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Nuclear command & control

Time for review as Indian organisational chart ambiguous on CDS role

Nuclear command & control

DEFIANT: It was on May 11, 1998, that India under Vajpayee carried out an N-test. PTI

C Uday Bhaskar

Director, Society for Policy Studies

MAY 11, 1998, was a momentous day for India when it successfully carried out the first nuclear weapon test with PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee at the helm of national affairs. The nuclear Rubicon had been crossed and Vajpayee acknowledged the contribution of his predecessors who nurtured this dormant nuclear capability for decades in the face of severe global restrictions and technology denial regimes.

The dominant view is that Russia would not have carried out the February 24 invasion if Kyiv had nuclear weapons.

How secure is a nation that has acquired nuclear weapons and what has been the Indian experience over the last 24 years? This question has come into focus due to the Ukraine war and the dominant view is that Russia would not have carried out the February 24 invasion if Kyiv had nuclear weapons. An assault on territorial integrity in the manner that Ukraine has been subjected to would have been ‘deterred’ if it had retained its nuclear weapons. However, challenges to territorial integrity do occur despite the possession of nuclear weapons and the 1969 Sino-Soviet border clash is illustrative.

In the Indian case, acquiring nuclear weapons in 1998 did not prevent the Kargil war of 1999 or the Galwan territorial skirmish of June 2020, and furthermore, all the terror attacks of the last 20-plus years.

This is a reiteration of the tenet that nuclear weapons have only one role — the ‘core mission’ — to deter an adversary from even contemplating use of such weapons of mass destruction (WMD) capability. In the regional context, once China acquired nuclear weapons in 1964, Indian sovereignty was rendered vulnerable and Delhi’s anxiety at the visible strategic asymmetry was further exacerbated by the trauma of 1962.

May 11, 1998, assuaged India’s insecurity to a considerable extent — with the caveat that the credibility of deterrence is a 24X7 combination of tangible weapon and delivery capability; efficacious command and control; appropriate WMD safety protocols; and discrete politico-diplomatic signalling to certain interlocutors as exigencies emerge.

To its credit, India has enhanced its composite WMD capability over the last two decades and the induction of INS Arihant, the indigenously designed and built ballistic missile capable, nuclear armed and propelled submarine (SSBN) is a major punctuation. This underwater platform, built in India with assistance from Russia has given Delhi the much sought after second-strike capability.

The Indian commitment to no-first-use (NFU) but an assured retaliation in the event of a nuclear exigency is rendered more credible with an underwater deterrent. The capability is nascent and the missile profile modest — but the path being traversed is judicious and will improve India’s composite strategic capability in the long run.

The one area that merits objective review is the opaque command and control (C2) of India’s WMD capability. This critical apex politico-military management among nuclear weapon capable states is generally shrouded for security considerations but can be discerned by professionals in the peer group. It is a judicious combination of proven military capability — often under a strategic forces command (SFC) with a designated military commander; and the harmonisation with the apex political leadership that has the sole control and onerous responsibility of deciding when to use the apocalyptic nuclear ‘button’. Only those officials directly in the WMD loop would be able to assess the efficiency index of C2.

The dialectical element of the nuclear weapon is that while it is not to be used — except in the core mission function — the competence to use it in a seamless manner has to be well oiled within the higher defence lattice of the national security grid. Clarity of nuclear C2 roles at the highest level is imperative and here the Indian organisational chart is ambiguous, and on occasion, contradictory when it relates to the office of the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS).

Till the appointment of the first CDS in 2020, the chain of command for C2 was that the SFC commander reported to the Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee — the senior-most serving chief — and the latter was part of the executive council (EC) of the nuclear chain. The EC is chaired by the National Security Adviser (NSA) to the PM and this body reports to the political council (PC) headed by the PM and the ‘sole body which can authorise the use of nuclear weapons’.

However, an anomalous situation prevailed when the post of the CDS was instituted in relation to C2. The December 2019 press note said in addition to other hats, the CDS would also ‘be the Permanent Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee’. Thus as the Chairman, COSC, the CDS would be the reporting authority for the SFC commander — as in the pre CDS template. However, the same note added that the ‘CDS will not exercise any military command, including over the three Service Chiefs, so as to be able to provide impartial advice to the political leadership.’ The advisory role is reiterated when it is added that the CDS will ‘function as the Military Adviser to the Nuclear Command Authority’. The NCA comprises the PC and the EC. Oddly enough, the document adds that ‘Tri-service gencies/organisations/commands related to Cyber and Space will be under the command of the CDS.’ This formulation of the command function of the CDS is contradictory.

Thus the convoluted inference is that in relation to the nuclear capability — the CDS has an advisory role as part of the EC. The extrapolation from the current C2 then is that the SFC commander (three star) reports directly to the NSA as part of the EC and onwards to the PM, hence by-passing the CDS. This is an anomalous arrangement, for it vests the NSA with a command function, and the locus of the Defence Minister is only as part of the PC along with other Cabinet ministers.

The role and locus of the CDS in relation to the C2 merits critical review. One hopes that this will receive appropriate attention when the next CDS is appointed. The current void could be a constraint in maintaining the highest degree of efficiency and effectiveness apropos the Indian nuclear deterrent.

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