James ActonLatest Khan Revelations

I’m now back from the US, where I had two week’s holiday followed by a conference at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey. Since the conference was under the Chatham House Rule, there’s not much I can say except that it was excellent; the following photo of Monterey’s wildlife will have to substitute for a fuller report.

Anyway, the big nuclear news of the weekend has been the revelation (from David Albright via the WaPo and others) that in 2006 the design for an “advanced nuclear weapon” was discovered on a computer belonging to AQ Khan associate, Urs Tinner.

The article says that “U.N. officials cannot rule out the possibility that the blueprints were shared with others before their discovery.”

However, on BBC Radio this morning IISS’s Mark Fitzpatrick stated that there is evidence that “the Swiss connection… had made copies of at least some designs and sent them to one of Khan’s associates [Tahir] who at that time was in Malaysia…” Intriguingly, Fitzpatrick implies that more than one design was found on the computer.

I want to raise three observations or questions about this story.

The first thing to point out is that this story isn’t quite as new as the media is making out. An AP article, highlighted by Jeffrey almost three weeks ago mentions that “detailed construction plans for nuclear weapons” were found on Tinner’s computer (although it says no more about them).

Second, the physicist in me wonders what type of weapon was involved. A simple fission weapon or a boosted fission weapon? Or both? (Pakistan, whence the designs originated, is believed to possess both so any answer seems plausible.)

This issue is important because any of the states which might have received the designs are likely to find it much easier to build a simple fission weapon than a boosted fission one (not least because to build a boosted fission weapon they would have to develop external initiator technology).

However, most importantly, I want to question how much difference this actually makes at a practical level. On the Radio this morning, Gordon Correra (who I respect enormously) said this:

But that [the design that Libya bought] was an old Chinese design from the 1960s and so it wasn’t much use. But, what we’re learning now is that, from the investigations into those European businessmen who formed Khan’s network, that on a computer of a family in Switzerland were designs for a much more advanced nuclear weapon…

And that’s really worrying because it’s the design for a small powerful nuclear weapon that can be fitted onto a missile. And that really is the holy grail for a county trying to develop a usable bomb.

However, I’m not sure I agree with him. I think the “holy grail” for a proliferator is getting the Bomb in the first place.

North Korea’s bomb (probably technologically no better than a 1945 US design) is already an effective deterrent, even if it can’t be delivered by missile. The threat of delivery by an airplane or container ship works just fine for deterrence purposes.

Similarly, the prospect of military action against Iran will evaporate if it ever gets the Bomb, regardless of whether or not Mark 1 can be fitted onto a missile.

A warhead deliverable by missile might increase North Korea’s or Iran’s ability to execute a first strike, but I think that is very unlikely to start with.

Don’t misunderstand me; I don’t want to underplay the seriousness of Khan selling weapon designs. But, from a proliferators perspective, mounting a warhead on a missile is surely only a modest strategic advantage compared to obtaining the Bomb in the first place.


  1. Joseph Logan (History)

    Good points. I wonder whether the example of the network itself is as significant a threat as the weapons design it passed on. Replicating and improving on a structure and a process that could in turn replicate and pass on weapons is in itself a fairly dangerous (social) technology to have copied.

  2. Martin Dirksen

    Dear Sirs, at:
    I find a most remarkable text. Quote:“Charles D. Ferguson, CFR’s fellow for science and technology, says the United States should make more of an effort to gain access to Khan in order to interview him and learn about the nuclear black market. Khan has been under house arrest for the last four years, and Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf has denied the international community access to him. “I have not seen any significant evidence to show that the U.S. government has really pressured President Musharraf” to get access to Khan, Ferguson says”

    Right he is
    Martin Dirksen

  3. Lao Tao Ren (History)

    Isn’t there a even bigger question as to whether the designs are for Uranium vs. Plutonium bombs?

    I disagree as to the credibility of a effectively not easily and quickly deliverable deterrent.

    There are certain kinds of deterrence that do need that old fashioned solid fuel lifter to get the job done in about 10-15 minutes in East Asia.

    Enough said.

  4. Kusigrosz

    Is it possible to use boosting in a reactor grade plutonium weapon, relying on the preinitiation as part of the normal operation of the device?

  5. Dr. Sahib

    This is really not news at all.

    Khan gave away the Chinese plans to anyone who would listen to him. ACW has confirmed that Tinner was an informant for the CIA/DIA.

    According to “America and the Islamic Bomb,” Khan would give the plans away ask kind of a door prize to encourage countries to continue to buy centrifuge parts from him.

    The more interesting question is why people like Peter Griffin, Nazir Ahmed Vaid and Zeki Bilmen roam free.

    We have accomplices to AQ Khan and the “nuclear walmart” living large in the US, Britain and S. Africa (not to mention unmolested in Pakistan) and not a peep from the gov’ts of Brown and Bush.

    Why is this?

    Have our intelligence services infiltrated these networks, and thus must protect their assets/“sources and methods”?

    Or do they just not care? Are they too hopelessly incompetent to give a rat’s ass about stopping the DPRK, Islamic Republic of Iran or the Republic of Turkey from building and selling nuclear material?

    Or are they bought off by the dictators and arms-dealers of the world, so that for a few hundred thousand dollars, you can own the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy


  6. Carey Sublette (History)

    Container ship delivery works just fine for deterrence purposes? I can see that it is a possible means of surprise attack (as in the ever popular nuclear terrorism scenarios) but deterrence has to work in a crisis – when it is really needed – or isn’t effective deterrence. The plausibility of a hostile nation shipping a weapon out of country in a crisis, then managing to transfer said weapon to other ships undetected (and losing physical control in the process) so that it can be brought in to the designated target country seems far-fetched.

    Certainly just getting the bomb is the high hurdle for any proliferating nation. But a true 1945 weapon design is too heavy for plausible air delivery by the fighter-bombers that proliferating nations possess. At least some improvement is needed.

    This isn’t hard for a gun-assembly weapon, but the penalty in arsenal size is steep. A genuinely deliverable implosion design (i.e. 1000 kg or less) would seem to have real value.

    Now bluffing and opacity can fill the need for deterrence in the absence of an actual deliverable weapon, but risks deterrence failure if the bluff is ever exposed.

  7. Geoff Forden (History)

    I agree with you that the true worry is that they could get a bomb at all. After all, that means you have access to sufficient amounts of weapons grade fissile material; that has always been seen as the key and I think continues to be the most important milestone. Furthermore, once you have a large, unsophisticated bomb, you can always reuse the fissile material in more advanced designs.

    However, it cannot be overemphasized how important it is to get a rocket-deliverable weapon. With today’s advanced air defense systems, capable of shooting down an approaching aircraft at over 100 miles—a great enough distance to render even nuclear weapons relatively ineffective—the deterrence value of an aircraft delivered nuclear weapon is greatly reduced. I think the War of the Cities between Iraq and Iran illustrates this very well. Iraq was forced to use fighter-bombers to attack Tehran during the first War of the Cities and suffered substantial, but certainly not devastating, losses. It seems very unlikely that they could have successfully attacked Tehran with a cargo aircraft. And that was before today’s really advanced air defense systems started to be exported by Russia to an ever increasing number of countries (and the Patriot missile, in any of its versions, is an outstanding defense against aircraft). Ask yourself What probability of loosing one of your few nuclear weapons would you be willing to risk by sending it on an aircraft?

  8. Andy (History)

    Don’t misunderstand me; I don’t want to underplay the seriousness of Khan selling weapon designs. But, from a proliferators perspective, mounting a warhead on a missile is surely only a modest strategic advantage compared to obtaining the Bomb in the first place.

    Much depends, I think, on the reason and intent behind the weapons program in the first place and the strategic environment that a decision to obtain nukes is made. For some, a missile-delivered capability is essential, for others it is not so important. A nuclear weapons capability can be as much about national prestige as threat perception, for example.

  9. blowback (History)

    A Google search on Urs Tinner reveals a previous ACW entry on him as the first candidate which seems to claim that Urs Tinner was a CIA informer in 2003. And it took the CIA or whoever another three years to identify plans for a nuclear device on his computer. Pulease! This is just another item in Dick Cheney’s black op to persuade the American public that Iran should be bombed.

  10. nukeman7 (History)

    Iran has probably had access to this type of information since the mid 1970s. The one time head of the Tehran Research Centre was an EMP expert for TRW as the following information shows:
    Mojtaba Taherzadeh – Bibliography (1976)

    Mojtaba Taherzadeh (Ph.D. Physics, University of California, Los Angeles, 1964) was associated with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory of the California Institute of Technology from 1969 to 1975. He was a member of the technical staff in charge of analytical research in determination of Radiation Characteristics of the nuclear power sources. He was also responsible for radiation interference studies with regard to the scientific instruments aboard spacecraft. Prior to 1969, Dr. Taherzadeh was a scientific specialist at EEG and NRL. In this capacity he was responsible for nuclear radiation hardening and high power electron beam design for the simulation of the nuclear electromagnetic pulses. In early 1975 he was appointed as the director of the Tehran Nuclear Research Centre, Atomic Energy Organization of Iran.

    Scientific Papers:

    Annual Conference on Nuclear and Space Radiation Effects, Missoula, MT, 1968
    IEEE Transactions on Nuclear Science, 1968, Vol. S-15, p336-45
    Measurement of Linac Thick-Target Bremsstrahlung Spectra Using a Large NaI Scintillation Spectrometer

    Thick-target bremsstrahlung spectra produced by electron bombardment of a 0.2 radiation-length gold-tungsten target were measured for electron energies in the range of 5.3 to 20.9MeV. A large NaI spectrometer coupled to a pulse pile-up rejection system measured pulse-height distributions for bremsstrahlung emitted in the forward direction, and a response matrix developed for the spectrometer was used to convert the pulse-height distributions into photon energy spectra. The shapes of the measured spectra show good agreement with those obtained by others for the same target configuration. Apparatus and experimental methods are described and thick-target bremsstrahlung spectra are presented for electron energies of 5.3, 10.0, 14.8, 16.4, 18.2, and 20.9MeV.

    1970 Winter Meeting of the American Nuclear Society, Washington, DC, 1970
    Transactions of the American Nuclear Society, 1970, Vol. 13, p535
    The Response of Solid-State Detectors to Monoenergetic Neutrons Determined by the Use of the Monte Carlo Technique

    1970 Winter Meeting of the American Nuclear Society, Washington, DC, 1970
    Transactions of the American Nuclear Society, 1970, Vol. 13, p537
    Neutron Emission Characteristics of a PuO2 Source

    Nuclear Science and Engineering, 1971, Vol. 44, p190-3
    Neutron Yield from the (alpha,n) Reaction in the Isotope Oxygen-18

    Nuclear Technology, 1972, Vol. 15, p396-410
    Neutron Radiation Characteristics of Plutonium Dioxide Fuel

    California Institute of Technology Internal Report
    Neutron Radiation Characteristics of Plutonium Dioxide Fuel

    International Conference on Nuclear Solutions to World Energy Problems, Washington, DC, 1972
    Transactions of the American Nuclear Society, 1972, Vol. 15, p687-8
    Neutron Emission Characteristics of Plutonium Dioxide Fuel

    International Conference on Nuclear Solutions to World Energy Problems, Washington, DC, 1972
    Transactions of the American Nuclear Society, 1972, Vol. 15, p712
    Photopeak Unfolding of the Gamma-Ray Spectrum Measured by a Ge(Li) Detector

    Nuclear Technology, 1973, Vol. 18, p15-24
    The Analytically Determined Response of Silicon Detectors to a Polyenergetic Neutron Beam

    IEEE Transactions on Nuclear Science, 1976, Vol. NS-23, p1294-300
    The SNAP 27 Gamma Radiation Spectrum Obtained with a Ge(Li) Detector

  11. Cameron (History)

    I have always assumed the opposite of your conclusion. That for deterrence you need a weapon that can be reliably used in a threatening manner. Transhipment across the Indian and Pacific Oceans does not qualify. So for detterence you need a weapon that can credibly reach it’s target.

    Offensivly you can get by with a container ship. And you’re likely better off with that as a delivery system – a rocket launch very clearly says “attack me.”

  12. Cristina Hansell (History)

    Hi James. I’m wondering about the common assertion that North Korea’s bomb is already an effective deterrent. I wonder how we know that that is true? It seems to me that Pyongyang’s conventional forces that threaten Seoul with devastation already deter a U.S. attack on the north. How much more of a deterrent do they need? Similarly, I wonder — if a country did NOT have a conventional force threatening an ally like the ROK, and had only built a handful of nuclear devices that could not be delivered quickly, via missile … is there not a scenario where one might try to preemptively destroy them? I haven’t thought this through, but I’m just not certain that the ability to explode a nuclear device in a test is enough to deter in all cases. This does seem to be the belief some proliferating nations hold, but are they right about predicting the behavior of other nations (including, say, Israel?) Would love to see everyone’s thoughts on this.

  13. Tim Kelly

    How could a country with a small number of rudimentary nuclear weapons, and no great method of delivery, use them as an effective deterrent in a crisis situation? My hypothesis is that these weapons would not be shipped overseas during a crises, but rather prior to it. A few specially trained teams would be sent by the aforementioned country to, for instance, The United States. There they would buy a few offices or apartments in several large U.S. cities and begin receiving the nuclear weapons in parts and assemble and maintain the weapons at those locations. There they would lay in wait for a time when they would be needed. If/when a crisis unfolded and if the country was serious about its objectives it need only detonate one weapon to express its resolve while warning that there are more in other cities. Of course its easier said than done but on the whole it is certainly possible.

  14. marley (History)

    It seems to me that if Pakistan could come up with these plans so could Iran or NK. As with most things, the devil is in the details – in this case the technological sophistication to implement the design plans.

  15. hass (History)

    Oh for Gods sake – we all know that nuke-building is not a secret and that there’s enough DECLASSIFIED info already available at your friendly local government reading room on how to build nukes

    The file is said to be in the archives at the Public Record Office, which can be accessed by anyone, including terrorists, and gives measurements, diagrams and precise details on bomb-building, the Daily Telegraph reported.

  16. Lao Tao Ren (History)

    Perhaps a way to think about this is to ask whether exploding a nuclear weapon, however crude, does the following:

    It means that any use of military force against this new possessor of nuclear weapons will have to take into the account the possible use of nuclear weapons broadly speaking as a result of the conflict —- not only by the defense, but by the invading forces, and long afterwards.

    That means the nuclear weapons can be used against the invading force defensively. i.e. it is not beyond the pale that DPRK will set off a nuclear weapon in a tunnel under the DMZ to take out or contaminate much of the infrastructure of Seoul, just 20 miles away. Nuclear weapons need not just be delivered as an attack on the interest of, or the invaders or their allies back “home”.

    It almost certainly mean that the invading force MUST dedicate substantial resources to eliminating (as much as possible) any working nuclear devices or components or key parts, key installations, personnel, and things that they do not care to capture intact or cannot risk their dispersal in the interregnum between the defeat of the nuclear power and the arrival of a COMPETENT and Capable occupational army and authority. (As opposed to, e.g. the arrival of the Coalition forces and CPM in Iraq which had insufficient manpower to secure the nation or to prevent the dispersal of key staff, components, equipment, etc.)

    The complexity of these tasks greatly complicates the planning of any military attack even on the most “tin pot” of tin pot dictators.

    Another concern is whether the destruction of the defender’s formal army and means of resistance will mean that the nuclear devices and materials will fall into the hands of irregulars and resistance forces, who can not only use them “in theater” but also deliver them to the home countries or bases of the invading armies.

    Finally, even if you take the “best of best” cases, where nothing of the above sort happened. You now have a batch of nuclear scientists, technicians, and people with a lot of knowhow that are… unemployed. Unless plans are immediately implemented to win them over and to find them a place under the new sun, they will disperse along with their skills to other “wannabe” states.

    It is not clear cut deterrence of war, but simple proof of possession of even 1 laboratory grade weapon will do this.

  17. Arch Roberts Jr. (History)

    Prof. Acton writes, “I think the ‘holy grail’ for a proliferator is getting the Bomb in the first place.”

    I believe he is right. This is why access to design info is so crucial. You need to know the thing works, without testing if possible, in order to have a possible use. IMO, all countries with nuclear weapons, at least initially, viewed their possession as a weapon of last resort. (What happens once you have the Bomb is another topic, but the difference between zero and one or five is more important than the difference between five and one hundred.)

    Pakistan’s policy was to build a nuke to protect the country from being overrun by a more powerful Indian neighbor. I believe Iran also seeks an ultimate weapon, which explains two decades of deception followed by the current public relations campaign, designed as much to scare everyone off as well as to “reassure” the international community about Iran’s “peaceful intent.” What was the “zoo event” over the South Atlantic, except something to keep everyone guessing? And what was the purpose of the DPRK test, even if it was a fizzle? The thing that makes so much of this fun, in a decidedly macabre fashion (and never to be discussed at cocktail parties), is examining the link between guesses as to capability and further guesses about intent. Iran now has a virtual deterrent, and whether or not it becomes real is in the short term less important than whether it can be made to pay a price for its flouting of nonproliferation norms – especially the NPT promise of access to all technology for peaceful purposes – it claims to defend. In the longer term, all interested countries will have to decide what to do with a nuclear-armed Iran.

    There are but three options for the IC in dealing with the DPRK and Iran: aquiescence, inspection, or preemption. Israel has made its choice vis-a-vis Syria and perhaps Iran. When will the IC develop the intestinal fortitude to pursue inspections, its policy choice, in earnest?

  18. John (History)

    @Cristina Hansell:

    My thinking on this is that a country like Saddam’s Iraq could bury nuclear devices in its own major cities as a deterrent against invasion and takeover by a foreign power. Scott Ritter has conclusively demonstrated that Saddam planned the Sunni insurgency prior to the American attack and deployed it prior to his capture by American forces. Scott caught a technician trying to escape a building (through a window) with plans for an IED, for example, years before Operation Iraqi Freedom commenced. With proven nuclear weapons capability there are many scenarios you could envision which would make an invader think twice before attempting to take over a foreign country. This is why nuclear weapons have traditionally been viewed as a last-ditch deterrent rather than as a conventional battle option. Tactical weapons possessed by countries like the US currently change this reality, of course. Delivery capability strengthens your hand (brings MAD into the equation), but is not absolutely essential for nuclear weapons to have some deterrent capacity. I say all of this as the furthest thing from an arms control expert on an expert site, so hopefully the people here won’t carve me into hamburger. Notwithstanding this limitation, this is my thinking on this issue for what it is worth.

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