A night or two ago, I was thinking about Pakistan’s nuclear weapons complex after I read THIS
A senior Al-Qaeda commander claimed that the terrorist group has hidden a nuclear bomb in Europe which will be detonated if Bin-Laden is ever caught or assassinated. The US authorities uncovered numerous attempts by Al-Qaeda to obtain nuclear materials and fear that terrorists have already bought uranium. Sheikh Mohammed told interrogators that Al-Qaeda would unleash a “nuclear hellstorm”.
Now, TERRORISTS [tm] getting the Bomb has been a pretty well-worn trope of scaremongers ever since 9/11, so I decided to think about how a terrorist group could credibly find itself in possession of a device.
There are two routes to obtaining a device:
- Build your own device.
- Steal one.
Both routes are equally hard and improbable.
For the ‘build your own device’ route; you first need to get the fissile, and that kind of stuff is tightly controlled. There’s also the fact that for a device that doesn’t need a lot of fissile (implosion), you need some very specialized parts that have no other possible civilian use.
Stealing one…that’s easier said than done.
In both cases, any significant success, whether you steal 10 kg of Pu239 or a tactical nuclear device from a storage depot, you will get a significant amount of attention from the authorities and your remaining life is likely to be brief and exciting.
But what if the authorities were in on it with you?
I thought about that and as usual, my gaze fell onto Pakistan.
- We know that Pakistani strategic goals have in the past centred around the creation of terrorist groups to attack India.
- We know that A.Q. Khan used Pakistani military aircraft “on his own time”, or so the Pakistanis claim, to “personally” deliver centrifuge parts and plans to North Korea.
- We know that Pakistan has successfully tested a series of nuclear devices of varying configurations back in ’98 — Chagai-I and -II.
- We know that the North Koreans somehow made a gun type device fizzle not once but twice.
So onto my proposition:
What if the Norks actually have working bombs?
What if their bombs are actually exact replicas of the designs used in Pakistan’s Chagai-I and -II tests via the A.Q. Khan ring?
What if the Nork 2006 and 2009 tests were instead a covert North Korean/Pakistani joint program to develop a plutonium gun device?
Looking around, my admittedly crude understanding of nuclear devices is that the reason why we haven’t seen Pu239 Gun devices is due to the length of the gun barrel required in order to slam the two chunks together fast enough to avoid a fizzle.
The extreme barrel length required is one reason why the THIN MAN bomb was quickly abandoned by the MED; as a Pu239 device on it’s principles would be far too long to fit into a B-29’s bomb bay.
But what if your device isn’t intended to be delivered by a tactical aircraft/missile?
What if your concept is to develop a simple plutonium gun device that can have large amounts of components fabricated “in country” near the target?
Plutonium is much more ideal in every way as bomb material — because even in the worst case, you only need about 12~ kg of it, as opposed to 60~ kg of HEU.
The significantly reduced amount of fissile required also makes it much easier to obfuscate your own fissile inventories. For example, you could easily write off a small amount of plutonium each month as “processing losses” and slowly build up a “black” inventory over several years.
Plutonium also is significantly easier to acquire. You only need to chemically reprocess spent nuclear fuel rods from nuclear power plants to get the plutonium, as opposed to building very large U235 enrichment factories, which AFAIK Pakistan does not have.
If you’re following my chain of thought and haven’t gone “This guy is a total loon.”, it raises the following question:
“What happens when North Korea manages to make the Plutonium Gun Device Work, proving the concept?”
They’ve had tests at three year intervals, so we’re due for another Norkish test sometime in 2012ish.
It also fits in with the long standing Pakistani use of terrorist groups as a strategic weapon against India, and has the following points going for it:
- While the US has a fairly extensive detection network of radiological detectors around our major entry points and at random transport infrastructure points; India as far as I know, does not. This makes it easier to smuggle in the fissile material into India and get it near the ultimate target.
- If the device is assembled near the target with the majority of components fabricated nearby; then it means that after a nuke is popped in India; Pakistan can produce a detailed inventory of their nuclear devices and account for each one in excruciating detail, throwing enough FUD on the matter.
- India may not have the necessary technical assets to determine the composition of the radioactive by-products in the fallout.
- Pakistan’s leadership may discount the efficiacy of radioactive ‘fingerprinting’ or plan to obfuscate it.
Obfuscation could be accomplished by blending your home-grown plutonium with some from North Korea. You could even try looking through your fissile cupboard for some of the fissile material that you received from foreign companies to assist your civilian nuclear program such as BNFL (British Nuclear Fuels plc).
This way, when the USAF’s WC-135Ws fly over the radioactive cloud, there’s no big blaring sign pointing that says PAKISTANI PLUTONIUM, but smaller signs that say PAKISTANI, NORTH KOREAN, and BRITISH (!!!) PLUTONIUM.
As I see it, this would result in the following items:
1.) The Radiological/Radiochemisty boys are pretty bright and I have no doubt they’ll eventually figure out the exact proportions of fissile contributors for the device. It just will take a bit longer than it would from a single source — and delays are important — the longer you delay a response, the less likely a response will happen.
2.) You spread the ‘responsibility’ (so to speak) over multiple nations. While India or the United States would be willing to do a complete retaliatory strike on Pakistan in response for a “terrorist” bomb using Pakistani Fissile; do you also take out North Korea if you find Nork fissile in the bomb too? Like result #1, this is also aimed at reducing the likelihood of a response.
The Pakistanis might be thinking that they can obfuscate the issue enough to escape the worst repercussions.
One possible avenue would be to try and tie it up in the United Nations by trying to invoke the provisions against Genocide, because if there was a US or Indian nuclear response, the Pakistani population would effectively be destroyed.
Another avenue would be to argue that a “small minority” did it. Of course, this “minority” would quickly be rounded up and executed publically to try and defuse international anger.
From an ISI point of view, expending 5,000 or so useful assets (anti-Indian terrorists) in favor for killing tens of thousands of Indians and crippling a major Indian port would be a pretty good tradeoff.
Finally, the big question:
Why would Pakistan do something like this?
Pakistan has openly had nuclear devices since 1998.
They’ve more than had enough time to absorb the strategic implications of such possession (See Stuart Slade’s Essay The Nuclear Game (One))…
…yet they continue to outright fund and support major terrorist attacks on India with terrorist groups they own lock stock and barrel — the ISI helped formulate and provided operational support for the Bombay Massacre.
(It is expected that the Tahawwur Hussain Rana trial in Chicago set to begin around 15 May will result in the ISI being explictly named as being Rana’s handler, providing the money and logistical support for Rana and Headley to help set up the attack via providing reconnaisance and other services for LeT.)
Pakistan simply hasn’t learned, or refuses to learn how you play the Nuclear Game.
The world is willing to paper over a couple dead people, or maybe a few dozen (Rote Armee Fraktion killings from a group backed by the KGB and STASI) in the name of international unity and to prevent a larger war, but they won’t paper over massacres such as Bombay indefinitely.
PS: A night ago in conversation with a friend, I drew parallels between the Bombay Massacre of 2008 and the Assassination of Franz Ferdinand in 1914. The parallels are pretty striking:
1.) Terrorist Group backed by Nationality B attacks Nationality A’s citizens, killing a lot of people and/or someone Very Important [tm].
2.) Nationality A demands to Nationality B that Terrorist Group be turned over to them.
3.) Nationality B goes “What terrorist group?”