Minimum Credible Deterrence

One Pakistani analyst discusses the security of the country's nuclear assets and its decision-making capacity regarding its tactical nuclear deterrent.

Posted on 12/18/15
By Ikram Sehgal | Via ViewsWeek
Pakistani and Indian troops lower their respective countries flags at Wagah border near Lahor. (Photo by Michael Foley, Creative Commons License)
Pakistani and Indian troops lower their respective countries flags at Wagah border near Lahor. (Photo by Michael Foley, Creative Commons License)

Anywhere in the world both tactical and strategic nuclear forces need to have a central command channel to ensure that nuclear forces that necessarily remain on a knife edge do not inadvertently cause a catastrophe triggered by an accident. In order to have absolute control over our nuclear deterrent, an “Air Force Strategic Command” was established in 1983, thereafter the Army’s Strategic Command and the Naval Strategic Commands were created.  Once Pakistan carried out its nuclear test in 1998, central coordination was necessary to oversee the employment, policy formulation, deployment, research and development, and operational command and control of Pakistan nuclear arsenals. The National Command Authority (NCA) was established in 2000 as the apex civilian-led command channel working directly under the Prime Minister.


The NCA coordinates and oversees the functional basis of space operations (military satellites, etc), information operations (information warfare, etc), missile defense, internal and external command and control, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR), strategic deterrence, and combatting weapons of mass destruction. The PM and his Cabinet colleagues in the NCA must have a unified resource for greater understanding of specific threats (military, nuclear, chemical, biological, radiological, conventional, and non-conventional, and intelligence) and the means to respond to those threats with decision-making as quickly as possible to prevent collateral damage.


Pakistan has “ground and air capability for the delivery of nuclear weapons”, which means that they can be delivered by airplanes and missiles. To ward off a possible nuclear accident our nuclear weapons are not maintained on a hair-trigger alert, in times of peace the nuclear weapons are kept in a “disassembled state” — the warheads were kept separately from the missiles capable of delivering them to targets.  Pakistan’s stockpile is hidden in underground facilities where no antagonist could seize or destroy the warheads. During any confrontation, the bombs can be assembled “very quickly” with the Army responsible to transport nuclear weapons to their delivery systems.  This process of moving nuclear weapons into different locations poses a significant stress on the security system, requiring a tight control of multiple locations and means of transportation.


Secured under fully indigenous, multi-layered and institutionalized security, the Command and Control structure of our strategic assets and facilities has been operational since 1998.  Created for the management and administration of the country’s tactical and strategic nuclear weapons stockpile and acting as the Secretariat for the NCA, the Strategic Plans Division (SPD) manages the research, development, production, and manufacturing of Pakistan’s ballistic and cruise missile arsenal.  A Director-General of the rank of Lt Gen (Air Marshal or Vice-Admiral) controls the management, administration and security of our tactical and strategic nuclear forces, the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) notes the Army’s dominant role in the SPD hierarchy.


SPD keeps the weapons from falling into the hands of Islamic militants, Al-Qaeda, saboteurs or any other adventurers etc, a Special Security Division  includes a counter-intelligence network to safeguard the activities of strategic organizations. It also has in place a dedicated multi-layered security apparatus safeguarding strategic assets. Personnel reliability is also a high priority area to which necessary resources are allocated.  In February 2008 Ashley Tellis, senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on South Asia that: “Pakistan’s strategic assets — to include its nuclear devices, its delivery systems, and its stockpile of fissile materials — are fundamentally safe today… Compared to the situation in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal was still relatively vulnerable to a variety of external and internal threats, the security of these assets has improved dramatically as a result of the protective measures put in place since the late 1990s.” The safeguards Pakistan had put into place “focused on insulating the strategic reserves against both external and international dangers, involve a combination of solutions ranging from tightened physical security at strategic installations, to large investments in opacity and deception and denial, to incorporation of technical controls on the nuclear weapons themselves, to the institutionalization of organizational solutions aimed at preventing insider threats.” unquote.


No praise is too high for all those who have worked so hard to keep our credible nuclear deterrent effective and not vulnerable to outside interdiction. All those who are engaged in the exercise or (have been engaged) must necessarily be subject to the strictest form of accountability.  This accountability must cover anyone engaged in any form of direct, indirect or ancillary activity that supports the process, e.g. construction of sites, provision of equipment, etc corruption can subvert security as much as motivated espionage.  Strict verification must be done of the antecedents of anyone who had (or has) anything to do with the entire process.  Particular attention must focus on those “living beyond their means” and/or those who operate commercial entities though friends, associates and relatives, etc supporting the process, and continue to do this after retirement.  This post-retirement connection along with other relationships is a conflict of interest with the deepest security ramifications. Members of the Board of Directors of connected organizations must also be vetted.  When I pointed out the dubious leaning of a person of Pakistani origin on one of the Boards who has the nationality of a country which does not allow dual nationality, several of the upright Pakistanis responsible for such an oversight glossed this security discrepancy over.  Those included senior persona in our intelligence agencies. The “good-old-boy” social network of executives (scratch my back, I will scratch yours) has a laissez-faire “Sindh Club” attitude of benignly ignoring glaring instances of corruption, nepotism, anti-state activity, etc given the “connections”. For the safety and security of our nuclear deterrent, such an attitude is not acceptable.


Given the overwhelming conventional superiority in numbers and equipment, the quality of our Armed Forces will be hard put to stop the enemy short of the critical small distance needed to cut our vital North-South communications.    We lack both tactical and strategic depth, this being only offset by non-conventional means.  Given India’s “Cold Start” Plans, war can be imposed on us without warning and without mobilization. Ten Indian Composite Brigades Group will attempt to seize vital Pakistan ground and assets before we can react and deploy our strategic nuclear deterrent. Therefore our tactical nuclear deterrent must have an ingrained capacity for quick decision-making over effective and secure lines and means of communications.


With our SPD functioning along with our Strategic Forces, the NCA in place was a must. Given our “minimum credible deterrence” in the face of a possible “Cold Start” situation, do our rulers have the courage and capacity for quick decision-making?


The writer is a leading defense and political analyst of Pakistan. He can be contacted at

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