Analysis The security of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal // by Dinshaw Mistry

Published 8 May 2009

Pakistan has significantly strengthened its nuclear command and control mechanisms; still, under some situations, its nuclear arsenal may be vulnerable to takeover by extremists

In recent weeks, the Pakistani Taliban has gained control of a district just sixty miles from Pakistan’s capital, raising concerns about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. Is Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal safe from the Taliban, al Qaeda, and other extremist groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan?

Over the past decade, Pakistan has strengthened its nuclear command and control mechanisms, and this suggests that its nuclear weapons are generally secure. In 1999-2000, Pakistan established a National Command Authority (NCA) to control its nuclear assets. The Strategic Plans Division (SPG) of the NCA oversees an estimated 10,000 security personnel who guard Pakistan’s strategic infrastructure. The SPG is under the military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, and is headed by a three-star general. Thus, while Pakistan’s civilian leaders head the NCA (which is chaired by Pakistan’s president with the prime minister serving as vice-chairman), Pakistan’s military retains significant control of its nuclear assets.

While the NCA was established in 1999-2000, key aspects of Pakistan’s nuclear security were strengthened only after revelations in 2003 of Pakistani scientist A. Q. Khan’s nuclear technology exports. The NCA then monitored more closely the activities of Pakistan’s nuclear laboratories and scientists. It also developed a personnel reliability program, and strengthened its protection and accounting mechanism for nuclear fissile material. Further, Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are now believed to be fitted with permissive action links (PALs) that create additional barriers against unauthorized use — these were originally absent from Pakistan’s nuclear devices.

Thus, Pakistan has significantly strengthened its nuclear command and control mechanisms. Still, under some situations, its nuclear arsenal may be vulnerable to takeover by extremists.

First, despite a personnel reliability program, some individuals within Pakistan’s nuclear establishment may transfer some of Pakistan’s nuclear assets to extremist groups. These individuals may not have access to complete nuclear weapons, and, even if they do, the nuclear weapons may well have permissive active links to protect against unauthorized use. These individuals, however, may have access to nuclear material such as low enriched uranium that could be used in a “dirty bomb,” and such material itself may be less well protected than Pakistan’s nuclear material. Thus, extremist groups could more plausibly gain access to nuclear material for a dirty bomb.

Second, Pakistan’s nuclear weapons will be more vulnerable when they are not in secure locations but are being transported. Pakistan’s military would be expected to move and transport its nuclear weapons during a military crisis with India. Extremist groups may well trigger such a crisis — a terrorist attack in India could well lead to Indian troop deployments or military strikes against Pakistan. In this situation, as Pakistan moves its nuclear weapons that then become more vulnerable, and especially if the transported nuclear weapons do not have permissive action links, terrorists could gain access to a working nuclear weapon.

Third, extremist forces could gain control of the Pakistani state, or parts of the state, and thus gain access to Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal in parts of the state that they control. While the United States and Pakistan’s military may have contingency plans to destroy or secure Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal in such a situation, it is not clear whether they could effectively secure all of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and infrastructure in territory taken over by extremist forces.

To conclude, for the most part, Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is secure. There are still situations, however, in which its nuclear arsenal is vulnerable to takeover by extremist groups. International assistance to strengthen security gaps in these areas of vulnerability would help to further secure Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.

Dinshaw Mistry is associate professor at the University of Cincinnati. He has written extensively on nuclear proliferation and is author of Containing Missile Proliferation: Strategic Technology, Security Regimes, and International Cooperation in Arms Control (2005).