April 8, 2008 / 9:40 AM / 11 years ago

Pakistan's nuclear command stays unchanged: official

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - The command and control system for Pakistan’s nuclear weapons will stay unchanged under the country’s new government, made up of opponents of President Pervez Musharraf, an official said on Tuesday.

Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is overseen by a National Command Authority (NCA) headed by the president and with the prime minister as its vice chairman.

Key cabinet ministers and the heads of the army, navy and air force are also members of the NCA, which controls all aspects of the country’s nuclear program, including deployment and, if ever necessary, the use of the weapons.

However, the military manages and controls the nuclear weapons on behalf of the NCA.

Pakistan formally set up the NCA in 2000, two years after it conducted nuclear tests in response to those of rival India, and in December last year Musharraf enforced an ordinance giving constitutional protection to the NCA.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Sadiq said there would be no change to the NCA under the new government sworn-in on March 31.

“It’s a constitutional body and there’s no change in it,” Sadiq told Reuters on Tuesday. “Overall command authority is headed by the president as a head of state.”

Although Musharraf continues to head the NCA, his role has considerably weakened in national affairs since he stepped down

as army chief in November, and more so after his opponents triumphed in the February 18 parliamentary elections.

A source close to the new coalition, led by the Pakistan People’s Party of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, said the government, which enjoys close to a two-thirds majority in the parliament, had no plans to change the nuclear command structure.

“There’s no reason to change anything in a hurry,” the source told Reuters.

Pakistan is a major ally in the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism but a wave of suicide bombings by al Qaeda-inspired militants to destabilize the Muslim nation, particularly after Bhutto’s assassination in a gun and bomb attack on December 27, raised concerns over the safety of its nuclear weapons.

Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, declared Pakistan’s weapons were well protected and he saw little chance of them falling into terrorist hands after meeting Musharraf and officials overseeing the arsenal in February.

MILITARY CONTROL NUKES

Analysts said Pakistan’s new administration would have more say in the country’s nuclear program but was unlikely to gain command and control of the weapon system like other nations.

“My own assessment is there may be a greater involvement of civilian rulers in the military and defense and nuclear affairs than in the past, by virtue of the fact that the present government is more representative,” Talat Masood, a security analyst and former general said.

“But the security, safety and operational sides will obviously continue to remain in the hands of the military.”

While all decision-making on nuclear issues rests with the NCA, an affiliated body, the Strategic Plans Division, manages and controls the nuclear weapons on behalf of the NCA.

The division is headed by a retired army general.

Pakistan’s nuclear program was launched by Benazir Bhutto’s father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the country’s first popularly elected prime minister, after last of the three wars with India which ended with the surrender of the Pakistani troops and independence of the eastern wing of Pakistan as Bangladesh.

The senior Bhutto was toppled and hanged by the military in the late 1970s and since then Pakistan’s nuclear program has been effectively controlled by the army.

Editing by Michael Perry

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