NATO dismisses nuclear security concerns after militants strike Pakistani naval base

The Taliban assault highlights military weaknesses but many experts say Pakistan adequately safeguards its nuclear arsenal against attack.

Pakistai Navy officers pay tribute to their colleague who was killed in a militant attack on a naval aviation base, during his funeral in Lahore, Pakistan on Tuesday, May 24. A police account of a deadly, 18-hour Taliban assault on a Pakistani naval base says there were twice as many attackers as the number claimed by the government and navy, adding to the questions surrounding the incident.

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With details emerging about how Pakistani Taliban militants infiltrated one of Pakistan's main naval bases, much of the talk has focused on what the attack indicates about the country's ability to safeguard its nuclear weapons.

The Taliban said the assault – carried out by a small team of militants who destroyed two US-made surveillance planes and killed at least 10 security officers – was meant to avenge the killing of Osama bin Laden. Bloomberg called the attack "the deepest strike into an armed forces facility since militants stormed a building in the army’s general headquarters in Rawalpindi in 2009."

On a visit to Afghanistan Tuesday, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that the assault raised concerns, but that ultimately, he said Pakistan's nuclear weapons were secure, Agence France-Presse reported.

Pakistan has made significant efforts to keep the majority of the country's military personnel uninvolved in guarding its nuclear weapons. The Strategic Plans Division, a unit of about 10,000 that is kept largely separate from the rest of the military, bears the responsibility of guarding the country's nuclear stockpile, which is estimated to be between 70 and 120 warheads.

Personnel working with the weapons are screened every two years, and only 5 percent of those screened are actually cleared for the work, The New York Times reports. Bases with nuclear weapons have much more stringent security than those without and attacks at those bases have typically been easily thwarted.

The International Atomic Energy Agency "expressed fears" in 2008 about the country's control of its nuclear arsenal. The public concern prompted Pakistan, normally very secretive about its stockpile, to make several public assurances that its weapons were being kept safe, Bloomberg reported. A Reuters briefing notes that the US has been publicly supportive of Pakistan – in 2009, President Obama said he was "confident" about its nuclear weapon security, although the weakness of Pakistan's government concerned him.

Peter Galbraith, the former UN representative to Afghanistan, told The Los Angeles Times that people worried about nuclear safety are forgetting that infiltrating a naval base is very different from smuggling out a highly protected nuclear weapon. "It is one thing to be able to get 18 people into a secure base and kill 12 security guards. It is another thing to try to grab a nuclear weapon and take it out. And then what would they do it? Some of these concerns are overwrought," he said.

The country has had nuclear weapons since 1972, obtained largely as a deterrent to its also nuclear rival, India. While the US and the rest of the world may be troubled by the military threat emanating from Pakistan, Pakistan's military is still more focused on being ready for a confrontation with India, Bloomberg notes.

A Christian Science Monitor examination of Pakistan's nuclear safety in May 2009 determined that while the Taliban has positions close to nuclear weapon facilities, the main threat does not come from the Taliban.

"But the notion of the Taliban as a conventional force able to overrun such sites overlooks the massive size of the Pakistani military, centered on the twin cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi, near where much of the nuclear infrastructure also lies.

"After a week of requests, Pakistani military officials failed to offer comment on their program's safeguards. But Pakistan has assured the West that certain procedures are in place. These include keeping warheads in a disassembled state, requiring multiple people to sign off on any activation orders, and so-called permissive action links that electronically lock the warheads unless codes are provided and environmental conditions – such as atmospheric pressure for plane-dropped bombs – are met."

The bigger issue comes from radicals within the ranks of engineers, scientists, and technicians – the country's educated elite. Regardless of where the threat lies, the US has taken the matter seriously. As of May 2009, the US had invested $100 million in the country's nuclear weapon security.

This week's attack has alerted Pakistan to weaknesses in its military facilities, however. According to the Hindustan Times, Pakistan's naval chief said that the military is considering moving the Mehran naval base that was attacked, as well as other facilities, away from residential areas that make it easier for infiltrators to approach undetected. While the Mehran base and others were built in initially underdeveloped areas, residential areas have sprouted up around them, compromising the military's ability to monitor people coming and going from the bases.

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