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Whose Finger on Pakistan's Nuclear Trigger?

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ISLAMABAD - While the United States has officially refuted recent international media reports questioning Pakistan's nuclear safety mechanisms, saying that its security measures are state-of-the-art, it is the country's all-powerful army leaders who will have the final say in the use of nuclear weapons if it ever came to that.

This is despite the fact that in theory the prime minister's finger should be on the nuclear trigger as chairman of the Nuclear Command Authority (NCA) that handles the command and control of strategic nuclear forces and organizations.

Fresh controversy over the safety of Pakistan's nuclear weapons was set off with an article in the December 2011 issue of a leading US magazine, The Atlantic. Titled "The Alley from Hell", the report described Pakistan as an unstable and violent country located at the epicenter of global jihadism, which might not be the safest place on earth to warehouse 100-plus nuclear weapons.

Tagging Pakistan as an obvious place for a jihadi organization to seek a nuclear weapon or fissile material, the article said the Pakistani military and security services were infiltrated by an unknown number of jihadi sympathizers.

The Atlantic pointed out three key threats to Pakistan's nuclear program: a terrorist theft of a nuclear weapon, a transfer of a nuclear weapon to another state like Iran, and a takeover of nuclear weapons by a militant group during a period of instability. The magazine claimed:
In a country that is home to the harshest variants of Muslim fundamentalism, and to the headquarters of the organizations that espouse these extremist ideologies, including al-Qaeda, the Haqqani network, and Lashkar-e-Toiba, nuclear bombs capable of destroying entire cities are transported in delivery vans on congested and dangerous roads.

And Pakistani and American sources say that since the raid on Abbottabad [in May this year to kill Osama bin Laden], the Pakistanis have provoked anxiety inside the Pentagon by increasing the pace of these movements. In other words, the Pakistani government is willing to make its nuclear weapons more vulnerable to theft by jihadis simply [in a bid] to hide them from the United States, the country that funds much of its military budget.
The Pakistani Foreign Office jumped in to dismiss the apprehensions as pure fiction, baseless and motivated, adding that Pakistan's nuclear arsenal was absolutely safe under multi-layered custodial controls.

"The surfacing of such campaigns is not something new. It is orchestrated by quarters that are inimical to Pakistan," said a November 6 statement issued by the Foreign Office in Islamabad.

Highly-placed circles in the Ministry of Defense who were approached for comments said that in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks in the US in 2001 and nuclear proliferation charges leveled against the founder of Pakistan's nuclear program, Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan, in 2003, Pakistani authorities had taken drastic steps to improve the institutional frameworks and operational procedures for the country's atomic arsenal, with a view to preventing any further proliferation of nuclear-related technologies and materials.

Defense ministry circles further confirmed reports that Pakistani authorities were training 8,000 additional people to protect its nuclear weapons.

A Pakistani military spokesman, in a statement released on November 6 to accompany the graduation of 700 of these security personnel, stated:
This group comprises hand-picked officers and men who are physically robust, mentally sharp and equipped with modern weapons and equipment. Extensive resources have been made available to train, equip, deploy and sustain an independent and potent security force to meet any and every threat emanating from any quarter.
The graduation ceremony was attended by Major General Muhammad Tahir, head of security for the Strategic Planning Division (SPD), the arm of the Pakistani military that is tasked with protecting the nuclear arsenal.

Officials in the Ministry of Defense say the credibility of their claims about the country's nuclear safety mechanisms can be gauged from the fact that these have been endorsed by none other than the administration of US President Barack Obama.

They recalled that in an official statement released on November 7, the US Embassy in Islamabad supported Pakistan while denying the title story of The Atlantic:
The US government's views have not changed about nuclear security in Pakistan. We have confidence that the Pakistan government is well aware of the range of potential threats to its nuclear arsenal and has accordingly given very high priority to securing its nuclear weapons and materials effectively. Pakistan has a professional, highly motivated, and dedicated security force that fully understands the importance of nuclear security.
A spokesman at US Embassy, Mark E Stroh, recalled, "President Obama had declared in March 2010 during the Nuclear Security Summit: 'I feel confident about Pakistan's security around its nuclear weapons programs'."

According to a 2001 US Department of Defense report, Islamabad's nuclear weapons are stored in component form, which suggests that the nuclear warheads are stored separately from the delivery vehicles. Some reports say the fissile cores of the weapons are separated from the non-nuclear explosives.

Whether this is actually the case is unclear; one report states that the warheads and delivery vehicles are probably stored separately in facilities close to one another, but it says nothing about the fissile cores.

According to an account of a 2008 experts' group visit to Pakistan, Lieutenant General Khalid Kidwai, the head of the SPD, suggested that the nuclear warheads (containing the fissile cores) may be mated with their delivery vehicles.

Kidwai said the SPD's official position was that the nuclear weapons would be ready when required at the shortest notice, but the Pakistani doctrine was not endorsing the US-Soviet Union model of weapons on hair-trigger alert. Likewise, the 2001 US Defense Department report clearly stated that Pakistan could assemble its weapons fairly quickly.

United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) chief General David Petraeus, who previously had commanded US forces in Afghanistan, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 15: "There is quite considerable security for the Pakistani nuclear weapons."

Asked about the security of Pakistan's weapons following the May 2011 fidayeen (suicide) attack on the Mehran naval base in the southern port city of Karachi, US Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake stated in Washington on June 21: "There is much more heightened security around Pakistan's nuclear weapons facilities than at the Karachi naval base."

But it appears that American knowledge of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal remains quite limited. For example, former chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, stated last year: "We are limited in what we actually know about Islamabad's nuclear arsenal."

Similarly, former CIA chief Leon Panetta acknowledged in a May 18, 2010 speech that the US did not possess the intelligence to locate all of Pakistan's nuclear weapons-related sites. Therefore, despite repeated claims by Islamabad about the safety of its nuclear arsenal that have been endorsed by top government officials in the White House, the US has continued to monitor Pakistan's nuclear program.

Information acquired by the US State Department about Pakistan's nuclear program (made public in a cable revealed by WikiLeaks in December 2010) showed that 120,000-130,000 people were directly involved in Pakistan's nuclear and missile programs, working in the facilities and protecting them.

The cable acknowledged that Pakistan had developed a well-structured system of security for its nuclear program, but added that doubts about the program of the only Muslim nuclear state were not dying out.

The State Department cable claimed that the Russians, like the Americans, Europeans, Indians and Israelis, raised their concerns that the nukes might fall into the hands of what they call Islamic extremists. The cable said that of the 120,000-130,000 people involved in the Pakistani nuclear program, any one of them could be an "extremist".

Yet Defense Ministry circles in Islamabad insist that all key international regulatory authorities, including the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), have acknowledged the efficacy of Pakistan's comprehensive command and control structures in making its nuclear assets impervious to any threat, both internal or external.

Over the past decade, Pakistani authorities have instituted numerous advanced security mechanisms, from tightened physical safety to technical controls on the nuclear weapons themselves. Pakistan's command and control over its nuclear weapons is believed to be compartmentalized and includes strict operational security. The system is based on "C4I2SR" (command, control, communication, computers, intelligence, information, surveillance and reconnaissance).

It was after then-army chief General Pervez Musharraf toppled the civilian government in 1999 to become a president in uniform that Pakistan's key nuclear institutions were placed under a unified control of the National Command Authority (NCA).

The NCA was made responsible for the formulation of policy that exercises employment and development control over all strategic nuclear forces and organizations. While decision-making power pertaining to nuclear deployment was given to the NCA, Musharraf made the Office of the President all-powerful by making him cast the final vote to order a nuclear strike in his capacity as the NCA chairman and the supreme commander of the armed forces. The prime minister was the vice chairman of the NCA in that set up.

However, after the 2008 general elections and the subsequent exit of Musharraf, the new president, Asif Ali Zardari, decided to transfer control of the nuclear weapons to the prime minister - in this instance Yousaf Raza Gillani.

In a bid to establish civilian command over the nuclear arsenal, the National Assembly passed the National Command Authority (NCA) bill on January 28, 2010, primarily to place the NCA under the control of the elected prime minister. As things stand, the prime minister, as head of government, is chairperson of the NCA. The NCA also includes the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; the ministers of defense, interior and finance; the director general of the SPD; and the commanders of the army, air force and navy.

The final authority to launch a nuclear strike requires consensus within the NCA; the chairperson (prime minister in this case) must cast the final vote. But there are those in the Pakistani security establishment who still believe that passing the chairmanship of the NCA from the president to the prime minister hardly makes any practical difference to the nuclear program, which remains under the firm control of the mighty military establishment.

Technically, the nuclear control and command system is based on a three-tier structure: the National Command Authority, the SPD and the Services' Strategic Forces Command (SSFC). The NCA, which has 10 members, with the prime minister as its chairman, has responsibility to formulate policies, deploy strategic forces, coordinate activities of all strategic organizations, negotiate arms control/disarmament, supervise implementation of export controls and safeguard nuclear assets and sites.

The NCA has two committees: the Employment Control Committee (ECC) and the Development Control Committee (DCC). The ECC is responsible for directing policy-making during peace time and deployment of strategic forces during war time, making recommendations on the evolution of nuclear doctrine, establishing the hierarchy of command and the policy for authorizing the use of nuclear weapons, and establishing the guidelines for an effective command and control system to safeguard against accidental or unauthorized use.

The DCC is responsible for exercising technical, financial and administrative control over the strategic organizations involved in the nuclear weapons program, and overseeing development of strategic weapons programs.

The Strategic Plans Division, which was actually created in 1998 as the permanent secretariat for the NCA, is headed by a director general appointed from the army (Lieutenant General Khalid Kidwai is the incumbent) and comprises some 50-70 officers from the three services.

The SPD is responsible for formulating policy options (nuclear policy, strategy and doctrine) for the NCA, implementing the NCA's decisions, drafting strategic and operational plans for the deployment of strategic forces. The SPD carries out the day-to-day management of the county's strategic forces, coordinates the activities of the different strategic organizations involved in the nuclear weapons program, and oversees budgetary, administrative and security matters.

The SPD has eight directorates - including the Operations and Planning Directorate, the Computerized, Control, Command, Communication, Information, Intelligence and Surveillance Directorate, the Strategic Weapons Development Directorate, and the Arms Control and Disarmament Affairs Directorate - and several divisions. One of the main divisions is the security division, which has a 10,000-strong force charged with guarding and protecting Pakistan's nuclear weapons.

The Services Strategic Forces Command (SSFC) is raised from the three services - the army, navy and the air force - which all have their respective strategic force commands. The SSFC is responsible for daily and tactical operational control of nuclear weapon delivery systems (although the NCA is still responsible for overall strategic operational control). This operational control includes technical, training and administrative control over missiles and aircraft that would be used to deliver nuclear weapons.

According to the NCA's strategic operational policy guidelines, a decision to launch a nuclear strike is made by consensus within the NCA with the chairman casting the final vote. The NCA would communicate decisions and delegate implementing authority to the SPD and down the institutional hierarchy/structure. While the number of people required in different parts of the hierarchy varies because of technical reasons, no single individual in any part of the institutional hierarchy is in a position to launch a nuclear strike or operate a nuclear weapon on their own.

Pakistan has already developed Permissive Action Links (PALs), a protective fail-safe system that the US also uses to guard against any accidental or unauthorized launches of nuclear systems. The PALs require a code to be entered before a nuclear weapon can be detonated.

And Pakistan requires the "standard two-man rule", under which two separate operators enter codes or turn keys to arm and launch nuclear weapons. Although not originally equipped with PALs that require the entry of a code before the nuclear weapon can explode, each Pakistani warhead is now fitted with this code-lock device.

In practice, the army controls the NCA, which has the final say in sanctioning any nuclear attack. It is the director general of the SPD, Kidwai, who controls and guards the nuclear arsenal, under the supervision of army chief General Ashfaq Kiani, with the assistance of the army. Therefore, the short answer to the question whose finger is on the N-button is this: Kiani and Kidwai and the will of the prime minister would hardly prevail when a decision about the use of the nuclear option was taken.

Going by the contents of his April 30, 2009, news conference in Washington to mark the first 100 days of his presidency, it seems that Obama is fully aware of the army's firm control over the nuclear weapons program.

"I am confident that the Pakistan army will not allow its nuclear arsenal to fall into the hands of Islamic militant groups like the Taliban or al-Qaeda," said Obama, while not expressing the same faith in Pakistan's civilian government led by Zardari, which he dubbed as fragile, adding that the US was gravely concerned about the situation in Pakistan.

Amir Mir is a senior Pakistani journalist and the author of several books on the subject of militant Islam and terrorism, the latest being The Bhutto murder trail: From Waziristan to GHQ.

Source: Asia Times Online

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