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September 5, 1998


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The day after

George Iype in New Delhi

Nearly four months after India conducted its nuclear tests, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government has not taken any concrete steps to set up the proposed National Security Council and establish a nuclear command system despite repeated requests from the Chiefs of Staff Committee.

Officials in the Prime Minister's Office said instituting these apex security bodies is getting delayed because it is "an intricate and time-consuming process".

"Setting up the top security apparatus also involves huge budgetary allocation. The government therefore plans to study how a nuclear command authority operates in other nuclear countries," an official associated with the plan told Rediff On The NeT.

Prime Minister Vajpayee is expected to constitute a committee of ministers comprising the defence, external affairs, finance and home ministers soon to concretise plans for these security projects. An expert group of officials will study the nuclear command system in countries like the United States and Russia, sources said.

While the Bharatiya Janata Party government is still uncertain about whose finger should be on the nuclear button, the chiefs of the army, navy and air force -- impatient about the delay -- have once again submitted their proposals on the subject to the prime minister.

In a recent communication, the service chiefs called upon the Vajpayee government to immediately form a strategic national organisation to handle nuclear conflict.

Their proposal says the country's top political authority supported by the military leadership should control the deployment of nuclear weapons.

It has recommended the constitution of a National Command Authority which will ultimately be responsible for taking vital decisions on the use of nuclear weapons in times of war. While the NCA should comprise the prime minister and defence, external affairs, finance and home ministers, the Chiefs of Staff Committee will act as military advisors.

The NCA should be replicated at various levels in order for it to be adequately functional and effective, it says.

The proposal from the service chiefs is not new. In April 1996, the Chiefs of Staff Committee had recommended to the government, the need to set up an NCA to handle any nuclear contingency.

"The armed forces have been submitting similar recommendations ever since India conducted its first nuclear test in 1974. But these proposals have been relegated to dusty files by the successive governments," a defence ministry official told Rediff On The NeT.

"The Vajpayee government has at least understood that the formation of a strategic nuclear command system is a necessity now that India is a nuclear power," he stated.

However, the official added that the only issue confronting the Vajpayee government is the nature and shape of a nuclear command authority -- whether it should be military or non-military.

Ever since the Pokhran tests in May, security experts have been voicing concern over the need for a nuclear command authority that would be the ultimate repository of decision making in times of a nuclear crisis.

In the current political and military framework, there is no institutionalised structure for handling a nuclear crisis. If India's political leadership in New Delhi happens to be a victim of a nuclear strike, there would then be no political or military authority in place to assume command of the situation in the country.

Therefore, security analysts insist that with India committed to a nuclear no-first use policy, a staggered and hierarchical nuclear command system is a fundamental requirement.

While the chiefs of army, navy and airforce are said not to be interested in the government's plan to study the nuclear command systems of other nuclear nations, officials say the administraion should set up the proposed National Security Council.

In June, the prime minister's task force headed by former defence minister K C Pant submitted a comprehensive report to Vajpayee recommending the immediate setting up of the NSC to take all decisions with regard to all security matters.

The task force recommended that the NSC -- comprising three divisions -- should be headed by a Cabinet rank national security advisor to the prime minister. The first division will look after long-term strategic planning and formulation of national security strategy, the second co-ordination of current decision making and follow-up policy implementation and the third, coordinated intelligence assessment for national security planning and management.

While Pant was reported to have emerged as a top contender for the national security advisor's job, the government has not decided the exact nature of the NSC.

Officials point out that while Defence Minister George Fernandes has been articulating the need to set up a top political-military nuclear authority to control the nuclear button, he has not yet cared to place this security agenda at recent Cabinet meetings.

"Everyone knows the need to set up the NCA and NSC. But it seems these security projects have been relegated to the sidelines," a senior official said.

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