Sunday, November 6, 2011

Thoughts on the Atlantic/National Journal piece on Pakistan

Two days ago, I read this superbly-reported article on US-Pakistan relations and the security of Islamabad's nuclear weapons. That the military/ISI has been playing a double game is not unknown. So I will focus on two points that stood out most.

1. Pakistan moves its nuclear weapons around in "vans with a modest security profile".
2. Some of these weapons are tactical devices that are already "mated" to the warhead. They're ready to use and so, an attractive bounty for terrorists.

I am hugely alarmed by the casual attitude of Pakistani authorities displayed by Point One. Vans are easy to break into or steal. That there's low security doesn't inspire any confidence. Not too long the Telegraph reported on the inevitable infiltration of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program by jihadis. Put these two facts together and we're on the slippery slope towards a jihadi group getting nuclearised.

Of course, tactical nuclear weapons have in-built security measures. You'd need a high degree of skill to detonate them. The easier option is to turn the weapon into a dirty bomb. Basically, a regular bomb that's packed with radioactive material.

Fortunately, these are not as bad as they sound. There are no mushroom clouds that wreck havoc across miles. A dirty bomb is designed to spread radioactive material, much like an IED would spread shrapnel. This poses some health hazards that can be mitigated with quick treatment and decontamination.

The problem is the general public does not know this. Terrorists exploit this ignorance to spread mass panic. While a dirty bomb may at worst contaminate a few city blocks, the psychological effect of being hit by a radioactive weapon will spread panic nationwide. Chaos is inevitable.

So, how India can prepare
1. Dirty bombs are not hard to transport. Trying to stop one at the border may be impossible. So there's the standard practise of keeping our intelligence agencies' eyes and ears open. 

2. Terrorists will almost surely use dirty bombs in a crowded, metropolitan area for maximum effect. A quick response is essential. Planners should identify likely targets, and equip them with radiation sniffing devices. If we're very lucky, these will alert authorities to the presence of a radioactive device before it goes off. More than likely, it will at best help speed up the appropriate response teams for decontamination and treatment.

3. Border and maritime security should be tightened. Surveillance planes, ships, ports, etc should be equipped with radiation sniffing devices.

4. Security personnel, particularly the police, should be equipped and trained to deal with a dirty bomb.

5. The media should be educated on the true nature of dirty bombs so they don't complicate matters with talk of a "nuclear attack". Language & tone is critical in managing crowds. The media should choose its words carefully.

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