“Pakistan’s nukes” by Richard Sale

      With Pakistan’s political instability spreading, nervous concern has mounted over the fate of Islamabad’s nuclear arsenal should Taliban sympathizers gain power within the Pakistan military, but under the terms of secret agreements, U.S. personnel have been stationed in Pakistan whose sole function is to guarantee and secure the safety of Islamabad’s nuclear arsenal and keep it out of the hands of terrorists, according to several serving and former U.S. officials.

       In any case, in the opinion of several former and serving U.S. officials, Pakistan’s nukes are currently secure, “They are for now,” said one.

     Not everyone agrees. Speaking of the arsenal, a former senior CIA official said, "When it comes to this subject,  you've got a lot of people making stuff up. There is not only disinformation, but misinformation and wish-information."

      He added that when it came to Pakistan's arsenal, "We don't even know where it all is."

       The concern over Pakistan’s arsenal extends back in time, before the 9/11 attacks.  As early as 2000, the Clinton administration created a joint commission, a “liaison” group, consisting of top American and Pakistani scientists. The purpose of this group was to help the Pakistanis create command and control codes for its nuclear weapons that would be unbreakable. One former senior U.S. intelligence source told me that in the course of such work, America gained “a pretty full knowledge” of Pakistan’s command and control system.

     The United States then used Special Forces “snatch teams” to kidnap Pakistani scientists who were peddling Pakistan’s nuclear technology or knowledge of it to undesirables. For example, a group of such scientists abruptly disappeared while traveling in Burma, these sources said.

     In addition, the kidnappings disrupted an alleged 200 links between the Pakistani nuclear community and terrorists with ties to al-Qaida, they said. Other Pakistanis sympathetic to al-Qaida such as Sultan Bashiruddin, a much-decorated scientist in Pakistan’s nuclear community, were arrested and interrogated.

    The fact was that even before 9/11, U.S. intelligence had thoroughly infiltrated the nuclear smuggling ring of Pakistan’s lead nuclear scientist, A.Q. Khan, without disclosing this to the government of Pakistan.  The penetration proved a chief factor in Libya’s abandoning its own nuclear program and why Iran, another Pakistan client, disclosed its own activities to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Vienna watch-dog group.

     After the Sept. 11 attacks, American aid to Pakistan to safeguard and secure its

arsenal was drastically stepped up, with the Bush administration using the proposed $3 billion U.S. aid package that included F-16s and all sorts of advanced hardware, as a bludgeon. Under U.S. pressure, within two days of the attacks, Pakistan’s military began to secretly relocate critical nuclear weapons components to six new secret locations, U.S. sources said. Warheads and delivery systems, which were already being kept separated, were put even more widely apart, and additional surveillance was put on Pakistan’s nuclear labs and their personnel, they said.

     Additional steps were also taken to separate fissile material from the labs or the weapons themselves, they said.

    More U.S. “technical advisory” teams, many staffed by Defense Intelligence Agency or Energy Dept. intelligence officials, began to appear in Pakistan along with warning and assessment equipment.

      Communications systems between Pakistani nuclear commanders and nuclear storage sites were reviewed and modernized, and certain key nodes were, at some point, on a U.S. target list, sources said.

     Thanks to U.S. technical means, the United States became aware earlier of defects and miscommunication between Pakistani military centers of command by monitoring weapons tests which helped U.S. analysts to grasp facets of Islamabad’s command and control  that were of dubious reliability.

    Following 9/11, when U.S. advisors persuaded Pakistani scientists to adopt some key features that add security to U.S. nuclear command procedures, tension rose over whether to install Permission Action Links (PALs), an electronic lock that renders a weapon null and void until political commanders relinquish control of the special codes that allow the weapon to be turned on, several sources said. In addition, the weapons could not be used without employing a dual-key system, meaning that a single rogue commander could not initiate their use.

   In brief, the PALs would prevent the unauthorized use of a nuclear weapon by an aberrant member of the military, and they would prevent use of such a weapon by terrorists, and therefore are important, U.S. officials said.

   Yet disputes arose immediately. There were legal implications about sharing such sensitive military technology with a foreign power, and some senior U.S. officials balked at using the PALs, thinking they would give the Pakistanis too much insight into America’s own nuclear war fighting system. “The Paks are smart. What they can see and examine, they can re-engineer,” said one.

    For their part, the Pakistanis feared that American scientists would insert a “dead switch” into the PALs, which would freeze the weapons if someone attempted their use, similar to being able to stall a stolen car from a remote position.

     There is some ground for Pakistani misgivings. For years, U.S. intelligence has infiltrated the front companies used by Iran to acquire nuclear weapons technology from the West, especially Europe. Many of these companies were originally part of the Pakistani network set up by A.Q. Khan that procured both components and information for North Korea, Libya and the like. Many are engineering consulting firms, U.S. officials said.

     An atomic bomb requires enriched uranium, and to enrich uranium, machines called centrifuges are required – rapidly spinning tubes that are used to separate and concentrate isotopes in gasified uranium. Spinning at several thousand revolutions per minute, they rest on superb bearings, in perfect balance, in a vacuum, linked by pipes to thousands of other spinning units. When the process works, the gas ends up in a solid form, but any minute defect, and the product is decisively marred.

    The same is true of the other equipment required: tools, magnets, exotic steel, vacuum pumps, ball bearings and instruments of all kinds, all must be perfect.

     Iran uses front companies, fake end-user certificates and third-country destinations to disguise the true purpose, but according to one former senior CIA official, “We have infiltrated such companies and have been able to insert flaws into the technology that we can exploit. It goes along the line of our selling computers that have trap doors into which U.S. technicians can enter to manipulate the machine.”

     During the Kosovo war, NSA systems were able to make false insertions into the workings of Serb air defense radars, rendering them inoperable.

     Other Iranian targets include electronic circuits, electromagnetic machines called caultrons, industrial circuits, power supplies, and compressors for window mounted air conditioners.

     “The point is that when they push the button, the stuff won’t work,” the former senior official said.

     He and others said that the operation “is of fairly long-standing” and successful.

     Pakistan is said to have between 25-40 strategic nuclear weapons, and Janes Defense Weekly says it also has about 60 short-to-medium range missiles and 34 F-16s capable of delivering an atomic warhead.

     Islamabad exploded its first weapon in 1998.


Greetings to all,


Richard Sale

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15 Responses to “Pakistan’s nukes” by Richard Sale

  1. Sven Ortmann says:

    This all could be changed in a matter of weeks (and double agents aren’t exactly unheard of anyway).
    I wonder what would happen if really a radical theocratic government took power. They could fix these obstacles, do one or two tests to be sure and would have an operational nuclear arms arsenal.
    The question is, of course, whether Pakistan would still exist at that time.

  2. There are numerous technical glitches in this posting but its theme hopefully is correct.The theme being “No Problemo.” Actually the way the world alliance system is developing we probably need both India and Pakistan to offset the condominium forming of China, Japan, Tawain, the Koreas and South East Asia, including Indonsia. But if I were SECDEF I would make sure my best and brightest were working the worst case scenario for dealing with what some call the “Islamic Bomb” and nuclear surety issues, including loss of command and control by the Pakistan Government. Hey, if the USAF can lose positive control on War Reserve NUKES so can anyone.

  3. curious says:

    The Pakistanis do not trust Clinton, nor does the Indian. The problem with lost of trust, we don’t know nor control jack in fast moving events.
    By now, everybody is running under the assumption that Hillary is just a Condi lite. Highly incompetent and incoherent over time. Her words are unreliable and she is going to screw everybody. (eg. the Pakistanis are going to hedge bet. Musharaf gambit. Taliban is their ace. Nuke is their second ace. Economic collapse is their last and biggest ace.) And india is definitely cranky, let alone china (with all those tibet jibe) Frankly I am surprised Pakistan hold up this long, with high profile bombing happens every 6-8 months.
    Pakistan is serious issue. It needs to be stabilized. Followed by return to growth and political reform. Everybody knows how to shoot down there (Car bomb, high assassination, operation.) Once things boil, events are going to get out of control very quickly.
    overal, it’s the collapse of US long term foreign policy (at least in case of central asia and middle east). Word doesn’t mean anything. Everybody plays the game. By now the best one can do is react and prevent. Large regional cooperation will take a miracle. (we’ll see the G20 kabuki meeting soon. I bet, everybody will smile and be polite but thinking, ‘whatever’.)
    Even the Russian is preparing for eventual US total collapse of central asian policy. (this is actually good thing, since we now can say. Time to help pal. This is serious.)

  4. Sidney O. Smith III says:

    Here’s a rhetorical question but one offered in blessed memory of Isaac Edward Leibowitz.
    Has the US taken similar safeguards at Dimona?

  5. Sven Ortmann says:

    Actually, Pakistan is a de-facto ally of the PRC.
    It’s also pretty unrealistic that any nation could be close friend of both India and Pakistan in the next ten to twenty years.

  6. Cieran says:

    I agree with WRC: the theme is probably correct in a general sense (including the stated uncertainties), but there are some substantial technical miscues in this essay, including the stated need for centrifuge technology in order to create atomic weapons.
    It’s also worthwhile to note that much of what is released to the public in the way of SRD (secret/restricted data) information is often deliberately erroneous, and thus part of an important (and thankfully, very successful) information operations campaign to muddy the waters of technical discourse about this topic. So anytime we read this type of essay, we should accept that there may be considerable deliberate uncertainty involved.
    That is NOT meant to denigrate this essay, however: this post is yet-another fine work of journalism by Mr. Sale, and my thanks go to him and to Colonel Lang for posting it here.

  7. curious says:

    Pakistan protesters start march
    Pakistani lawyers and political activists in cities around the country have started a four-day anti-government protest march.
    Organisers intend it to culminate in a huge sit-in at the parliament building in the capital, Islamabad, on Monday.
    The demonstrators want the government to reinstate sacked judges.
    The government says the march is aimed at destabilising the country and the police have responded by arresting more than 400 opposition activists.
    The authorities have also banned political gatherings in the two biggest provinces, Punjab and Sindh, saying they could trigger bloodshed.

  8. Brett J says:

    Yes – my thanks for this post. Informative and gives insight into the tug-of-war (tug-of-espionage?) between sides that is going on ‘under the radar.’

  9. curious says:

    things about to get very complicated in pakistan.
    Pakistan has come to a point in which political half measures are no longer an option.
    Its economy is in tatters, amidst a global recession that will be multi-year. The textile industry contracted by 33% this past year. Skilled and unskilled laborers will be returning from Dubai with little possibility of local employment. This year’s growth rate will be below 3%, which, for an impoverished country like Pakistan is effectively negative growth.
    The militant threat is rising. Meanwhile, the state security apparatus — in a fast replay of Musharraf’s downward spiral in 2007 — is presently oriented around suppressing domestic dissent, at the cost of combating takfiri terrorists.
    Political reform is non-existent. State failures are mounting on top of those that have accumulated over the decades. Pockets of the country in which the primary organs of the state — the elected leadership, bureaucracy, police, and judiciary — are non-functional have proven to be ripe for the rise of militant vigilantism. These pockets exist not only in the Pashtun belt bordering Afghanistan, but also in no-go areas in major cities and a good number of rural districts throughout the country.
    State resources must be channeled to combat these threats and seize opportunities to put Pakistan on the right course.
    For that to occur, Pakistan needs detente between its two largest parties, the Peoples Party (PPP) and Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). They must serve as anchors of stability, not agents of chaos.
    There is, however, no trust between the the Peoples Party (PPP) and Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N). The sole reason for the breakdown in trust is the fact that President Asif Ali Zardari made three separate agreements with former Prime Minister Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif, only to renege on his commitments after the expiry of each deadline.

  10. Look for CHINA to bail out Pakistan since US cannot do so. The only real question is will CHINA bail out INDIA?

  11. curious says:

    I would chalk this as the new administration first major foreign policy disaster. Next question: what will happen to afghanistan policy ?
    On Saturday night, the president said he would be open to discussing most issues with Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N. But Zardari had excluded from negotiations the one issue that matters most to his opponents in the legal and civic communities: the restoration of Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, the former chief justice of Pakistan. Chaudhry was fired two years ago by Musharraf and has gained celebrity status during the struggle to reinstate him.
    Many Pakistanis say Zardari fears that Chaudhry would reopen old court cases against him and nullify many of his year-old government’s actions. Analysts said Zardari’s stand has also been strengthened by U.S. ambivalence about the former justice, an unpredictable maverick who has questioned the disappearance of terrorism suspects.
    The protesters Sunday included a remarkably wide range of groups, including black-suited lawyers, members of Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N, conservative Muslims from the Jamaat-i-Islami religious party, women from civic and human rights groups and disaffected members of Zardari’s ruling party, the Pakistan People’s Party.

  12. YT says:

    Mr. Sale,
    Re : “wish-information”, I thought only arabs are capable of that. Americans?

  13. R vd Hoeven says:

    Dear Mr. Sale,
    This is not a post: I am a journalist from the Netherlands, and I would like to ask you a few questions about your article. How could I reach you?

  14. I think alone Osama bin Laden and Taliban cannot do any harm to America and Western world. There exist deep rooted extremists and fundamentalists in Pakistan. Although situation is very bad in Pakistan. There is growing fear and insecurity in Pakistan. Unfortunately Pakistan is under terrorist attack. Some people consider it civil war.

  15. Daprinc3 says:

    i have one question to ask Mr. Sales. Pakistan’s nukes have been protected for more than a decade while our security in the US has been broken into and had release of our nuclear bases onto the internet and India’s which is our “supposedly” close “friend” couldn’t find out where there scientist went with very sensetive information on the Indian nukes program.

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