Pakistan Seen Readying to Cross Nuclear Threshold

Pakistan's test launch last month of a new short-range ballistic missile, when added to its quickly growing arsenal of lower-power nuclear weapons, indicates the South Asian country is seriously readying to use its nuclear deterrent should war break out again with India, the Times of India reported on Sunday.

Federation of American Scientists Nuclear Information Project Director Hans Kristensen said the nuclear-capable Hatf 9 missile appears to be designed to attack an invading force of Indian soldiers.

"While that wouldn't threaten Indian survival in itself, it would of course mean crossing the nuclear threshold early in a conflict, which is one of the particular concerns of a short-range nuclear weapon," Kristensen said.

The missile's 37-mile flight range means it could not strike any major Indian population center. However, the weapon could undermine the Indian military's unconfirmed "Cold Start" doctrine, which focuses on the rapid deployment of armed forces into Pakistan for a targeted strike following a terrorist assault on the scale of the 2008 attacks on Mumbai.

Islamabad evidently is increasing its capabilities in response to the likelihood that New Delhi would forcefully respond to another large-scale terrorist attack perpetrated by Pakistani-based extremists.

"A [Hatf 9] would have to drive all the way up to the Indian border to be able to reach important targets in India," Kristensen said. "Amritsar would be one candidate, as would several smaller cities along the border. But that would also expose the missile to counterattack."

The Pakistani army previously said the Hatf 9 "could carry nuclear warheads of appropriate yield with high accuracy" and possesses the ability to be quickly relocated following use.

Kristensen said the time had come for Islamabad to provide information on the size, scope, and intent of its nuclear arsenal.

Though Pakistan is widely seen to have the world's fastest-growing deterrent, speculation that the state would overtake France as the planet's fourth-largest nuclear weapons state is "a decade or two ahead," Kristensen said.

"Pakistan's nuclear arsenal is not equal to the number of warheads that could potentially be produced by all the highly enriched uranium and plutonium Pakistan might have produced. The size also depends on other factors such as the number of delivery vehicles and other limitations," he said.

Concerns about Pakistani nuclear security led France in 2009 to choose not to export atomic power technology to the energy-hungry country, the Press Trust of India reported on Sunday. French presidential diplomatic adviser Jean-David Levitte informed U.S. diplomats that Paris was "not sure that the Pakistani nuclear deterrent is secure," particularly given "the frequent movement of nuclear weapons by the Pakistani military," according to a September 3, 2009, U.S. cable made public by the transparency group WikiLeaks.

French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet, speaking in New Delhi last week, voiced his worries about India's nuclear-armed rival: "This part of the world needs some clarification and stability as well. India is an old strategic partner.... Regarding Pakistan we are waiting for clarifications." International concerns about the security of Pakistan's nuclear weapons were renewed by incidents that called into question the military's competence -- the news that al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden was able to escape detection for years in the country and a 17-hour siege on a naval base in Karachi last week by a handful of militants.

There are a number of scenarios in which Pakistani nuclear weapons might be placed at risk for diversion to rogue actors, according to Reuters.

Islamabad generally keeps its nuclear warheads apart from their carriers, but they could be combined and fielded in the event of conflict with India. Authentication codes would still be required to fire weapons such as the Hatf 9, said Shaun Gregory, director of the Pakistan Security Research Unit at the University of Bradford in the United Kingdom.

"However, in a fluid battlefield context such codes will likely be released to prevent the weapons being overrun before they can be used," he stated in an e-mail message to Reuters. "In such a 'release delegated' state... it's possible that terrorists could seize a functioning weapon."

There are also concerns about radicalized military officers in positions of authority, who might collaborate with extremists or pass on authorization codes or nuclear systems.

"The expected increase in radicalization, especially within the Pakistani army after the U.S. raid and killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad... raises additional concerns," said Rahul Roy-Chaudhury, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

The attack on the naval base highlighted the threat that militants might launch an assault against military nuclear sites.

"I think the attack on PNS Mehran... show[s] that terrorists are developing tactics which enable them to penetrate highly-secure bases and hold space within them for hours," Gregory said. "This suggests nuclear weapons security is increasingly vulnerable."

Weapons material from an unarmed nuclear warhead, even a smaller tactical weapon, could still be removed for dispersal through a radiological "dirty bomb," according to Reuters.

"Responsible Pakistani stewards of their nuclear assets have no choice but to reevaluate their security requirements and procedures," said Michael Krepon, director of the South Asia and Space Security programs at the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington.

Meanwhile, disgraced former Pakistani nuclear weapons scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan in a Sunday interview said his country's nuclear weapons effort had for the past 10 years been "running without any break," Gulf News reported.

"Although I have not been associated with the program for the past 10 years, I know that it has been running without any break and the process of uranium enrichment is in progress," the newspaper Dawn quoted Khan as saying.

Khan confessed in 2004 to operating a black market proliferation ring that sold nuclear technology and information to Iran, Libya, and North Korea. He was released in 2009 from a five-year term of house arrest.

While the Pakistani program was not giving the "final shape to new nuclear weapons," bomb-grade material was being generated and could be used to construct warheads as needed, Khan said.

He insisted the state's nuclear arsenal was safe from any Pakistani Taliban or foreign assault thanks to a "highly secured system which has been improved gradually." At no time were the country's nuclear weapons at risk of being seized, Khan asserted.

Pakistani nuclear weapons were located at multiple sites and only a small number of individuals know their whereabouts. "You can count these people on fingers who exactly know about the location of nuclear arsenals," Khan said.