The decision by the government of India to establish a nuclear command authority will invite widespread approval from the country’s strategic community. This new clarity should add credibility to the country’s nuclear posture, and correct many of the misapprehensions about India’s nuclear policy within the international community. In addition to the setting up of a command authority, the cabinet committee on security is believed to have reviewed the progress made in implementing India’s nuclear doctrine, the state of readiness of its strategic forces and other issues related to the command and control of these weapons of mass destruction.
Much of all this was long overdue. For nearly a quarter of a century after India first tested its nuclear weapons in 1974, the military aspects of its programme remained shrouded in secrecy and ambiguity. It was only in 1998, after testing five more devices, that New Delhi openly admitted to possessing nuclear weapons. Apart from occasional statements made by the political leadership since then, the only real attempt, however, at constructing a nuclear doctrine for India was made by the nuclear security advisory board in 1999. The NSAB’s version identified the main principles of India’s nuclear policy. These included a minimum nuclear deterrent with land, air and sea-borne weapons; a policy of no-first-use of nuclear weapons; and a massive retaliatory strike in case of nuclear weapons strike against the country. The NSAB’s doctrine, however, remained a draft with the government never approving it officially. Moreover, the draft, while commendable for its brief recommendations and relatively clear ideas, did not flesh out vital aspects of the doctrine, particularly issues related to command and control. Since then, it has been known that a review is being undertaken, but that there were several issues, particularly stemming from what may loosely be described as inter-services rivalry, that needed to be thrashed out. These, hopefully, have now been cleared.
The nuclear command authority, responsible for the management of the country’s nuclear weapons, will have a two-tiered structure. The political council at the apex will be chaired by the prime minister and will be the sole body which can authorize the use of nuclear weapons. The political council will be aided by the executive council, which will be chaired by the national security advisor. The government has also approved the appointment of a commander-in-chief for the strategic forces, who will — in all likelihood — be a senior officer from the Indian air force. The only aspect of the new policy decisions that will cause some controversy is the caveat added to India’s no-first-use policy. Instead of the blanket commitment that India would never use nuclear weapons unless first attacked by nuclear weapons, the government has now added a rider. In case of an attack with biological or chemical weapons, India now retains the right to use nuclear weapons. Given the fact that terrorist organizations and their state sponsors may use such weapons, this new prudent decision too must be welcomed.