An Aug. 16 attack on a Pakistani military base by militants has raised concerns about the security of the country’s nuclear weapons, although Pakistani officials denied that nuclear weapons are stored at the base.
Located northwest of Islamabad in Kamra, the Minhas air base includes facilities for manufacturing various weapons systems, including the assembly plant for the Mirage and JF-17 fighter jets. According to U.S. experts, the Mirage may be nuclear capable, and nuclear weapons might be stored at the facility.
A spokesperson for Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry said Aug. 16 that the country’s “strategic assets are safe” and that “all measures” are in place to ensure the “safety and security of our nuclear assets.” U.S. Defense Department Spokesman George Little said during a press conference the same day that there was no indication that the attack had “endangered the Pakistani nuclear stockpile.”
The Pakistani Taliban claimed to have been behind the attack, which lasted approximately two hours and resulted in the deaths of nine militants and one base official. According to base officials, the aircraft storage hangars were the primary target of the attack, and one aircraft was damaged by the militants. This is the fourth attack on the Minhas base since 2007. During the prior three attempts, however, the militants did not enter the facility.
A former brigadier general in the Pakistani army told The Washington Post on Aug. 16 that nuclear weapons are not being kept in the “known places, such as the air or naval bases.” Known nuclear facilities, however, are located near the Minhas base, including a uranium-enrichment plant and plutonium-production reactors.
In an Aug. 16 press briefing, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that, “at this moment,” the U.S. government does not have “any information” that would “contradict” Pakistan’s statement saying that there are no nuclear weapons or materials at the base and that there was no reason for concern over the security of the arsenal.
The attack came two days after Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons could “fall into the wrong hands” if “terrorism is not controlled.” He described this threat as the “great danger we’ve always feared.”
Over the past several years, the United States has provided Islamabad with assistance in securing its nuclear arsenal. In April 2009, as the Taliban expanded its presence in western regions of the country, Pakistani government officials shared information on their nuclear program with the United States and other Western countries to allay concerns about the security of the nuclear arsenal. Pakistan is believed to possess approximately 90 to 110 nuclear warheads, deliverable by missiles and nuclear-capable aircraft.
The Minhas base attack is the third on a major Pakistani military base in the past three years.
In May 2011, Taliban militants attacked Mehran naval base near Karachi and destroyed two U.S. surveillance aircraft. They remained inside the base for approximately 18 hours. In 2009 a Pakistani army facility was attacked and hostages were held in a compound at the facility’s headquarters for 22 hours before a military raid ended the crisis.