problem relates to conflating the concepts of safety and security. Are the nuclear weapons safe is a different question from are they secure. In theory, a safe nuclear weapon may not be secure or a secure one may not be safe. In practice, an arsenal requires the weapons to be both safe and secure. In very broad terms, eschewing complex details and procedures – some of which may be known while others kept secret – safety deals with the safe working mechanism of various parts of a nuclear weapon and its storage (incidents/accidents etc) and their authorised use only. Security relates to the physical security, transportation and storage of a site, its weapons and their components. The secrecy of many of these procedures is in line with the IAEA security protocol.

All such write-ups about Pakistani loose nukes get this wrong.

So, is there no threat to the Pakistani arsenal? Of course there is; in fact, there are multiple threats. Is the Pakistani arsenal absolutely safe and secure? It is safe, as safe as technologies and procedures can make something safe. But nothing can be absolutely secure. As someone said about foolproof measures, for every proof there is always a fool. The reporters of this article would do well to study nuclear-related incidents and accidents in the US and perhaps also cast a glance at Charles Perrow’s remarkable ‘normal accidents’ theory. It is one of the many dilemmas of possessing nuclear weapons: how to safe-keep and secure the arsenal that is supposed to secure a state and give it a strategic advantage.

Nuclear arsenals are kept safe and secure in all nuclear-weapon states precisely to avoid incidents, accidents, unauthorised use, theft etc. Procedures are checked, monitored and improved where improvement is required. A case in point is the 2007 incident at the Minot AFB in the US where six cruise missiles armed with nuclear warheads were loaded on a B52H bomber and were without required security for 36 hours. The incident, after the cover-up, resulted in two high-level separate inquiries which also brought into light many other lapses. Based on the findings, many procedures were revisited and improved. Many heads also rolled.

Ditto for security and safety of reactors, weapons labs, and other nuclear-related material, including best practices for accounting of radioactive materials which have multiple civilian uses apart from safe and secure storage and use of reactor- and weapons-grade uranium and plutonium. This also includes export of such materials. Again, in 2006, a US cargo to Taiwan mistakenly contained four electrical fuses for the Minuteman ICBM nose cone. So, yes, nothing is foolproof.

The safety and security of Pakistani arsenal and other measures for accounting of stocks etc take into account the threat spectrum which has some features common to all NWSs and has some that are peculiar to Pakistan. This means that the threats identified in the article are factored into the security and safety regimes.

Similarly, the article’s assertion that Pakistan is using civilian vehicles to move weapons, both ‘de-mated’ and ‘mated’, on ‘dangerous and congested roads’ is not only fantastic, the reporters again reveal their lack of knowledge of the concept of ‘security’. Low profile security does not mean less security or, worse, lack of security. It simply means securing something or someone in a way that does not attract attention. This is like people often saying “Oh, these intel guys; they can’t even hide themselves while tailing me”. Right! Except that one can see them because they want to be seen! Overt surveillance for most subjects is a more cost-effective way than covert surveillance.

Expectedly, the writers do not define the term ‘mated’ weapons. Are they referring to the transportation of a full weapon as opposed to its dissembled components? Mating normally refers to a weapon ‘mated’ to its delivery vehicle. It is highly unlikely that Pakistan is transporting 30-meter-long nuclear-tipped missiles in civilian vehicles! But why should facts stand in the way of magical realism?

How many contradictions can one highlight? Here’s one. On the one hand the reporters quote very senior officials as stating that the US doesn’t know much about the Pakistani programme and on the other unnamed US intelligence sources confirm to the reporters how exactly Pakistan is moving its arsenal on ‘dangerous and congested’ roads. Then, while the US is terribly concerned about possible loose nukes and is constantly scheming to secure them, it does nothing when it sees Pakistan moving its arsenal around so dangerously.

The US also doesn’t know the exact location of Pakistan’s silos and storage facilities but buses attacked outside Sargodha and Kamra AFBs are supposed to be near-misses to grab Pakistani nukes because those are possible storage sites. One, even the US intelligence at the highest level has only guesstimates and conjectures; two, attacking buses on thoroughfares is no way of trying to grab a nuke, thank you. And since it is a known fact that Pakistan operates multiple decoy sites, how do the reporters know which is which?

Of course, here we are not even getting into the technical details of how difficult it is to steal (grabbing makes much less sense because even if a group managed to do that, it would be impossible for them to extricate with the weapon) a weapon, how difficult it is, even if one could be stolen, to transport it, how difficult to trigger it, how difficult to (theoretically) dissemble and reassemble it with different nuclear codes if original PAL (permissive action links) codes are unknown etcetera. This is a whole different debate and the reporters would do well to read the findings of a 2004 paper commissioned by the WMD Commission.

There are multiple steps to keep weapons safe and secure and most of the scenarios experts keep conjuring up are built into these regimes. As David Sanger of The New York Times said in his article published on January 11, 2009 – I responded to that in a Daily Times article on Jan 13 – “every few months someone in Washington…runs a simulation of how the United States should respond if a terrorist group infiltrates the Pakistani nuclear programme or manages to take over one or two of its weapons”. The problem is, as he wrote, “In these exercise, everyone plays to type”.

So there, then, we have yet another article. The problem is, this one is much inferior even as playing-to-type articles go.

The writer is Contributing Editor, The Friday Times.



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13 Comments

    • M. Zafar said:

      Q: Why don't write a rebuttal to this and get it published? Obviously you know nuclear strategy better than the author who is only trying to "keep the stables of army clean".

      A: Because you know it is easier to write mocking one-liners than proper newspaper commentaries, right?!

      • Siddiqui said:

        Army is still the cleanest institution in Pakistan. Still the most organised, intact, effective and able institution.

  1. Ravian said:

    In fact when US says Pakistan's nuclear arsenal is safe it makes me worry a lot as to how are they so sure of it's safety (and security). Under the present political dispensation (read Zardari) put in place by the US and Rehman Malik's connections with Black water any thing is possible.

  2. Sanjeev said:

    Why you doing hair splitting, Ejaz ? . If they can attack GHQ in Rawalpindi and than PNS in Karachi , kill Banzir Bhutto and get away with it, kill Salman Taseer being a bodyguard, and LeT can carry out transborder attacks, you tell me why it is so stupid to think that they are trying to lay their hands on your Nuclear weapons ? They are tryng and they have their sympathizers all over the place. You are missing many points in techanicalities. Don't; argue for sake of arguement and see the bigger picture. Your Nukes may be safe/secure at present but "non-state" actors are too powerful and too popular in your Pakistan.

    • Just Wondering said:

      Why do you even read him when he is always off the mark, according to you Indians, and gives you guys such terrible heart burns!

    • Haider said:

      Dear Sanjeev,

      India engineers an attack on PNS Mehran. They attack the GHQ. They false flag an attack on themselves on 26/11. They blame everything on LeT and ISI.

      And now an Indian is advising us that their tricks and espionage can make us accept, blind and brainwash us enough to believe that we have a problem amidst us and ultimately the nukes are unsafe.

      Next time cook up a better story.

  3. Khan jr said:

    Right so anything Ejaz Ahmed disagrees with is 'shallow' and 'silly'. I read the article a few days ago and it did raise many concerns. Either Ejaz Ahmed is privy to Pakistan's defence secrets or he is just another bombastic 'gairatmand' journo.

    The 15 hour siege of the Mehran Air base was enough to raise the hackles of any sane person. After all according to many accounts some of our nuclear arsenal is stored there. Only the likes of Ejaz Ahmed can dismiss these concerns as silly tosh.

    What the Atlantic article highlighted was that after the Bin Laden raid in Abbotabad the raised concern in GHQ about the possibility of the US using similar methods to neutralise our nuclear weaponry. And it wasn't at all shallow or silly.

    • Nasir Mahmood said:

      That's extremely profound, Khan Sahib. But who's Ejaz Ahmed?!

      • Khan jr said:

        Sorry, error on my part, Haider it is. Your professed confusion is quite enlightening…

  4. Adil said:

    Dear Ejaz!
    Your arguments make sense. Gives opportunity to those who want to analyze the issue on merit.
    Atlantic article is all rubbish. It only exposes shallowness of authors imaginations.
    However, you missed one interesting point. During all this mud slinging against Pakistan, the authors were overtly appreciative of India’s responsible behavior.

  5. Himanshu Mehta said:

    Quite funny to see the Indians commenting on a matter that is between the Pakistanis and the Yanks. Between India and Pakistan we have enough capability for mutually assured destruction, so we shouldn’t really give two hoots about each others arsenal. Imagine some nutheads did get hold of one of pakistan’s weapons, who do you think they would like to use their sole nuclear on- a third world nation like India with a 200 million strong Muslim population or a goliath like nation like the US of A? My money is on their striking at the US.

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