Pakistan Has Reasons to be Confident in its Nuclear Weapons' Security

In the contemporary era, narratives are built for propaganda purposes, without any substantial grounds, to project political preferences. The so-called weak security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons is one such narrative promoted for ulterior reasons. Although Pakistan has been responding well to it, certain players, including even academics, keep peddling it from time to time.

Lately, a lot has been written and said about Pakistan being strategically isolated from the international community after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021. Pakistan’s imagined role in the Afghan war is blamed for its isolation. It is also being said that Pakistan’s strategic irrelevance makes its nuclear capabilities vulnerable to falling into the hands of extremists. Such a narrative is extremely flawed. Whether anybody likes it or not, Pakistan remains strategically relevant. Moreover, its nuclear capabilities and security have little to do with the US withdrawal from Afghanistan or the course of its relations with the US. Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities are the safest and most secure in the world, with zero incidents of any theft or missing nuclear materials like its eastern neighbour, India, where such incidents are often reported. Looking at the security measures and practices of Pakistan to protect its nuclear installations, one can see a remarkable security regime in place, from regulations to institutions and systems. The robust security regime is enough reason for Pakistan to be confident in the security of its nuclear weapons.

Domestic Security Measures

The security of nuclear weapons remains Pakistan’s national responsibility, and it takes this responsibility seriously. It has adopted the best available measures to enhance its security domestically and with international cooperation. Domestically, Pakistan’s Strategic Export Control Act 2004 enables the government to control the export, re-export, trans-shipment, and transit of goods, technologies, materials, and equipment that may contribute to the designing, development, production, stockpiling maintenance, or use of nuclear and biological weapons and their delivery systems. Pakistan has also established a specially trained, highly skilled, and well-equipped force specifically for the physical security of its nuclear installations. As part of its national detection architecture, Pakistan has deployed radiation detection equipment at various entry and exit points to deter, detect and prevent illicit trafficking of nuclear and radioactive materials.

Pakistan’s nuclear security is most improved according to the NTI Nuclear Security Index 2020, with a score of 47.

Pakistan has successfully implemented International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)-Pakistan nuclear security cooperation program. Several projects have been successfully implemented for capacity enhancement in nuclear security. For capacity building, Pakistan’s Centre of Excellence on Nuclear Security (PCENS) was established with US support through IAEA. The National Institute of Safety and Security (NISAS) and the Pakistan Institute of Engineering and Applied Sciences (PIEAS) are also important contributors to capacity building and human resource development.

Multilateral Engagements

Pakistan has been part of multilateral engagements to share its nuclear safety and security experiences with other countries and also learn from their experiences. Pakistan’s international cooperation includes its obligations to international conventions, IAEA nuclear security cooperation, and collaboration with regulatory bodies of other countries, including those of the US and China.

Pakistan has submitted six reports to the UNSCR 1540 Committee elaborating on measures taken by it for nuclear security and on controls over the transfer of sensitive materials and technologies. The country has also been working with the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT) in different areas, including the development of GICNT guidelines. Pakistan is also a party to several legal instruments related to Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) non-proliferation, disarmament, and nuclear safety and security, including the amended Convention on Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM). It is also working to accede to the International Convention on Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism (ICSANT) in the future. The country has taken extensive measures to strengthen nuclear safety and security, consistent with IAEA safety standards and other guidance documents. Islamabad strictly follows the IAEA Code of Conduct on the Safety and Security of Radioactive Sources and its two Supplementary Guidance documents.

Pak-US Cooperation on Nuclear Security

Although there has been a dip in Pak-US relations lately, it does not mean that the US has abandoned Pakistan for its strategic partner India, whose closeness to Russia continues to annoy the US. The US continues to engage with Pakistan. However, the absence of high-level Pak-US engagement does not mean that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is not secure or that the US will stop cooperating with Pakistan regarding issues of vital significance, like nuclear security. Pakistan and the US have been engaged in nuclear security for almost two decades now.

President Biden’s remarks recently at an event calling Pakistan “may be one of the most dangerous” countries in the world having “nuclear weapons without any cohesion” provoked a strong reaction in Pakistan. President’s remarks can be best described as ill-advised. Considering the sensitivities and the implications of the remarks, State Department’s Principal Deputy Spokesperson Vedant Patel reassured that “the United States is confident of Pakistan’s commitment and its ability to secure its nuclear assets.”

As regards their bilateral cooperation in nuclear security, Pakistan’s security personnel have received advanced-level training in American National Laboratories and applied it to improve the overall security practices in the country. The two countries also maintained bilateral consultations for more than a decade, which manifested in the transfer of equipment for the physical protection of nuclear installations and materials. However, Pakistan remained mindful of not receiving anything intrusive that could compromise the secrecy of its nuclear installations. They have also worked with each other in multiple formats, such as the IAEA Technical Working Group. Pakistan has participated in all four Nuclear Security Summits initiated by the Obama Administration from 2010 to 2016. It has also adhered to the decisions made in these meetings on safety and security.

Pak-US ties have seen some warmth lately with the approval by the US State Department for the potential sale of F-16 fighter jet sustainment and related equipment to Pakistan in a deal valued at approximately $450M. The bilateral relations have gained some momentum lately, which is also evident from increased visits by Pakistani officials to the US. An overall improvement in bilateral ties should also dispel the impression, if there was any, about the lack of cooperation on nuclear security issues.

Globally-Recognised Standards of Pakistan’s Safety and Security

The domestic security measures and international engagements of Pakistan reinforce that the country is strongly committed to the objective of overall nuclear security. Pakistan’s nuclear security regime has been ranked high and praised globally by international organisations and governments. The US has publicly endorsed nuclear security measures taken by Pakistan on several occasions. Even after the 9/11 incident, the US was confident regarding the nuclear security of Pakistan. The then US Secretary of State Colin Powell, and the US ambassador to Pakistan, Wendy Chamberlin, had publicly stated that there was no chance of Pakistan losing control of its nuclear weapons. Pakistan’s nuclear weapons security has only improved since then. Pakistan’s nuclear security is most improved according to the NTI Nuclear Security Index 2020, with a score of 47. Pakistan has improved its score by “adopting new on-site physical protection and cybersecurity regulations, improving insider threat protection measures, and more.”

With a record of zero nuclear theft incidents and a foolproof security system in place, the repeated concerns expressed about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear installations by leaders, segments of academia, and policy institutes are uncalled for. They may instead focus on the real issues faced by humanity at large.

Samran Ali

Samran Ali is a Research Officer at the Center for International Strategic Studies, Islamabad. He focuses on nuclear proliferation, deterrence, and emerging technologies. He tweets at @samranali6.

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