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Creating The Nuclear Command

January 13, 2003


Less than a week after General Pervez Musharraf made the spine-chilling disclosure that he was all ready to unleash 'unconventional war' on India -- presumably with nuclear weapons -- had a single Indian soldier crossed the border during the recent 10-months-long standoff, India's Cabinet Committee on Security has announced the formation of a Nuclear Command Authority. It also approved the appointment of a commander-in-chief of the Strategic Forces Command to manage nuclear forces. This is one more step towards sharpening India-Pakistan strategic hostility. It heightens the nuclear danger in South Asia.

Three elements of the NCA and the official 'nuclear doctrine' -- publicly summarised for the first time -- are significant. First, like the 1999 'Draft' made by the National Security Advisory Board, this doctrine too emphasises a 'credible minimum deterrent,' with which India will inflict 'massive' and 'unacceptable damage' upon any adversary which strikes it first. The scope and scale of the 'deterrent' is highly ambitious and open-ended. The US had frowned on the original 'Draft' (which was never officially adopted), but relented in the post-9/11 situation. This is one reason, besides Pakistan's nuclear sabre-rattling, for the NCA announcement's timing.

Second, there is a further dilution of India's no-first-useácommitment. New Delhi will now retaliate with nuclear weapons 'in the event of a major attack against India or Indian forces anywhere' -- an attack made not just with nuclear weapons, but with 'biological or chemical weapons' too. In this, India is emulating the US' December 2002 'National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction:' massive nuclear retaliation killing lakhs of non-combatant civilians, in response to chemical or biological weapons which usually kill on a smaller scale, e g hundreds of soldiers. This disproportion makes NFU's dilution especially obnoxious.

Third, a nuclear strike can only be authorised in India by the political leadership through the two-tier NCA. Only the NCA's Political Council, chaired by the prime minister, has such authority. The Executive Council, chaired by the National Security Adviser, will provide 'inputs' for decision-making and execute the Political Council's directives. While this reiterates the well-known position that India's nuclear trigger can only be pulled by a civilian finger, the new structure is actually meant to facilitate greater involvement of the military in nuclear decision-making. The Executive Council is likely to include armed forces personnel, who will tender advice on security threats. It is also reported that scientists and engineers entrusted with manufacturing nuclear weapons will share with the armed forces information about their exact capability and yield.

Civilian control is, of course, preferable to military control, which lacks a popular mandate. But it doesn't guarantee responsible decision-making. The Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, it bears recalling, were ordered by a democratic government.

Clearly, India -- which for 50 years regarded reliance on nuclear weapons for 'security' as a strategic folly and a moral-political perversity -- is gearing itself for actual nuclear war-fighting by putting together weapons assemblies and all other components of a full-fledged nuclear arsenal, including costly, high-risk, command-and-control systems. Its Strategic Forces Command will place the nuclear warheads in the custody of the Department of Atomic Energy, the detonation assemblies with the Defence Research & Development Organisation, and the delivery vehicles with the armed forces. This is the operative, material, part of the new decision. The rest --'strict controls on the nuclear- and missile-related exports' and commitment to a 'nuclear weapons-free world' -- is largely rhetorical.

Pakistan, for its part, has more than matched India. Its own Nuclear Command was established almost three years ago, in February 2000. Pakistan is believed by international experts to be more advanced than India in marrying nuclear warheads to missiles. Its doctrine permits a nuclear first strike. There are several indications that Pakistan was at a high level of readiness to strike during the Kargil war and in the latest stand-off with India.

Although Islamabad announced in February 2000 that its NCA would be chaired by the head of government (now Prime Minister Jamali), its nuclear programme has all along been under the military's control. Even Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto had to beg the US for information on it because her own generals refused it to her. Similarly, Mr Nawaz Sharif discovered in July 1999 that his generals had plans for a nuclear attack on India -- not from them, but from President Clinton of the US. The January 6 Pakistan NCA meeting hasn't diluted the military's control over nuclear weapons.

More pertinently, both India and Pakistan have in recent months stepped up their hostile rhetoric and made cavalier statements about nuclear weapons. Their relations are today at a historic low -- worse than during the 1971 war. They have no direct surface or air links, nor normal diplomatic relations. Both are driving their abusive exchanges to yet newer lows. Thus, New Delhi condemnedáMusharraf's December 30 'disclosure' as 'highly dangerous' and 'provocative' and used it to dismiss any 'meaningful forward movement' in relations with Pakistan; it further tightened visa restrictions for Pakistani nationals.

However, India too had contingency plans for a nuclear strike. As India's just-retired army chief General S Padmanabhan said: 'We were absolutely ready to go to war. Our forces were well locatedů' He clarified that India had a full assessment of Pakistan's nuclear capability and was 'not deterred' by it: 'We were ready to cope with it.' This 'coping' could only have been a retaliatory nuclear strike. Pakistan has, of course, been irresponsible in making nuclear threats. But India too has been reckless -- and hypocritical as well as sanctimonious. The conservative India Today confirms that in January and end-May/early-June last year, India drew up plans for a major conventional attack on Pakistan. It called these off under US pressure. On January 7, Defence Minister Fernandes described Pakistan's nuclear statements as 'stupid' and said if India uses its nuclear weapons, 'there will be no Pakistan left.'

Two days later, India tested Agni-I. Suchámilitary preparations, and high-frequency exchanges of cavalier, hubris-driven, dangerously irresponsible, statements amidst a situation of intense strategic rivalry, mean that the threshold for an India-Pakistan nuclear confrontation has fallen to a new, dangerous low --probably lower than at any time during the Cold War after the Cuban missile crisis of 40 years ago. India and Pakistan, which have been continuously in a hot-cold war for half a century, are now recklessly fostering the irrational illusion that each nation is 'prepared' to counter the other's 'nuclear' challenge, that nuclear wars are winnable, that real 'protection' is possible against these mass-annihilation weapons.

This is pure macho mythology, the most dangerous part of nuclearism's pathological mystique. There are, can be, no victors in a nuclear war. Nuclear weapons cannot even protect soldiers, leave alone civilians. Rather, they make non-combatant civilians particularly vulnerable. There is no defence -- military, civil or medical -- against nuclear weapons. They are not weapons of war. The best 'security' which they can provide is of a negative kind -- based on fear, insecurity, balance of terror, through so-called deterrence. But deterrence can break down, leading to nuclear retaliation. However, nuclear retaliation is itself an act of senseless revenge, not of regaining security.

Even the deterrent value of nuclear weapons is dubious. Deterrence assumes high levels of rationality and symmetrical perceptions of what constitutes 'unacceptable damage.' In reality, such perceptions vary greatly. For the US, losing 3,000 civilians in 9/11 was 'unacceptable.' For some Pakistani generals, losing half a dozen cities might not be. Pol Pot sacrificed one-third of his own people to political ends. For deterrence to work, adversaries must have perfectly reliable assessments of each other's capabilities. This does not hold in India and Pakistan, whose history is full of strategic misperception/miscalculation. Thus, each government today boasts it came out 'the winner' in the recent border confrontation. In reality, neither did. The competition to deter each other 'better' by acquiring a strategic edge or superiority invariably leads to a nuclear arms race. That's the disastrous experience of the Cold War.

Why then are the Vajpayee and Musharraf governments so irrationally obsessed with deterrence? The plain truth is that both are acting under domestic compulsions, and out of frustration at their inability to get the better of each other. Both are trying to win over the US. India and Pakistan have both witnessed Rightward domestic political shifts. Following the Gujarat elections, the Vajpayee government is under growing Hindu-fundamentalist pressure to ratchet up hostility with Pakistan. In Pakistan, the nominally civilian government faces pressure from a rejuvenated Islamic Right. The Vajpayee government feels bitter that it could not get Pakistan to completely stop supporting secessionist militants in Kashmir--despite its lobbying with the US and the recent costly military mobilisation. The Musharraf government too feels frustrated that it cannot get India to discuss the 'core dispute' of Kashmir.

This combination of compulsion and frustration is potentially fatal. At the very least, it will push India and Pakistan into a furious nuclear arms race and spiralling hostility. We must prevent this descent into the Nuclear Abyss. If India and Pakistan don't do this through bilateral talks, they are liable to invite external mediation and intervention. However problematic, won't such intervention be preferable to a Nuclear Armageddon?


Praful Bidwai

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