The Nuclear Football
Image Credit: Flickr / Bill S

The Nuclear Football

 
 

The other day I had an interesting conversation with a senior Indian official. I asked him whether the Indian prime minister, like the US president, carries the football with him whenever he leaves New Delhi for domestic or foreign visits. He looked at me curiously for a few moments and asked me: ‘Are you nuts? Obama may, but Manmohan Singh isn’t a football fan. And why the *@#% should he carry a football even he’s a football fan?’

Undeterred, I quickly explained that I meant ‘the’ football — the small briefcase that the US president always carries with him containing launch codes for a nuclear attack in the event he needs to authorize one when away from the White House. The official regained his composure and told me he didn’t wish to be drawn into forbidden territory.

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So I asked him whether he was aware of a recent news story based on the testimony of Bob Graham, head of the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, at a US Congressional hearing. The official said he was aware that Graham had said that Pakistan could surreptitiously slip nukes to the Taliban for use against India if a war-like situation were to develop between India and Pakistan. He also said that such fears were real, and the very fact that a US lawmaker had spoken about it lent authenticity to such a scenario.

I disagree, and explained why this ‘real’ threat was not actually all that real. To set off a nuclear weapon, first the secret PIN of the weapon has to be fed into its control system. Every single nuke has a PIN and the football is nothing but a compilation of these PINs. The Indian prime minister controls the nuclear button, while in the case of Pakistan this prerogative is with the chief of army staff. No jihadi outfit can have access to the PIN, until and unless it is given to them by the Pakistani army chief. Pakistan is a professional army and it knows that it will not be able to deny its complicity if the jihadis were to explode a nuclear bomb on India. Under that eventuality, India would no longer be constricted by its unilaterally announced ‘no first use’ policy and would have full right to launch a quick and comprehensive nuclear attack on Pakistan.

The official listened to me attentively as I spoke for about ten minutes on why Pakistan covertly slipping over a nuclear bomb to jihadis was a red herring. At the end of it, he came to the door to see me off but I remained as uneducated on the question I put him as when I had entered his room. Will someone answer my question? Let there be light!

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