The revelation that the US has spent millions on a top-secret programme to help Pakistan secure its nuclear weapons is hardly surprising.
The six-year programme reportedly cost Washington more than $ 100 million to provide hi-tech equipment, train Pakistani personnel and build a training centre for nuclear security inside the country. It is no secret that in the wake of 9/11, the US suggested sharing its ‘permissive action links’ system (Pals), involving a series of special codes and authorisations, with Pakistan to prevent accidental use of nuclear weapons. Legal hurdles in the NPT (and Islamabad’s own suspicions that Pals could include secret ‘kill switches’) apparently discouraged the programme. That many of these were based on Chinese designs didn’t help matters much either.
Successive Pakistani governments tried to hide many aspects of their atomic weapons programme, revealing just enough to convince the world — read India — that it possessed nuclear muscle. So even before the current crisis, Pakistan would have benefited from improved protection of its military and civilian nuclear facilities. In fact, the Clinton administration is known to have assisted Islamabad improve safety at some of its nuke facilities. It is not unusual for security lapses to occur even in programmes of major powers. Didn’t the US struggle through much of the 1970s and 1980s to develop security for its nuclear weapons and weapons components? And even now, doesn’t it find it difficult to allocate resources to protect its nuclear weapons complex. The Russians, too, experienced alarming drops in security levels in the early 1990s.
At a time when Pakistan is politically unstable, the world has reason to be concerned about its reluctance to reveal critical details of its nuclear arsenal. Although the precise threat to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons is difficult to judge, the growing instability in the country is bound to test its nuclear security systems. The longer the chaos lasts, the more its nuclear weapons and stocks of atomic explosive material become dangerously vulnerable. And the last thing you need is a drifting country being used for nuclear commerce by terror merchants.