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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