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Pakistan's nuclear arsenal at risk

U.S. seeks to protect atomic arms with high-tech safeguards Keay Davidson, Chronicle Staff Writer

Sunday, October 28, 2001 2001 San Francisco Chronicle


The worst-case scenario in the terrorism crisis involves "loose nukes" -- nuclear weapons that fall into the hands of Osama bin Laden or his backers.

The U.S. air strikes in Afghanistan are raging on the border of Pakistan, a politically unstable nuclear power whose atomic arsenal lacks many of the sophisticated safeguards that the United States maintains on its nuclear weapons.

"Where are the Pakistani weapons? We don't really know. Are they safe? We don't know that either," said Robert Norris, a leading authority on foreign nuclear weapons at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington.

Anxious U.S. officials have conferred with Pakistan on the security of its nuclear complex.

"There's been some discussions -- very hush-hush -- going on between the U. S. and Pakistan on protecting (its nuclear weapons) in a way so that if things go to pot, (the bombs) won't go to the wrong people," said George Bunn, a consulting professor at Stanford University who served on the team that negotiated the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty during the Cold War.

One possibility: The United States could provide Pakistan with high-tech "Permissive Action Links" (PALs) like those attached to U.S. nuclear weapons. PALs are, in effect, super-combination locks that would supposedly frustrate the most determined burglar.

But U.S. diplomats conferring with Pakistanis must choose their words carefully, for Pakistan is a very nervous ally.

The central Asian country faces not only internal turmoil but a possible future in which it is sandwiched between two foes, should the Northern Alliance take over Afghanistan, located to the west. To Pakistan's southeast is nuclear-armed India, with which it is engaged in a bitter struggle over Kashmir.

"This is a most delicate matter. We can't come in (to Pakistan) and announce, 'We're training a (Navy) SEAL team to come in on helicopters and snatch your nuclear weapons' " in case they get out of control, Norris said. "That's not a very diplomatic message."

But that Hollywood scenario is also a very real one.

A WORST-CASE SITUATION Bruce Blair, a leading scholar on nuclear weapons and president of the Center for Defense Information in Washington, recently wrote an article stating: "There is no evidence that any terrorist has nuclear materials now, but the possibility is serious enough so that the United States government should be heightening security at home by monitoring foreign nations' weapons more closely and planning military raids, if necessary, to keep weapons out of the wrong hands."

In a worst-case situation, Blair said, the United States should be prepared to send special forces into Pakistan to seize its nuclear weapons. The special forces would be accompanied by the U.S. Nuclear Emergency Search Team, an elite force of scientists, based in Las Vegas, with special equipment that allows them to track down nuclear materials.

Bunn speculates that machine-gun-armed terrorists in armored trucks might try to crash through the gates of a Pakistani nuclear site.

"Whether they would be able to find the nuclear material and get away in time before some troops came is another question," said Bunn, who co-wrote an article on nuclear terrorism and theft for the October issue of Arms Control Today. "But if they had help from an insider who knew right where to (find the nuclear bombs), the chances would be pretty good."

In 1998, Pakistan successfully tested a nuclear bomb. It is now believed to have between 35 and 45 bombs, and "they're probably building a half-dozen a year," said Norris, co-author of numerous reports on the world's nuclear weapons complexes and author of a forthcoming biography of Gen. Leslie Groves, who managed the U.S. atomic project in the 1940s.

Pakistan also is trying to shrink the bombs so that they're small enough to fit in the nose cone of a missile. From Pakistan's perspective, "You don't want it to be so heavy that it goes only four miles," Norris said. "You want it to go 400 miles -- say, all the way to New Delhi."

Pakistan does not yet have missiles able to carry nuclear weapons, but its air force includes F-16 aircraft. "U.S. F-16s can carry nuclear weapons, and one would presume the Pakistanis could use them for that purpose," said physicist Tom Cochran, another nuclear weapons expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

India has had nuclear weapons since 1974, and already possesses missiles powerful enough to orbit satellites.

The situation is especially fraught with danger because Pakistan and India border one another. If India feared Pakistan's nuclear weapons were about to fall into the hands of renegade forces, it might launch a pre-emptive atomic strike to destroy Pakistan's nuclear weapons complex. Otherwise, Indian generals might reason, Pakistan could strike India's nuclear force fast enough to decimate it.

A similar "use 'em or lose 'em" scenario, as strategists jokingly called it,

dominated much U.S. strategizing during the Cold War. Scholars at the Rand Corp. in Santa Monica conducted many "war games" in which the United States launched a "first strike" on Soviet missiles and bombers to pre-empt an anticipated assault on the United States.

A HALF-HOUR WARNING Because thousands of miles separated the two Cold War superpowers, "We and the Soviets at least had a half-hour early warning" of nuclear attacks, Norris said. By contrast, Pakistan and India are so close that "they've got nothing --

the span of time available to them is unbelievably short."

Lacking time for reasoned reflection, either side might frantically launch a pre-emptive strike "on warning" -- say, if a radar operator spots what appear to be incoming F-16s or missiles. The radar objects might later prove to be "bogies," that is, false targets created by birds, weather conditions or commercial airliners, but by then, it might be too late.

Pakistani nuclear weapons, however, aren't as vulnerable to takeover by renegade soldiers or terrorists as feared, said Gaurav Kampani, a research associate at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

Pakistan's military is "a very professional institution" that contains no "fanatic supporters of Osama bin Laden," Kampani said. Pakistan previously backed Afghanistan's Taliban for strategic reasons, "but they've now dropped them completely."

And despite Western press coverage of Pakistan's internal turmoil, "The Islamic parties together have never won more than 8 percent of the popular vote in any general election," Kampani said. "They can generate a lot of heat and dust in Pakistani society. But they don't have a lot of political clout."

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Nuclear range

INDIA India's nuclear complex contains large civilian and military including 16 reactors. Highly enriched uranium and/or plutonium from at least one of those reactors has been used in nuclear warheads possibly up to 100. India also can launch satellites and likely can launch small nuclear weapons atop its missiles. Its most powerful missile, could penetrate deeply into Central and Southeastern Asia, including most of China.

Nuclear potential

-- Reactors operating: 14

-- Reactors under construction: 2

Current missile range

-- Prithvi (93 miles)

Potential missile range

-- Prithvi (155 miles) Agri (1,243 miles) .

PAKISTAN Pakistan's small nuclear complex consists of two atomic reactors, which presumably provided material for its arsenal of 35 or more bombs. The nation also has F-16 jets that can be fitted for nuclear weapons. Pakistan is testing missiles; to date its nuclear weapons are probably too heavy for missiles. Its most powerful missile can purportedly travel more than 1,200 miles.

Nuclear potential

-- Reactors operating: 2 Reactors under construction: 0

Current missile range

-- Hatf I (50 miles) Hatf III (186 miles) Ghauri (808 miles)

Potential missile range

-- Shaheen I (466 miles) Shaheen II (1,243 miles) (Ranges claimed by Pakistan)

Sources: International Nuclear Safety Center, U.S. Department of Defense

Chronicle Graphic

E-mail Keay Davidson at

-- Martin Thompson (, October 29, 2001


Pakistan concerns me, in many ways, the most of all. It does not seem that will stay quite the way they planned it.

-- (, October 29, 2001.

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