Nuclear command and control

Governments try to ensure that weapons should always be ready for use when asked for by the authorised leader and a similar assurance that they will never be used unless commissioned by such authority

Nuclear command and control

Nuclear weapons are the most destructive and unrelenting instruments ever created by mankind. The whole world can be destroyed by less than 200 nuclear weapons within the space of a few days. Given the potentially disastrous complexities involved in nuclear force employment and contrasting control methods, building up a formidable command and control system has always remained a daunting and costly task for nuclear weapon states. Nuclear command and control systems are developed by states to ensure that nuclear weapons are used only when authorised by legitimate decision-makers, and that the possibility of accidental or unauthorised firing of nuclear weapons can be entirely ruled out. Thermonuclear weapons are so powerful that they can wipe out whole cities, killing tens of millions of people.

The unimaginable death and destruction that could result from the unauthorised use of a nuclear weapon has led the US, Russia and other nuclear powers to spend hefty amounts of money every year to develop a ‘fail-safe’ command and control system. A robust command and control system is also seen as an essential ingredient in the equation of deterrence between the two sides. US nuclear weapons laboratories — Lawrence Livermore, Sandia and Los Alamos — worked during the Cold War to make nuclear materials as safe as possible, using almost unlimited budgets. A strong command and control system for nuclear weapons involves hundreds of people working at different levels from top to bottom but the authority to take key decisions remains concentrated in the hands of a few individuals. At the heart of the complexity of this system lies a paradox. Governments try to ensure that weapons should always be ready for use when asked for by the authorised leader and a similar assurance that they will never be used unless commissioned by such authority. These apparently contradictory objectives become extremely important in the case of nuclear weapons because of the political and diplomatic utility they have acquired in addition to their enormous destructive power.

Some nuclear weapon states have developed a set of interlocked administrative and technological systems including combination locks aka Permissive Action Links (PALs), which can block unauthorised use of a nuclear weapon. Pakistan’s nuclear security establishment also claims to have indigenously made coded locks that completely rule out the possibility of unauthorised use of nuclear weapons even if they fall into the hands of terrorists. However, there is no authentic information available about the nature of those combination locks. The standard ‘two-man rule’ is also believed to be in practice in Pakistan’s command and control structure. This rule ensures that at every stage, from manufacturing to storage, at least two people capable of stopping unauthorised use remain present. Other procedural aspects include ‘special safety design features’ that reduce the risk of a warhead detonating if it catches fire or is otherwise damaged.

The strategic command organisations in all nuclear weapon states have evolved with the passage of time. During the Cold War, the US had a very loosely defined command and control structure and even nuclear weapons were dispersed in a number of European countries under the control of NATO forces. However, a number of crises, particularly the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, caused President Kennedy to take quick steps towards attaining higher standards of robustness in the command and control structure. President Kennedy, after consultations with leading experts at the Pentagon and the department of energy, ordered a review of the US’s nuclear command and control, which led to the creation of a nuclear ‘football’. The atomic football (also known as the president’s emergency satchel, the black box, the button) is a briefcase that contains the information needed to enable the US president to authorise a nuclear attack while he is away from command centres such as the White House ‘situation room’. The nuclear football works as ‘a mobile hub’ in the strategic defence system of the US and follows the president wherever he goes.

According to a Washington Post article, a military aide always accompanies the president, carrying the football in a black leather jacket. Bill Gulley, the former director of the White House military office, revealed in his famous book, Breaking Cover, that the contents of the football include: (a) the “black book” containing nuclear weapons’ launch options, (b) a booklet outlining classified site locations, (c) a folder giving a description of the procedures for the ‘emergency broadcast system’, and (d) a three-by-five inch card with authentication codes. During their presidencies, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan preferred to keep the launch codes in their pockets. According to some accounts, the football was immediately separated from President Reagan after the 1981 assassination attempt against him. Like the US, in most nuclear weapon states, only the highest political authorities are in a position to authorise the use of nuclear weapons. The possession of a nuclear weapon by military units does not give them the ability to use it.

In Pakistan, due to some serious imbalance between civil and military relations, the military enjoys absolute authority over the control and use of nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, the civilian prime ministers in our country do not even dare to ask the military authorities about the exact location of the nuclear arsenal — what to talk of any control over their use.

The unpredictability of integrated administrative procedures and technologies can sometimes result in major failures in command and control systems. One of the major threats associated with the event of a nuclear war is ‘decapitation’. This involves a successful attack on a country’s command and control system, which results in rendering its nuclear arsenal unusable. There are a number of steps that have been taken by nuclear weapon states to mitigate the possible loss of command. These include early warning of an impending attack by ground based radars, comprehensive planning to secure command centres, alternative command posts and establishment of multiple communication links between the decision makers and nuclear armed units that can survive an attack. However, these measures are extraordinarily costly and complex. Another alternative to avoid decapitation is to delegate the authority to use nuclear weapons to other officials but that increases the likelihood of unauthorised nuclear use.


The writer is a research scholar and a former visiting fellow at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, California. He can be reached at