Nuclear Weapons in Civil War Zones

LOS ANGELES – The recent failed military coup in Turkey has produced instability, paranoia, and a crackdown on the regime’s perceived opponents, including many journalists. Luckily, it did not end with rebel forces seizing some of the dozens of US nuclear weapons stored at Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base, from which rebel aircraft departed. But what about next time?

The world’s nine nuclear powers claim that there is little to worry about. They argue that the combination of physical protection and, in most cases, electronic safeguards (permissive action links, or PALs) means that their arsenals would remain secure, even if countries where they are stored or deployed were engulfed by violence.

Robert Peurifoy, a former senior weapons engineer at Sandia National Laboratories, disagrees. He recently told the Los Angeles Times that such safeguards – earlier versions of which he helped to design – may only delay terrorists in using seized nuclear weapons. “Either you keep custody or you should expect a mushroom cloud.”

Peurifoy’s statements have rightly raised concerns about the security of nuclear weapons stockpiled in insecure regions. Consider Pakistan, which has the world’s fastest-growing nuclear arsenal and suffers relentless jihadi terrorism and separatist violence. Attacks have already been carried out on Pakistani military installations reportedly housing nuclear components. The country’s new mobile “battlefield nuclear weapons” – easier to purloin – augment current fears.