Attack on Pakistani base renews nuclear qualms

A Pakistani navy helicopter flies over a major naval air base following an attack by militants in Karachi on May 23, 2011. Taliban gunmen armed with rockets and explosives stormed a major naval air base in the heart of Pakistan's biggest city, destroying two US-made surveillance aircraft and killing 12 personnel. It was the worst assault on a military base since the army headquarters was besieged in October 2009, piling further embarrassment on the armed forces three weeks after US troops killed Osama bin Laden under their noses.
A Pakistani navy helicopter flies over a major naval air base following an attack by militants in Karachi on May 23, 2011. Taliban gunmen armed with rockets and explosives stormed a major naval air base in the heart of Pakistan's biggest city, destroying two US-made surveillance aircraft and killing 12 personnel. It was the worst assault on a military base since the army headquarters was besieged in October 2009, piling further embarrassment on the armed forces three weeks after US troops killed Osama bin Laden under their noses. Asif Hassan/AFP/Getty Image

Amid a wave of retaliatory attacks in the wake of Osama bin Laden's death, militants with the Pakistani Taliban stormed a naval base earlier this week. The sophistication of the attack has analysts worried about Pakistan's ability to keep its nuclear arsenal secure.

One of the most brazen of the recent attacks happened last weekend, when armed militants scaled the wall of the heavily guarded Mehran navy base near the southern city of Karachi. They fought off Pakistan's military, including commandos, for 17 hours.

Sharad Joshi, a specialist in nuclear and terorrism issues at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, says the militants appeared to penetrate the base with help from the inside.

"It's entirely possible that there was some internal collusion," Joshi says, "because the way that the militants got into the facility, the way they were able to avoid cameras, that does suggest a high possibility of internal involvement."

Weapons Control

The navy base is just 15 miles away from a suspected nuclear weapons storage site. The sophistication of the attack has renewed concerns about the vulnerability of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. Pakistan has anywhere from 70 to 100 nuclear weapons, and the number is increasing, says Paul Kerr, a nonproliferation analyst at the Congressional Research Service. Kerr says the assessment from the U.S. intelligence community is that the weapons are secure.

"That said, there are always concerns that the political situation in Pakistan could change such that the government would lose control of their weapons," Kerr says.

Olli Heinonen, a senior fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, spent 27 years in charge of nuclear verification at the International Atomic Energy Agency. Heinonen says his greatest fear is not an attack on a nuclear facility. Instead, it's a disgruntled scientist or other worker who slowly but steadily removes dangerous material, which could be used to make a so-called dirty bomb, or another weapon.

"Because these facilities which produced this nuclear material, fissile material, they are fairly large. It's very difficult to control every second where the material is," Heinonen says. "So to divert in small quantities slowly will be very difficult to detect."

That concern was also voiced by Anne Patterson, the former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, according to a 2009 diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks.

Secret Nature Of Nuclear Programs

Analysts say Pakistan has improved its nuclear safety over the past few years. It increased security at the sites and introduced new methods to check personnel. The U.S. has provided guidance and technical suggestions to better monitor facilities and workers, but it's not clear whether Pakistan uses that expertise, says Kerr, with the Congressional Research Service. He says Pakistan doesn't disclose information about its nuclear weapons and how it protects them.

"We don't know everything that they've told the United States and what they haven't told the United States, but U.S. officials say that our knowledge is limited," Kerr says. "And the Pakistanis, I think in particular, are concerned that information about their nuclear weapons could result in an attack from another country, the United States perhaps, perhaps India, on those facilities."

Heinonen, with the Belfer Center, says all nuclear weapons states keep certain aspects of their program secret. But he says concerns about the safety of Pakistan's nuclear stocks cause many people in Washington and elsewhere to lose sleep, especially with this latest wave of attacks.

"This is by far the highest threat at this point in time to the international community. And in particular if you're looking [at] unauthorized use of nuclear material and terrorism, this is the highest risk," Heinonen says.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio.

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