Pakistan: An old concept with a strange twist
In the early days of the Cold War, some of our NATO allies felt access to U.S. nuclear weapons would help them deter invasion by the Red Army. Congress, however, had passed legislation to the effect that only U.S. military personnel could have possession of our nuclear warheads.
So, we cut a deal: The ‘host” NATO nations would the provide 155-mm and/or 8-inch artillery units. The U.S. would co-locate U.S. Army “custodial” units that were under strict orders to retain possession of our atomic warheads until they received a direct order from the President of the United States to release the warheads to their “hosts.”
As an added safety feature, the U.S. custodians kept the critical atomic components, “the birdcages” stored in racks, but not too far from the artillery pieces.
Whether located with artillery units already inside existing military installations or in a scratch-built compound, every U.S. custodial unit was surrounded by concentric rings of security.
Inside the innermost ring were the nuclear warhead storage igloos. Guarding the outside of the innermost ring 24/7, was a “host nation” infantry platoon. Outside that ring was an infantry company. Outside the outer-most ring, an entire infantry battalion had to be readily available.
In addition, counterintelligence protection for the U.S. custodial units was provided by Special Security Teams (SSTs). The SSTs were staffed by intelligence agents who could demonstrate near-native fluency in a least one language appropriate to their mission.
The agents wore European-style clothes and shoes, and were permitted to grow their hair long in the European fashion. The agents carried concealed weapons in shoulder holsters. It was all very James Bond-like.
So, what makes this bit of nuclear-weapons history relevant to the news of today? It appears that about three years ago, the United States inserted into Pakistan an unusual twist on the concept of our old nuclear-weapons custodial teams. Of course, the nuclear weapons developed by Pakistan during its arms race with India belong to Pakistan. Yet some U.S. personnel may have been in “joint” custody of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.
In addition, it appears our joint custody teams have disassembled Pakistan’s nuclear warheads to separate out some of the key atomic components. Moreover, it appears that some of the key components were then taken to widely separated locations.
If we can believe The New York Times (not always wise), this joint-custody and component- separation scheme had to be the result of cooperation between Pakistani President and Command-in-Chief, Pervez Musharraf, and U.S. President George W. Bush.
But this method of preventing Pakistan’s radical Islamists from possessing workable nuclear warheads will work only as long as the commanding authority over the military units in possession of the critical nuclear components does not want the components brought back together and reassembled.
So, if President Musharraf is no longer commander-in-chief of the Pakistani armed forces, will his successor keep the nuclear components separated? Or, will his successor bring them back together and turn them over to the radical Islamists?
When it comes to control in Pakistan, the Army is the only control. But that does not include the areas where the al-Qaeda leaders are hiding. From a pro-U.S. perspective, Pervez Musharraf should remain as President, Mrs. Bhutto should be elected Prime Minister, and some pro-U.S. general officer, agreeable to both Musharraf and Bhutto, should head the Army
If events in Pakistan spin totally out of control, the likelihood that the radical Islamists will be able to put the components of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons back together and use them to blow up some major U.S. city or cities increases dramatically. That would make the events of 9/11 seem like children playing with sparklers on the 4th of July.
Fortunately, some of Pakistan’s top military officers were educated at Britain’s Sandhurst and/or at our Command and General Staff College at Ft. Leavenworth, KS. Given the current political turmoil in Pakistan, those western-schooled officers may be our best hope.
In the early 1960s, syndicated columnist and featured commentator for USA Today, William Hamilton, served on a Special Security Team in northern Europe. Writing as William Penn, he and his wife are the co-authors of The Grand Conspiracy and The Panama Conspiracy – two thrillers about terrorism directed against the United States.
©2007. William Hamilton.