The nuclear button

Print edition : January 31, 2003

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee with Cabinet colleagues and political allies at the nuclear test site in Pokhran on May 20, 1998. - SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

More than four and a half years after Pokhran-II, India finalises a nuclear command structure and formalises its nuclear doctrine.

NEW DELHI has finally unveiled details about India's nuclear command structure. It took the political leadership more than four and a half years after Pokhran-II to formalise the country's nuclear doctrine. India has been under considerable pressure from the West to spell out its official policy on the use of nuclear weapons since January 2002, when India and Pakistan seemed to be on the brink of war. Western diplomats say that the issue figured informally at recent high-level meetings. However, they point out that the issue was never brought up officially, as the Permanent Five nuclear nations had never recognised India and Pakistan as "de jure" nuclear weapons powers. Pakistan had set up its "Nuclear Command Authority" in February 2000. President Pervez Musharraf, who had overthrown the civilian government, was naturally the man in control of the nuclear button.

It was Musharraf's recent speech to Pakistani Air Force officers that once again focussed international attention on South Asia. Musharraf asserted that it was Pakistan's threat to use "unconventional" tactics that prevented India from launching a full-scale war against his country last year. The Indian side has chosen to interpret the General's words as an undisguised threat of first use of nuclear weapons. Musharraf has since clarified that he never talked about resorting to nuclear weapons. "Unconventional war could mean anything, including guerilla war," said a diplomat. However, New Delhi reacted vigorously, with officials warning that a nuclear strike against India would be met with massive retaliation.

The announcement of the nuclear force structure came in the midst of the war of words between New Delhi and Islamabad. The announcement, on January 3, came after a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), which met to review the progress achieved in implementing India's nuclear doctrine, the readiness of its strategic forces and the procedures for their command and control. A nuclear command structure has been in place for quite some time. The government in its wisdom chose not to divulge its key aspects until now. The announcement came at a time when reports alleging a Pakistani role in the spread of nuclear and missile technology were making the rounds. New Delhi has been voicing openly its concerns about the nexus between Islamabad and Pyongyang in the proliferation of nuclear technology.

There are also stories circulating in diplomatic circles about India shopping around for nuclear material. These pertain to the purchase of "red mercury" from Central Asia and Russia. The substance is used as a detonator for plutonium-loaded nuclear weapons and for other nuclear-related activities.

India's Nuclear Command Authority (NCA) is a two-tier body consisting of a Political Council and an Executive Council. The Political Council, to be chaired by the Prime Minister, will be "the sole body which will authorise the use of nuclear weapons". The Executive Council will be chaired by the Principal Adviser to the Prime Minister, who will "provide inputs for decision-making by the NCA" and execute the directives given to it by the Political Council. Brajesh Mishra, the current Principal Adviser, seems to have emerged even more powerful after the formation of the NCA. The Executive Council will consist of top civil servants and military officials. It is expected to meet at regular intervals and keep the political leadership acquainted with the latest developments.

The control of strategic assets will be in the hands of the CCS while the executive committee will have a judicious mix of civil servants and military officers. During its meeting in the first week of January, the CCS gave its approval for the creation of the post of a "Commander-in-Chief, Strategic Forces Command". Air Vice Marshal T.M. Asthana of the Indian Air Force will be the first Commander. The Strategic Forces Command will comprise of representatives from all the three military services. It is not yet clear under whose control it will be or whether the Strategic Command will have a separate force of its own.

The CCS statement, which announced the creation of the NCA, expressed "satisfaction with the overall preparedness" of the country's nuclear force to face any exigency. The statement highlighted India's decision to keep only "a credible minimum deterrent" and its commitment to the principle of "no first use".

India has also pledged not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon powers. However, the CCS statement also said that in the event of a major attack against India "by biological and chemical weapons", India will retain the option of retaliating with nuclear weapons. This stance mimics that taken by the United States during the 1991 Gulf War, where the Americans threatened to use nuclear weapons if they were attacked with biological or chemical weapons. According to observers, in practical terms, New Delhi's decision to counter biological and chemical attacks with nuclear weapons means that the stated official policy of "no first use" becomes irrelevant.

The CCS statement also contained a warning, obviously aimed at Islamabad that the "nuclear retaliation to a first strike will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage". The statement also focussed on India's strict control over the export of sensitive technologies and materials, its continued adherence to a moratorium on tests and the commitment to global disarmament. However, the government has not been very forthcoming about the composition of the Political and Executive Councils that constitute the NCA. But the CCS statement stressed that the government had "reviewed and approved the arrangements for alternate chains of command for retaliatory nuclear strikes in all eventualities". According to Indian officials, if there is an attack targeting the nation's leadership "the alternative nuclear command authority will be in a position to take charge" and ensure maximum retaliation. They insist that there are foolproof mechanisms in place to prevent any accidental or unauthorised use of nuclear weapons.

Brajesh Mishra, National Security Adviser to the Prime Minister, will head the Executive Council of the Nuclear Command Authority.-PRAKASH SINGH/AFP

According to the officials, India is making "methodical progress" in building up its nuclear capabilities. They claim that there is no pressure from the international community on the issue of disarmament. They point out that the last time the Americans broached the subject at a high level was during President Bill Clinton's tenure. The current incumbent in the White House has not said a critical word against India's nuclear programme, they say. The Europeans seem to be more worried about the pace of nuclearisation in the subcontinent. The French, along with some other West European countries, propose to send a team of experts to Pakistan and India. They have requested permission from the concerned Indian and Pakistani authorities.

A DAY after the announcement of the formation of India's NCA, Pakistan's National Command Authority, the country's nuclear command structure, met formally. Prime Minister Mir Zafrullah Khan Jamali and Foreign Minister Khurshid Mohammed Kasuri, who are members of the Authority, were briefed about its functioning. Islamabad maintains that the decision to use nuclear weapons will not rest solely on the shoulders of President Musharraf or any other individual but will depend on the unanimous decision of the Authority. Pakistan's National Command Authority is headed by President Musharraf and is said to be dominated by the military, despite its recent expansion.

After the briefing, Jamali said that Pakistan would continue to develop nuclear weapons "for our minimum deterrence needs". He expressed "complete satisfaction" with the effectiveness of the country's command and control structures. Jamali dismissed reports relating to the proliferation of nuclear and missile technologies involving Islamabad and Pyongyang, terming them as "mischievous, motivated and highly irresponsible". He went on to add that Pakistan was a responsible nuclear power with "an impeccable record of safety and security".

However, Indian officials point out that the international community is greatly concerned about the security and safety of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. They suggest that Pakistan has been provided American technology to help make the weapons safer. According to Indian sources, the U.S. is involved "in the security of Pakistan's nuclear weapons" in order to prevent their unauthorised use. Many non-proliferation experts in the U.S. have started saying that with the chances of de-nuclearisation of the subcontinent being remote, both India and Pakistan should be provided technology that can make the possession of weapons safer.

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