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Custodian for nuclear arsenal

New Delhi, Jan. 10: The country’s first custodian of nuclear weapons has been appointed. Air Marshal Teja Mohan Asthana was today asked to take over as the commander-in-chief of the Strategic Forces Command from January 12.

The appointment was announced within a week of the formalisation of the Nuclear Command Authority by the Cabinet Committee on Security. Only last month, the National Security Advisory Board — a body with powers only to recommend and that is often used by policymakers as a sounding board — suggested that India should consider giving up its “no-first-strike” nuclear doctrine. However, this is unlikely to be immediately accepted, as the nuclear doctrine, reiterated during the formalisation of the NCA last week, made it clear that India will resort to nuclear weapons only as a response to a nuclear, chemical or biological attack.

The post of the commander-in-chief of the SFC is equivalent to the vice-chiefs of each of the armed forces, the chief of the Integrated Defence Staff and the chief of the tri-service command in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Defence sources said the post is “rotational” — it will be held in succession by air force, naval and army officers.

One of the air marshal’s top priorities as the first to head the SFC will be to locate the headquarters of the command and control centre for nuclear weapons. For the time being, the SFC will function from Delhi. The chief consideration for locating the SFC centre will be “survivability”, meaning its ability to outlive a nuclear first strike on India. Logically, the centre will be located away from the borders and the national capital.

The commander-in-chief, Strategic Forces Command, will report to the chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, a post currently held by naval chief Admiral Madhvendra Singh. It is not yet clear if the SFC chief will be a member of the executive council of the Nuclear Command Authority along with the service chiefs.

The appointment of an Indian Air Force officer as head of the SFC is not only in keeping with the defence ministry policy to ensure parity of posts among the services but it also indicates that the IAF is seen as the primary nuclear warhead delivery system.

The IAF already has aircraft said to be capable of delivering nuclear bombs and is, from this year, set to add strategic muscle to its fleet. (Later this month, the IAF is likely to take delivery of its first refueller). The need for parity arises because the equivalent heads of the chief of the IDS and the Andaman and Nicobar commands are from the army and the navy respectively.

Air Marshal Asthana is a professional fighter pilot with more than 3,000 hours of flying. He has also flown helicopters and commanded a fighter squadron in the east and two premier airbases in the western sector, which covers the border with Pakistan. He has headed the IAF’s Tactics and Combat Development Establishment. He was air officer commanding-in-chief of the Southern Air Command immediately before being attached to Air Headquarters pending his appointment as the SFC chief. Before that, he has been deputy chief of air staff (operations) and assistant chief of air staff (personnel). The air marshal is an alumnus of Bishop Cotton School, Nagpur, and Royal College of Defence Studies, UK.

The structure of the SFC and the units that will come under it are yet to be decided. It is likely that the army’s 333 Missile Group, which is in charge of the short-range Prithvi missiles, and a new missile unit that will be tasked to manage the Agni will be moved under the SFC.

The navy, which is in the process of acquiring a nuclear weapons submarine from Russia, may also have to transfer the asset to the SFC. The navy has been arguing that the primary nuclear weapons launch system should be water-based because such targets, if attacked, will restrict collateral damage.

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