Friday, September 4, 2009

Nuke forensics to deter Pak

Srinath Raghavan Sept.04 : The security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal has been a periodic cause for concern to the international community. A series of articles published last month have rekindled the lingering worries. The discussions were triggered by a piece written by Shaun Gregory, a respected analyst of Pakistan’s security affairs. Pointing to recent attacks on Pakistan’s nuclear installations, Mr Gregory observed that risk of terrorists gaining access to nuclear material was "genuine". He concluded that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons faced "a real and present danger" from the Al Qaeda and the Pakistan Taliban. Pakistani officials and some analysts have sought to confute such claims, but with little success. They point out that despite attacks on these complexes there is no reason to believe that the nuclear weapons or materials were themselves ever at risk. Nevertheless, these arguments tend to be overshadowed by the grim picture of a Pakistan possessing well over 50 nuclear devices, and teeming with an assortment of terrorist groups. Ever since the attacks of September 11, 2001, the possibility of terrorist groups acquiring nuclear weapons or material has kept awake the intelligence and security establishments of several countries. Although the Bush administration focused overtly on the threat of nuclear terrorism from Iraq, Iran, North Korea and Libya, Pakistan was always seen as a potential problem — one that was all the more tricky to handle because of its status as a frontline ally in the war on terror. The administration sought to deal with the problem by offering technical help to enable Pakistan secure its weapons. The Pakistanis, however, were concerned that the Americans harboured designs on their arsenal, and so refused the offer. They did, however, take financial assistance amounting to $100 million over the next five years. Yet, Western intelligence agencies have continued to be concerned about reports indicating that terrorists could yet lay their hands on a Pakistani device. Whilst the threat of nuclear terrorism from Pakistan cannot be ignored, it is important to take a measured view of the problem. It is rather more difficult for a terrorist group to carry out a nuclear attack than most analysts tend to assume. For a start the Pakistanis have instituted several measures to secure their weapons. The physical measures include multi-tiered security systems to protect the weapons; use of underground storage sites; barriers and detection systems to provide warning against intrusions; the physical separation of warhead cores from the detonation components. The Pakistan Army has also dedicated sizeable numbers of troops for protecting the nuclear installations. The weapons themselves might be most vulnerable while in transit, particularly during crises or other emergencies. But even if a weapon fell into the hands of a terrorist group, it will be very difficult to use it without access to the codes. This suggests that collusion with insiders would be essential. Under pressure from the US, the Pakistanis have instituted a Personnel Reliability Programme similar to the one used by the Americans. This programme screens individuals for Islamist sympathies, psychological disorders, drug problems and inappropriate external affiliations. Towards this end, the Strategic Plans Division (SPD) has created an in-house intelligence agency. This outfit also monitors bank transactions, religious habits, and political outlook of nuclear scientists. These steps are unlikely to fully insulate the nuclear establishment from the wider currents of radicalism in Pakistani society. But they will make the terrorists’ job all the more difficult. For the most careful independent studies suggest that unless there is collusion with personnel at almost every link of the chain — from the SPD down to the base — getting hold of a weapon will be a major challenge. Of course, it would be easier to get fissile material from installations controlled by civilians. Yet, even if some terrorists manage to lay their hands on nuclear material, fashioning a bomb is a daunting task. The Internet might be awash with information on building a nuclear bomb, but the actual requirements — metal works, machining, electronics — are far more demanding. To be sure, with the right team and adequate time, a terrorist group might be able to master the process. But let’s not forget that although nuclear weapons technology is decades old, few states have actually managed to successfully build a bomb. It would be much easier, and hence more tempting, for the terrorists to build a "dirty bomb". Such a device could disperse radioactive material over an area and create considerable panic; but its actual impact would be quite limited and manageable. The nightmare scenario is that guardian of the Pakistani nukes, the Army, might itself hand over some assets to a terrorist group. Given the consequences that would ensue, this seems highly unlikely. Then again, it is difficult to treat this as pure fantasy. The Pakistan Army has a history of involvement in shadowy nuclear transfers. The so-called "A.Q. Khan network" could barely have existed, much less functioned, without the approval of the Army leadership. The task for India is to deter such a move, however improbable, by the Pakistan Army. Any transfer of weapons or material to a terrorist group would be premised on the assumption of deniability. It is for India to ensure that Pakistan cannot bank on being able either to claim that the material was stolen or to pretend that the material did not originate from its arsenal. The former would require India to affirm that the responsibility of safeguarding nuclear material rests with the state that controls it. This could be done either by official pronouncements or quieter back-channel communication. The latter would require us to develop technical capabilities to attribute an explosion or attack to the originating state. This would entail the creation of sophisticated methods to infer weapons design and isotopic details of the fissile material used. This would enable us to match an explosion to the fingerprint of a state. A demonstrable capability along these lines would act as a significant deterrent to nuclear assets transfer by any state. Nuclear forensics, then, is the next major challenge for India’s military-scientific establishment. Srinath Raghavan is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi Source : The Asian Age

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