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India's Nuclear Command and the Force Preparedness for NFU

 Paper no. 589          22. 01. 2003

Dr. Rajesh Kumar Mishra     

This paper is an attempt to address critical doctrinal implementation deficiencies in India's Nuclear Command pattern. The Indian nuclear posture of "no first use" (NFU) has undergone considerable revision since August 1999, but appears unworkable given the exiting arsenal of nuclear weapons’ readiness.

The issue of arsenal readiness in terms of survivability and deployment strategy decision-making needs further elaboration. In this write up attention is drawn to the efficacy factor of the "no first use" philosophy of India's nuclear doctrine.

The central argument of the paper is that the present structure of the National Command Authority (NCA) as announced by the government, has more "command" than necessary.  In this case command refers to the critical chain of events leading to a decision on nuclear deployment with respect to retaliatory attacks under NFU.

The preparedness behind the posture of "No First Use" requires more transparency in terms of "retaliatory attacks" to avoid domestic and international criticism. As a declared nuclear weapon state, India might have thought to gain legitimacy in being a responsible nuclear power with the establishment of NCA. But, in reality, India has a long way to go to create a credible nuclear inventory and comprehensive consolidation of associated handling institutions. After all, making a decision is always easier than executing one.

The recent pronouncements on India's NCA on January 4, 2003, are significantly more coherent than the 1999 Draft Report of National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) on India's Nuclear Doctrine. Yet, there remain a few loose ends to match existing realities as there appears to be greater stress on meeting international expectations than to focus on developing indigenous priorities.

Does India's Nuclear Doctrine need teeth too?

India's nuclear doctrine includes eight salient features -

* building and maintaining a credible minimum deterrent;

* a posture of "No First Use" (NFU) implying that nuclear weapons will only be used in retaliation against a nuclear attack on Indian territory or on Indian forces anywhere;

* massive and designed nuclear retaliatory attack to inflict unacceptable damage;

* authorization of retaliatory attack rests with the civilian political leadership through the Nuclear Command Authority;

* no use of nuclear weapon against non-nuclear weapon states;

* in the event of a major attack against India, or Indian forces anywhere by biological or chemical weapons, India will retain the option of retaliating with nuclear weapons; 

* a continuance of strict controls on export of nuclear and missile related materials and technologies and continued observance of the moratorium on nuclear tests; and 

* continued commitment to the goal of a nuclear weapon free world, through global, verifiable and non-discriminatory nuclear disarmament.

According to official pronouncements, the NCA comprises a Political Council and an Executive Council. The Political Council is chaired by the Prime Minister and is the single body that can authorize the use of nuclear weapons. The Executive Council is chaired by the National Security Advisor to provide inputs for decision making by the NCA and to execute the directives given to it by the Political Council. A Strategic Forces Command (SFC) headed by an Indian Air Force officer has also been established as the custodian and manager of the nuclear assets.

The composition of the supreme Political Council, however, has not yet been officially declared. But, it is believed to include the PM, the deputy prime minister and the minister of defence, external affairs and finance. The alternative chain of command, when the first tier command is hypothetically immobilized or obliterated, is said to be in place even though, for security reasons, it has not officially announced

NFU predicaments revolve around two factors- the nuclear arsenal's survivability and the deployment strategy. The NFU posture should ideally be based on credible arsenals and the force structure to handle them in emergency situations. To survive a first strike needs deception, mobility and camouflaging of existing nuclear arsenals. Presumably, at current levels of preparedness, India can launch nuclear strikes through aircraft bombers and missiles. However, it has not yet been confirmed whether its fighter fleet has been accordingly nuclear-wired.  The surface-to surface missiles- PrithviI and II and the Agni, intermediate range ballistic missiles should also be fitted in as part of deterrence strategy.

The role of Prithvi I with a strike range of 150 km has not yet been clearly conveyed to Pakistan. Although it is being maintained officially for conventional warhead use, projections by media and analysts suggest its nuclear capability. Doubts have often surfaced about the operational efficiency of Prithvi as a battle-field missile. The air of confusion persists as Prithvi launched with conventional warhead can be misjudged by Pakistan for a nuclear attack against it thereby initiating a nuclear exchange between the two countries

Agni II with 2000 Km plus range can be said to prove a definitive second strike capability against Pakistan. But Agni II will not be sufficient for striking any valuable target in China because of the range factor of the missile. After the second flight test of Agni I (700-800 Km range), the missile is to be inducted by the year-end of 2003. Despite the fact that a missile group for efficient handling of Prithvi had been raised as long back as 1994, there is no official word yet on who shall be handling the Agni missiles, other than the SFC.

Besides the yet to be introduced Brahmos, there seems to be few other cruise missiles on the anvil. A naval platform for nuclear launch is still to be developed. The current status of Sagarika programme is also not known.  Sagarika, is sea-based missile that was planned under the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (IGMDP), started since 1983.

Navy chief, Admiral Madhvendra Singh was quoted saying in December 2002, only a month before assuming the additional charge of the chairmanship of Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC) in January 2003 that “India being a declared nuclear state with no first use doctrine must have a nuclear triad with the strongest arm being at sea preferably underwater.” But the programmes for the indigenous development of nuclear submarine are still in the development stage. 

Indian navy would be getting two Russian Akula nuclear submarines on lease. Krivak class Stealth warships will be delivered in the next two months.  Admiral Singh while talking to the media in New Delhi on January 16, 2003, explained that there would not be any problem over transfer of nuclear weapon assets from the three services to SFC. And, SFC will decide on the  “utilisation and use” of nuclear weapons.

 Taking stock of the current level of defence preparedness, apparently India has not achieved the NFU capability to deter any Chinese threat for two main reasons. First, there is non-availability of higher range credible delivery systems, and, second, lack of survivable nuclear naval assets. If the present official stances are Pakistan centric, have the policy planners devised mechanisms to deal with the “time factor” in retaliatory attacks to be taken against Pakistan?

Deployment Strategy Decisions:

Time, status of deployable equipment and level of force alertness are given priority in making deployment strategy of nuclear assets. In fact, it requires instant convergence of response from all these corners if a country has to maintain a NFU posture.

Time factor is the most important one in decision-making if one maintains NFU in nuclear strategy. To prepare for retaliatory strikes and decisions in implementation, time management should be driven in two ways- one, to discuss the potential crisis and another to deal with the crisis.

Responsibility of providing inputs for decision making rests with the Executive Council. In a situation when crisis is imminent, for discussing different threat scenarios and associated modules of second strike, what promptness can one expect from the Executive Council?

Officially, only the head of the Executive Council has been made public as the national security advisor to the government.  One can assume that other than the head of the Executive Council, if representatives from all the three services, heads of Strategic Force Command, Atomic Energy Commission and Defence Research and Development Organisation are also included, efficacy of the role of the Executive Council will significantly be enhanced. Such composition may provide best possible platform for sharing and analysis of information from all the corners of scientific, military and political complexes. This may make the task of Political Council easier for reaching any quick effective advisory opinion to the Prime Minister in taking a final decision.

Have the scenarios been defined or mechanisms are set for the “circumstances” when without losing time the civilian political head will have to just press the button of launching retaliatory nuclear attack?

In case of dealing with a crisis, if the advisory role of the Political Council implies “decision making”, is the composition of the advisory council geared to rapid generation of critical decisions for nuclear retaliation?

At the moment one cannot be sure if an effective communication system exists such that real time decisions on pressing the nuclear trigger can be had when dealing with retaliatory nuclear attacks. In the deployment strategy of the Indian government, have the channels of communications with clearly articulated roles and responsibilities and real time feedback been developed for a decision at a single point or time?

Deployment of nuclear weapons can be said to consist of three elements- weapon frame, core and delivery system. The present status of placement of these deployable components is not known. One can presume that in the Indian case these three components of nuclear launch are separately located. If so, preparedness of second strike capability should come under revision.

However, on some past occasions, it was reported through media that India had deployed nuclear weapons at high alert to meet any eventuality between India-Pakistan military stand-off. In this scenario, India has proven potential of second strike capacity against Pakistan. Such deployment mobilization is hard to sustain for a long period of time given the international pressures. Still, taking into consideration the fact that Pakistani nuclear arsenals are functionally deployed under and with military command even in peace time, has New Delhi raised alternative force structures to remain at the status of retaliatory launch? This would also involve preparedness for a second line of force structure if the first identified locations are debilitated or destroyed in first strike. Is such a scenario accounted for?

Was there really any need of establishing NCA without raising the forces to handle the arsenals-in-being?

First, since the nuclear tests of May 1998, India has a robust nuclear capability. Unlike Pakistan, in India, with its vibrant democratic institutions and polity, it is inconceivable that the nuclear button control would rest in a non-civilian hand. In this light, the decision to declare the establishment of NCA might have been intended to reassure the international community about India’s civil political command over the country's nuclear arsenal.

Secondly, by setting up an NCA under civilian control to institutionalize the command structure in the public domain, India might have pitching for a better public relations game compared with Pakistan's military-dominated National Command Authority that came into being in February 2000.

If India has, indeed, acted along these lines, for choosing the time of declaration on NCA, the recent doctrinal pronouncements are more Pakistan centric and less related to threats posed by China. Any nuclear policy adopted by India cannot be complete unless it adequately accommodates Chinese threat perceptions. For, it was not only Pakistan that prompted India to go nuclear but the Beijing-Islamabad nexus against India that led New Delhi to develop weapons of mass destruction for national security interests.

Building nuclear deterrence and associated delivery mechanisms, therefore, should not be restricted to the retaliatory attack capability against the imminent threat from Pakistan. In case of adversarial Sino-Indian conditions, China with its credible destructive nuclear weapons stock remains a greater challenge to India.

Besides the prevailing strategic competition in South Asia between India, Pakistan and China, new trends of threat perceptions are simultaneously evolving in the international security environment that will have long-term ramifications for New Delhi. The unstable international security environment post 9/11 and the strategic competition thereafter preclude a definitive course in dealing with the emerging asymmetric threats.

Arms control and disarmament models are being reoriented with technological changes and the growing obsolescence of conventional arms control agreements and regimes. Conventional arms control agreements and regimes are in dire need of reorientation in order not to become completely irrelevant to ground realities. Existing capabilities and expectations have to be factored in. With issues such as nuclear capability, nations must proceed with a long- term vision and not be reactive in any way.

Indian nuclear policy decision is sensitive to the international audience. The press release of the Cabinet Committee on Security that met on January 4, 2003, declared that it was sharing "information regarding the nuclear doctrine and operational arrangements governing India's nuclear assets" with the public. The defined doctrine is qualitatively improved for the change brought in "No First Use Policy" from the earlier nuclear doctrine draft proposal of 1999.

Setting up a nuclear command and control structure requires synergy between the institutional mechanisms and the inherent capability of the strategic force structures. But for India, the credible minimum deterrent is in its nascent stage. This aspect needs to be analysed especially with the larger China-related threat perceptions compared with that of Pakistan's non-conventional capabilities.

Pakistan has achieved a certain level of nuclear force to threaten India. But conversely, India too has the ability to strike back to inflict unacceptable damage to any Pakistani misadventure involving weapons of mass destruction. The mutual assessment of capabilities is such that New Delhi can rationally define the contours of its second-strike riposte. But, what about India's retaliatory capability against China under similar attack? Before the finalization of "operationalising" affairs, the Chinese threat should be factored in.


Intention of a country behind posing for nuclear deterrence is to keep the adversary under continuous psychological fear of retaliatory strike/punishment.

In case of India, New Delhi has two nuclear capable neighbours, Pakistan and China, with past hostile records. It stands logical for New Delhi to have its defence-build up in tune with national security requirements. But, in the process of building and maintaining nuclear deterrent, has India evolved the tools of projecting its areas of strength in its true perspective? New Delhi is expected to show more transparency in its existing credible nuclear forces strength. It will not only increase pressure on Pakistan to refrain from making frequent nuclear threat calls, but will make China take India seriously in regional security matters. At the domestic front, with more transparency in national military strength, the government will receive better feedback in terms of national mandate in nuclear weapons development programme. The cost involved in nuclear development programmes will be better justifiable if the capability of emerging nuclear triad remains reasonably transparent in public domain. 

By posturing NFU, New Delhi has reassured of being a responsible nuclear weapon power state. With the civilian control over country’s nuclear arsenals, NCA structure announced by the government sounds democratic in decision making for NFU. Still, there are critical loose ends in defence preparedness of the nuclear forces on which will depend the efficacy of country’s NFU policy. The government may have its own security reasons for not elaborating on the status of nuclear force deployment. However, little more transparency will help in clearing confusion for those who either underestimate or ignore the deterrence value of the existing arsenals. It will, in turn, also provide greater legitimacy to the nuclear command structure.

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