A cryptic message on December 18, 2013 announced a change of guard in the Strategic Plans Division (SPD), which marked the end of a long and distinguished career of its director general (DG) Lt Gen Khalid Ahmed Kidwai, whose name had become virtually synonymous with the nuclear weapons and strategy management of the country.

He was replaced by Lt Gen Zubair Mahmood Hayat, corps commander Bahawalpur in one of the quieter moves by the Nawaz Sharif government, which has renewed the debate on the safety of Pakistan’s growing nuclear arsenal.

An oft quoted news report described Hayat as “brainy, brave and bold” and that he was commissioned in the Artillery regiment in the 80s. The new SPD chief has a tough challenge ahead to reorient the organisation in testing times.

As a measure of Lt General Kidwai’s crucial importance, it was the outgoing SPD chief who briefed chief of army staff General Raheel Sharif during his visit to the institution last week. General Sharif in a statement said that Pakistan’s nuclear programme occupied a central place for the defence of the country.

Lt General Kidwai headed SPD since its inception in 1999 and turned it into a “true nuclear conclave” as described by Feroze Hasan Khan in his book Eating Grass: The Making of the Pakistani Bomb. Lt. Gen. Kidwai is quoted in the book as saying that no delegation of authority concerning nuclear weapons is planned, during a lecture in the US in 2006 but already there are reports from the US media expressing concern over the Lt. Gen. Kidwai’s exit after some 12 extensions and the biggest fear is that nuclear weapons could fall into the wrong hands.

When a similar atmosphere of distrust prevailed in 2008, Lt Gen Kidwai had invited the foreign press for an extraordinary briefing, which included two Indian journalists. At that time he had reassured everyone that the country’s strategic assets were in safe hands and that there was “no conceivable scenario” in which they could fall into the hands of extremists. He said there was “no chance that one day there will be a DG SPD here with a long beard who will be controlling everything.” But the world community now will need much more than assurances and it is not for nothing that the US has reportedly increased surveillance over Pakistan, according to information from whistleblower Edward Snowden which has been refuted by the federal government here.

Michael Kugelman in a latest article in The National Interest titled “One More Reason to worry about Pakistan’s Nukes” asks the question “Is anyone other than Khalid Kidwai capable of managing Pakistan’s nuclear security challenges, given their sheer magnitude?”

Stating that there is good reason to be anxious about Kidwai’s departure, he adds that “Few countries are as prone to a nuclear crisis as Pakistan — and this threat could well rise in the next year.

The withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan portends heightened competition between Pakistan and India for influence in Afghanistan. The U.S. troop withdrawal also deprives militants of a prime target, increasing the likelihood that some jihadists — including those with ties to Pakistan’s security establishment — will launch new campaigns of violence in India. These scenarios could dangerously escalate India-Pakistan tensions, and conceivably trigger armed mobilizations that include Tactical Nuclear Weapons.” In 2012, security authorities acknowledged a “serious threat” from the Pakistani Taliban to attack one of Pakistan’s largest nuclear installations,” he points out.

However, Pakistan has repeatedly emphasized the safety of its nuclear installations and its credible minimum deterrence policy. Central Information Secretary of the Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf (PTI) Shireen

Mazari, slammed “the US media campaign launched once again against Pakistan's nuclear weapons.”

Lt General Talat Masood, chief coordinator of the think tank Pugwash told The Hindu that fears of nuclear weapons falling into the wrong hands was always there but comments are being made by people who don’t understand Pakistan and equate the nuclear with the conventional weapons set up. There can be no change as far as safety issues are concerned and the new DG will be even more careful. Even if the control of the nuclear weapons is with the military there is a separate command and control structure protected by a separate force, physically and technology wise and it was secure, he said.

The government relies on the new DG and the military leadership had recommended him and SPD had grown into a mature institution, he pointed out. “Kidwai had a long and productive innings and enjoyed the confidence of both the civil and military leadership and we need to acknowledge his contribution to the nuclear establishment,” he added.

In a 2014 report by the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), in a list of 25 countries Pakistan has been ranked 22 and India 23 in terms of nuclear materials security conditions with scores of 46 and 41 respectively. While India has criticized the basis of the report, it says “Among nuclear-armed states, Pakistan is most improved through a series of steps to update nuclear security regulations and to implement best practices, though it ranks 22nd overall.” However in terms of security control measures, India ranks the lowest below Pakistan among the 25 nuclear countries with weapons usable nuclear materials. Pakistan is lowest in the ranking for risk environment with 19 points out of 100.

In the 2014 NTI Index, the scores of the nine nuclear-armed states remained mostly static, with some states’ scores increasing or decreasing by a single point. Pakistan was a notable exception, with its score increasing by three points compared with 2012, and it demonstrated the largest improvement of any nuclear-armed state, the report said. Pakistan is taking steps to update its nuclear security regulations and to implement nuclear security best practices. In particular, new regulations have improved its scores in the On-Site Physical Protection indicator. Pakistan also participated in new bilateral and multilateral assistance, although its score for Voluntary Commitments was already high. Despite those positive developments, Pakistan must still improve its regulations for physical protection, control and accounting, and insider threat prevention, the report said. And that will be the big challenge for the SPD’s new chief who has his task cut out for him.