Settling a debate that has been waged for years, it is being reported that Pakistani nuclear weapons are vulnerable.
There is evidence to suggest that neither the Pakistani army, nor the SPD itself, considers jihadism the most immediate threat to the security of its nuclear weapons; indeed, General Kayani’s worry, as expressed to General Kidwai after Abbottabad, was focused on the United States. According to sources in Pakistan, General Kayani believes that the U.S. has designs on the Pakistani nuclear program, and that the Abbottabad raid suggested that the U.S. has developed the technical means to stage simultaneous raids on Pakistan’s nuclear facilities.
In their conversations, General Kidwai assured General Kayani that the counterintelligence branch of the SPD remained focused on rooting out American and Indian spies from the Pakistani nuclear-weapons complex, and on foiling other American espionage methods. The Pakistani air force drills its pilots in ways of intercepting American spy planes; the Pakistani military assumes (correctly) that the U.S. devotes many resources to aerial and satellite surveillance of its nuclear sites.
In their post-Abbottabad discussion, General Kayani wanted to know what additional steps General Kidwai was taking to protect his nation’s nuclear weapons from the threat of an American raid. General Kidwai made the same assurances he has made many times to Pakistan’s leaders: Pakistan’s program was sufficiently hardened, and dispersed, so that the U.S. would have to mount a sizable invasion of the country in order to neutralize its weapons; a raid on the scale of the Abbottabad incursion would simply not suffice.
Still, General Kidwai promised that he would redouble the SPD’s efforts to keep his country’s weapons far from the prying eyes, and long arms, of the Americans, and so he did: according to multiple sources in Pakistan, he ordered an increase in the tempo of the dispersal of nuclear-weapons components and other sensitive materials. One method the SPD uses to ensure the safety of its nuclear weapons is to move them among the 15 or more facilities that handle them. Nuclear weapons must go to the shop for occasional maintenance, and so they must be moved to suitably equipped facilities, but Pakistan is also said to move them about the country in an attempt to keep American and Indian intelligence agencies guessing about their locations.
Nuclear-weapons components are sometimes moved by helicopter and sometimes moved over roads. And instead of moving nuclear material in armored, well-defended convoys, the SPD prefers to move material by subterfuge, in civilian-style vehicles without noticeable defenses, in the regular flow of traffic. According to both Pakistani and American sources, vans with a modest security profile are sometimes the preferred conveyance. And according to a senior U.S. intelligence official, the Pakistanis have begun using this low-security method to transfer not merely the “de-mated” component nuclear parts but “mated” nuclear weapons. Western nuclear experts have feared that Pakistan is building small, “tactical” nuclear weapons for quick deployment on the battlefield. In fact, not only is Pakistan building these devices, it is also now moving them over roads.
What this means, in essence, is this: In a country that is home to the harshest variants of Muslim fundamentalism, and to the headquarters of the organizations that espouse these extremist ideologies, including al-Qaeda, the Haqqani network, and Lashkar-e-Taiba (which conducted the devastating terror attacks on Mumbai three years ago that killed nearly 200 civilians), nuclear bombs capable of destroying entire cities are transported in delivery vans on congested and dangerous roads. And Pakistani and American sources say that since the raid on Abbottabad, the Pakistanis have provoked anxiety inside the Pentagon by increasing the pace of these movements. In other words, the Pakistani government is willing to make its nuclear weapons more vulnerable to theft by jihadists simply to hide them from the United States, the country that funds much of its military budget.
Jeffrey Goldberg and Marc Ambinder, writing for The Atlantic, continue with a discussion of the always bad but increasingly tense and distrusting relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan. Eventually they get to possible broad stroke scenarios for well-rehearsed or even exigent military operations to secure Pakistani nuclear weapons in the case of a jihadist coup that leaves Pakistan without central authority (presumably, this could only happen in the case of collusion between jihadist elements and Pakistani ISI and elements of its military).
Much more challenging than capturing and disabling a loose nuke or two, however, would be seizing control of—or at least disabling—the entire Pakistani nuclear arsenal in the event of a jihadist coup, civil war, or other catastrophic event. This “disablement campaign,” as one former senior Special Operations planner calls it, would be the most taxing, most dangerous of any special mission that JSOC could find itself tasked with—orders of magnitude more difficult and expansive than Abbottabad. The scale of such an operation would be too large for U.S. Special Operations components alone, so an across-the-board disablement campaign would be led by U.S. Central Command—the area command that is responsible for the Middle East and Central Asia, and runs operations in Afghanistan and Iraq—and U.S. Pacific Command.
JSOC would take the lead, however, accompanied by civilian experts, and has been training for such an operation for years. JSOC forces are trained to breach the inner perimeters of nuclear installations, and then to find, secure, evacuate—or, if that’s not possible, to “render safe”—any live weapons. At the Nevada National Security Site, northwest of Las Vegas, Delta Force and SEAL Team Six squadrons practice “Deep Underground Shelter” penetrations, using extremely sensitive radiological detection devices that can pick up trace amounts of nuclear material and help Special Operations locate the precise spot where the fissile material is stored. JSOC has also built mock Pashtun villages, complete with hidden mock nuclear-storage depots, at a training facility on the East Coast, so SEALs and Delta Force operatives can practice there.
At the same time American military and intelligence forces have been training in the U.S for such a disablement campaign, they have also been quietly pre-positioning the necessary equipment in the region. In the event of a coup, U.S. forces would rush into the country, crossing borders, rappelling down from helicopters, and parachuting out of airplanes, so they could begin securing known or suspected nuclear-storage sites. According to the former senior Special Operations planner, JSOC units’ first tasks might be to disable tactical nuclear weapons—because those are more easily mated, and easier to move around, than long-range missiles.
In a larger disablement campaign, the U.S. would likely mobilize the Army’s 20th Support Command, whose Nuclear Disablement Teams would accompany Special Operations detachments or Marine companies into the country. These teams are trained to engage in what the military delicately calls “sensitive site exploitation operations on nuclear sites”—meaning that they can destroy a nuclear weapon without setting it off. Generally, a mated nuclear warhead can be deactivated when its trigger mechanism is disabled—and so both the Army teams and JSOC units train extensively on the types of trigger mechanisms that Pakistani weapons are thought to use. According to some scenarios developed by American war planners, after as many weapons as possible were disabled and as much fissile material as possible was secured, U.S. troops would evacuate quickly—because the final stage of the plan involves precision missile strikes on nuclear bunkers, using special “hard and deeply buried target” munitions.
But nuclear experts issue a cautionary note: it is not clear that American intelligence can identify the locations of all of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, particularly after the Abbottabad raid.
This discussion is interesting, and provides perhaps the most comprehensive assessment to date (in the public domain) of what a military operation to secure Pakistani nuclear weapons might look like, and what are its chances of success.
I have briefly weighed in before on this, and to expand my thoughts, Goldberg and Ambinder’s description leaves a significant amount out of the equation (either because they didn’t report on it or because the Pentagon hasn’t considered it in war gaming scenarios).
First, while the Marines are mentioned in the planning, I believe that they would have to play a much larger role than described by the authors for the simple reason that long range planning is irrelevant. There aren’t enough special operations troopers who can be permanently assigned the billet of waiting until Pakistan appears to be teetering on the brink of disaster to respond.
To be sure, while such an operation would rely heavily on SEALs, Delta Force and other elements of special operations, including Rangers, this would require force protection in the thousands while special operations breached the compounds and located the weapons. No branch of the service has this kind of “force in readiness” but the Marines. Rangers and other troops are needed in other parts of the world conducting critical missions. They can’t sit and wait until Pakistan devolves into chaos. They’re busy troops.
But this magnitude of operation would require even more than an infantry battalion in a MEU (Marine Expeditionary Unit). It would require several infantry battalions, with both ingress and egress by helicopter. The fleet of helicopters would number in the hundreds, including transport and attack assets. The general air support would include overwatch, communications and surveillance, refueling aircraft, fighters, and UAVs. Notwithstanding the surgical strike that the Pentagon war gamers would like to imagine, this would be a very large scale operation.
Before such an operation even began it would be necessary to know, at least to some extent, the make, composition and enrichment of the weapons. Loading multiple nuclear weapons on board a single aircraft bringing them in proximity with each other might create an operating nuclear reactor (Keff = 1) on board the aircraft unless criticality safety calculations were performed by qualified nuclear engineers prior to the operation to prove otherwise. This might mean that each weapon required its own, individual transport out of the country if it is not destroyed in place.
Next, Goldberg and Ambinder mention it, but it bears repeating and emphasizing. We probably didn’t have the human intelligence before the Bin Laden raid to pull off an operation this intelligence-driven, much less do we now. As if we need further proof of the HUMINT anemia at the CIA, this recent report brings disturbing news.
In an anonymous industrial park in Virginia, in an unassuming brick building, the CIA is following tweets — up to 5 million a day.
At the agency’s Open Source Center, a team known affectionately as the “vengeful librarians” also pores over Facebook, newspapers, TV news channels, local radio stations, Internet chat rooms — anything overseas that anyone can access and contribute to openly.
From Arabic to Mandarin Chinese, from an angry tweet to a thoughtful blog, the analysts gather the information, often in native tongue. They cross-reference it with the local newspaper or a clandestinely intercepted phone conversation. From there, they build a picture sought by the highest levels at the White House, giving a real-time peek, for example, at the mood of a region after the Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden or perhaps a prediction of which Mideast nation seems ripe for revolt.
It’s doubtful that tweets or facebook will do anything for us concerning knowledge of the whereabouts of Pakistani nuclear assets. Finally, the U.S. would have to have a President who had the stomach to pull all of this off. The losses could be significant, and there is at least the possibility, perhaps even the probability, that some nuclear assets would be left behind or that the operation would be a colossal failure. The President would have to explain to the American public why he undertook such an action regardless of the outcome.
But the importance of planning and war gaming cannot be underestimated. Consider what a nuclear weapon in the hands of the jihadists would do in New York, Houston, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Saint Louis, Charlotte or Denver? In light of this report, the war gaming needs to ingest serious dose of reality, start over, and then take a gigantic step forward.