Senior Official: Pakistani Leaders to Retain Nuclear-Arms Authority in Crises

Pakistani Rangers, in black, and Indian Border Security Force personnel, in khaki, raise fists as part of a flag ceremony at the India-Pakistan Wagah Border Post last July. A senior Pakistani official this week said central authorities are to largely retain authority over the nation's nuclear arms in any future war against neighboring rival India.
National Journal
Elaine M. Grossman
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Elaine M. Grossman
Feb. 27, 2014, 9:59 a.m.

Pakistan’s top lead­ers would not del­eg­ate ad­vance au­thor­ity over nuc­le­ar arms to unit com­mand­ers, even in the event of crisis with In­dia, a seni­or of­fi­cial says.

The rev­el­a­tion might slightly ease glob­al con­cerns about Pakistani nuc­le­ar arms be­ing det­on­ated pre­cip­it­ously in any fu­ture com­bat, though plenty of po­ten­tial haz­ards ap­pear to re­main.

“The smal­lest to the largest — all weapons are un­der the cent­ral con­trol of the Na­tion­al Com­mand Au­thor­ity, which is headed by the prime min­is­ter,” ac­cord­ing to the high-level Pakistani gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial, speak­ing to re­port­ers Tues­day on con­di­tion of not be­ing named.

The long­time worry has been that Pakistani mil­it­ary units might be temp­ted to use bat­tle­field nuc­le­ar weapons as a last re­sort. One pos­sible scen­ario for such a move might be if Pakistani troops are in danger of be­ing over­whelmed in any fu­ture war against In­dia, which has a lar­ger and more cap­able con­ven­tion­al army.

The two na­tions cur­rently field roughly the same size nuc­le­ar ar­sen­al, num­ber­ing around 100 weapons apiece. Pakistani Prime Min­is­ter Nawaz Sharif, who was elec­ted to of­fice last spring, has moved to strengthen ties with his In­di­an coun­ter­part, Man­mo­han Singh, fol­low­ing a string of bor­der killings.

The seni­or Pakistani of­fi­cial ac­know­ledged, though, that ul­ti­mately any bat­tle­field use of tac­tic­al nuc­le­ar arms is left in mil­it­ary hands, as would be the case in vir­tu­ally any na­tion’s com­bat op­er­a­tions.

“You must ap­pre­ci­ate, in al­most all the coun­tries of the world, fi­nal op­er­a­tion­al con­trol lies with the mil­it­ary, even here,” the Is­lamabad of­fi­cial said at the Wash­ing­ton gath­er­ing. “But the ba­sic con­trol re­mains with the ci­vil­ian lead­er­ship, in con­sulta­tion with the mil­it­ary com­mand­ers. And the us­age will be con­trolled at the highest level, even if the smal­lest device in the smal­lest num­bers has to be used.”

The of­fi­cial noted that Pakistan’s nuc­le­ar ar­sen­al “is primar­ily a de­terrence mech­an­ism,” and “the us­age is a sec­ond­ary thing.” The South Asi­an na­tion “is not very anxious” to use nuc­le­ar arms, but Pakistan sees the ar­sen­al as ne­ces­sary in “an im­bal­anced mil­it­ary re­la­tion­ship with our neigh­bors.”

The seni­or fig­ure was asked if Pakistani mil­it­ary unit com­mand­ers — once giv­en emer­gency au­thor­ity to det­on­ate nuc­le­ar weapons — might set off the deadly devices rather than al­low po­ten­tially dom­in­ant In­di­an troops to over­run and steal them.

“I think prin­cip­ally I should take of­fense to this re­mark,” the of­fi­cial said. “We are not so naïve to handle nuc­le­ar weapons, to hand them over to a con­ven­tion­al army com­ing to our bor­ders. “¦ There are no chances of that.”

Rather, “if we can de­vel­op it, I’m sure we can look after it, also,” the seni­or of­fi­cial said, re­fer­ring to the high caliber of both the nuc­le­ar tech­no­lo­gies and the Pakistani troops whose ded­ic­ated mis­sion is to se­cure the atom­ic arms.

Pakistani mil­it­ary com­mand­ers, the of­fi­cial said, “would rather com­mit sui­cide than let this fall in some­body else’s hands who’s not sup­posed to have it.”

Asked sub­sequently about U.S. con­cerns re­gard­ing Pakistani se­cur­ity over its stock­pile — par­tic­u­larly after mil­it­ants have at­tacked armed forces in­stall­a­tions in re­cent years — the seni­or of­fi­cial said nuc­le­ar safety is of para­mount pri­or­ity to the na­tion’s lead­ers.

“If something like that hap­pens, who is the biggest af­fect­ee of that? It’s us. If there is ra­di­ation, it’s us. It’s our people,” the of­fi­cial said. “So why would we risk our own people? We are very, very care­ful about it.”

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