Terrorist Threats to Pakistan’s Tactical Nuclear Weapons: A Clear and Present Danger
Pakistan has the world’s fastest growing nuclear stockpile.[i] Given the rate of plutonium and highly enriched uranium production, it may be able to produce another 200 nuclear warheads in the next 5 to 10 years, taking its arsenal close to 350. The production of such a staggering stockpile has been associated with an extremely worrisome trend; the majority of nuclear warheads produced by Pakistan in last decade are low yield tactical weapons. The rapid tacticalization of a strategic asset in the region considered to be a nuclear flashpoint, has raised a plethora of security and strategy related issues.
Pakistan is the epicenter of global jihadi terrorism. The country has faced some of the most devastating attacks on its defense establishments by the jihadist in the past decade or so. There have been repeated instances where some of these attacks were mounted with the help of insiders within the Pak military establishment. The unabated internal chaos coupled with a perpetual tension with its eastern neighbor, makes Pakistan a bit of a nuclear nightmare. Its willingness to use tactical nuclear weapons even against a limited conventional incursion by India further complicates the situation. Pakistan, however, has repeatedly stated that its weapons are safe and it has a robust and stable security framework to safeguard its nuclear weapons.
This essay is an attempt to assess threats to Pakistan’s Tactical Nuclear Weapons (TNWs) and its nuclear security vulnerability.
Pakistan’s Nuclear Journey: From Strategic to Tactical
After the nuclear tests of May 1998 by both India and Pakistan, nuclear ambiguity became a thing of past. Pakistan was forced to take a fresh look at its doctrine and nuclear posturing, which could provide a dependable and more credible deterrence against its eastern neighbor. Pakistan faced a complex security situation; India with its conventional superiority continued to pose a perceived existential threat, but now with an overt nuclear capability, the threat perception increased several times over. To compound the situation, with the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan the U.S. geopolitical rationale to support Pakistan was removed. Pakistan realized that it had little choice but to adopt an aggressive nuclear escalation posture. This aggressive posture entailed integration of its nuclear weapons into its military structure to credibly and directly deter Indian conventional attacks. The unambiguous expression of overt nuclear threat after India’s nuclear test led Pakistan to adopt a doctrine where Pakistan could quickly respond to even non-existential threats, thus lowering the nuclear threshold. India’s vastly superior conventional capability coupled with the perceived Cold Start doctrine triggered Pakistan to adopt an aggressive nuclear posturing policy. Brig. Feroz Hassan Khan (retd.) writes:
With its relatively smaller conventional force, and lacking adequate technical means, especially in early warning and surveillance, Pakistan relies on a more proactive nuclear defensive policy[ii].
With limited battlefield early warning and surveillance capabilities, the Pakistan Army viewed the threshold for nuclear first use as relatively low in a conventional conflict with India— perhaps even preemptive first use.
Cold Start versus TNWs
The Kargil conflict of 1999 and Operation Parakaram of 2001 exposed India’s inability to rapidly mobilize its strike corps. India learned that its slow mobilization provided a wide window for Pakistan to strategize its response to an Indian military buildup. Experts believed that the Indian Army took a long time to mobilize on both occasions which gave Pakistan time to internationalize the conflict and to bring on international pressure for de-escalation. The mobilization of India’s strike corps during Op Parakaram lacked any element of surprise and Pakistan’s modest surveillance capabilities could easily detect their movements’[iii].
The Indian strategic think tank community advocated a complete overhauling of its military doctrine with the aim of developing a rapid strike capability on Pakistan. The thinking was to put in place those strategic capabilities which would enable India to swiftly launch a conventional strike against Pakistan. This new thinking was called Cold Start by the think tank community. The doctrine called for several division-size integrated battle groups to be on a standby alert at all times in order to surge deep into Pakistan across several theaters. This quick thrust would allow India to seize a portion of Pakistan territory, which could be then used to bargain with Pakistan. The strategic matrix entailed that Cold Start would also deter Pakistan from using its nuclear arsenals.
Notwithstanding its capability to execute Cold Start, the Indian Army had long resisted accepting it as a professed strategy of the armed forces. However, in spite of this ambiguity towards accepting Cold Start, Pakistan’s military leadership is convinced that Cold Start is India’s strategic doctrine post 2001. Pakistan, as a result, has shifted its doctrine from strategic deterrence to what it calls‘full spectrum deterrence’. It gives Pakistan the ability to respond to any kind of Indian aggression all along the tactical spectrum through Pakistan’s willingness to implement a nuclear first use policy in a tactical environment. The strategic calculus is narrowed down to deterring a conventionally stronger India. The key elements of ‘Full Spectrum Doctrine’ include forward stationing of short range missiles and tactical nuclear weapons and the ability to mate them quickly.
This posture is supposed to deter any full scale or limited conventional attack by India. The most credible way, Pakistan believes, to deter a conventional war against a nuclear India is to asymmetrically escalate a conflict by threatening first use of tactical nuclear weapons on advancing Indian forces once they cross the border into Pakistan thereby achieving deterrence by denial[iv]. This would, Pakistan believes, blunt India’s conventional assault and give India little justification for a disproportionate nuclear strike on Pakistan’s strategic centers – because Pakistan would not have targeted Indian cities. Lt. General Khalid Kidwai, former Director General of Strategic Planning Division (SPD) and advisor to National of Pakistan maintains that the Pakistan’s short range ‘shoot and scoot’ missile system is in response to India’s larger military conventional threat, adding that Pakistan would not risk retaliation with bigger nuclear weapons[v].
Dynamics of Tactilization: Command and Control Vulnerabilities
Pakistan’s Army appears to have procedures in place to operationalize an already offensively oriented posture, thereby ensuring that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are suitably deployed and are usable in a crisis situation. As Tim Hoyt writes:
“It is apparent that Pakistan’s Command and control procedures are delegative, lean heavily toward the always side of the ‘always/never’ divide, and probably include both devolution and possibly pre-delegation in order to ensure the use of weapons[vi].”
Such delegated command and control structure involves features that enable rapid assembly, accelerated movement, and assured delivery mechanism to maintain the credibility of a tactical first use or asymmetric escalation posture, particularly during crisis situations against India.
The credibility of employment of battlefield tactical weapons is predicated on these being in battle ready mode. However, TNWs by their very nature are more at risk in such a delegated command and control structure. Pakistan’s surge towards production of more tactical nukes makes them vulnerable by their very nature. The vulnerability also stems from their command and control mechanism and also a higher probability of falling into hands of a rouge element or a terrorist organization. As battlefield weapons they need to be under the control of theater commanders. While the decision to deploy them may still be under the National Command Authority, their actual use has to be left to the commander in the field.
Tactical battlefield weapons are short range weapons. Pakistan would typically want their components to be stored away from the Indian frontier, thus minimizing the chance of these falling into enemy hands. Although most of them can be kept disassembled, it is likely that some portion has to be kept in a ready state if they are to prove useful in stopping an Indian incursion and in order to make the deterrence by denial a credible instrument. This inter alia means that tactical weapons in a ready state would have to be stationed close to the frontline. It would be a challenge for the National Command Authority to exercise control on these ‘ready’ weapons which are deployed close to the border. In a chaotic crisis situation, the decision to ‘press nuke’ may rest with a mid-level theater commander with limited eyes on the battlefield. Brigadier General Khan (retd.) concedes that “[a] theater commander would probably [be able to] take matters into his own hands. Should a trade-off be required, battle effectiveness of the nuclear force will trump over centralized control[vii].
Such Command and Control procedures, a result of Pakistan’s heavy tilt towards using TNWs in a crisis situation, makes the entire structure vulnerable to rogue elements within its armed forces. A crisis situation also provides opportunity for non-state actors to take advantage of a fluid situation and try to get their hands on a TNW.
Threats to Pakistan Nuclear Security: Clear and Present
Speaking on the eve of 4th Nuclear Security Summit, President Obama expressed deep concern about the security risks that TNWs face. He feared that the “expanding nuclear arsenal in some countries, with more small nuclear weapons are at a greater risk of theft”.
The terrorist use of nuclear weapons with its tsunami-like global and regional consequences is any country’s worst security nightmare. Pakistan claims to have made significant improvement in nuclear security but there are no independent reports which can sufficiently verify these claims. Pakistan’s opacity in sharing any kind of details about its security procedures makes it impossible to ascertain the veracity of its security claims.
The gradual radicalization of Pakistan’s Army over the past three decades has posed a grave danger to Pakistan’s nuclear security in terms of insider threats. These insiders have time and again allied with various jihadi organizations to strike at the state itself. The gravest threat to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons is posed by this insider-jihadi collaboration and the possibility of these two potentially dangerous elements coming together and acquiring a nuclear weapon is perhaps one of the most underappreciated threats to international peace and security.
The possible catastrophic scenario of the acquisition of a nuclear weapon by a terrorist organization with the active help of rogue insiders nearly played out when a group of navy officers attempted to high-jack a sophisticated Pakistan navy frigate. In Sept 2014, an audacious attack was led by serving and former Pak navy officers to take over the Pakistani Navy frigate PNS Zulfiqar. The alleged plan was to gain control of the vessel, steer it to open sea and then turn its guns on a U.S. naval vessel.[viii] The attack was thwarted by Pakistan navy commandos. Four persons were killed which included two serving officers and an ex-navy officer. All four were associated with Al Qaeda in Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). It appears the officers on-board were to be joined by other militants who were to arrive by boat and stow away onboard. The plan was to get close to U.S. ships on the high seas and then turn the shipboard weapon systems on the Americans[ix]. Among those killed was former Pakistan Navy Lt. Owais Jakhrani. He had been recently dismissed from the Navy for harboring extremist views. He was the son of a serving senior police official in Karachi and he reportedly played the key role in recruiting naval officers for Al Qaeda. The group was led by a ‘senior officer’ who was even saluted by a navy guard before other guards became suspicious of their presence in the dockyard and alerted commandos[x]. The attackers were armed with assault rifles, rocket launchers and hand grenades. These weapons were smuggled earlier into the dockyard by the attackers and were stored in dockyard lockers. What was more concerning is that these officers had a complete appreciation of on-board procedures and offshore deployment of defensive vessels. Before the operation they had given a presentation to Al Qaeda seniors on the operational details of the proposed attack. Al Qaeda in its media release said the “operation took place under the leadership of two brothers from AQIS, namely Owais Jakhrani (former Second Lieutenant in the Pakistan Navy) and Zeeshan Rafeeq (Second Lieutenant)”. AQIS also released the design sketch of the PNS Zulfiqar[xi]. Al Qaeda said its plan was to use the Zulfiqar to attack U.S. Navy vessels.
In the aftermath of the attack four serving mid-level lieutenant commanders from Karachi were also arrested in the western city of Quetta, allegedly trying to flee to Afghanistan two days after the attempted attack on the Zulfiqar. Nothing was known about these mid-level officers and who were their other colleagues in Navy were till recently. In April 2016 a Pakistan Navy tribunal sentenced five serving Navy officers to death for their role in the attack on the Zulfiqar[xii]. It appears there was a sufficiently large Al Qaeda module operating within the Pakistan Navy as middle level naval commanders. It would not be difficult to imagine that there could be more such modules operating within Pakistan’s Army and Air Force. Imagine a situation where, during a crisis with India, a few of such insiders would be tasked to transport battlefield tactical weapons to the frontline. Such a level of insider threat is what makes Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal extremely vulnerable, more so during a situation of impending crisis, when the arsenal is being moved from the storage station to battlefield deployment. The insider–terrorist cocktail is the most dangerous and credible threat to Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.
The spectrum of insider threats range from defense personnel to Pakistan’s nuclear scientist community. In 2001 Bashiruddin Mahmood, the former head of Pakistan’s Khushab Plutonium Reactor, was arrested for links to Al-Qaeda. Mahmood confessed that he and other colleagues had met Osama Bin Laden and discussed the possibility of developing a nuclear weapon[xiii]. This startling revelation led Pakistan to adopt stringent security clearance processes and close monitoring of its nuclear science community. The intelligence about Mahmood’s activities was provided by the U.S. Pakistan was unaware of the activities of its top two nuclear scientists. The possibility of that some of Mahmood’s and remnants of AQ’s (Abdul Qadeer) network evading surveillance and monitoring and forging linkage with state and non-state actors remains clear and present. Al Qaeda has made several attempts to obtain nuclear weapons and nuclear material and for a long time Al Qaeda had a WMD division headed by Egyptian Abdel Aziz Al Masri. He was famously called the ‘nuclear CEO’. Al Masri is still active in Al Qaeda and would probably be scouting for such nuclear scientists or Pakistan Army officers who would provide access to a nuclear weapon. It was reported by CIA that, in 2002-2003, Al Qaeda attempted to buy 3 objects which it thought were nuclear weapons[xiv].
ISIS: The New Threat On The Block
ISIS in its May 2015 issue of ‘Dabiq‘, its online propaganda magazine, boasted about the ability to buy a nuclear weapon through links to corrupt officials in Pakistan. While this may be brushed off as a mere propaganda piece with no truth behind it, it does reveal ISIS interest in nuclear weapons and their appreciation that Pakistan is the likely place where they could obtain one.
Another unique dimension to this threat is the competition between ISIS and Al Qaeda for global jihadi dominance. Al Qaeda seems to have been lagging behind and some experts believe Al Qaeda may be looking to stage a spectacular attack to wrest the initiative from ISIS and reassert itself in the jihadi world. An attack with a nuclear weapon would be top on its list. The Zulfiqar attack may have been an attempt for such an attack.
The Army Alumni Corps: Real and Insidious
In the past 5 years there have been at least a half dozen attacks on facilities that reportedly store Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. The Kamra air base near Islamabad has been attacked three times by terrorists belonging to the Tehrik-i-Taliban (TTP). The extent of terrorist infiltration into Pakistan’s nuclear armed military apparatus was again highlighted when terrorists with alleged intelligence from ‘insiders’ mounted an attack on one of Pakistan’s biggest Naval bases. In 2011, jihadists belonging to the 313 brigade of Illyas Kashmiri attacked the Mehran Naval Base near Karachi. Since 2005, the 313 brigade has acted as an armed extension of Al-Qaeda.
Al-Qaeda has a special unit which focuses on identifying radical elements within the armed forces. This unit is manned by former Pakistani Army officers who worked earlier with Illyas Kashmiri. Kashmiri had a strong contingent of Inter-Services Intelligence and Pakistan Army alumni as its advisors and members. This alumnus contingent was working under the banner of ‘Jund al -Fida’ (Army of Martyrs), a name suggested by Osama bin Laden. Major (Ret.) Abdur Rehman Hashim directed the operations of ‘Jund al Fida’ on behalf of Ilyas Kashmiri[xv]. He was reportedly detained by Pakistan in 2009 under U.S. pressure and has since been released. Major Hashim had instructed David Headley, one of the primaries accused of the Mumbai terror attacks, to conduct surveillance of the Bhabha Atomic Centre, near Mumbai in 2008[xvi]. Another Pakistan Army, Major Haroon Ashiq, was arrested for the murder of Major General Ameer Alvi in 2009. Major Haroon was the operational head of Jund al Fida. He is also said to have been released some time back. Haroon’s younger brother, Capt. (Ret.) Khurram Shehzad was killed fighting Canadian forces on behalf of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan in 2006[xvii]. With such a battery of ex-army officers at his disposal, it was not surprising that Illyas Kashmiri was able to get vital insider information about entry/exit, deployment of naval airplanes and other strategic information about Mehran Airbase. These army officers use their past contacts to spot radical elements within the forces and then try to get them aligned with Al Qaeda. These ‘insiders’ then provide critical information to groups like Al-Qaeda and TTP.
Responding to U.S. concern about Pakistan’s frenzied race to develop battlefield nuclear weapons, Lt. Gen. (retd.) Khalid Kidwai said that they were there to stay and Pakistan was not going to be apologetic about its TNWs[xviii]. TNWs are becoming cherished a subsystem within Pakistan’s nuclear system. Pakistan’s rapid march towards stockpiling TNWs has been a matter of concern. Even more concerning is its belief that TNWs are the most credible way of deterring an Indian conventional attack. This is in turn has lowered Pakistan’s nuclear threshold to an abysmally low level. The command and control of TNWs in a time of crisis would lie with the theater commander. With no real battlefield eyes, he may prematurely employ a TNW.
Given general acceptance that the Pakistan Army controls its nuclear arsenal, any proliferation or attempts of proliferation would seriously damage the Army’s credibility as guardian of its most prized asset. This possibility should in turn drive the Army to be always on a high alert to counter any threat to its nuclear weapons and installations. An insider attempt would raise serious questions over the Army’s ability to secure its assets. An adverse public opinion may not augur well for the Pakistan Army, which projects itself as the savior of the nation.
The insider rogue threat is very real and credible. Their collaboration with Jihadi elements makes the combination even more sinister. The attacks on Pakistan Navy bases and frigates exposed the vulnerability of Pakistan defenses to such threats.
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[vii] Narang, Vipin. 2014. Nuclear Strategy in Modern era. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
[viii] Syed Shoaib Hasan, Saeed Shah and Sioban Gorman. 2014. “Al Qaeda Militants Tried
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[ix] Fahim Zaman, Naziha Syed Ali. 2014. Dockyard attackers planned to hijack Navy frigate.
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[xi] Mahmood, Osama. 2014. “Operation against American Navy by the Mujahideen.”
[xii] AFP. 2016. PNS Zulfiqar attack: Five navy officers get death penalty. May 25. http:
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[xiv] Benson, Pam. 2010. Official: Terrorists seek nuclear material, but lack ability to use it.
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