Pakistan nukes safe: Experts

October 17, 2009

Washington—Taliban jihadists storming Pakistani police stations and army headquarters have revived fears of Islamic extremists hijacking a nuclear warhead. But that particular threat may mostly be the stuff of movie thrillers.

The nightmare is not so much a small group of extremists getting their hands on one bomb, but a large group of them getting the whole country,” said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org and an expert on missile and nuclear-weapons systems, according to The Mail and Globe newspaper.

Pakistan’s medium-range missiles tipped with nuclear warheads -capable of obliterating any South Asian city within 2,000 kilometres – are the country’s military crown jewels. But even as the nation reels from a string of successful attacks by militants, Islamabad insists its nuclear arsenal is safe, and outside security specialists mostly agree.

Pakistan’s nuclear-weapons security is modelled on long-standing safeguards developed by the major powers and includes separately storing the physical components needed for a nuclear warhead and keeping them apart and heavily guarded.

Even if insurgents managed to get a fully assembled weapon, they would lack the ‘secret decoder ring’ [the special security codes] needed to arm it,” Mr. Pike said. Thought to possess a relatively modest nuclear arsenal of between 70 and 100 warheads, Pakistan is even more secretive about its security measures than most nuclear-weapons states. But even if those measures were somehow breached, Mr. Pike said, even a complete nuclear weapon would be a limited threat in the hands of terrorists.

If they did try to hot-wire it to explode in the absence of knowing the approved firing sequences, it would probably only trigger the high-explosives, making a jim-dandy of a dirty bomb,” he said, referring to an explosion that spreads radioactive material over a small area, but is not a nuclear blast.

More to be feared than a direct attack, says Prof. Gregory, is subversion. In a research paper published in the July issue of Sentinel, the counterterrorism journal of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, he warns that “the risk of the transfer of nuclear weapons, weapons components or nuclear expertise to terrorists in Pakistan is genuine.”

The position of the Obama administration is that there is little risk of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons falling into the wrong hands.

Bruce Riedel, of the Brookings Institution, who co-directed the Afghanistan-Pakistan policy review for the Obama administration last spring, has concluded Pakistan pays special attention to nuclear security.


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