Jeffrey LewisSecuring Pakistan's Nukes

CNN’s Barbara Starr reports that three U.S. sources from the military and intelligence communities are independently confirming that “military intelligence officials” are assessing what will happen to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons in the event of a coup against General Musharaf:

The United States has full knowledge about the location of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, according to the U.S. assessment.

But the key questions, officials say, are what would happen and who would control the weapons in the hours after any change in government in case Musharraf were killed or overthrown.

Now this is interesting in comparison to Sy Hersh’s Watching the Warheads, where Hersh says both more and less than Starr about US efforts to secure Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.

  • More, in that Starr reports what seems to be a pretty bland analysis of what will happen to Pakistan’s nukes in the event of coup—this is like watching a car accident in slow motion—while Hersh imagines full-on contingency plans to use to elite special forces teams to exfiltrate the warheads.
  • Less, in that while Starr reports the current assessment asserts “full knowledge” of the location of Pakistan’s nukes, Hersh claims that a raging debate exists over whether we know where all the warheads are or not.

“The idea that you know where the warheads are at any given moment is not right,” a former “high level CIA official” told Hersh in a pretty typical passage, “As the operation approaches and the question ‘How certain are you?’ is asked, it becomes more difficult. The fact is, we usually know hours later. We never could do it in real time.”

So what’s the truth? My guess is that Starr’s story is closer to the truth with one caveat. “Full knowledge” depends on what you want to do with the information. The official talking to Hersh says our knowledge is terrible because we only know the location of the nuclear “a few hours later” not in “real time.”

Yet, if the goal is to contact the commanders in control of the weapons after a coup or assassination, a few hours is real time, as Starr inadvertantly suggests when she reports the key question of the estimate: ”[W]hat would happen and who would control the weapons in the hours after any change in government in case Musharraf were killed or overthrown.” [Emphasis mine, of course.]

So, my sense is that we probably have reasonably good sense of where the weapons are located, but a relatively poor sense of how custodial arrangements might shift in the event of a coup or an assassination.


  1. None (History)

    The danger of regime collapse / change come not just from the inventory of ‘ready to use’ and nearly assembled nukes, but from the dispersal of key staff, critical technologies, technical data, components, etc. to other parts of the world who are willing to pay cash up front for those skills as a means to leapfrog their own programs.

    The problem with the Pakistan infrastructure is that it is not centralized in few enough persons (which might have been dealt with like Dr.Gerald Bull), but the knowhow is sufficiently widely dispersed that the program can be reconstituted by another insurgent state with money and resources to acquire the knowhow of the Pakistani program.

    Contingency plans to keep the knowhow and key components bottled up is as important as plans to ensure that nuclear weapons do not stray during regime change.

  2. Anon

    FYI, in May 2006, AEI fellow Tom Donnelly wrote ‘Bad Options: Or, How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Live with Loose Nukes,’ an essay on the very difficult contingency of destabilized governance, and securing or neutralizing loose-nukes and loose-nuclear facilities in Pakistan.

  3. yale

    The worry is not just the hardware and personnel.

    The HEU, from the centrifuges (down to less than 40% enriched) to the assembled warheads must be controlled.

    Leakage at any point could be catastrophic.

    HEU at greater than, say, 60% is usable by essentially any level of expertise.

  4. Brian Ellison (History)

    One of the other (directly related) aspects of this is the non-existent transparency of Pakistan’s R&D in the wake of Khan. Different accounts point to authority in different directions. PAEC? KRL-defacto? Theoretically, one would think it would go to the Pakistan Nuclear Command Authority (NCA)-The 1999 coup employed NCA to secure the fielded weapons, but at the time the R&D material was still in KRL/PAEC hands. It is not entirely clear who has this authority today.

  5. MarkoB

    Very interesting. It’s not much discussed but one of the down sides to US-India nuclear co-operation that welcomes India as a de-facto nuclear weapon state is the continued existience and expansion of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme and the risks that that may pose for nuke terrorism down the line; that is it may well decrease US national security in a direct and potentially catastrophic way.

  6. Chris Goldstein (History)

    Take out Pak nukes? Tell me another one? Do you think we should mess with a nuclear power that knkows how to fight. Ask NATO, the Soviets, the British, and Alexander? No one was able to subdue these fighter.

  7. Chris Goldstein (History)

    Who is going on this stupid suicide mission? Let me sell you a bridge in brooklyn!

    Does anyone know that Pakistan has Korean Tae-Dong, and Noe-Dong based ICBMs and American technology based Cruise missles.Thank Clinton. He fired them over Pakistani territory without their permisison. The Pakistanis took the unexploded cruise missles, copied them and developed thier own cruise missles called Babur. They are invisible to US radars.

    Now re-think the strategy to take Pakistani nukes out. Think about making them a reliable partner, not shifty eyed servants.

  8. Chris Goldstein (History)

    1.“Regime Change” in Pakistan? Let us see.Do we want to deal with cardboard caricatures, or do we deal with reality?Pakistan has a 10 division well trained and well equipped army, one of the most professional armies in the world. Most of the officers were trained in the UK, USA, and Australia etc. The army has a centralized control with intense loyalty to the officer corps. More than 500,00 soldiers are in reserve, and like Israel all Pakistani high-schoolers (11th and 12th grades) are trained in basic two year military training called NCC (National Cadet Corp).The army is armed to the teeth, with local arms production M-16, Kalashnikovs, heavy artillery and now airplanes (knockoff of F-16s called JF-17 Thunder). They also have one of the best missile programs in the world, better than that of India.“The Regime” consists of the army support, an elected National Assembly and Senate with representation of all the political parties including a heavy and intense presence of the MMA, PML and PPP opposition.Now to eliminate all this would require a full scale invasion. 400,000 American soldiers and mercenaries (contractors) could not do it in Iraq, which has one fifth of the population and was sanctioned for ten years.Now let us talk about invading Pakistan. Whose army is going to do it? One will need at least two million soldiers to occupy the country partially, and no one in 5000 years has been able to hold it.Before the country is attacked many unnamed capitals and cities may go up in smoke, the Gulf of Hormuz would be blocked (ending supply of oil to the world), the Suez Canal would be choked, and many oilfields would be radio active for the next ten thousand years. This would mean the end of life as we know it. MAD (mutually assured destruction is the wave of the future).Any takers?Peace is the only way. Let us build bridges of harmony and rethink the strategy of war and “taking out nukes”.

  9. Elliot (History)

    Hi Jeffrey,I’m way off topic here. While I’m very interested in your nuclear weapons reporting, I have a question about a blog about Pekin that you wrote in 2004. You talked about the high school moniker – the “Pekin Chinks” and how long it took to change. I come from Peoria and wrote a somewhat similar piece. But I’ve been wondering what the mascot was during the time the high school used the unfortunately racist nickname. Do you know?

  10. mark F (History)

    The Hersh article says that Musharaff has assured that “he doesn’t want the crazies to precipitate a real war, only the most reliable military people remain in control of the(nuclear)arsenal. On that basis, I submit that Musharaff should be put in charge of at least one other country’s military forces.

  11. None (History)

    ‘Regime Change’ and ‘Regime Collapse’ are perhaps not the proper terms of art to describe likely scenarios for Pakistan given that one usage of regime change, made popular by the GW Bush administration, is defined as the forcible overthrow of a government from outside and its replacement with another.

    ‘Regime Change’ was used by ‘None’ is a broader sense of the term that can refer the change from a Military Regime to a Democratic Regime, or the fracture of Pakistan into states akin to what occurred to the Soviet Union.

    At no time did ‘None’ suggest that the US or any outside power, including India, undertake the task of ‘Regime Change’ in the GW Bush sense of the term.

    ‘Regime Change’ for Pakistan originating from Western Powers’ is not likely unless there is a total collapse of order and the risk of a Taliban or Hamas like regime assuming control of nuclear weapons.

    However, a fair bet is long before that stage is reached, intervention by India is likely and probable. India is truly a great power with the capability and the need to intervene to prevent such an outcome.

    As for how impressive Pakistan’s institutions look today. Well, many people were awed by the might of Soviet Power too, until it fell.

    The Berlin wall looked most impenetrable and permanent shortly before it fell.

    Regime Collapse, as such, cannot be ruled out for Pakistan, nor, for that matter, the United States.

    For the difficulties created by using ‘Regime Change’, my apologies.

  12. Akash (History)

    Reading Chris Goldsteins hyperbole was amusing. If the US went hammer and tongs at the Pakistani armed forces, the latter would cease to exist. And who’s talking of stayin’. When it comes to warfare – the US has overwhelming conventional dominance, which is why Musharraf yelled uncle and gave up the Taliban, one phone call from Powell later.