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."
The revelation might slightly ease global concerns about Pakistani atomic weapons being detonated precipitously in any future combat, but hazards likely remain.