Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Who's Got the Nukes?

Continuing unrest in Pakistan has raised new concerns about that nation's nuclear arsenal, and who might control it if Musharraf loses power, or if an Islamist rebellion takes hold. Stanley Kurtz at NRO has an excellent summary of the various possibilities facing Pakistan; almost all are equally grim and uncertain.

Even veteran Pakistan watchers are unsure as to what happens next. While the military has long dominated the country's political system, it's unclear if events now unfolding represent a repeat of history, or a complete break with the past. On the surface, it's convenient to describe President Musharraf's recent imposition of emergency rule as a restaging of his 1999 coup, allowing him and his military cronies to hold onto power, and the perks that come with it.

Under Musharraf, thousands of retired military officers have moved into civil service positions, or established companies that benefit from the nation's defense establishment. They won't give up their positions without a fight, and Musharraf understands that their support is critical to maintaining his hold on power. By that measure, emergency rule is a move of political expediency for the Pakistani leader.

On the other hand, Pakistan's gathering storm may also represent the first stages of a desperate struggle to control of the country, against the backdrop of a potential Islamist coup, a split within the Army, and which factions would wind up the nuclear stockpile and delivery systems. It's a scenario that U.S. officials have widely discussed, war-gamed and fretted about during previous crises in Pakistan, but this time it may be different. Rather than talking about it, the Bush Administration may be required to take action in the near future, to prevent Islamabad's weapons from falling into the wrong hands.

This much we know: trying to monitor, control (or even, eliminate) Pakistan's nuclear arsenal amid escalating violence would be difficult, if not impossible, for a variety of reasons. Three decades after Islamabad launched its efforts to get the bomb--and almost a decade after the country's first announced nuclear tests--there is much we don't know about Pakistan's program, including the status of its weapons, their locations, and security measures in place at various nuclear-related facilities.

We learned that lesson the hard way before 9/11, during a review of intelligence gathered during the 1999 Kashmir Crisis between India and Pakistan. Reviewing satellite imagery, analysts were shocked to learned that New Delhi and Islamabad were much closer to a nuclear exchange than we believed at the time. By some accounts, tactical nuclear bombs were assembled and moved to an Indian Air Force base that housed jets capable of delivering those weapons. The move suggested that India was prepared to use tactical nukes if the situation in the Kargil region continued to deteriorate.

Intelligence on Pakistani moves during the same period was less clear, but there were indications of possible weapons movement by Islamabad. Those stunning revelations--discovered two years after the crisis--confirmed that there were significant gaps in our intelligence on the nuclear capabilities (and intentions) of both Pakistan and India.

Six years later, some of those gaps still exist. While there is general consensus on the size of Pakistan's arsenal, we don't know where all the weapons are stored, and getting that information could prove problematic.

For starters, there's Pakistan's chain-of-command, which is unique among nuclear powers. Even during periods of civilian rule, control of the nation's nuclear arsenal has rested with the Pakistani military, which has tightened its command systems in recent years. Pakistan's National Command Authority (which includes Musharraf), oversees an Employment Control Committee and Development Control Committee, as well as the Strategic Plans Division (SPD), which has operational control of the nation's nuclear forces.

Musharraf reportedly purged the SPD--along with other military commands--early in his tenure. He also added at least 8,000 security personnel to the division, to ferret out potential threats to Pakistan's nuclear stockpile. But there are lingering questions about the loyalties and world view of mid-level and junior personnel within the SPD, the intelligence service (ISI) and other key military organizations. Annecdotal evidence suggests that Islamist influences are growing among lower-ranking personnel, raising doubts about their willingness to protect Pakistan's nuclear arsenal from internal, fundamentalist threats.

There's also the issue of where Islamabad keeps its weapons, or alternately, the key components used to build nuclear bombs and missile warheads. Intelligence officials suggest that Pakistan, keeps much of its stockpile dissassembled, partly as a security caution. However, unlike India (which stores components at facilities spread over great distances), Pakistan is believed to keep weapons components relatively close to delivery systems, making it easier to assemble--and use--its nukes. This tactic increases the number of facilities at which nuclear components are stored, complicating Pakistani security measures, and (potentially) outside intervention efforts.

And, the number of nuclear facilities in Pakistan is increasing, thanks to the growth of that nation's ballistic missile program. With Islamabad fielding new short and medium-range systems, the SPD has been on a construction binge, building new missile garrisons and support facilities across Pakistan. Some of the installations simply house missile crews or provide maintenance functions, but others are probably used to store nuclear weapons, or their components.

Determining which facilities are reserved for that function has become more difficult, thanks to Pakistan's growing proficiency in denial and deception (D&D) and operational security. The location of some Pakistani missile facilities was apparently influenced by terrain, with engineers selecting sites where key facilities (including storage tunnels) can be obscured or blend in with rugged topography, making overhead detection more complex.

Pakistan also goes to great lengths to conceal the location and function of key installations. Analysts who follow Islamabad's program say that bases are often referred to by a codeword or number, and some installations have multiple designations. That complicates the process of determining the purpose of an individual site, and how it relates to Pakistan's overall nuclear program. Islamabad also employs other deception techniques--including advanced camouflage netting and activity scheduling (conducting key activities when our satellites aren't looking) to maintain the secrecy of its nuclear program.

So, in other words, the U.S. has only a general idea of how many nukes Pakistan has, where they are stored, and who might control them if Musharraf goes down the tubes. No wonder the U.S. has been reviewing available intelligence on Islamabad's arsenal in recent months and contemplating what might happen if Pakistan's nuclear chain-of-command is compromised.

In fairness, it's unlikely that Musharraf's government will quickly collapse, and Pakistan's nuclear arsenal will fall into Islamist hands--at least over the short term. As Stanley Kurtz observes, there is simply no precedent for a fundamentalist takeover on this scale, and Pakistan's military--still dominated by secularists like Musharraf--provides a powerful bulwark against the radicals.

Unfortunately, the nuclear "nightmare" scenario--Pakistani weapons in the hands of a new regime with ties to Al Qaida--can't be totally discounted. That's why a lot of senior officials in Washington (and U.S. military commanders in south Asia) would feel better if we knew more about the specifics of Pakistan's nuclear program.


ADDENDUM--Readers will note that much of the "concern" is addressed towards Pakistan's existing nuclear arsenal. Securing the related infrastructure--research facilities, manufacturing complexes, and development centers--poses an even greater challenge.


gr8scott said...

Nice analysis & good writing. This site has been a daily read for me for a while now. Keep up the great work!

SIOP said...

Ditto what gr8scott said. I'd like to hear a take on the recent snapping-in-half of a Missouri ANG F-15C. Depending on the cause of the incident and results of the investigation board, it could give ammo to the new hollow force argument and motivate congress to keep the F-22 line open a bit longer. From what I've heard it sounds like catastrophic structural failure...

DebbieKinIL said...

India has nuclear arms and has tensions with Pakistan.

What about India's role in deterring use of nuclear weapons, if Islamist rebellion takes hold? Are we working with them?

Ken Prescott said...

What about India's role in deterring use of nuclear weapons, if Islamist rebellion takes hold? Are we working with them?

Good questions. I'm not sure I like the prospective answers.

The problem in building a deterrence relationship between India and Pakistan is one of technological assyemtry between means of offense, attack warning & assessment, and command & control.

First, both nation's homelands are within reach of relatively short-ranged (and, hence, short time of flight) missiles.

Both sides have road-mobile ballistic missiles; they also have poor or nonexistent tactical warning assets. Finally, their C2 capabilities are both primitive (in terms of survivability in a hot war) and opaque (in that one is reduced to guesswork in figuring out who has release authority under which set of circumstances).

The interplay of these factors may push both sides toward a "shoot first or not at all" posture in a crisis--and if that happens, all the King's horses and all the King's men will not put India and Pakistan back together again.

Unknown said...

Debbie--To dovetail on Ken's remarks:

Further compouding the problem is Pakistan's conventional inferiority vis-a-vis India. One reason Delhi maintains its nuclear forces at a lower readiness level than Islamabad is that India believes that its conventional edge will allow it to quickly gain the upper hand. As Pakistan retreats further into its own territory, it will resort to the nuclear option. That will give India time to prepare its nuclear forces and respond in kind.

However, I should note that one disturbing lesson from the '99 Kargil Crises is that the timeline for nuclear employment (on both sides) may be shorter that we originally thought. That may suggest (potentially) higher readiness levels on both sides, and a quicker move to the nuclear option, particularly on Pakistan's side.

Obviously, India is very concerned about what's going on in Pakistan. Would they launch a preemptive strike to take out Islamabad's nukes? Probably not, for the same reasons we would face in such an operation. But their are "red lines" that Delhi will not allow the Paks to cross. Where those red lines are, we can only guess.

Unknown said...

Before you can answer the "how many warheads do they have?" question, you need to know the shelf life of their warheads. I imagine that the USA and Soviets (oops I mean Russians) build a long lasting high tech ball of nasty material. However, from what I've read about the early cold war, I expect a Korean or Iranian built device would have a life of 6 months or so depending on how good the triggers (shaped charge) are. I'm just a civillian so my knowledge is all public domain. Go easy on me if I'm mistaken here :)