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August 17, 1999


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It will be PM's finger on India's nuclear trigger

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Amberish K Diwanji in New Delhi

The Prime Minister of India will be the authority in command and control of the country's nuclear weapons, who will decide if and when nuclear weapons are to be used.

This was declared in a draft of the Indian nuclear doctrine, prepared by the National Security Advisory Board, and released to the media by National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra, who is also principal adviser to the prime minister.

Mishra was accompanied by K Subrahmanyam, chairman of the 27-member NSA Board, and external affairs ministry spokesman Raminder Singh Jassal.

Mishra declared that the purpose of making the nuclear doctrine draft public was to bring about transparency in India's nuclear programme, "to invite a debate and discussion from members of the public, so that when we finally evolve a nuclear doctrine, it will be the best the country can have".

According to the draft, the authority to release India's nuclear weapons will rest with the prime minister or "the designated successor(s)".

But both Mishra and Subrahmanyam were tight-lipped on who the "designated successors" are or will be. "It is a secret," Mishra replied.

Mishra said India already has a command-and-control system in place, and the aim of the draft doctrine is to enhance it. "We have had a command-and-control system from the day we tested nuclear weapons at Pokhran on May 11 and 13, 1998. It is not as if there was or is no command-and-control till such time as a nuclear doctrine is officially set up," he explained.

"What we are now seeking is a complete nuclear doctrine to give us a holistic picture. There is no contradiction in what we have and what we propose [to have]."

Mishra said it was India's possession of nuclear weapons that prevented the Kargil conflict from becoming an all-out war. (Ironically, Pakistan had made a similar claim about its own nuclear capability a few days ago.)

He insisted that India would adhere to the policy of never being the first to use nuclear weapons and never using them against a non-nuclear state. But he said if the adversary is a non-nuclear weapons state protected by a nuclear power, then India would review the situation. But "our singular purpose of possessing nuclear arms is that of a strategic deterrent. We have no intention to ever use it against anyone else except in self-defence," he declared.

Mishra refuted comparisons between the nuclear weapons control system and the shooting down of the Pakistani aircraft. "In both cases there will be standard operating procedures. In the case of nuclear weapons, the orders can only come from the prime minister, whereas in the Kutch case, as per procedure, the pilot was authorised to take necessary action," he pointed out.

The draft doctrine speaks of a "credible minimum nuclear deterrence", the aim of which is to deter the use and threat of use of nuclear weapons by any state or entity against India and its forces. The number of weapons needed for such deterrence is a dynamic concept, related to the strategic environment, technological imperatives and needs of national security.

The draft states that India's peacetime posture aims at convincing any potential aggressor that any threat of use of nuclear weapons shall invoke measures to counter the threat; and any nuclear attack shall result in punitive retaliation with nuclear weapons to inflict damage unacceptable to the aggressor.

The draft doctrine speaks of the assured capability to shift from peacetime deployment to full employable forces in the shortest possible time, and the ability to retaliate effectively even in the case of significant degradation by hostile forces.

Mishra insisted the government would carry on with its research and design activities, even if India were to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. "The CTBT is no bar on sub-critical tests," he pointed out.

Subrahmanyam refused to give the cost estimate for the deterrent force, saying the question was incorrect. "First, the expenses for a minimum deterrence is a classified matter and the NSA Board has no idea about it. Second, any expense must be seen over a period of time. So if we are spending a lot of money in a short period of time, that obviously would be a burden, but the same amount over a long period of time would be acceptable," he said.

Mishra said a strategic defence review is being planned, and will be done by a select body of people within a few months. This review will include both conventional and nuclear weapons.

Mishra, who said the Kargil conflict came as a surprise, said it had shown the need to enhance the armed forces' conventional weapons capability as well.

The draft doctrine states that India's nuclear forces will be a triad of aircraft, mobile land-based missiles, and sea-based assets. The survivability of these weapons will be enhanced by a combination of multiple redundant systems, mobility, dispersion and deception.

Moreover, the command and control will be organised to ensure a very high survivability against any surprise attack and for rapid punitive action. The weapons will be organised to ensure that they survive a first strike and endure repeated attrition attempts with adequate retaliatory capabilities for a punishing second strike that would be unacceptable to the aggressor.

Mishra said the new government that will be formed after the election will take the necessary decisions on the nuclear doctrine.

He said the government had decided last year to go nuclear because the past years of nuclear ambiguity no longer served the nation's security needs.

But the prime minister's adviser had no answer when asked why the draft doctrine was being made public just before the general election even though it was ready more than a month ago. "The draft seems to be the concluding part of the National Democratic Alliance's manifesto that was released yesterday," one of the journalists present at the press conference quipped.

Subrahmanyam pleaded that the date for publicising the draft was the government's choice. "I am just a government servant asked to prepare the draft. After that, it is up to the government to do what it thinks fit," he said.

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