The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- India’s statement about nuclear command authority is perfectly timed

Nuclear weapons are political weapons. They are not military weapons. Professional militaries do not factor in nuclear weapons as war fighting assets for the simple reason that they are not the preserve of the military. Operational plans may cater to the “possible” induction of nuclear weapons into the theatre of combat, but these are not central to the campaign per se. Professional militaries are organized to conduct conventional military operations using conventional weapons and strategy.

Those militaries that do are either roguish, or are habituated by extended periods of supremacy over society. Brutal regimes remain wedded to notions of nuclear weapons as if providers of military incomparability. Their armed forces, made as roguish as the state they seek to shelter, use actual, or perceived, possession of nuclear weapons as an advancement of their twisted vision.

Nuclear weapons are political assets to psychologically impair the enemy, threaten unacceptable retaliatory damage, and contain escalation within conventional levels. In other words, they are psychological weapons, used solely to prevent rather than promote war. Even when they were used in 1945, their singular purpose was to psychologically hammer a Japan that had already been defeated militarily. If, god forbid, they are to be used, then it would be as weapons of last resort: to protect the country from further damage, or to impose unacceptably high retaliatory destruction on the enemy. These thoughts are the conditions under which professional militaries function, and the sole determinants of such actions remain the political leadership of the country.

This much is amply clear from the statement of the cabinet committee on security announcing the formation of the nuclear command authority. Before running a toothcomb through the text of the statement, and some really interesting first-time declarations, it is only proper to assert that the timing of the announcement couldn’t be better. The multiple-office, all-purpose general, suffering from an incurable foot-in-the-mouth disorder having once again choked on his own words, his trading partner in Pyongyang blustering over the same technology, and the neo-Mesopotamian emperor with a rapidly shrinking reign-span, all seem to be stepping out of line in tandem. Ménage a trois of the alarming, ringing the nuclear bell to the horror of the decorous.

Long in the making, but timed to perfection, India then releases the first pointers to its nuclear posture and planning. It was overdue, and most welcome. Civilian supremacy, a nuanced no-first use guideline and a further declaration of universal non-discriminatory disarmament principles reign supreme through the statement. While they remain the bedrock of Indian policy, that policy itself continues to be determined by the civilian political leadership. Living in a neighbourhood given to shelling first and then retreating, this is most heartening. The benefits are immediate, and yet intangible. “Nuclear retaliatory attacks can only be authorized by the civilian political leadership through the nuclear command authority,” declared the CCS.

The procedures being as they will be, and the constitution remaining supreme over the self, this guideline removes the possibility of a talibanized nuclear war-monger giving the go-ahead to peremptory strikes, on windmills, or otherwise. This reassurance will go a long way, especially at a time when the world has its hands filled with a troika of nuclear deviants.

The really interesting departure from the past positions is a new take on the “no-first use” policy. Read “a posture of ‘No First Use’ nuclear weapons will only be used in retaliation against a nuclear attack on Indian territory or on Indian forces anywhere” and then follow it up with “however, 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”. This is significant on two counts.

The “no first use” position is not an open-ended proclamation any more. The invitation to bio-chemically wound the country has now been revoked. Even as it once gave a “moral” stamp to the possession of such weapons of mass destruction, it did leave the country and its assets vulnerable to threats from other types of weapons of mass destruction, biological or chemical agents. The retaliatory option was tied down by limiting weapons of mass destruction attack to within the nuclear confines only. With India signing on the chemical weapons convention, it had ruled itself out from launching a tit-for-tat response to such weapons of mass destruction attacks. Indian assets would then have been vulnerable in perpetuity had one of the roguish types limited attacks to just chemical or biological. The declaration that a WMD attack could be returned by a WMD response has greater deterrence value than simply possession. Particularly when taken together with the other interesting departure.

There is a great deal of intent, meaning and vision in the line “or on Indian forces anywhere”. The obvious implication is that Indian troops will operate under a nuclear umbrella if so required. But the deployment intentions become so much broader when that umbrella is taken to mean “anywhere” that Indian soldiers, sailors or airmen may find themselves positioned. There is finally, therefore, a realization that India’s security interests could include deployment well beyond the cartographic limitations of the country. And if the armed forces have still to be effective, their operational value cannot be constrained by the absence of an implementable shield. A larger vision of India’s security concerns, and possible activities, is finally coming to be accepted, and enunciated. But for this nuclear cover to be made as inviolable as possible, a little tinkering with the executive council of the NCA is required.

The most effective, and secure, nuclear weapon is a missile launched from a submarine. The submarine platform itself gives more secrecy than is achievable anywhere on land or air. Coupled with that is the issue of targeting priorities, an executive council function. Targeting to be efficacious, however gory as this may read, requires human as well as technical intelligence inputs. An initial human sourced input would then have to be zeroed in through technical means. And in this era there is nothing more useful than satellites, for transmitting imagery, coordinates, as well as command directions. Satellite feeds for submarine-launched missiles will, therefore, be the key to actualizing the declaration “or on Indian forces anywhere”.

Which then also means the appointment of a commander-in-chief strategic forces. Command must not be taken as the preserve of a particular service. A rotational approach has to be maintained in manning this office, especially when the intention is to put together an effective deterrent based on a nuclear triad. That will ensure an equitable distribution of resources in the development of the triad. Competition at that stage, and level, will only delay and possibly deny an efficacious deployment of the triad. There must be a flexibility inbuilt into the appointment of the commander-in-chief. For inherent in that flexibility is secrecy, and deception: key to possessing nuclear weapons.

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