New Delhi, Jan. 6: The forma-lisation of a Nuclear Command Authority by the Cabinet Co-mmittee on Security has raised questions on the chains of command to be followed in the political and military establis-hment in executing the nuclear doctrine.
The announcement by the CCS, over the weekend, was in itself not a surprise. Indeed, it has been expected for the last four-and-a-half years since the 1998 Pokhran nuclear tests. If at all, the strategic community wonders why it has taken so long. The inference drawn is that New Delhi was under pressure to show that it was a responsible nuclear power.
However, the announcement did not make public the chains of command in the civil and military establishment. This is seen by nuclear weapons’ states — like the US and UK — as a necessity to make the command and control structure credible.
As it is, there are multiple agencies tasked with responsibility on nuclear issues. Some of these — like the department of atomic energy — are civil and some — like the army’s 333 Missile Group — are military.
The NCA itself will have two layers — a political council headed by the Prime Minister and an executive council headed by the national security adviser. The status of the Strategic Forces Command (SFC), whose first head is likely to be an air force officer, is unclear.
Defence ministry sources said the CCS had only announced the intention to create the post of commander-in-chief of the SFC. The defence ministry will have to be given directives to create the SFC before it is notified. After that, an establishment for the SFC has to be created. It is possible that it will not be headquartered in New Delhi. The command and control mechanism may be located deep in the hinterland with the arsenal spread out in multiple silos.
The Kargil Review Committee headed by defence analyst K. Subramaniam had recommended the creation of a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), who would be the “first-among-equals” among all the service chiefs and would also function as the principal advisor to the government on security and military issues.
The CDS would also have a Strategic Forces Command, along with the Integrated Defence Staff and a tri-service command based in the Andamans, reporting to it.
However, neither has the CDS post been sanctioned — it is pending with the Cabinet which has to sort out inter-services’ claims to the post — nor has the reporting of the authority for the SFC been enunciated. In all likelihood, pending the creation of the CDS post, the SFC will report directly to the chairman, Chiefs of Staff Committee.
As things now stand, defence experts perceive the chairman of the NCA’s executive council — the national security adviser, the post currently held by Brajesh Mishra — emerging as the sole link between the military establishment and the political leadership. The Chiefs of Staff Committee will, in effect, be reporting to him.
The civilian chain of command has also not been made public. In a setting in which the Prime Minister — who has been vested with the sole authority over the nuclear button — is unable to function, conventional nuclear command and control hierarchy demands that the next in the line of succession be identified. In the US, for instance, where the President has authority over the nuclear button, the structure identifies 16 others in the line of succession.
Strategic experts also point to the role of the political council. “It is not clear what exactly the political council will do because it makes more sense for one authority to be decisive,” said Bharat Karnad, who was a member of the National Security Advisory Board that submitted the draft nuclear doctrine in August 1999.
There is little change in the doctrine that the CCS expounded on Saturday from the one submitted by the NSAB. The only difference is that the government now factors in the possible use of a nuclear weapon if the country and its forces are attacked using chemical or biological weapons (apart from nuclear weapons).
Karnad says this was also envisaged in the draft nuclear doctrine submitted by the NSAB.
“The CCS has no doubt discussed the chains of command and it is clear that while the authority vests at first with the civilian-political authority, how far down the line do you go before it passes on to the military'” he wondered.
Strategic experts say there is little difference in the structure of the NCA that Delhi has announced from that of its counterpart in Pakistan. But since the political leadership in Islamabad is in the hands of the military, the army will always wield the authority over its nuclear arsenal.
In Pakistan, after the President, General Pervez Musharraf, the line of succession passes on to army officers of lieutenant-general rank — chairman of Pakistan’s Strategic Forces Command and corps commanders.