A Nuclear Angle to the 2014 PNS Zulfiquar Attack?

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A Nuclear Angle to the 2014 PNS Zulfiquar Attack?

Was a nuclear weapon really on PNS Zulfiquar when al-Qaeda terrorists tried to seize control of the ship?

A Nuclear Angle to the 2014 PNS Zulfiquar Attack?
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Mak Hon Keong

A September 2014 attack by terrorists affiliated with Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) on a Pakistani frigate, PNS Zulfiquar, may have targeted a nuclear warhead on board the vessel. This disturbing detail is included in Steve Coll’s latest book, Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and sourced to an Indian intelligence report at the time. (Hat-tip to Vipin Narang for pointing out the excerpt from Coll.)

Coll writes that “six weeks after the attack [on PNS Zulfiquar], India’s principal external intelligence service, the Research and Analysis Wing, citing an agent reporting from Karachi, informed India’s national security adviser that a nuclear warhead had been on board the PNS Zulfiquar at the time of the attack.”

Coll notes that “if the Indian report was accurate,” the PNS Zulfiquar attack would be the “first known armed terrorist attack in history” that came close to seeing a hostile nonstate group gain control of a vulnerable warhead. At the time, Al Qaeda’s propaganda suggested that the attackers would have seized the Pakistani frigate and used it to attack U.S. Navy vessels in the Arabian Sea.

The implications are serious, and Coll’s cataloging of the Indian intelligence report is the first known public mention of a possible nuclear angle to the PNS Zulfiquar attack. (If you’re interested in the finer details on the Zulfiquar attack, Christopher Clary and I examine the Zulfiquar episode in quite a bit of detail in our 2017 Washington Quarterly article on Pakistan’s sea-based nuclear deterrent.)

Coll does acknowledge that the Indian intelligence report may have been misinformation: “It was possible that India put a false story out to stir up a global alarm about terrorism and nuclear security in Pakistan,” he writes.

Thinking back on the September 2014 incident, which I wrote about at the time in these pages, it’s difficult to conceive of a scenario where Pakistan’s Naval Strategic Forces Command would have seen it fit to place a single nuclear warhead on a frigate, given that the country does not even today acknowledge a ship-launched cruise or ballistic missile capable of delivering nuclear weapons.

One scenario—a lone warhead on a frigate with no suitable delivery vehicle—makes the least sense off the bat. Not only does this kind of warhead handling contradict everything publicly known about Pakistan’s management of its warheads in peacetime, but there was no particular crisis in September 2014 that would have motivated Naval Strategic Forces Command to stow one—or several—warheads on a frigate in port. (Such behavior would be plausible in a crisis, where Pakistan may be worried about Indian strikes against warhead storage facilities.)

The other scenarios that would explain the presence of a warhead both involve a delivery vehicle. First, the Harbah anti-ship and land-attack cruise missile, tested just earlier this year, might be the first missile to give the Pakistani Navy a ship-launched nuclear capability, but it didn’t exist in 2014. The Harbah is derived from the Babur series of cruise missiles, the ground- and submarine-launched variants of which are publicly acknowledged by Pakistan to possess a nuclear capability.

Not only had the Harbah not been fully developed or tested by 2014, the Zulfiquar-class frigate would not have been a suitable testbed. The missile has been designed for operation off Pakistan’s Azmat-class fast attack craft. But there is some reason to concede that a ship-launched nuclear-capable cruise missile may have been around in some form in 2014; Pakistan’s Maritime Technology Organization was supposedly working on such a missile at around the time of the incident. (This missile may well have been the Harbah.)

There is another possibility, but it’s even more of a stretch. Zulfiquar-class frigates in 2014 would have employed the Chinese C-802 anti-ship missile as one of their primary anti-ship armaments. This conventional-only system was indigenously modified by Pakistan last year into a land-based variant known as the Zarb.

The Pakistani Navy’s statement on the first test of the Zarb last year makes no mention of a nuclear capability, but given Pakistan’s claimed expertise in warhead miniaturization (seen in systems like the Nasr), it’s not inconceivable that the Zarb could be dual-capable.

But the Zarb isn’t a satisfactory answer to the 2014 question. Even if a ship-based version is likely to be fielded on the Zulfiquar-class in the future, there’s little evidence that the Zarb—or a prototype with a nuclear warhead—would have existed in 2014 and would have been on PNS Zulfiquar.

There are certainly valid nuclear security concerns in Pakistan—especially as it moves toward an undersea-based deterrent capability enabled by the Babur-3 submarine-launched cruise missile—but it’s simply not credible that PNS Zulfiquar would have hosted a nuclear warhead in September 2014.

Barring further evidence to support the Indian intelligence assessment that Coll cites, it appears highly unlikely that the Al Qaeda attackers—had they succeeded—would have gotten their hands on a nuclear warhead in September 2014.