THURSDAY SEPTEMBER 20 2001 The nuclear threat Pakistan could lose control of its arsenal BY NIGEL HAWKES West's worst scenario A LEADING authority on Pakistan’s nuclear programme has given warning of a “nightmare scenario” in which a destabilised Pakistan lost control of its nuclear weapons to supporters of the Taleban. Any military action against Muslim terrorists within Afghanistan will have to take account of that, said George Perkovich, a nuclear weapons expert at the W. Alton Jones Foundation in Charlottesville, Virginia, who has specialised in the nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan. He dismissed any prospect that the present Government of Pakistan would use its nuclear armoury, but said that questions about the security of the weapons should be high on the agenda of the military planners. “My guess would be that the US and the UK are thinking about that now,” Mr Perkovich said. “If things go wrong, what do we do? Do we send commandos in to get the weapons and take them out in helicopters, like the last days in Saigon? Has this even been discussed with the Pakistanis?” Militarily, Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are its “crown jewels”, but valuable as they may be for asserting national pride in the rivalry with India, they are of little use in the awkward diplomatic situation the Pakistani Government now faces. Mr Perkovich said that Pakistan has about two to three dozen potential nuclear weapons, all based on highly enriched uranium. Tests carried out in 1998 demonstrated that they work. Pakistan also has medium-range missiles capable of reaching targets in India, if no farther afield. “In normal times, they keep the warheads separate from the missiles,” he said, “and the fissile uranium — the core of the weapon — is not kept in the warhead, which consists of electronics and high explosives, but doesn’t have the fissile core in it. It’s all dressed up and nowhere to go.” Assuming this is still true, it would make it much harder for those unfamiliar with the system to assemble the weapon and make it work. The fissile core, about the size of a melon and weighing up to 66lb, can be sub-divided into segments that can be stored separately. So the entire weapon can be split into components that in themselves are innocuous. “So what we have are a range of different components, with different groups controlling them,” he said. “Each part is well guarded and they have taken great care to assess the reliability and security of the storage.” In addition to having the weapons disassembled and safely stored, he said that the Pakistanis will have given thought to how they would be evacuated in an emergency. “The most worrisome thing is the fissile core. That’s easily moveable, which is both good and bad. It’s bad because Saddam Hussein could make a bid for it, good because it means it could be put on a helicopter and taken out of harm’s way.” He believes that changes in organisation this year make it clear that “grown-ups” in Pakistan are trying to make the whole system orderly and under control. The integration of two competing teams, “both run by egomaniacs”, into a single organisation, he says, is a good sign. Until then, both and missile development were split between the A. Q. Khan Research Laboratories (KRL) — named after Abdul Qadeer Khan, self-proclaimed father of the Pakistani bomb — and the Pakistan Atomic Energy Organisation (PAEC), led by Asfad Ahmad Khan. When both were retired in March, the move was attacked by Narwaz Sharif, the former Prime Minister, as a hideous conspiracy designed to roll back the nuclear programme and weaken the country. He called on people to rise up and thwart the conspiracy. In fact, there was little public reaction. On Tuesday Dr Khan went out of his way to reassure people about the weapons’ security. “Thousands of people are involved in the supervision who discharge their duty as a sacred mission and the masses should not worry about the security of the nuclear installation,” he told reporters after assuming the duties of “patron-in-chief” of his old laboratory. While rivalry existed between the two men and their respective laboratories, Pakistan had an internal “arms race”, which accelerated its acquisition of nuclear weapons and delivery systems, though at enormous cost. By retiring both men, President Musharraf demonstrated his intention to control nuclear development more tightly, but there are others in the Pakistani military who are closer to the fundamentalists, and the danger of overstretching Pakistani goodwill is that it will hand the initiative to them. For General Musharraf, the opportunity to help the Americans carries opportunities as well as dangers. He may be able to use it to reduce or remove the sanctions Washington imposed after the nuclear tests. “The United States is going to have to show the people in Pakistan that it’s good to be in a good relationship with the United States,” Senator Sam Brownback, a Republican member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said. The last time that was true was in the 1980s, when Pakistani help was vital in helping the Afghans to evict the Russians from their country. Now the wheel has turned and American aid could start flowing towards Islamabad again. Copyright 2001 Times Newspapers Ltd. This service is provided on Times Newspapers' standard terms and conditions. To inquire about a licence to reproduce material from The Times, visit the Syndication website.
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