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Delhi flaunts deterrent in dual nuke chain

New Delhi, Jan. 7: Delhi feels the alternate command structure it has put in place to cause “unacceptable damage” to its adversary in the event of a nuclear strike on India will be the biggest deterrent for Pakistan or any other state against targeting the country.

Though India has made it clear that its nuclear doctrine is not country-specific, going by its current threat perception, it is aimed at Pakistan — a country which has adopted a “first-strike” posture and does not hesitate to issue the threat from time to time.

A realistic Indian assessment of the Pakistani nuclear arsenal suggests that Islamabad does not have more than 10 to 12 warheads capable of hitting targets about 1,000 km away. Depending on where the nuke is launched from, this means Delhi and other important cities are within Islamabad’s range.

India’s confidence that Pakistan will not opt for the nuclear option stems from the clear message it has managed to convey to its hostile neighbour about the alternate command structure it has put in place. Though the number of nuclear weapons that India has developed or is likely to develop will be kept a secret, indications are it will be much more than Pakistan’s and they would be capable of inflicting massive damage.

In fact, the alternate command structure that India is talking of may be two or more and will be stationed away from Delhi. But their composition or who would head that structure or where it will be located will be kept a secret as India feels this to be the best guarantee against any nuclear attack.

Soon after India announced its nuclear command structure on Saturday, a debate started over the alternate structure and the measures Delhi would take if a nuclear attack wiped out the political leadership. The emphasis on such a command put by the government today may help in putting to rest the current debate.

“This is the best guarantee we have. This is the best deterrent,” a senior government official said. Sources pointed out that as long as Pakistan knows that Delhi has put in place an alternate command structure to retaliate in the event of a surprise nuclear attack, it will think “100 times” before using nuclear weapons against India.

India’s nuclear command structure, announced last week, stresses on the doctrine of “no-first-use” and that the nuclear button will be with the Prime Minister. But striking a fine balance between transparency and secrecy, authoritative sources today fleshed out what the composition of the political council and the executive council will be.

The political council headed by the Prime Minister will have almost all the members of the Cabinet Committee on Security — meaning the home minister, the defence minister, the finance minister and the foreign minister would be part of it. The national security adviser and the Cabinet secretary will also be in the political council, which will take the final decision on whether India should retaliate in kind in the event of a nuclear attack.

The second stage of the formal nuclear command structure will be the executive council headed by the national security adviser. The commander-in-chief of the Strategic Forces Command (SFC), the three chiefs of services and the Cabinet secretary will be the other members. Sources said: “This will allow minimum loss of time if the country was to retaliate with nuclear weapons.” Since the commander-in-chief of the SFC — which will be guarding India’s nuclear assets — is also part of the executive council, he can pass on necessary command to his forces. The SFC, the sources said, will be a mix-and-match from the army, navy and the air force.

But what seems to be evolving as one of India’s main nuclear planks is its decision to keep more than one alternate command structure ready for use. Though chances of a nuclear war in South Asia are remote, policy planners feel that in war-gaming, all possible scenarios should be taken into account.

The sources said India’s nuclear arsenal was ready and could have been delivered effectively if Pakistan had used nukes either during the Kargil conflict in the summer of 1999 or even during last year’s troops build-up.

The sources argued that there was no immediate provocation to announce the nuclear command structure as it has been in place for some time. The only thing missing was the SFC to formalise the structure, and as soon as it came into being, the government decided to share it with the Indian people and the outside world.

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