A credible nuclear deterrent?

Print edition : April 11, 2003

In the absence of a chief of defence staff in the command and control structure of the Nuclear Command Authority doubts have been raised about the credibility of India's nuclear deterrent.

in New Delhi

DESPITE India's recent announcement that it has established a Nuclear Command Authority (NCA), the country's military and security planners are questioning the overall credibility of its deterrent and the ability to respond effectively to a nuclear first strike.

"The fundamental flaw in the NCA is the absence of how exactly it will operate in the heat of battle, as vital pieces in its command and control structure like the appointment of a chief of defence staff (CDS) are far from being in place," a senior military officer said. "For a newly emerged nuclear-armed state like India, real-time intelligence, seamless communication, and increasingly automated battlefield requirements demand that the services are restructured, trained and equipped in an integrated manner. For this a CDS is vital," an officer associated with the military's reorganisation said.

Military and Ministry of Defence officials admit that differences between the three services over the appointment of a CDS have hampered not only the long-overdue revamp of India's military apparatus, but also adversely impacted management of the newly created Strategic Forces Command (SFC). Moves to streamline procurement and operational procedures have also been impeded.

"In the nuclear field, unless we have an integrated command and control system, we risk deterrence credibility," said Gen. Ved Prakash Malik former Chief of the Army Staff, adding that the "most serious holdback" regarding reform was the delay in appointing a CDS. He complained that the armed forces continued to be kept out of the national security loop and were not "adequately consulted" by the government on operational and strategic matters. "This [disconnect] can result in huge communication gaps between what is politically desirable and what is being planned by the military," he added. This is especially true of nuclear affairs.

"The fight between the Indian Air Force (IAF) and the Army over operational matters has never been resolved," said an Air Force officer. The Navy, for its part, believes India has adopted the "continental approach" for too long and failed to grasp the imperative of guarding a 7,000-km coastline, distant island territories and untold mineral resources in its exclusive economic zone spread over 2.8 million sq km. It is also convinced that its reach gives it the advantage over the other services to vindicate its in-built nuclear deterrence capability. But the Navy is also in `silent conflict' with the IAF over acquiring an aircraft carrier from Russia and locally building a 32,000-tonne air defence ship (ADS). The IAF is of the view that this money would be better spent in developing its own capability at sea.

Officials say that India's political and bureaucratic leadership would not relinquish its hold over military affairs nor welcome the appointment of a CDS. The Defence Ministry recently told the all-party Standing Committee on Defence that "clean demarcation" of operational responsibilities between service commanders and co-operation was ensured through close interaction and task allocations. It claimed that the prevailing system had worked well for decades and did not need any change. "The fallacy of these claims was tested during the Kargil war when it took almost three weeks for the Army and the Air Force to co-ordinate attacks against infiltrators in Kashmir," a military official said. By the time the Air Force launched its aerial attacks the Army's casualties had multiplied considerably, he added.

The Integrated Defence Staff (IDS), created as a "watered down CDS" in October 2001, has not been successful in reducing the military's isolation from nuclear-policy planning, which is conducted by civilians in the Defence Ministry. "As there is no horizontal integration between the Service Headquarters and the Defence Ministry, a combative mentality has grown between the two," said Finance Minister Jaswant Singh, who was Defence Minister until October 2001. "Such an attitude has its own damaging consequences... becoming the principal destroyer of the cutting edge of the military's morale. The sword arm of the state gets blunted by the state itself ," Jaswant Singh declared in his book Defending India.

Alongside, there is strong competition for a larger share of the country's nuclear arsenal and the resources for developing it, with little attempt at a unified approach. The CDS was to have been the central authority to harmonise those efforts. "One of the myths with which we have consistently deluded ourselves over half a century is that the armed forces have always been joint in their ethos... The armed forces by themselves lack the institutional will and vision to bring about any meaningful change on their own," said Admiral Arun Prakash, the Western Fleet commander and former head of the only tri-service Andaman and Nicobar (CINCAN) command, in an incisive analysis in the Journal of the United Service Institution (October - December 2002).

"We should be well aware that jointmanship in our context has yet to take root and that instinctively the Services will fight each other ruthlessly if they think that their share of the budgetary cake is under threat or what they perceive as their `core competence' is likely to be encroached upon," Admiral Prakash stated in a scathing criticism of the "insularity and complacency" of the military's overall philosophy or lack of it.

MOST military officers and analysts are agreed that the complexities of nuclear deterrence require a CDS as the `single point' provider of military advice to the government on defence management and military operations. The CDS would be the `first among equals' and head the SFC, the newly created Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA), as well as India's only tri-service command on the Andaman Islands. So far the IDS, the proposed CDS secretariat, lacks the authority to perform coherently or effectively without an authoritative and accountable head. Military officers concede that the IDS headed by Lt.-Gen. Pankaj Joshi has been unsuccessful in bringing about multi-service doctrinal or operational cohesion even in the Andaman command or DIA. Personnel in both organisations continue to owe allegiance to their parent service and look on the joint commands as detrimental to their careers.

The IDS was expected to restrain individual services from developing capabilities like command, control, communications and intelligence (C3I) systems with little or no commonality or interoperability with those of the other services. The Army Strategic Communication Network, for example, is digitised while the Air Force's Air Defence Ground Environment System is not. Also, while conversions between the two systems are relatively simple, a calculation error led to mistakes by the Air Force in the 1999 Kargil conflict with Pakistan. It was also expected to control duplication in areas like surveillance systems, airspace management and missiles.

Instead of defusing this growing friction by appointing a CDS, the government has adopted an approach that could be dubbed `appeasement'. It has made an Army officer the IDS head, Vice Admiral O. P. Bansal the Andaman tri-service commander to succeed Admiral Prakash and Air Marshal T. M. Asthana, the newly created SFC chief. This may cause an indefinite deferring of the CDS appointment at a critical time.

INDIA, unlike Pakistan, maintains a second strike or retaliatory option of its nuclear weapons arsenal that is currently based on fighter aircraft and road- and rail-mobile missiles. The sea leg of the triad is yet to become operational. It is expected to get a boost after Delhi clinches the deal with Moscow later this year to lease two Akula-class Type 971 nuclear-powered submarines and four Tu 22 M strategic bomber/maritime strike aircraft. Defence Minister George Fernandes indicated during his Moscow visit in January that agreements for these platforms were imminent.

The SFC has initial planning and eventual operational control of nuclear weapons, Defence Research and Development Organisation scientists will be responsible for mating the missiles and warheads that, in turn, are held in custody by the Atomic Energy Commission. The delivery platforms will be at separate locations, as will the nuclear material.

Security officials said a "basic" nuclear weapons system was temporarily "in place" during the Kargil crisis last year when tensions with Pakistan ran high. "India was in a position to retaliate with nuclear weapons if the need arose," the official said. Four days after the announcement of the NCA, senior Defence officials revealed in select media briefings that India had "more than one alternative nuclear command structure in place".

In the event of a surprise attack, "these alternative command authorities would be in a position to take retaliatory action", the senior officials said. Official sources believe the elevation of Home Minister L. K. Advani to the post of Deputy Prime Minister last year was related to the back-up nuclear command-and-control arrangements.

"The enemy will be deterred by knowing that such a command exists, but not know where it is," the senior official said, indicating that there "might" be "two or three" such alternative command structures. There are indications of parallel contingency command-and-control procedures and communication links at command posts around the country. Those bunkers are capable of withstanding a nuclear strike equivalent to that produced by the US B-61 mod11 earth-penetrating nuclear bomb. One such post is expected to be within 100-200 km of Delhi. A rudimentary fail-safe escalatory ladder has also been created to prevent the nuclear weapons from being accidentally launched or captured by a rogue commander.

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