Jeffrey LewisMight Pakistan place nuclear weapons On F-16s?

Some readers have suggested the sale of F-16 fighters to Pakistan is irrelevant since Pakistan probably relies on its small inventory of Ghauri ballistic missiles (right) to deliver nuclear weapons.

Aircraft, however, are easier to keep on alert than liquid-fueled ballistic missiles. I worry Pakistan may assign some F-16s a “quick reaction” nuclear delivery role—a decision that might compromise the safety and security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.

The Ghauri is a liquid-propellant, road-mobile ballistic missile. Although NASIC identifies the Ghauri as having a range of 1,300 km, David Wright concludes that range may be significantly shorter depending on the size of Pakistan’s nuclear warheads and the precise configuration of the missile. The latter calculation turns on an assumption—the intelligence community assumes that Pakistan’s Ghauri is an “off the shelf” Nodong and gives the same range for both; David observers the Ghauri is slightly smaller—suggesting that the Ghauri has made use of some indigenous Pakistani (read: crappy) technology—and concludes its range may be shorter.

The Ghauri missile cannot be kept “on alert.” Liquid-propellants are too corrosive to keep ballistic missiles constantly fueled. As a result, Pakistan is likely to adopt the Chinese model and keep its Ghauri missile inventory in storage with its warheads stored seperately. Islamabad may feel that its nuclear weapons are too vulnerable in this mode. During the 1999 Kargil Crisis, the United States detected Pakistan moving its Ghauri missiles out of storage and concluded the crisis was entering a particularly dangerous stage. Although Washington utilized strategic warning to intensify diplomacy, New Delhi might attempt to destroy Pakistan’s missile forces before they were ready to fire.

F-16s, however, could be kept “on alert” during a crisis: fully-fueled, sitting on the runway, with a pilot in the cockpit. What kind of crazy nutjob would keep a locked and loaded nuclear fighter-bomber sitting on the tarmac? Here is what a US inspection team found during an inspection tour of US nuclear weapons deployed in Germany and Turkey during the 1950s:

The exact details are hazy, but the broad contours are clear: the inspection team found the control of the forward-based nuclear weapons inadequate and possibly illegal. In Germany and Turkey they viewed scenes that were particularly distressing. On the runway stood a German (or Turkish) quick-reaction alert airplane (QRA) loaded with nuclear weapons and with a foreign pilot in the cockpit. The QRA airplane was ready to take off at the earliest warning, and the nuclear weapons were fully operational. The only evidence of U.S. control was a lonely 18-year-old sentry armed with a carbine and standing on the tarmac. When the sentry at the German airfield was asked how he intended to maintain control of the nuclear weapons should the pilot suddenly decide to scramble (either through personal caprice or through an order from the German command circumventing U.S. command), the sentry replied that he would shoot the pilot; [One member of the team] directed him to shoot the bomb.

A US intelligence official told Sy Hersh that Pakistan adopted precisely this posture during its 1990 crisis with India—although that account has been subsequently disputed by a number of Senior officials in a meeting convened at the Stimson Center.

Needless to say, I think such a posture would carry an unnecessarily large risk of unauthorized use.

Not everyone agrees. Francois Heisbourg (“The Prospects for Nuclear Stability between India and Pakistan,” Survival 40:4, 1998) suggests that QRA-only posture would be preferable to one that relies on ballistic missiles because the flight times of aircraft would give leaders more time (and hence more confidence) in a crisis. That might be true if Pakistan successfully develops solid-fueled ballistic missiles, but it hasn’t done so yet—and until it does, Pakistan’s lack of nuclear capable aircraft and low-rent Nodong ballistic missiles means Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal probably remains largely unassembled.

That, I think, is a good thing.

Paul Adds: During a private meeting a couple of years ago, a former Pakistani nuclear official told me and some colleagues that Islamabad had wanted to use F-16s to deliver nuclear weapons, but couldn’t because of the US refusal to transfer the planes.

FYI the official also disputed this account of Pakistani nuclear weapons mobilization during the Kargil crisis.

Paul Asks: Is it the case that liquid-fueled missiles could increase the risk of use in a crisis precisely because the fuel is so corrosive? I have heard that this is the case.

Oh, and the fact that bombers can be recalled is also relevant to crisis stability.


  1. Cheryl Rofer (History)

    Seems to me that, missiles or F-16s, the problem between India and Pakistan is that they are so close. They inherently don’t have the warning time that the US and the Soviet Union had. Type of missile fuel or anything else doesn’t make much difference.

  2. JLo (History)

    Is Paul’s question intended to imply a “use it or lose it” hair trigger where corrosive fuel is concerned? This leaves me to wonder what the relative value of the missile is compared to the warhead. How much does one pay at a Pakistani bazaar for a liquid-fueled missile these days?

  3. Pavel Podvig (History)

    My understanding is that the rocket fuel is not THAT corrosive. Certainly not to a point where one would lose a a missile once it’s fueled. You can drain the fuel and still have a quite usable missile. It may require a bit of maintenance if you want to store it for years, though.

  4. John McGlynn (History)

    “David Wright concludes that range may be significantly shorter depending on the size of Pakistan’s nuclear warheads and the precise configuration of the missile.”
    Sorry, I’m fairly new to your blog and not up on who David Wright is. Could you please indicate where he discusses Pakistan’s possible alterations of the received Nodongs? Thank you.

  5. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    I’ve added a link to David’s article “An Analysis of the Pakistani Ghauri Missile Test of April 6, 1998”, which appeared in Science and Global Security 7 (1998): 227-236.

    David is a Senior Scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists and a research scientist in the Security Studies Program at MIT.

  6. EARL (History)

    Talk about getting creeped out. It throws out all the window dressing of release codes and security interlocks. A few ‘kids’ can steal a plane with a fully operational weapon. I know that is a gross over simplification, but the context is very creepy. A pilot and a sentry have the islamic version of being ‘saved’ and almost anyone can have a nuke.

    It really is just a matter of when, is it not???


  7. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    NATO security procedures have improved substantially since then.

    However, the general choice between readiness and safety remains an issue in the debate over sizing and configuring nuclear forces.