How Not to Handle Nuclear Security

Published on
by
Foreign Policy in Focus

How Not to Handle Nuclear Security

by
Zia Mian

The United States recently admitted that since the attacks of September 11, 2001, it has been helping Pakistan secure its nuclear weapons and the materials used to make them. Pakistan has welcomed this assistance. A former Pakistani general who was involved in the nuclear weapons complex has said that "We want to learn from the West's best practices."

But the U.S. track record for securing its own nuclear weapons, nuclear materials and weapons information isn't encouraging, to say the least. If the United States can't secure its own nuclear complex, why expect Pakistan to do it any better?

On November 11, The Washington Post reported that the United States sent "tens of millions of dollars worth of equipment such as intrusion detectors and ID systems to safeguard Pakistan's nuclear weapons." A week later, The New York Times, which had been sitting on the story for three years, revealed that the program was in fact much larger, "Over the past six years, the Bush administration has spent almost $100 million on a highly classified program to help Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's president, secure his country's nuclear weapons." The assistance ranged from "helicopters to night-vision goggles to nuclear detection equipment."

The U.S. military claims to be confident about the security of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. A Pentagon press spokesman said, "At this point, we have no concerns. We believe that they are under the appropriate control." The Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff declared "I don't see any indication right now that security of those weapons is in jeopardy."

Zero Locks A concern about nuclear weapons security in Pakistan is that Islamists in the military may seize control of the weapons and try to use them. Pakistan claims to have followed the U.S. example and installed coded combination-lock switches, known as Permissive Action Links, on its weapons.

Since the 1960s most U.S. nuclear weapons are supposed to have been protected against unauthorized use by coded combination-lock switches that could only be activated by someone who knew that proper sequence of characters. These switches were introduced in 1962 by Robert McNamara when he was Secretary of Defense to ensure control over the use of U.S. nuclear weapons.

According to Bruce Blair, a former missile launch control officer, Strategic Air Command, which was responsible for the nuclear-armed missiles and bombers, installed the switches but set the combinations of all the locks to a string of zeros. The codes for launching U.S. nuclear missiles apparently stayed set at OOOOOOOO until the late 1970s. The reason? Strategic Air Command did not want there to be any problems or delays in launching the nuclear missiles because of the need to put in a more complex set of numbers.

Robert McNamara apparently did not know that the locks he had ordered to be installed on nuclear weapons were largely worthless, and that the military with direct control of the weapons were evading official instructions for securing nuclear missiles. McNamara only learned of this from Bruce Blair in January 2004. McNamara was outraged. But, as Blair observed, this is but "one of a long litany of items pointing to the ignorance of presidents and defense secretaries and other nuclear security officials about the true state of nuclear affairs."

Wayward Nukes Problems with securing nuclear weapons are not a matter of Cold War history. In August this year, six U.S. nuclear-armed cruise missiles were inadvertently loaded onto a bomber at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota and flown across the country to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. The cruise missiles remained fitted to the bomber for 24 hours before it took off and for hours after it landed without anyone realizing that it was carrying nuclear warheads. It was "an unprecedented string of procedural failures," according to General Richard Newton, the assistant deputy chief of staff for operations for the U.S. Air Force.

As nuclear analyst Hans Kristensen has pointed out, the incident showed "the apparent break-down of nuclear command and control for the custody of the nuclear weapons." Put simply, the ground crews did not know, or bother to check, that they were loading nuclear weapons on a plane; the bomber's pilot and crew did not know or bother to check that they were carrying nuclear weapons; the respective base commanders did not know nuclear weapons were leaving or arriving; and, the national authorities responsible for nuclear weapons did not know where these nuclear weapons were or that they were being moved across the country. The weapons were to all intents and purposes lost for about 36 hours.

Gates, Guards, and Guns A key concern about nuclear security in Pakistan is the risk of radical Islamist militants making a bid for its nuclear weapons or its stock of the materials with which to make nuclear weapons. There is a growing armed insurgency in the areas bordering Afghanistan that has been spreading across Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province and into its major cities.

The United States, which has much less of a threat to worry about, has had plenty of problems trying to makes sure terrorists could not get their hands on the materials with which to make nuclear weapons. The U.S. Department of energy currently spends $1.3 billion a year on securing its facilities that contain significant amounts of nuclear weapons-useable materials through the use of fences, guards, cameras, intrusion sensors, and so on. But many of these facilities are not required or able to protect against a 19-strong group of attackers such as were involved in the 9/11 aircraft hijackings.

The failure to secure weapons materials at U.S. facilities has been exposed by exercises in which simulated attackers carried away material sufficient to make a weapon. Reports show that the security at the sites fails more than 50% of the time. The Project on Government Oversight, an independent watch dog group, has revealed for instance that during a mock attack on Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, a U.S. Special Forces team "was able to steal enough weapons-grade uranium for numerous nuclear weapons." In a subsequent security test at the same site, the "mock terrorists gained control of sensitive nuclear materials which, if detonated, would have endangered significant parts of New Mexico, Colorado and downwind areas."

Nuclear Know-How A particular worry about Pakistan is that scientists and engineers within its nuclear program may share weapons information with other countries or Islamist groups. The story of A.Q. Khan is all too familiar, as is that of several senior former Pakistani nuclear scientists who were found to have met with the Al-Qaeda leadership in Afghanistan.

In the United States, there is a long and troubling history of nuclear weapons information going missing from the nuclear weapons laboratories, and ending up in unexpected places. The first and most famous atomic spy was Klaus Fuchs, who passed on the secrets of the U.S. nuclear weapons project to the Soviet Union during World War II. Fuchs claimed he did it for ideological reasons.

More recently, the Project on Government Oversight has compiled a list of reports on the loss of classified information from the U.S. nuclear complex. They found 17 incidents in 2004 alone in which classified information from Los Alamos was sent using unclassified networks. This led the Department of Energy, which manages the U.S. nuclear weapons program, to shut down all operations involving removable hard drives, laptops, CDs and DVDs, flash drives and such like, across the entire complex.

In one dramatic case, missing computer disks containing nuclear weapons information were lost and mysteriously found several weeks later behind a copy machine. In another case, classified information about nuclear weapons designs was found during a raid on a drug den. In January 2007, there was an incident in which a highly classified email message about nuclear weapons was sent unsecured by a senior Pentagon nuclear adviser and then forwarded by others. It has been described as "the most serious breach of U.S. national security."

Nuclear People History suggests that the most enduring problem for the security of nuclear weapons, materials and information, is the people who work in and manage the nuclear weapons complex. The United States has a nuclear weapons personnel reliability program which screens people who are allowed to work with nuclear weapons. Pakistan says it has adopted a similar program.

An independent study of the U.S. nuclear personnel reliability program found that between 1975 and 1990, the United States disqualified annually between 3% and 5% of the military personnel it had previously cleared for working with nuclear weapons. These people were removed on the grounds of drug or alcohol problems, conviction for a serious crime, negligence, unreliability or aberrant behavior, poor attitude, and behavior suggesting problems with law and authority.

Problems like this continue. In October 2006, a Los Alamos lab worker with the "highest possible security clearance" was arrested in a cocaine drug bust. One year later, the commander of a U.S. nuclear submarine was removed from his duties after it was discovered that the ship's crew failed to do daily safety checks on its nuclear reactor for a month and then falsified the daily records to cover up the lapse.

False Security After 60 years of living with the bomb, the United States has failed to get its own nuclear house in order. It continues to suffer serious problems with securing its own nuclear weapons, nuclear materials and weapons related information. Showing no sign of having learned from its own mistakes, the United States may only end up encouraging a false sense of security and confidence about nuclear weapons security in Pakistan.

The only sure way to secure nuclear weapons and materials is not to have them. The only way to be sure that nuclear weapons scientists do not pass information is to forbid scientists from working on such weapons. Anything short of that is taking a risk and being willing to pay the price for living in a nuclear-armed world.

Zia Mian, a Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org) columnist, directs the Project on Peace and Security in South Asia at the Program on Science and Global Security, at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School for Public and International Affairs.

Copyright © 2007, Institute for Policy Studies

Share This Article

More in: