ISIS Issue Brief
Securing Pakistan's Nuclear Arsenal: Principles for Assistance

By David Albright, Kevin O'Neill and Corey Hinderstein
October 4, 2001

In a previous Issue Brief, the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) argued that "increased instability in Pakistan could make Pakistan's nuclear weapons and stocks of nuclear explosive material dangerously vulnerable to theft by militant groups," and therefore "the United States must carefully craft its approach to nuclear-armed Pakistan for help in extracting Usama bin Laden from Afghanistan."1 This Issue Brief considers criteria to evaluate the types of assistance that the United States should offer to Pakistan to make its nuclear arsenal more secure. Such assistance appears justified. However, the assistance should not violate U.S. commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), inadvertently encourage nuclear testing or otherwise contribute to advances in Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, or increase the threat of a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan.

Threat Assessment

As of the end of 1999, ISIS assesses that Pakistan possessed 585 - 800 kilograms of weapon-grade highly enriched uranium (HEU) and 1.7 - 13 kilograms of separated plutonium; these quantities are sufficient for 30-50 nuclear bombs or warheads.2 According to a variety of media reports, Pakistan's nuclear weapons are stored with their fissile cores separated from the non-nuclear components.

A troubling question in the current situation is that a nuclear weapon or fissile material could fall into the wrong hands. Available information suggests that, despite official statements to the contrary, the Pakistani government may not have full confidence in the security of its nuclear arsenal. According to a former Clinton administration Energy Department official, even before the crisis, Pakistan had requested some kind of assistance to improve its physical security capabilities.3

The security threats to Pakistan's nuclear weapons arsenal include the following:

Outsider Threat -- The possibility that armed individuals or groups from outside a facility gain access and steal weapons, weapons components or fissile material. The outsiders' objective is to gain control of these items for their own use or to transfer them to another state or to other non-state actors.

During times of relative political and social normalcy, the security of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal is probably manageable. However, these are not normal times. Pakistan's decision to cooperate with the United States in responding to the September 11th terrorist attacks threatens to throw Pakistan into turmoil. The threat to Pakistan's stability is difficult to judge, and the U.S. actions appear currently to be reducing such a possibility. Nevertheless, the war on terrorism is expected to be long and drawn out, potentially subjecting Pakistan to further instability. In addition, the Pakistani military and intelligence services may still have strong ties to the Taliban in Afghanistan. Like the Pakistani population, many among the rank-and-file and perhaps the officer corps of the Pakistani military could be sympathetic to fundamentalist causes and hostile to the United States. Such insider threats could pose one of the most vexing problems in the current crisis.

In any case, insider and outsider threats are endemic to nuclear weapons programs world-wide. The United States struggled for many years to develop a security system to adequately protect its nuclear weapons and weapons components, and is now engaged with Russia to improve the security of Russian nuclear materials. Moreover, security technologies and procedures need to be constantly improved in order to stay one step ahead of would-be thieves.

Emphasis on Physical Protection

Given the threats arrayed against Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, it is incumbent upon the government of Pakistan to assess the security of its nuclear arsenal and make improvements where necessary. Statements by the Pakistani Foreign Ministry that "our [nuclear] assets are 100 percent secure, under multiple custody" are untested and lack credibility.4

The United States can offer valuable assistance to Pakistan to make its nuclear weapons more secure. Reportedly, such assistance has already been discussed by U.S. and Pakistani officials.5

In offering assistance, the United States should focus on procedures and technologies that enhance the physical protection of Pakistan's nuclear weapons. In particular, the United States should emphasize that nuclear weapons be disassembled with their components stored in separate vaults or locations. Procedures for accessing these components should emphasize the need for several individuals from different parts of the government to access the different components and assemble the weapon. A fundamental principle should be that no one person can gain access to an assembled nuclear weapon, or all of the components for a complete nuclear weapon.

South Africa exercised this type of physical protection of its nuclear arsenal. For purposes of security, South African nuclear weapons were disassembled, with the components secured in separate vaults. Access codes from several senior officials, including the state president, were needed to gain access to all weapons components (for more on South Africa's procedures, see "South Africa's Nuclear Weapons Storage Vault").

Criteria for Providing Assistance to Pakistan

Preventing terrorist groups from gaining access to Pakistan's nuclear arsenal should be among the top priorities of the Bush administration during this phase of the war on terrorism. The criteria that the United States should consider include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Is the assistance consistent with U.S. obligations under the NPT? Under Article I of the NPT, each nuclear weapon state "undertakes…not in any way to assist, encourage, or induce any non-nuclear weapon state to manufacture, or acquire nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices, or control over such weapons or explosive devices." The administration needs to judge, both as a matter of policy and on a case-by-case basis, whether providing particular types of assistance to Pakistan constitutes a violation of this obligation or otherwise undermines the NPT. For example, assisting Pakistan to improve the security of its nuclear weapons storage facilities may be permissible. However, assistance that improves the safety and security of a nuclear warhead itself may also significantly improve Pakistan's ability to deploy a warhead on a ballistic missile, and may be banned under the NPT.

  • Will the assistance encourage nuclear testing by Pakistan? The type of assistance given to Pakistan should not motivate Pakistan to test a nuclear device to further improve its design or operational capabilities.

  • Does the assistance increase the chances for nuclear war in South Asia? The United States needs to take care that its assistance does not contribute to advances in Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. U.S. assistance should not permit the more rapid deployment of nuclear weapons, or make the weapons more reliable. The United States should also ensure that safety assistance does not allow Pakistan to store its warheads intact. The nuclear balance between India and Pakistan is not stable, and well-intentioned but short-sighted efforts to improve the safety and security of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal could end up increasing the risk of nuclear war between India and Pakistan.

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    ~~This and other ISIS Issue Briefs are meant to encourage discussion, and we welcome comments for future revisions. Please contact the authors at (202) 547-3633 or by email at~~

    [Additional information about Pakistan's nuclear weapons and fissile material capabilities]

    [To the ISIS Special Page on Nuclear Terrorism]

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    1"The First Casualty of the War on Terrorism Must not be Pakistan: Pakistan's Nuclear Weapons must not fall into Terrorists' Hands," ISIS Issue Brief, September 18, 2001. [back to the text]

    2David Albright, "India's and Pakistan's Fissile Material and Nuclear Weapons Inventories, End of 1999," October 11, 2000. [back to the text]

    3"Pakistan's Nuclear Dilemma," Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Non-Proliferation Project Roundtable, October 2, 2001, (transcript). [back to the text]

    4"Pakistani Nuclear Assets are Safe: Spokesman Says," Kyodo News Service, October 2, 2001. [back to the text]

    5Douglas Frantz, "U.S. and Pakistan Discuss Nuclear Security," New York Times, October 1, 2001. [back to the text]