Pakistan making ‘significant’ strides in securing its nuclear material

Islamabad ‘most improved’ in anti-theft ranking, US watchdog group says upon publishing index.

A view shows railway packages for containers with uranium hexafluoride salt, raw material for nuclear reactors, similar to the one be used for the IAEA Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) Bank (photo credit: SHAMIL ZHUMATOV / REUTERS)
A view shows railway packages for containers with uranium hexafluoride salt, raw material for nuclear reactors, similar to the one be used for the IAEA Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) Bank
[Islamabad] A US watchdog organization says Pakistan has made major progress over the past year in improving security for its weapons-grade nuclear materials.
According to the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) 2020 index, released on July 22, “Pakistan was the most improved country in the theft ranking for countries with nuclear materials, improving its overall score by 7 points.”
Pakistan came under suspicion starting in the 1980s over alleged activities by Abdul Qadeer Khan, one of its top nuclear scientists, who was accused of passing secrets about centrifuges and other materials to such countries as Iran, Libya and North Korea. Khan eventually confessed but insisted he had done so with the knowledge of higher-ups. He was never convicted.
NTI is a Washington-based organization that works “to prevent catastrophic attacks with weapons of mass destruction and disruption − nuclear, biological, radiological, chemical and cyber,” according to its website.
“The majority of Pakistan’s improvements are in the Security and Control Measures category (+25) because of its passage of new regulations,” the report said.
“Compared with other countries’ score improvements in the… category, Pakistan’s increase of +25 is the second-largest improvement of any country since the Index first launched in 2012,” it continued.
“Pakistan’s improvement in the Security and Control Measures category is significant because strengthened laws and regulations result in durable boosts in Pakistan’s score as well as provide sustainable security benefits,” the document stated.
The country’s score also rose in the Global Norms category (+1), it noted.
The Threat Index recommends that “to reverse the decline in nuclear security improvements, countries must strengthen and sustain political attention on enhancing nuclear security regulations and on building a more effective global nuclear security architecture.”
Naeem Khalid Lodhi, a former Pakistani defense minister and lieutenant general, says the country has been under “intense scrutiny and international surveillance” since “the very beginning” of its nuclear program.
“The project was always in safe hands and continued progressing under some strong protective measures,” he told The Media Line.
“Opposition to our nuclear pursuits, mostly by the US and the West, was driven by political motives rather than any rationality. The main whipping stick with them was their apprehensions regarding the safety and command and control of our assets,” he insisted.
Lodhi insists Pakistan’s record on the safety and protection of its nuclear material has been “spotless” despite those attitudes.
“We have laid out our nuclear policy about our Full Spectrum Deterrence [doctrine] and it has served us well,” the former defense minister said. “We possess the technology and political will to carry out all actions required to strengthen our resolve, and thus the deterrence.”
Laura Kennedy, a former US diplomat and a global expert on nonproliferation and disarmament, said in a tweet that “one welcome bit of news reported by NTI index is that #Pakistan ranked as most improved in the security of those countries holding nuclear materials.”
Asad Majeed Khan, Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington, also welcomed the report.
“We welcome [that] the Nuclear Threat Initiative on weapons of mass destruction has categorized Pakistan as the most improved country for nuclear security measures in its Nuclear Security Index 2020,” he tweeted. “Pakistan ranked 19 [out of 22 countries with weapons-usable nuclear materials] with 47 points. Interestingly, India ranked one place below Pakistan at the 20th spot with 41 points.”
India started its nuclear program in 1967 and tested its first weapon in 1974, providing increased impetus to Pakistan. The latter launched its own program in 1972 under then- president and soon-to-be prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.
Pakistan and India both publicly demonstrated their nuclear capabilities with a round of tit-for-tat tests in May 1998.
Neither country has signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
According to the latest report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, released in June, the two are slowly increasing the size and diversity of their nuclear forces. The report says Pakistan has 160 warheads, and India 150.
“Pakistan remains steadfast in its refusal to sign the NPT, stating that it would do so
only after India joined the Treaty,” the report stated.
Haris Nawaz, a defense analyst and retired brigadier general based in Rawalpindi, told The Media Line the NTI index was “very positive and… encouraging,” saying it “confirms Pakistan’s stand that its nuclear assets are in safe hands.”
He adds that the country’s command and control system is based on “state of the art technology with different tiers of security arrangements” and a “healthy set of procedures” to guarantee continued safety.
“Surprisingly, in the past years, there was a general perception around the world that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are not safe and could fall into the hands of terrorists if anyone had such thoughts,” he stated. “This report by the well-reputed US organization has dispelled all such concerns.”
Muhammed Ejaz Khattak, a retired colonel and today a defense and security analyst also based in Rawalpindi, told The Media Line that “the inspection and analysis by a leading US organization are encouraging and a step forward to formally recognizing Pakistan as a nuclear state.”
He added that Islamabad should open its nuclear installations to international monitors so the country can become a recognized member of the nuclear club.
“In past decades, Pakistan was targeted by her adversaries on the pretext that it would transfer nuclear technology to Muslim Arab states to be used against Israel,” he continued. “After the failure of this baseless propaganda, the adversaries started spreading rumors that Pakistan’s nuclear assets might be captured by anti-state elements.”
Khattak called it “ridiculous” to even consider such a possibility.
“Pakistan’s nuclear asset is not like an ammunition depot stored in one place… it is split and spread over different areas in bits and pieces, well-secured and protected physically as well as technically,” he said.
The Strategic Plans Division Force is the custodian of Pakistan’s nuclear assets. Commanded by a three-star general, at least 25,000 highly trained and well-equipped troops are responsible for the protection of the country’s nuclear and tactical assets.
Adil Faroque Raja, an Islamabad-based defense analyst and a former NATO coordinator, briefed The Media Line about the Force.
“The Strategic Plans Division was established in 2001. It also serves as the secretariat of the National Command Authority, which is the supreme decision-making body chaired by the sitting prime minister of Pakistan,” he explained.
“The National Command Authority oversees nuclear research and development organizations and tri-services [army-navy-air Force] strategic forces commands which are responsible for the security, deployment and maintenance of respective nuclear assets,” Raja continued.
“The entire system, from research and development and up to the deployment of nuclear assets, is controlled by a unified command and control mechanism, leaving no room for confusion or error,” he stated. Nevertheless, Pakistan’s score on the NTI index has left at least one analyst less than dazzled.
“It is plausible that the government has improved the upkeep of nuclear weapons and has tightened internal control, and it could be improving as compared to other countries,” Irina Tsukerman, a New York-based national security expert, told The Media Line.
Yet these standings might not reflect the entire reality.
“Global monitors and watchdogs operate based on publically available reports, which means they may not always have [information that is fully] accurate or in line with classified intelligence obtained by security agencies,” she explained.
“Even those agencies may have contradictory agendas,” Tsukerman noted, “and conflicting ways of measuring such parameters.”