Pakistan’s Nuclear Scenarios: The Risks with Bombing

As the Pakistani military launched a new offensive against the Taliban in the country’s North-West Frontier Province, officials and former officials in Washington continued to discuss what the American response should be to the heightened conflict. Michael O’Hanlon offered his views on the situation.

What could we do if Pakistan collapsed and the security of its roughly 100 nuclear weapons could no longer be vouched for? The answer, in most scenarios, is that we could only usefully do what the Pakistanis themselves (or whatever fraction of their government and military remained intact at the time) might ask us to do. Unilateral American action would probably be too little, too late.

Some might say, aren’t Pakistani nuclear weapons in easily identified sites that we could target with air power or special forces, and destroy, if necessary? Such an option might be worth considering if the alternative were to allow nuclear weapons to fall into the hands of extremists.

But the timing and the logistics would be challenging. We would not want to bomb sites that remained in government hands, even if Pakistani forces seemed to be gradually losing control of the situation. Yet if we waited even an hour or two after the sites were seized, the weapons could already have been removed.

The flight time for American bombers operating from the military base Diego Garcia might be too long, even if the aircraft had been predeployed and authorized to strike the sites. There is also the danger that our weapons would not penetrate the hardened facilities, mostly likely underground. (In theory, U.S. special forces could in theory penetrate almost any site if they could be deployed in adequate numbers to fend off insurgents, and fast enough to beat the insurgents to the bombs. But those assumptions might be dubious.)

Moreover, there could be weapons in sites we don’t know about, since the Pakistanis don’t trust us entirely and the locations of all their weapons are unlikely to be fully known. As American officials have noted, some weapons could be in transit at a given moment, especially if the Pakistanis came to believe that the security of their nuclear bunkers was in jeopardy.

On the other hand, if Pakistan and its leaders were willing to ask for help to create secure perimeters around nuclear sites, the United States could do a lot. Such a joint mission would also be a useful deterrent against possible Indian actions against such sites. I doubt things will get this bad, but if they do, let’s hope Islamabad has the good sense to request our collaboration on the ground.

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