By R. Jeffrey Smith and Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sometime next year, at a tightly guarded site south of its capital, Pakistan will be ready to start churning out a new stream of plutonium for its nuclear arsenal, which will eventually include warheads for ballistic missiles and cruise missiles capable of being launched from ships, submarines or aircraft.
About 1,000 miles to the southwest, engineers in India are designing cruise missiles to carry nuclear warheads, relying partly on Russian missile-design assistance. India is also trying to equip its Agni ballistic missiles with such warheads and to deploy them on submarines. Its rudimentary missile-defense capability is slated for a major upgrade next year.
The apparent detonation of a North Korean nuclear device on Monday has renewed concerns over that country’s efforts to build up its atomic arsenal. At the same time, U.S. and allied officials and experts who have tracked developments in South Asia have grown increasingly worried over the rapid growth of the region’s more mature nuclear programs, in part because of the risk that weapons could fall into the hands of terrorists.
India and Pakistan see their nuclear programs as vital points of leverage in an arms race that has begun to take on the pace and diversity, although not the size, of U.S.-Soviet nuclear competition during the Cold War, according to U.S. intelligence and proliferation experts. Pakistani authorities said they are modernizing their facilities, not expanding their program; Indian officials in New Delhi and Washington declined to comment.
“They are both going great guns [on] new systems, new materials; they are doing everything you would imagine,” said a former intelligence official who has long studied the region and who spoke on the condition of anonymity. While both India and Pakistan say their actions are defensive, the consequence of their efforts has been to boost the quantity of materials being produced and the number of times they must be moved around, as well as the training of experts in highly sensitive skills, this source and others say.
“More vulnerabilities. More stuff in production. More stuff in transit,” when it is more vulnerable to theft, said Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, formerly the CIA’s top official on weapons of mass destruction and the Energy Department’s director of intelligence during the George W. Bush administration. U.S. experts also worry that as the size of the programs grows, chances increase that a rogue scientist or military officer will attempt to sell nuclear parts or know-how, as now-disgraced Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan did in the 1980s and 1990s.
Former Indian government officials say efforts are underway to improve and test a powerful thermonuclear warhead, even as the country adds to a growing array of aircraft, missiles and submarines that launch them. “Delivery system-wise, India is doing fine,” said Bharat Karnad, a former member of India’s National Security Advisory Board and a professor of national security studies at New Delhi’s Center for Policy Research. India and Pakistan tested nuclear devices in 1998; India first detonated an atomic bomb in 1974.
A senior Pakistani official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said his government has refrained from testing missiles that could carry nuclear weapons because officials do not want to antagonize the Indian and U.S. governments.
‘A More Global Approach’
U.S. officials say narrow appeals to the two countries to slow their weapons work will probably fail. “We have to think of dealing with the South Asian problem not on a purely regional basis, but in the context of a more global approach,” Gary Samore, the senior White House nonproliferation adviser, said after a speech to the Arms Control Association last week.
Samore said the “Pakistani government has always said they will do that in conjunction with India. The Indians have always said, ‘We can’t take steps unless similar steps are taken by China and the other nuclear states,’ and very quickly you end up with a situation where it’s hard to make progress.”
Some experts worry, however, that the United States may not have the luxury of waiting to negotiate a treaty that would curtail the global production of fissile materials — a pact that President Obama says he hopes to complete during his first term.
A recent U.S. intelligence report, commissioned by outgoing Bush administration officials, warned of the dangers associated with potential attacks on nuclear weapons-related shipments inside Pakistan, for example.
Lt. Gen. Michael D. Maples, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told senators days before his retirement in March that “Pakistan continues to develop its nuclear infrastructure, expand nuclear weapons stockpiles, and seek more advanced warheads and delivery systems.” He added that although Pakistan has “taken important steps to safeguard its nuclear weapons . . . vulnerabilities still exist.”
Although Maples did not offer details of the expansion, other experts said he was referring to the expected completion next year of Pakistan’s second heavy-water reactor at its Khushab nuclear complex 100 miles southwest of Islamabad, which will produce new spent nuclear fuel containing plutonium for use in nuclear arms.
“When Khushab is done, they’ll be able to make a significant number of new bombs,” Mowatt-Larssen said. In contrast, “it took them roughly 10 years to double the number of nuclear weapons from roughly 50 to 100.” A third heavy-water reactor is also under construction at Khushab, according to David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security.
Before it can be used in weaponry, the plutonium must first be separated from the fuel rods at a highly guarded nuclear facility near Rawalpindi, about 100 miles northeast of Khushab. Satellite images published by Albright’s institute show a substantial expansion occurred at the complex between 2002 and 2006, reflecting a long-standing Pakistani desire to replace weapons fueled by enriched uranium with plutonium-based weapons.
Pakistani officials dismiss suggestions that the building represents an acceleration in South Asia’s arms race. “If two are sufficient, why build 10?” asked Brig. Gen. Nazir Ahmed Butt, defense attache in Pakistan’s embassy in Washington. “We cannot match warhead for warhead. We’re not in a numbers game. People should not take a technological upgrade for an expansion.”
Details of precautions surrounding Pakistani nuclear shipments are closely held. Abdul Mannan, director of transport and waste safety for Pakistan’s nuclear regulatory authority, said in a 2007 presentation to the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington that Pakistani safeguards are “enough to deter and delay a terrorist attack, and any malicious diversion would be protected in early stages.” But Mannan also said the government needed to upgrade its security measures, and warned that “a country like Pakistan is not well equipped” to contain radioactive fallout from an attack on a nuclear shipment.
U.S. officials have said they accept Pakistan’s assurances that its nuclear stockpile is adequately safeguarded, but intelligence officials have acknowledged contingency plans to dispatch American troops to protect or remove any weapons at imminent risk.
Proximity to Taliban
While Pakistan’s nuclear program has lately attracted the most worry, because of the close proximity to the capital of Taliban insurgents, many U.S. experts say that it should not be considered in isolation from India’s own nuclear expansion.
Some experts say that a civil nuclear cooperation agreement that Bush signed with India in October benefits the country’s weapons programs, because it sanctions India’s import of uranium and allows the military to draw on enriched uranium produced by eight reactors that might otherwise be needed for civil power. In a letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency last July, Pakistan’s ambassador in Vienna warned that the deal would increase “the chances of a nuclear arms race on the sub-continent.”
Ken Luongo, a former senior adviser on nonproliferation at the Energy Department who recently returned from meetings with Pakistani officials, said the deal exacerbated Pakistan’s fears of losing a technological race; others say that, at the least, it provided a rationalization to keep going.
Feroz Hassan Khan, a retired Pakistani general in charge of arms control, said Pakistan perceives a real risk of a preemptive strike by India. Because of Indian superiority in conventional forces, “Pakistan is compelled to rely more heavily on nuclear weapons to counter the threat,” Khan said. “It would be highly foolish not to produce more and better weapons.”
Correspondent Rama Lakshmi in New Delhi and staff writer Karen DeYoung and staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.