Some very interesting pieces of information on Pakistan's nuclear programme have come to light after India's air strikes at Balakot last month. According to satellite images obtained by some news outlets, India's air strikes could have precipitated a big accident at Pakistan's nuclear weapon armoury and missile launch centres. Ordinarily, such events are kept top secret and the only way to have any credible information on them is satellite imagery. 

But there is no gainsaying that the terrorism sponsored by Pakistan is a cause of grave concern for its neighbours, and its atomic programme is a threat to the entire world, particularly because of the doubt over the Pakistan government's control over the country's nuclear arsenal. During the US presidential elections, Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton had expressed fear that Pakistan's nuclear weapons could well pass on to the jihadis, which would have a catastrophic effect. 

The New York Times had cited a 50-minute audio clip from a hacked computer of the Democrats. In that audio, the former US secretary of state is believed to have indicated that Pakistan has been accumulating tactical atomic weapons at a fast pace in view of its tensions with India. She feared that Pakistan could see a regime change with jihadis taking over the control of the government and the world may have to end up fighting fidayeens (suicide bombers) armed with nuclear weapons.

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This is indeed a real threat. The US is afraid that Pakistan's nuclear weapons may fall in the hands of terrorists. This was a major point of debate during the US presidential polls. Republican candidate Donald Trump echoed Clinton's fears too. He said that if Pakistan becomes unstable, the US should move to snatch Pakistan's nuclear weapons from it. Trump said that India should also be made a part of this plan. Apart from Clinton and Trump, many other US leaders have expressed discomfort with Pakistan's atomic programme.

What's even more concerning is that Pakistan had threatened to use its nukes on several occasions. But more than its possible 'first use', the weapons falling in the hands of terrorists will be giving world leaders sleepless nights. The problem is that Pakistan had ended up with a stock of deadly nuclear weapons but have no arrangement in place to secure them and prevent their reckless use. That is the reason Pakistan is said to be sitting on a nuclear time bomb that can go off anytime, pushing the whole world towards a nuclear apocalypse. 

Pakistan is not just a nuclear power, it has a sophisticated fighter jet like the US-origin F-16 and a missile like Hatf-5. With the help of these carriers, Pakistan can drop a nuclear bomb as far as 2,500 km away. Given the sway of terrorists in Pakistan, it is being debated whether the US should take control over Pakistan's nuclear armoury so that in case of an emergency, the nukes don't pass into wrong hands. The US has never confirmed this plan, which has been termed as 'Snatch and Grab', but has never denied it either. 

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The world is anxious because one the one hand, Pakistan's nuclear weapons are getting increasingly unsecured, and on the other, the stock is rising. The Pakistani foreign secretary said in the US that the country has developed small atomic arms to deal with India's 'Cold Start' doctrine and a possible attack. Only a day after that comment, it was published in the nuclear notebook of the 'Bulletin of Atomic Scientists' that Pakistan has 110-130 nuclear weapons. It had 90-110 nuclear weapons in 2011. 

Alarmingly, the report said that at this rate, Pakistan will become the fifth biggest nuclear power by 2025. The nuclear notebook is the biggest source of information for Pakistan's nuclear weapons programme. At the moment Pakistan is only behind the US, Russia, France, the UK and China in terms of the number of nuclear weapons, but it has more such weapons than India. 

In recent times, terrorist organisations have targeted Pakistani army bases that are said to house nuclear weapons. In August 2012, Tehrik-e-Taliban terrorists hit the Minhas airbase in Pakistan's Punjab province and destroyed a Saab 2000 Erieye plane and damaged one or two others. The Minhas airbase is considered to be Pakistan's premier nuclear base, where nukes are stored.

In May 2011, the naval airbase PNS Mehran in Karachi was attacked. The airbase is located just 15 km away from a nuclear weapon storehouse. In October 2009, the army headquarters in Rawalpindi also came under terrorist fire. In September 2015, a Pakistan Air Force (PAF) base in Peshawar was attacked too. An army captain was among 20 people killed. 

The US special forces hunting down 9/11 attack mastermind and the face of global terror, Osama bin Laden, in 2011 in garrison town Abbottabad, deep inside Pakistan, showed how far the US is willing to go to safeguard its interest. Hence, it can't be denied that it is chalking out a covert plan to snatch Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.    

In 2009 and 2011, an outline of this US plan somewhat came to light when it was revealed in US media that a special group was working on the modalities for taking control over Pakistan's nuclear stocks for a long time. The plan involves launching a swift and sharp military operation to an about a dozen nuclear bases in Pakistan and making the weapons inactive or taking control of the nuclear triggers. 

Many Pakistan experts feel that terrorists have become so powerful along Pakistan's north-west frontier, in Balochistan and the FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) that the Pakistan government has lost control. Islamic fundamentalists and militants have gotten entrenched here and they have the backing of some sections of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the Pakistani army. 

Intervening in Pakistan is not without grave risk for the US and other Western powers. To stabilise a floundering government in a country as big as Pakistan and eliminating terrorists would require 10 lakh soldiers to be engaged for a long period of time. However, it is also true that nuclear-armed Pakistan can't be left at the mercy of jihadis. 

The US media has talked about the 'Search and Grab' programme, though it often seems that the American media has a bit too much faith in its government. 

The US had eliminated the main conspirator of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center towers and Pentagon on September 11, 2001. The US had also gone after Ayman al-Zawahiri, who took over the reins of Al Qaeda after bin Laden's killing, but was unsuccessful in eliminating him. An operation to snatch nuclear weapons will require a coordinated attack on all those places where Pakistan has stored hundreds of its nuclear warheads.

US author Jeffrey T Richelson, who studied the process of intelligence gathering and national security, wrote in his book Defusing Armageddon: Inside NEST, America's Secret Nuclear Bomb Squad that the US possesses a nuclear emergency search team that can undertake joint operations. 

In such an operation, two strategies can be adopted. One of them involves destroying the weapons and the other involves taking them over. To destroy a nuclear weapon, all one needs to do is to make the nuclear trigger or chips inactive. To snatch them is the other alternative.

It would now be interesting to see what kind and how much of a role the US expects India to play in this plan. Since the past 71 years, India has borne the most direct brunt of the phases of instability in Pakistan, but largely have had to be a mute spectator. But this is the era of Narendra Modi. India can play a bigger role. 

(Satish Pednekar is a seasoned columnist. He is a specialist in subjects like South Asian affairs, terrorism and religious fundamentalism)

(Translated by Debdutta Bhattacharjee)

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and doesn't reflect that of MyNation