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The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mullen, has expressed confidence in Pakistan’s nuclear security arrangements. These comments were made to the media, and echo sentiments previously expressed by him.

Although comments from administration officials wax and wane on the topic depending on the circumstance.

For example at the nuclear security summit the risk of nuclear terrorism was made out to be “high” and furthermore that high risk level was said to be “increasing.” The US executive does not appear to have a consistent narrative on these topics. This should invite speculation from objective analysts as to whether the perception of risk is being manipulated depending on the political needs of the moment.

A few days ago GSN featured comments from Bradford University researcher Shaun Gregory. He is perhaps the leading academic expert on the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and the weapons complex, and has really done a lot of good work on the topic. He is involved with Bradford’s impressive Pakistan Security Research Unit. Gregory is cited by GSN as stating

The increasing size of the Pakistani nuclear weapons complex increases the challenges in keeping all the assets secured against militants operating in the country, one analyst said in a National Public Radio report on Thursday…

…”The more nuclear weapons you have, the more nuclear weapons storage sites you have to have, the more nuclear weapons in transit at various times you have to have,” said Shaun Gregory, of the University of Bradford in the United Kingdom, who studies Pakistani nuclear security. He added that this also requires “more people involved in the safety, security, manufacture, deployment, [and] preparedness for use you have to have.”…

Now notice that Admiral Mullen was reflecting on the current nuclear security regime in Pakistan. He did not tell us what he thinks about the implications that an increased Pakistani nuclear arsenal, and the associated ramping up of fissile material production and so on, would have for the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.

What might we say about this?

I tend to adopt the position articulated by the late Wolfgang Panofsky. In an address at Fermilab, which I can’t find a link for, Panofsky stated that there is no logical correlation between the size of a nuclear arsenal and its security.

Panofsky is correct. When was the Soviet nuclear weapons complex at its most insecure? Under Andropov in the early 1980s or under Yeltsin, Kuchma and so on in the 1990s? Surely the latter.

If the Pakistani nuclear weapons complex has very tight security procedures then I do not believe that an increase in the size of the Pakistani nuclear arsenal increases the risk of nuclear terrorism. Mullen states that the security regime is pretty good. Should that be so Panofsky’s reasoning applies.

What I think we should focus on is something else. There exists a certain trade-off between nuclear deterrence and nuclear security/safety. If a state places a very high salience on nuclear deterrence, say through Launch on Warning or Predelegation, then we might have a problem with diminished security and safety.

When it comes to Pakistani nuclear security and safety the thing to focus on is the deterrence-safety trade off. Imagine, for arguments sake, if the Pakistan Army becomes so concerned with Indian military doctrine and capabilities that it predelegates launch authority to ground commanders at the Corps level or something. That increases the weight placed upon deterrence in the deterrence-safety trade off.

What is Pakistan doing doctrine wise? What is Pakistan doing nuclear deployment wise and nuclear operational planning wise to counter Indian ambitions for combined arms operational level warfare? These are the questions to consider.

A terrorist group could seek to trigger a nuclear mobilisation in South Asia by conducting a terrorist atrocity in India. This need not lead to nuclear war; the idea would be to just trigger a mobilisation. In crisis situations the temptation would be to put a higher value on deterrence over safety; now size becomes an issue. That could create an opening for nuclear terrorist action, if militant Islamist groups are so inclined (which I doubt).

Permissive Action Links are one way in which the advanced nuclear weapon states have sought to transcend the deterrence-security trade off. It is rumoured that the US has provided some assistance to Pakistan on PALs using previous arrangements with France as a precedent (given the NPT). Some documents on Franco-US nuclear weapons design and security collaboration have been released recently by the National Security Archive. They make for interesting reading.

However, judging by a recent article by Sig Hecker in Physics Today the lab-to-lab relationship between Pakistan and the US doesn’t appear to be that deep

After I left Los Alamos in 2005 and joined Stanford University, I began to expand my outreach to India, Pakistan, Iran, and North Korea. The Stanford “Five-Nation Project” brought together political and physical scientists, along with current and former government officials, from Pakistan, India, Russia, China, and the US in an effort to defuse the tensions and control the dangers resulting from India’s decision to conduct a series of nuclear tests in 1998, which were followed by Pakistani nuclear tests two weeks later. Those tests and the ensuing nuclear buildup between the two historic rivals make South Asia the most likely place for a nuclear confrontation.

Pakistan is also at the top of my list of nuclear risks because it is the most likely place in which fissile materials could find their way out of the hands of government and into those of terrorists. However, it is also the most difficult place to do science diplomacy. The five-nation dialog facilitated discussions with Pakistani officials on nuclear materials security and the proliferation activities of Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan. But Pakistan’s nuclear scientific community is not accessible, and the problems are difficult and extremely sensitive politically…

Hecker can only reflect on his own personal experiences as a former Los Alamos director. We do not have detailed knowledge of any official lab-to-lab collaboration on nuclear weapons security.

I’d like to make two comments as asides.

The first is that Hecker in his article offers the thesis that science diplomacy helped to end the cold war. That is a conclusion that realist approaches to theoretical international relations might take issue with. However, I think Hecker is right. Matthew Evangelista had published a book length study on this topic, which is quite persuasive.

Secondly, many are focusing on Pakistani nuclear security following a recent militant attack on a Naval air base in Karachi. The reporting of this attack by Syed Saleem Shahzad has resulted in his gruesome murder. It is alleged that the ISI was involved in this. I took to reading Shahzad’s articles in Asia Times Online, that is how I had learned of Operation Lionheart and other matters, and I had bought his book Inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban: Beyond Bin Laden and 9/11. Those interested in knowing about “Af-Pak” in the West will miss his work. In his book, nonetheless, he gives al-Qaeda too much operational credit, I felt. Despite that it has a lot of really interesting information.

The attack on the Naval air base is instructive. It is cited by those who raise the alarm about nuclear security in Pakistan. But the Naval air base attack followed the targeted killing of Osama bin Laden. Now that event is also seen through the prism of nuclear security because it is argued that it shows al-Qaeda has pretty good connections with the Pakistan Army.

Yet the naval air base attack is seen as a militant revenge attack against the military in response to the death of bin Laden. Gee, the Pakistanis just can’t take a treat in Western strategic discourse.

I think that Shahzad is the real face of Pakistan; not the Pakistani Taliban.

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