Reveal India’s nuclear command structure - Hindustan Times
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Reveal India’s nuclear command structure

ByManoj Joshi
Feb 22, 2022 07:30 PM IST

The subject of nuclear weapons remains off-grid in India. There’s no public information on who constitutes the executive and political councils under the Nuclear Command Authority besides their chairmen

Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi’s visit to Punjab in January caused a huge uproar with the dramatic claim that his life was endangered by a blockade that prevented him from reaching Ferozepur. This allegation, however, is untrue. Still, the Punjab Police and the Special Protection Group (SPG)’s failure did result in an unacceptable breach in the PM’s security.

What is NCA’s succession plan in the event of a nuclear strike that takes out Lutyens Delhi and the entire CCS? (Ravi Choudhary/HT PHOTO) PREMIUM
What is NCA’s succession plan in the event of a nuclear strike that takes out Lutyens Delhi and the entire CCS? (Ravi Choudhary/HT PHOTO)

In the entire saga, one important aspect went unnoticed: Did those who decided to abandon the PM’s helicopter in Bhatinda and travel for more than two hours across the countryside in the rain and fog remember that the PM is the chairman of the Nuclear Command Authority (NCA)?

The security lapse happened even though the police and SPG knew that protests were planned, and demonstrators and the Bharatiya Janata Party supporters would throng the roads to reach the Hussainiwala Martyr’s Memorial, 200 metres from the India-Pakistan border. The incident shone a light on India’s unclear nuclear command structure.

The United States (US) president has the “nuclear football” (briefcase) by which he can authorise nuclear strikes when he’s travelling. Given India’s “no first use” (NFU) nuclear posture, Modi may not need a “football”, but he cannot afford to be incommunicado or blocked from performing his duties. In this case, the PM was cut off for 15-20 minutes, which is long enough. But it could also have been an hour or two and an encounter with the protesters could have been more threatening. There is, of course, the other matter of going towards the border of Pakistan, which has a penchant for sending armed attackers and drones.

In matters related to defence, people trust the government to do the right thing. The Parliament’s Standing Committee on Defence and the Comptroller & Auditor General keep track of activities and issue periodic reports, based on inside information. However, the subject of nuclear weapons remains off-grid. This has been in the domain of the executive, in particular the National Security Adviser (NSA). He heads the executive council of NCA and the PM heads the political council. These details came to us through a press release of January 4, 2003, detailing a Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) decision to approve a nuclear doctrine, constitute NCA and appoint a strategic forces commander (SFC) to execute nuclear strikes.

Nearly 20 years later, there is no public information on who constitutes these councils besides their chairmen. One can assume that the political council is likely to be the same as the CCS since it is the legal authority responsible for the country’s security. There, the PM has always been the primus inter pares (first among equals).

This poses a problem. What is NCA’s succession plan in the event of a nuclear strike that takes out Lutyens Delhi and the entire CCS? The last item of the January 4 press release said that CCS “also reviewed and approved arrangements for alternate chains of command for retaliatory nuclear strikes in all eventualities.”

All this, of course, sounds fantastic and improbable, but consider that, like us, our adversaries also possess nuclear weapons. Their use may be “unthinkable”, but these weapons have been made for use. And, so, you need procedures to deal with an exigency.

As per India’s nuclear doctrine, there will be retaliation but this “can only be authorised by the civilian political leadership through the Nuclear Command Authority.” With the NCA gone, some other political authority will have to authorise this. Will it be a surviving member of the council of ministers, or a council of chief ministers? In a country as huge and diverse as India, the issue of its legitimacy in the minds of the people cannot be ignored. Contrary to government instinct, the issue of alternative political succession should be made known publicly and legalised through law.

In the US, where the president is authorised to order a launch, there is a laid down legal succession from vice-president, speaker of the House of Representatives, president of the Senate, down a list of 15 Cabinet members named by their portfolio.

This issue gains more salience with questions about the NFU posture that the January 4 note confirmed.

A former NSA once told me, “Who believes in NFU? Certainly not our adversaries.” One former SFC has called for a mix of strategies that includes first use and “launch on warning” posture. Former NSA Shivshankar Menon, too, noted that there could be circumstances in which “India might find it useful to strike first.” While there remains a margin with China, which like us has pledged NFU, Pakistan makes no bones about its “first use” posture.

As it is, India and Pakistan may also be moving towards ready-to-use nuclear arsenals, rather than one with de-mated warheads. This makes the issues more manifest. It’s not that the Pakistanis would strike because they knew that the PM was stuck on a flyover. It is about responsible planning, which includes thinking of contingencies when the nuclear command-and-control chain may be disrupted, leaving the nation vulnerable.

Manoj Joshi is a distinguished fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi

The views expressed are personal

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