Apr 272008

Let’s debate civil-military relations but let us not mix up categories and bring a lack of knowledge to bear on sensitive issues

An article in Dawn by Cyril Almeida (“Retaking Bomb Project A/B”; April 23, 2008) criticises the management of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme and argues that the military has never allowed civilians to take charge.

Not a novel argument, it normally comes from those who do not know much about the configuration of strategic forces and rely on sound-bites from popular commentaries. Let’s establish some parameters.

In the realm of decision-making in terms of any likely dangers involved in allowing the military to presumably play a bigger role, it is a misconception to necessarily consider the military as more trigger-happy than the civilians. The question of civilian control therefore belongs more in the domain of civil-military relations than the control and possible deployment and employment of strategic forces.

Two factors should be clear: one, physical possession of nuclear weapons — when they are fully deployed, which is not the case with Pakistan — is always with the military. Possession thus must not be conflated with the decision to employ the forces; two, merely having a military in control of the nuclear programme — I go strictly by Almeida’s argument and its implication — is by no means synonymous with being an irresponsible nuclear state.

There are only two parallel arguments regarding nuclear-weapons control: individualistic and institutional. The former, the “mad man theory”, worries about the prospect of a belligerent ruler authorising a nuclear strike. This argument abstracts from the civil-military debate completely, focusing instead on a “mad” versus “sensible” ruler. The individual could be anyone, a civilian or a soldier.

The second is organisational — i.e., militaries’ parochial interests make them more likely than civilians to cause a nuclear disaster. The jury is still out on this. There is considerable empirical evidence to support that militaries are by no means more belligerent or susceptible to using nuclear weapons.

The aim is not to undermine the organisational perspective; nor that militaries can or do control nuclear weapons better than civilians. I am simply suggesting that the civil-military dichotomy is meaningless when discussing nuclear weapons — both are or can be equally good or bad.

The other misconception is that in Pakistan’s case the deployment and employment of strategic forces is decided by the army chief and civilian leadership is outside the decision-making process. This view eschews the elaborate command and control system put in place by Pakistan three years before India did (in fact, India has set up its own C&C system along Pakistan’s lines).

Indeed, if anything, militaries do not like nuclear weapons because they change the nature of warfare, making it redundant in most cases.

This implies that there is hardly any expertise in nuclear weapons issues outside the small cohort that deals with strategic forces. Even an army chief’s knowledge of nuclear weapons technology, tactics, use, and safety and security protocols is unlikely to be more than that of a casual student of military affairs.

What does this say about crisis behaviour? Simple. There will be no army chief or a small group of corps commanders sitting in a room deciding when and how to launch a strike. The top brass will have to call upon those with nuclear expertise, including civilians, to get input on arsenal safety, use, handling, preparations, destruction, repercussions, etc. The scientists will have to be part of the discussion. It will be input from the experts that will force the issue, not the other way round as is common in most other military decisions.

How is the situation different in India where civilian control prevails? In a recent book on Indo-Pak crisis, PR Chari, Parvaiz Cheema, and Stephen Cohen have this to say about Indian nuclear decision making:

“Nuclear decision making in India has been centralised in the Prime Minister’s Office and a very small circle of officials…This…process precludes wider consultation on nuclear weapon-related decisions…” (Four Crisis and a Peace Process: American Engagement in South Asia).

In a crisis then, the PMO will have to do exactly what Pakistan would be doing on its side. And since we have already dismissed any correlation between a “sensible” military leader and an irrational decision, even if an army leader were in power, the danger would arguably be the same for both parties.

One could apply this model to virtually any nuclear state to realise that none of the nuclear powers have broad discussions over nuclear issues during crises.

Let me at this point comment on Almeida’s key argument that the military does not provide prime ministers information on the nuclear programme.

Talking of the briefing Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani recently received from the SPD, he states: “…years from now a retired or sidelined Gillani may reveal to journalists that the presentation given to him was no different to the one they received”. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the case.

But here’s the question: what information is it that the PM requires (I am talking only from the point of view of danger induced by such military behaviour). Pakistan’s C&C structure is already out there for anyone including scholars to study. Other than that, leaving aside the political debate and point-scoring, the operational matters are discussed within the broad organisational structure on need-to-know basis for all concerned at various levels. But for the sake of argument, even if we presume that the SPD informed the PM of every single missile and warhead site and launch plans, this would still not impact danger emanating from the weapons at all.

By the same token, let us presume that the Pakistani PM and his cabinet are in total control of pressing the button and have full operational information. Would that help? Who would they rely on to make the decision? It will be the very people the army brass would bring to the table were the army in charge.

In essence, the situation in the ‘war room’ would be exactly the same. And this protocol would presumably be followed by virtually every nuclear state.

Finally, there is a need to underscore that operational aspects of nuclear weapons posturing ought not to be conflated with the civil-military debate. Pressures on C&C during crises or otherwise are completely independent of who controls “the button”. Every nuclear power in the world faces the “never-always dilemma” whereby dispersing its nuclear arsenal during crises makes it more difficult for the weapons to be taken out by the adversary and thus induces stability; at the same time, however, it reduces central control over the weapon systems and increases the chances of a field military commander making an unauthorised or inadvertent move.

Again, this is what any country, irrespective of its civil-military balance, has to deal with. The US is just as susceptible as Pakistan or India.

Finally, let’s debate civil-military relations but let us not mix up categories and bring a lack of knowledge to bear on sensitive issues. The real issue at hand is who controls the nuclear “button”; this is a political, not operational question in Pakistan.

The writer is a research fellow at the Strategic and Economic Policy Research (Pvt Ltd.) in Islamabad and a regular contributor to The Friday Times. He has written extensively on nuclear issues
Courtesy: Daily times, 27/4/2008

 Posted by at 10:08 am

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