Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Connecting the Proliferation Dots

There are a number of unanswered questions about the international smuggling ring that acquired blueprints for an advanced nuclear weapon, and could have shared that information with any number of countries or rogue groups.

According to the Washington Post, the weapon design information was discovered two years ago, on computers belonging to Swiss businessmen. The three men—a father and his two sons—were part of the infamous nuclear black market, led by Pakistani scientist A.Q. Kahn. A nuclear technology smuggling ring operated by Kahn and his associates was active for almost two decades, until it was exposed by U.S. and British intelligence in 2003.

Former U.N. arms inspector David Albright tells the Post that data discovered on the Swiss computers would allow construction of a much smaller nuclear warhead, one that could be easily fitted to missiles now in the inventories of Iran, North Korea and other rogue regimes.

But U.N. officials cannot rule out the possibility that the blueprints were shared with others before their discovery, said Mr. Albright, a prominent nuclear weapons expert who spent four years researching the smuggling network.

"These advanced nuclear weapons designs may have long ago been sold off to some of the most treacherous regimes in the world," Albright wrote in a draft report about the blueprint's discovery.


The A.Q. Khan smuggling ring was previously known to have provided Libya with design information for a nuclear bomb. But the blueprints found in 2006 are far more troubling, Albright said in his report. While Libya was given plans for an older and relatively unsophisticated weapon that was bulky and difficult to deliver, the newly discovered blueprints offered instructions for building a compact device, the report said. The lethality of such a bomb would be little enhanced, but its smaller size might allow for delivery by ballistic missile.

"To many of these countries, it's all about size and weight," Albright said in an interview. "They need to be able to fit the device on the missiles they have."

But exactly where did the design originate? That’s one issue that remains (officially) unresolved, although experts believe that it came from Pakistan. Mr. Albright told the Post that officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) found similarities between the blueprints discovered on the Swiss computers, and those of Pakistani weapons. That suggests that A.Q. Kahn may have transferred his country’s most sensitive secrets to smugglers, allowing their potential sale to a host of customers.

Still, no one is saying if the advanced weapon blueprints represent an indigenous Pakistani design, or a blend of technology from several countries. Remember the plans given to Libya? They were based on a Chinese design from the early 1980s, transferred to Pakistan under a long-standing nuclear partnership between Beijing and Islamabad.

In fact, China was an early beneficiary of A.Q. Kahn’s nuclear proliferation network. According to a 2006 report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS), the Pakistani scientist transferred advanced uranium centrifuge technology to Beijing in the early 1980s, assisting China’s nuclear weapons program. In return, the Chinese gave Kahn blueprints for one of their early nuclear devices—the same information that Kahn later passed to Libya.

The same CRS report also notes that Kahn and his associates were active in China as late as 2002, “bribing people,” and continuing their relationships. That raises the disturbing question of what else Kahn may have gained from his Chinese connections. Lest we forget, Kahn’s activities in China coincided with Beijing’s acquisition of technical information for the most advanced U.S. nuclear weapons—the W-88.

Does that mean the design found on those computers in Switzerland was a copy of our most sophisticated nuclear warhead? The answer to that question is, thankfully, “no.” Even with detailed data on the W-88, Beijing would still face significant technical hurdles in replicating the design. Those challenges would prove even more daunting (read: impossible) for countries like North Korea-- which can produce only crude nuclear weapons--or Iran, which has yet to build its first atomic device.

However, technical information stolen from the United States could be by other nations to refine and improve existing warhead designs, particularly in the area of miniaturization. That would save years of development time (and millions of dollars) in the effort to field nuclear weapons which can fit on medium range missiles like the North Korean No Dong, or Iran’s Shahab-3.

It’s sobering to think that such information was—and probably is—readily available on the nuclear black market. Now comes the really hard part: determining who might have accessed that data, how it is being used in nuclear programs that threaten U.S. interests, and what role (if any) China played in producing that advanced design.


ADDENDUM: Sources in the intelligence community tell journalist Douglas Farah that at least 10 copies of the weapons documents found on the Swiss computers may have disappeared. Two of those copies may have been passed to Russian arms merchant Viktor Bout, while the others wound up in the hands of unknown parties. Needless to say, there’s no way of knowing how many times those copies have been reproduced--or who might have gained access to them.

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