Home > News > Columnists > Major General (retd) Ashok K Mehta
A Strategic Forces Command, finally!
February 10, 2003
Much excitement was generated over the announcement of the formation of the long-awaited Strategic Forces Command and the nuclear chain of command, the Nuclear Command Authority, to order and implement a retaliatory nuclear strike.
Also debated in the media was the issue of alternate leadership, both political and military and its location in the event of a decapitating first strike as well as the soundness of No First Use. The matter gained prominence because General Pervez Musharraf declared on December 30, 2002 that Pakistan would have used its nuclear weapon even if a single soldier had crossed the Line of Control or the International Border during the 10-month Operation Parakram.
The internal debate following Musharraf's admission has revolved around the survivability after a First Strike of not just the nuclear arsenal but also of the NCA which is to ensure a devastating response in order to prevent the use of the nuclear option by Pakistan in the first place. It entails the protection of the political and the military authority and their standbys in the run up to a war-like or war situation in which the use of a nuclear weapon by the adversary is likely or imminent.
It will be instructive to recall that the threat of a Pakistan nuclear strike was taken seriously for the first time in 1987 during Exercise Brass Tacks when the Indian high commissioner in Islamabad was served a nuclear threat. At that time, Pakistan was known to have 5 to 7 bombs of 12 to 15 KT variety and India had none, though it had been nuclear capable since 1974.
In fact a year later, Pakistan used a chemical weapon in Siachen which sent our scientists scurrying for a matching response. It was after these two developments that India's security planners pleaded the country take appropriate defensive measures against a Pakistani nuclear, biological and chemical strike and reconsider its nuclear option.
The then defacto defence minister, Arun Singh, and army chief, General K Sundarji pressed Rajiv Gandhi to at least start the preliminaries of a secure and safe system for Nuclear Command and Control. Not only was one leg of the strategic nuclear triad operationalised but serious work was done on the NCA, its chain of succession and most notably the construction of a National Command Post.
In its programme on global terrorism, the BBC recently showed a graphic but chilling account of how the US protected its NCA in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 showing underground shelters, dispersion and deception methods and adoption of the highest state of alert since the 1973 middle east war.
The Indian NCP and its alternative structures both on the ground and in the air were war-gamed and funds committed for the minimum essential protection to withstand an NBC and Electro Magnetic Pulse threat from Pakistan.
It was funny Pakistan and Indian nuclear experts at the time were scouting in the same countries for the software for NCP and NBC kits. The origin of the NBC cell in service headquarters can be traced to the late 1980s.
So shy were we those days about nuclear use even in print that Sundarji had to write his book, The Blind Men of Hindoostan (The A-Z of Nuclear tactics, Strategy and Holocaust) as a series of dream sequences. Air Marshal Brajesh Jayal followed suit and authored another book Of Mandarins and Martyrs wherein the political leaders and bureaucrats were daydreaming about the nuclear threat.
Fifteen years later with Sundarji gone, the nuclear architecture is a stark reality. The point is that India's nuclear doctrine, are still not perfect where the command and control structures have not come up from scratch or after the nuclear tests of 1998 but have evolved since 1986, if not 1974.
It is fortuitous coincidence that the man who kickstarted the nuclear process in 1980s, Arun Singh, reappeared during Kargil and after to steer the higher defence reforms which included the SFC. The approach paper on this subject was authored by him and was ready by September 2001 before it did a 12-month tour of the services and various departments of the government.
The SFC, nuts and bolts in place, was ready for notification by last September. On December 31, a day after Musharraf's doomsday declaration, a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security was scheduled for January 4, 2003. This was planned for late December but the PM chose to go to Goa -- where the SFC along with the country's nuclear doctrine (a refined version of the August 1999 paper) were formally adopted.
The SFC, the nation's third post-reforms triservice command/establishment as expected, went to the Air Force, the first two -- Integrated Defence Staff and Andaman and Nicobar Command -- having gone to the Army and Navy. The C-in-C of SFC will now be allotted the strategic nuclear assets which in the not too distant future will constitute the triad of land based missiles, air or space-delivered weapons and sea-based platforms.
Air Marshal T S Asthana has been appointed C-in-C SFC. At present he is located at Vayu Bhavan (Air Headquarters) and will start setting up his interservice headquarters after selecting its location. Normally, as in the US and other nuclear-weapon states SFC has dedicated assets under its operational command.
In the Indian case, for optimum utilisation, nuclear assets will, in peacetime, be earmarked and allocated to SFC, its operational control vested with C-in-C SFC. While the single service will continue to administer the strategic nuclear assets, the exception would be in the case of the 333 Prithvi Missile Group and the 334 PMG under raising. These together with the short range Agni I manned by Army Artillery Corp will become integral to SFC. Since the Mirage 2000, Jaguars and Su 30 MKI are all dual use fighters, even after being made nuclear capable these will remain on the orbit of IAF and be allotted to SFC as explained earlier.
The third leg of the nuclear triad, naval platforms, is not operational yet. When the Russians lease the Akula Class nuclear submarines (it could be very soon now) or the indigenous Advanced Technology Vessel project is completed (in five to seven years) and sea-delivered nuclear weapon is available (two to three years) only then will the most credible component of nuclear capability become operational.
Some doubts have been expressed on the control of the SFC. Will it be under the prime minister, the national security advisor or the chiefs of staff committee? Neither the PM nor the NSA who head the political and executive councils of the NCA can or will exercise direct operational control over the SFC. It is the Chairman COSC who in the absence of the most wanted Chief of Defence Staff part of the executive council will 'administer' the SFC whose commander will report to him.
The primary chain of command will therefore run from the PM to the Chairman COSC/CDS to the C-in-C SFC. There should be complete transparency and clarity and no ambiguity in this. The word 'administer' needs clarification. The other two newly created organisations -- IDS and A&N command report to the Chairman, COSC.
In the US the NCA runs from the President to the Defence Secretary, Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff and Strategic Forces. Command and control of nuclear arsenal in democracies is a joint politico-military function though under civilian control unlike in Pakistan which is the only nuclear weapons state with the Army in sole and full control.
Though the National Security Advisory Board had recommended scrapping No First Use, the government's re-emphasis on NFU but with the caveat that a first strike on India and its armed forces anywhere with NBC weapons will attract punitive and unacceptable retaliation is both sound and cost effective. In any case, NFU is an option and can be reviewed any time. For example, a smart Alec asked the question as to what would happen if Indian soldiers were struck by biological or chemical weapons while operating in a UN Peacekeeping Operation in Africa or anywhere else.
Pakistan is for the foreseeable future, the only country likely to resort to the nuclear blackmail as its conventional military forces are easily contained by India's relative superiority. NFU also ensures that India does not need to maintain its nuclear assets in a state of high alert thereby avoiding accidents and also obviating the complexities of first strike readiness. The NSAB had also recommended that India should not feel obliged to stick to its voluntary moratorium on nuclear tests announced after Pokharan II in 1998.
Nearly five years after the nuclear tests and four years after unveiling its unofficial nuclear doctrine, India's minimum credible nuclear deterrence is certainly more credible and the military at last inducted in the nuclear loop. This year's nuclear proclamation that India's nuclear capability is defensive and will be used only in retaliation. That its control lay in civilian hands, and the NCA and NCP together with the alternate leadership and alternate location; and the conviction that it will be able to inflict unacceptable punishment for a first strike is a strategic upgradation of the existing system.
The formation of the SFC and greater clarity in the nuclear doctrine are force multipliers for India's security. With the SFC in place, can the CDS be far behind?
Major General (retd) Ashok K Mehta