Pak shifting nukes in security vans: Reports

Washington: Fearful of a surprise US raid, Pakistan is shuffling its nuclear arsenal frequently in low security vans on congested roads, making them more vulnerable to snatch by Islamic terror groups. Nuclear bombs capable of destroying entire cities are being transported in delivery vans on congested and often unmarked roads to hide them from the US, the country that funds much of Pakistan`s military budget, two US magazines reported.

The Atlantic and the National Journal, in a joint report said that Pakistan`s Strategic Plants division (SPD), which is charged with safeguarding Pakistani nukes has been ordered to shuffle the arsenal often to keep the location of nuclear weapons and components hidden from US and India. Quoting American and Pakistani sources, the journals said the US raid on Abbottabad to kill al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden had provoked anxiety among the Pakistani army hierarchy about their weapons leading to increasing the pace of movements of the arsenal.

The journals said that before the American raid Pakistanis were moving the nuclear weapon components by helicopter and in armoured well defended convoys, but now the SPD was indulging in subterfuge, by moving the war heads in civilian vehicles. US intelligence officials said that Pakistanis were not only using low security methods not only to transfer merely "de-mated" components, but also "mated" nuclear weapons, raising widespread concerns in the west.

The western nuclear experts, the journal said are more worrisome as Pakistan is now building small tactical nuclear weapons for quick deployment. "In fact not only is Pakistan building these devices, but it is also now moving them over roads" the journal said, adding that the pace of dispersal movements has increased. The magazines said there is evidence to suggest that neither the Pakistan army, nor the SPD itself considers `jihadism` the most immediate threat to the security of its nuclear weapons: indeed, Gen Ashfaq Pervez Kayani`s worry as expressed to the SPD chief Gen Kidwai after Abbottabad, was focused on the US.

Quoting sources in Pakistan, the journals said Kayani believes that the US has designs on Pakistani nuclear programme, and that Abbottabad raid suggested that the Americans have developed the technical means to stage simultaneous raids on Pakistan`s nuclear facilities. Kidwai assured Kayani that the counterintelligence branch of the SPD remained focused on rooting out American and Indian spies from the Pakistani nuclear-weapons complex, and on foiling other American espionage methods.

The Pakistani air force drills its pilots in ways of intercepting American spy planes; the Pakistani military assumes (correctly) that the US devotes many resources to aerial and satellite surveillance of its nuclear sites. In their post-Abbottabad discussion, General Kayani wanted to know what additional steps General Kidwai was taking to protect his nation`s nuclear weapons from the threat of an American raid. Kidwai made the same assurances he has made many times to Pakistan`s leaders: Pakistan`s programme was sufficiently hardened, and dispersed, so that the US would have to mount a sizable invasion of the country in order to neutralise its weapons; a raid on the scale of the Abbottabad incursion would simply not suffice.

US and western intelligence agencies are now very fearful of terror groups in Pakistan being able to lay their hands on nuclear weapons which would compound threats to the free world. Western intelligence experts say that any theft of a nuclear weapon could lead to a nuclear 9/11 type attack on Mumbai or New York, as also transfer of a nuclear weapons to a state like Iran.