Safety Concerns About Pakistan’s Strategic Forces, Fissile Material, and Nuclear Installations

Gaurav Kampani
September 28, 2001

Safety Concerns About the Command and Control of Pakistan’s Strategic Forces, Fissile Material, and Nuclear Installations

As the United States prepares to launch military operations in Afghanistan with support from Pakistan, questions about the safety of Islamabad’s nuclear explosives, fissile material stocks, and nuclear facilities have come to the fore. Pakistan’s military regime led by General Pervez Musharraf is on the horns of a political dilemma. On the one hand, the regime faces strong domestic opposition from militant Islamic groups who are opposed to any Pakistani participation in attacks on Afghanistan. On the other, US pressure has placed Pakistan in the path of a direct confrontation with the Taliban, who to an extent are a creation of Pakistani military and intelligence agencies.

The Taliban have threatened Pakistan with a “massive attack” for rendering any assistance to the United States in attacking Afghanistan. Taliban leader Mullah Omar has publicly warned, “It’s possible that we will invade any country that provides access to the US.” Threats from the Taliban have caused some concern in the United States that Pakistan’s key nuclear facilities could become the targets of future terrorist attacks. Observers have also expressed alarm that if the secrecy of the storage locations of fissile material stocks and nuclear explosives become compromised by Taliban-sympathizers within the Pakistani military, Islamabad could lose control over its nuclear assets.

Despite persistent speculation among analysts and policy pundits, there is little public evidence to suggest that the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear installations or the command and control of its strategic forces are in jeopardy. The following report assesses some of the safety concerns surrounding Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. It imagines four scenarios to analyze conditions under which the Pakistani government could conceivably lose control over its cache of fissile material and nuclear warheads.

The first scenario addresses concerns about the potential impact of political instability in Pakistan. The latter three scenarios assess: (1) the likelihood of nuclear terrorism, (2) the possibility of rogue military commanders or units gaining access to nuclear warheads or fissile material, and (3) the consequences of any temporary loss of centralized control over nuclear storage sites. After analyzing each of the above scenarios in some detail, this report concludes that public concerns about the security of Pakistan’s fissile material installations and safe custody of its strategic weapons are overstated.

Opposition from Militant Islamic Groups and Political Instability

Observers fear that US intervention against the Taliban with the Pakistani government’s support could trigger political instability in Pakistan. The instability could result from opposition by Islamic groups sympathetic to the Taliban and Usama bin Laden. There is also concern that in the long term, the Islamic political groups could form alliances with radicals in the Pakistani army, who then might try and dislodge General Pervez Musharraf from power. Factional infighting within the Pakistani Army could put a dangerous question mark over the command and control of Islamabad’s nuclear forces. Similarly, a wider civil war in Pakistan could jeopardize the safety and security of its fissile material stocks and nuclear installations.

Although the above scenario cannot be ruled out in theory, a closer analysis of the prevailing political conditions in Pakistan reveals that such concerns are unduly alarmist. The Islamic parties and groups such as Jamaat-i-Islami, Jamaat-i-Ulema, and Jamaat-i-Islam, which oppose the Pakistani government’s support for US intervention in Afghanistan, represent a minority. All mainstream political parties in Pakistan such as the Pakistan Peoples Party, the Muslim League (the Nawaz Sharif faction being the exception), and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement have expressed support for General Musharraf’s policies.

The Islamic political parties are vocal, well organized, and very often successful in mobilizing people on the street. However, their political base is mainly confined to Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province, Baluchistan, and some urban centers in the Punjab (Lahore), and Sindh (Karachi). Furthermore, the Islamic parties are disunited. Due to Pakistan’s Westminster style first-past-the-post electoral system (as against proportional representation), they have never succeeded in winning more than a handful of seats in the national assembly. Similarly, the performance of the Islamic parties in the recent local elections organized by the military regime was dismal. Hence, the ability of the radical Islamic groups to generate heat and dust in Pakistan’s civil society should not be confused with actual political influence. In this regard, it should also be noted that the recent strike organized by these parties to express opposition to the Pakistani government’s support for US intervention in Afghanistan met with limited success.

Similarly, concerns about a potential coup by a radical Islamized faction within the Pakistani army are overstated. Observers who make these predictions premise their concerns on three trends. The pessimists argue that the Islamization of the Pakistani society as a whole has created an army rank and file and officer corps more sensitive to the forces of radical Islam. Second, the social base of the officer corps has changed in the last three decades. For example, during the 1950s and 1960s, the majority of military officers came from gentrified, landed, and westernized classes. In comparison, the bulk of the officers now come from the middle and lower-middle classes. The current generation of officer corps is less westernized and more socially conservative. Third, the process of Islamization within the Pakistani military, a trend that started under the late-President Zia in the early 1980s, created a “Zia generation” of officers who believe in the greater Islamization of the Pakistani society and army. Some of these trends came to light during the aborted coup led by Major-General Zahir ul Islam Abbasi in 1995 during Benazir Bhutto’s second tenure as prime minister.

Despite the growing fears of Islamization, the Pakistani Army remains a professional force and is in no immediate danger of falling prey to the forces of radical Islam. There is certainly a greater sensitivity within its rank and file and officer corps towards Pakistan’s identity as an Islamic nation. However, the emphasis within the military on Islam is more ideological and inspirational, and not necessarily political. The majority of the Pakistani Army’s officers continue to see themselves as good Muslims and competent professionals. Regardless of their social and religious beliefs, these officers are also extremely sensitive to the corporate interests of the military. In the present context, the Pakistani military sees its corporate interests served by enduring political, economic, technical, and military links with the United States. Indeed, Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf reflected this consensus among his corps commanders when he explained why he had decided to side with the United States in its conflict with the Taliban. In his address to the Pakistani people, Musharraf made it plain that Pakistan’s interests “come first.”

In the near term, Pakistan has gained considerably from the current crisis in Afghanistan. The Bush administration has rewarded Pakistan for its support by waiving all nuclear-related sanctions. Administration officials are also debating a generous economic aid package to bail out the ailing Pakistani economy. Pakistan will also most certainly try and use its new found bargaining leverage to gain political support for Kashmir and try and prevent the United States from framing its support for the Kashmiri insurgency as support for terrorism.

Furthermore, the military regime has performed a careful balancing act. In apparent deference to the misgivings of the Islamic political groups, Islamabad has insisted upon UN authorization for any US military actions in Afghanistan. In a similar vein, Pakistan has agreed to grant the United States access to its bases, airspace, and intelligence files; but it has firmly ruled out direct participation of its armed forces in military operations in Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s Nuclear Command and Control System

In February 2000, Pakistan’s military government led by General Pervez Musharraf announced the establishment of a National Command Authority (NCA) to manage Pakistan’s nuclear forces. According to Pakistani government sources, the NCA is responsible for policy formulation and will “exercise employment and development control over all strategic forces and strategic organizations.”

The NCA comprises an Employment Control Committee (ECC), a Development Control Committee (DCC), and a Strategic Plans Division (SPD).

The head of the Pakistani government chairs the ECC. Other members include the ministers of foreign affairs, defense, interior; the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff committee; the three service chiefs; the director-general of the SPD, and technical advisors as required.

The DCC controls the “development of strategic assets.” The head of the Pakistani government also chairs the DCC. Other members include the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff committee; the three service chiefs; the director-general of the SPD; and representatives of strategic organizations and the scientific community.

The SPD acts as the secretariat for the NCA and is responsible for establishing a reliable command, control, communications, computer, and intelligence network. The SPD is located in the joint services headquarters and is led by a senior army officer.

Source: “National Command Authority Established,” Associated Press of Pakistan, February 3, 2000.

The Rogue Military Commander Theory

Could a rogue military commander or military unit with sympathies to the Taliban or opposed to the Pakistani government’s cooperation with the United States, seize a cache of nuclear warheads? Although a successful seizure is possible in theory, it would be extremely difficult to achieve in practice.

The first difficulty has to do with the nature and configuration of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. Although Pakistan conducted nuclear tests in May 1998 and declared itself a nuclear weapon state, it is highly unlikely that Islamabad maintains a nuclear force that is operational or on a hair-trigger alert. Statements made by senior Pakistani civilian and military officials suggest that Islamabad’s nuclear force probably remains unconstituted. The term unconstituted essentially means that in times of peace the fissionable cores of the nuclear warheads are maintained separately from their non-nuclear assemblies. As a corollary to the above, nuclear warheads are not mated with their delivery systems.

Pakistan probably maintains its arsenal in an unconstituted state for doctrinal and safety reasons. At a doctrinal level, the military has internalized the fundamental lesson of the nuclear revolution that nuclear weapons best serve a political purpose. Nuclear weapons are more useful for their symbolic value in deterring enemies than for achieving any militarily useful objective on the battlefield. Hence Pakistan’s nuclear force is designed to deter the threat of a high-intensity conventional war against India. Although no Pakistani government has publicly articulated its nuclear use doctrine, some retired senior Pakistani officials have suggested that nuclear escalation by Islamabad would be most likely in the event Pakistan’s national survival were threatened.

Since the probability of a high-intensity conventional war in South Asia remains low, both India and Pakistan maintain their nuclear arsenals in what analysts commonly characterize as a “recessed” state. The unconstituted nature of the arsenal not only minimizes the risks of nuclear weapons use through inadvertence, accident, or a command and control failure, but it also forecloses the possibility of the seizure of an assembled weapon or cache of weapons by a rogue military commander or unit. Even if a military commander or his unit were to successfully seize all the components of a nuclear warhead, they would require considerable technical assistance from other units within the military and the civilian nuclear establishment to reconstitute them. This would also be the case if an attempt were made to deploy the fissile cores or fissile material from nuclear facilities in the form of radiological weapons.

It would be reasonable to expect that highly trained and trusted military commando units guard caches of warheads or parts of disassembled warheads. Although there is an information vacuum about the organizations that safeguard Pakistan’s cache of nuclear warheads, it should not be assumed that those guarding specific components of disassembled warheads (fissile cores and non-fissile assemblies) would necessarily also have access to information about the location of all the constituent parts of the warhead. Such information would probably only be available to very senior military commanders. Hence the reconstitution of a warhead or a cache of warheads would require extensive intra-service and inter-service cooperation, particularly from the air force. Such cooperation would be unlikely in the absence of serious factional infighting within the army or the military as a whole. So far, no information has surfaced in the public domain to warrant concerns about serious policy differences or infighting within the Pakistani military.

However, it would be theoretically possible for a rogue military unit or commander to seize highly enriched uranium (HEU) from the two facilities at Kahuta and Golra Sharif, or weapons-grade plutonium from the Khushab research reactor. The alleviating factor in this regard is that all three facilities are located in the Punjab, the political, economic, and military heartland of Pakistan. In addition, all three facilities are located deep inside Pakistan, away from the turbulent Afghan border. Further, the three facilities are located close to the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, which also makes it easier for the military to deploy reinforcements, isolate rogue units, and disrupt their logistics to prevent the seizure, theft, or loss of fissile material.

Possibility of Terrorist Attacks

Could the Taliban mount well-planned and organized assaults on Pakistani nuclear facilities? The short answer to this question is no. The Taliban are a lightly armed militia. They are incapable of deploying artillery, rockets, armor, or combat aircraft against the better organized and trained Pakistani military far away from the Afghan heartland. The Taliban’s problems are further compounded by the closure of the Afghan-Pakistan border. Although the Afghan-Pakistan border is highly porous, the mountainous nature of the terrain and closure of key border crossings effectively rules out the use of heavy military equipment by the Taliban for any operations inside Pakistan.

In theory, the Taliban could infiltrate Pakistan and launch attacks on nuclear facilities using light weapons and guerilla tactics. However, the small number of these facilities and their location deep inside Pakistan make the task of the attacker more difficult. In this regard, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar has indicated that his government takes the Taliban’s threats “very seriously.” Other media reports also suggest that the Pakistani government has enhanced the security of its nuclear installations by deploying elite commando units to guard them.

The possibility that the Taliban or Taliban-backed militias within Pakistan could seize nuclear weapons is also remote. This is largely because Pakistan has a small nuclear arsenal. According to publicly available sources, Islamabad has an inventory of 585-800kg of HEU, enough to probably build 30-52 fission bombs. In addition, the Khushab research reactor, which became operational in March/April 1998, is capable of producing 10-15kg of weapons-grade plutonium annually. The small number of nuclear warheads and still smaller number of facilities actually used to manufacture fissile material make it simpler for national command authorities to exercise tight centralized control.

The small size of the arsenal also puts a premium on survivability. In the absence of a secure second-strike capability, the Pakistani military relies on dense opacity to mask its nuclear arsenal and enhance its survivability. Hence, the locations of the various components of Pakistan’s nuclear force are a closely guarded national secret. It is therefore highly unlikely that a terrorist group or network of groups could identify the different locations with confidence, let alone reconstitute the stolen parts into complete weapon systems.

Loss of Local Control

Local rioting or political disturbances could also cause the federal government to lose control over parts of Pakistan temporarily. Local riots could be triggered by domestic opposition to the military regime’s policies in Afghanistan or may be the consequence of political opposition from Taliban-sympathizers or those who favor Usama bin Laden within Pakistan.

However, the potential loss of control over local areas might not be as alarming as it appears at first for several reasons. As mentioned earlier, the storage sites for fissile material, machined HEU cores, and their non-fissile assemblies, are a highly classified national secret. The nuclear weapon parts are probably distributed in a number of tightly secured facilities at different locations throughout Pakistan. Military organizations also tend to be very conservative. It can therefore be presumed that planners selected sites on the basis of their secrecy, security, political stability, access to secure communications nodes, and relative invulnerability to a pre-emptive military strike. Military planners would be reluctant to store the constituent parts of nuclear weapons in local districts known for the their political volatility. Furthermore, even in the unlikely eventuality that the federal government were to lose control over a local district or region, the new controlling authorities might not have access to the necessary intelligence to exploit their strategic advantage.

In Pakistan, military facilities are often located away from civilian population centers. This is a legacy of the British colonial administration, which adopted a conscious policy of separating the military units from their civilian social base. Thus, military units are usually stationed in self-contained communities called cantonments. This factor also mitigates the impact of any temporary loss of local control. Conceivably, military cantonments or bases under threat from political protesters would be able to conduct holding operations and defend storage sites until the arrival of additional reinforcements. It would also not be unreasonable to assume that the military probably has some contingency plans to airlift the cores and non-fissile assemblies to pre-planned alternative sites in the event the security of a single or multiple sites is threatened.


In the near term, there is little danger to either the security of Pakistan’s fissile material installations or the safety of its nuclear command and control. Fears of domestic instability and factional infighting within the military are exaggerated. Although a rogue military commander or unit could in theory gain control over a cache of fission bombs, their unconstituted nature, the enormous inter-organizational effort required to reconstitute them, and the dense opacity surrounding the location of their constituent parts, make that possibility remote. The small number of nuclear warheads in Pakistan’s inventory and still smaller number of facilities used to produce fissile material also give national command authorities considerable advantages in protecting them against potential attacks by terrorists. To be sure, local riots and political instability could result in a temporary loss of control over some storage sites. However, the secrecy of the nuclear storage bunkers, the separation of military cantonments from civilian population centers, and the presumed military contingency planning, mitigate the dangers of that likelihood.

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