Pakistani and U.S. officials have sought to allay increasing concerns in recent months that instability in Pakistan might threaten the security of Islamabad's nuclear weapons. Pakistani security forces have been engaged in open conflict with militant factions that now control large areas of the country's northwestern territories.
Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters May 4, "I remain comfortable that the nuclear weapons in Pakistan are secure." He added, however, that the potential that such weapons could fall into the hands of militants "is a strategic concern we all share."
Pakistani officials have rejected outright any such concern. Husain Haqqani, Pakistan's ambassador to the United States, was quoted May 3 in the London Guardian as saying, "The specter of extremist Taliban taking over a nuclear-armed Pakistan is not only a gross exaggeration, it could also lead to misguided policy prescriptions from Pakistan's allies."
It is not the first time that Pakistani officials have criticized questions about Islamabad's ability to secure its nuclear arsenal. In January 2008, Pakistan called comments by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei expressing concerns that Pakistani nuclear arms may be acquired by extremists groups "unwarranted and irresponsible." (See ACT, March 2008.)
Pakistan has an estimated nuclear arsenal of up to 60 warheads. For security purposes, the nuclear cores of these warheads are stored separately from the conventional explosives package, which initiates the nuclear explosion. The warhead components are also kept separate from the jet fighters and ballistic missiles that would be used to deliver them. Islamabad claims to be developing a nuclear-capable cruise missile as well.
Pakistan appears to have instituted an additional level of security to prevent unauthorized use of its nuclear arms. The director-general of Pakistan's Strategic Plans Division, Lt. Gen. Khalid Kidwai, stated during a lecture at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in 2006 that Pakistani nuclear weapons incorporate "some functional equivalent to the two-men rule and Permissive Action Links that the [United States] and some other nuclear-weapon states rely on to protect against loss of control."
Lt. Gen. Michael Maples, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told the Senate Armed Services Committee March 10, "Pakistan has taken important steps to safeguard its nuclear weapons, although vulnerabilities still exist."
Beyond the issue of the safety of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal are questions about Islamabad's accounting and security controls over its nuclear material. Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, former director of the Department of Energy's Office of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, said, "For years I was concerned about the weapons materials in Pakistan, the materials in the laboratories," according to the May 3 New York Times. Mowatt-Larssen added that he was "growing more concerned about something going missing in transport," the Times said.
Recent reports that Pakistan continues to expand its nuclear arsenal appear to add to worries about the security of nuclear material in the country. Maples said March 10 that Pakistan is expanding its nuclear infrastructure and its nuclear weapons stockpile.
An April 1 Congressional Research Service report stated that Pakistan reportedly continues to produce at least 100 kilograms of highly enriched uranium each year. Pakistan has also operated a 40- to 50-megawatt reactor at Khushab since 1998, which is not under IAEA safeguards.
David Albright, president of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, said in an April 23 report that, under the present conditions of instability in Pakistan, "the security of any nuclear material produced in these reactors is in question." According to the report, Pakistan has nearly completed a second reactor at Khushab that is much larger than the first and has begun construction of a third. Albright assessed in 2000 that the Khushab reactor can produce enough plutonium annually "for a few nuclear weapons," and estimated in 2006 that the second reactor could produce enough for 40 to 50 weapons each year.
Pakistani officials deny any expansion of the country's nuclear arsenal. Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira said during a May 18 press briefing, "Pakistan does not need to expand its nuclear arsenal." He added, "[W]e will maintain a minimum nuclear deterrence that is essential for our defense."
The United States is planning on boosting its security assistance to Pakistan, and lawmakers have expressed concern that such aid may contribute to Islamabad's nuclear efforts.
U.S. officials have sought to assure Congress that U.S. aid would not benefit Pakistan's nuclear weapons complex. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee May 20 that the administration is "quite convinced that none of our aid will in any way affect the efforts of Pakistan regarding their nuclear stockpile."
Pakistan is believed to have modified its U.S.-supplied F-16 fighters to serve as nuclear-weapon delivery vehicles. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman (D-Calif.) introduced legislation in April that would limit U.S. assistance pledged by the Bush administration to upgrade Pakistan's F-16 fleet.
Facing long-standing skepticism in Congress, U.S. officials have claimed that the F-16s can serve a counterinsurgency role. Richard Holbrooke, U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, told Berman's committee May 5 that Pakistan did use F-16s in battles with militants in the Bajur and Swat Valleys. He added that the fighters can only be used in a counterinsurgency role with "very sophisticated training."