It is obvious that all the nation’s nuclear cards cannot be placed face up. Any putative adversary only needs to know of the state’s capacity and resolve to use them. To this end, information is needed in the public domain, but ambiguity also serves the end of deterrence. It is for this reason, perhaps, that some seemingly loose ends in India’s nuclear complex are left uncertain.
It was in January 2003, when the Cabinet Committee on Security, in a press release of the Cabinet Secretariat pronounced itself satisfied with the nuclear developments and mandated a few more. These, in particular the Strategic Forces Command (SFC), has now been instituted. Yet, a study by Manpreet Sethi on Nuclear Command and Control (NC2) for the Delhi based armed forces institute, CENJOWS, points out to issues that still need attention. This article draws attention to the intelligence aspect of it, with the hope that the uncertainty surrounding this owes its ambiguity to policy.
NC2 comprises the intelligence, decision-making, communication and execution network of the nuclear strategic complex. In India, the intelligence gathering responsibility lies with the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO) for civilian affairs and the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) for the military.. The latter is part of the Integrated Defence Staff (HQ IDS). On the operations side, the HQ SFC is entrusted with planning, targeting and operations, which include the nuclear command posts, alternatives and the operations rooms.
This implies a bifurcation of the whole process at two levels. The civilian side of intelligence reports to the National Security Advisor (NSA). The DIA, having under it the Defence Image Processing and Analysis Centre (DIPAC) and Signal Intelligence resources, reports to the Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC). The role of the Chief of Integrated Staff to Chairman, COSC (CISC) in this interface is not distinct. Coordination bodies exist in the form of the ICG, TCG and the recreated Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) of the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS). At the second level, the operations and intelligence are in separate silos, HQ SFC and HQ IDS respectively. The C-in-C, SFC reports to the Chairman COSC. The Chairman COSC being a rotating appointment and double-hatted, levels of integration are sub-optimal.
The NSA and Chairman COSC are in the Executive Council of the Nuclear Command Authority charged with execution of nuclear related orders of the Political Council. The NSA is not in the command channel but by virtue of his position as head of the Executive Council, has a responsibility. It can be expected that the NSCS has a section coordinating the nuclear dimension of the NSA’s multifarious responsibilities. This is important since the nuclear complex comprises civilian agencies of Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) outside the military loop. The execution part is exercised by the Chairman COSC and conveyed by him to the SFC. The relationship of the civilian component in SFC, such as those charged with the warheads from AEC and the delivery vehicles of DRDO, is not in the open domain. Ideally, they need to have the status ‘coming under command on order’.
This structure does not fulfill the criterion of ‘unity of command’. The principle finds mention in the Draft Nuclear Doctrine of 1999 and is a hallowed military tenet. The seeming shortfall can be made up by action along two directions. One involves the oft quoted panacea, the office of the CDS or Chairman Chiefs of Staff. The second is in the integration of the intelligence and operations function within one HQ.
A case to point is the Pakistani structure, which has the Strategic Plans Division (SPD) integrating intelligence and operations at the operational level by subsuming the operations and planning directorate and the C4I2SR directorates. The transparency attending this owes to their ambiguous doctrine of ‘asymmetric escalation’ and being forced by a concerned international community to convince it that its nuclear jewels are safe from an internal insurgency. This could constitute a ‘take-away’, although the SPD’s collapsing of strategic and operational levels into its mandate can have no lessons for anyone.
While the creation of a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) has proven a difficult political decision, the second direction would be easier. The question is which HQ – HQ IDS or HQ SFC? If within the HQ IDS, it would enable the Chairman COSC to be responsive to his mandate of overseeing execution of orders of the Political Council. If located within HQ SFC, it would be to overburden the C-in-C with authority that rightly needs to be with the Chairman COSC. The SFC must be responsible for execution. The decision-making and its support activities of operations and intelligence need to be with the COSC.
This reinforces the case for a CDS. But it is interesting to note that the Group of Ministers (GOM) report of 2001, that recommended the creation of the appointment, only accorded it the duty of ‘administrative control’ over the deterrent. With the subsequent creation of the SFC, there is a need to move beyond this stipulation as and when the CDS is indeed a reality.
A two-step process could be taken so as to be mindful of the threat perceptions of adversaries. In the first the intelligence, planning and operations directorates could be collocated with HQ IDS. Thereafter, when the internal political and intra-military (inter-Service) contentions are sorted out, the CDS could be created. It is best the reengineering suggested is grappled with in peace time than in crisis or conflict. Corrective action taken in face of crisis later could have the unintended outcome of heightening the intensity of the crisis.
Currently, the seeming shortfalls in India’s NC2 have the advantage of conveying India’s ‘relaxed’ nuclear posture. It is of a piece with the NFU. The posture is in India’s interest in that India has no interest in extending the nuclear overhang. India’s self-denial in giving itself responsive NC2 reinforces India’s threat of counter value response amounting to unacceptable damage. This helps with deterrence.
However, in the remote worst-case scenario of deterrence breakdown, India, not having the flexibility for a nuanced response, would lay itself open to like retaliation of unacceptable levels. It is therefore in India’s interest to contemplate a GOM II restricted to the nuclear complex, bringing together the technical, intelligence, operations and executive components of the civilian and military domains.
Ali Ahmed is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA)
(Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the views either of the Editorial Committee or the Centre for Land Warfare Studies).