A Monthly Journal of the IDSA
Nuclear Command and Control
By Jasjit Singh *
Command and control of nuclear arsenals is a complex subject and involves many issues. There are different models, as we have seen in other countries, which are built on their doctrines, goals and type of adversary capabilities. There is a lot we can take from there and a lot we need not take from there. I would like to focus on what I consider to be a few central principles on which command and control of nuclear weapons should be established in India. It is not sufficient to say, let us take a little bit of this and a little bit of that and let us put it together in some form. Or even allow single Service ambitions or turf to be promoted unless it serves the larger purpose. The stakes are very high. This is not a business where failure at any level or in any form can be condoned or compensated by some other steps or organisations. It will be disastrous for this country if our system of command and control does not function the way it must function. How do we want it to function? To get the answer, we need to decide first what is the task we expect the system to perform.
Doctrine and Strategy
The core element is that the nuclear doctrine that we adopt will decide the nuclear strategy. Nuclear strategy in turn will decide the nature and substance of the command and control system which is going to execute the strategy in accordance with that doctrine. There is a linkage here-between the doctrine, strategy, and structure. If we are clear that our doctrine is going to be deterrence only, rather than fighting a nuclear war, the arsenal will have to be designed for that purpose and the command and control will have to correspond to that goal. Considering that nuclear threats to India are likely to emerge essentially from the immediate neighbourhood across the country's territorial boundaries, the very short time of flight due to the proximity factor will need to be catered for in the strategy. 1 It is also clear that there is no conceivable political purpose which would require India to initiate a nuclear threat first, leave alone use of nuclear weapons first. 2 The central elements and objectives of our doctrine should be:
The second set of issues here revolves around the question: what should be principles on which we should build our command and control system? There are accepted norms of command and control systems for military formations. Military power itself is an instrument for achieving political objectives and, hence, constitutes a political instrument of the state. Similarly, a nuclear weapon essentially exists as a political tool which must also, in the extreme case, be employed as a military weapon, although with little military utility as such. To maximise the political utility of nuclear weapons, therefore, the following must be kept in mind:
Having considered this and a few other factors, it is obvious that at the political level, command and control of nuclear weapons, in the ultimate analysis, must be exercised by the prime minister of India. Given our political constitutional system, it cannot be anybody else. This can change only if the constitutional basis of our governance changes. A concurrent issue is that there is a need for a consultative group or a decision-making group to assist the prime minister at that level of political leadership. This has two aspects. One relates to the chain of command to cater for a contingency if the prime minister is not available or is incapacitated. The Constitution lays down the succession process very clearly. But the process may be inadequate since it did not visualise the need to plan a response with nuclear weapons. So we have to evolve a suitable system of national command authority. Whatever system is evolved, the prime minister of India will have the prerogative to make changes to it. What is required is that each prime minister, at any one time, should have a well-defined system of national command authority for command and control of nuclear weapons. Which one it is, is not the point. It may also not be possible to formally declare the system, nor is it necessary, as long the operating formations that have to execute the orders are clear about the chain of command. In fact, there are strong reasons for not publicising the chain of command for obvious reasons besides the potential for domestic political difficulties of the type experienced often when a deputy prime minister was appointed. So let the prime minister decide who will be his successor. The prime minister, who selects his Cabinet ministers, will always have the prerogative to make even frequent changes to the chain of command; but he will have to ensure that the new person(s) concerned are briefed thoroughly and they understand the role fully.
At the same time, a decision-making-cum-planning body at the political-strategic level is needed which will then authorise the planning of targetting policy and the force development and deployment policies. If the NSC functions, then the Cabinet Committee would be the obvious organisation. Even in that case, there is a need to immediately resurrect the Defence Committee of the Cabinet (DCC) with the three chiefs in attendance, on a permanent basis, not just on invitation, which should start taking the planning process forward. Their attendance implies that they would not participate in the deliberations of the Cabinet, but will be available to answer queries and provide explanations where needed.
It may be recalled that when the higher defence organisation was reorganised in 1947, it was based on the experiences of the UK and the USA (the latter being a nuclear weapon power) during World War II. In fact, Lord Ismay, who planned the post-War higher defence organisation for the UK and the USA was also the person who planned the organisation for independent India. This was based on corporate decision-making at each level with a Defence Committee of the Cabinet at the apex, with a Defence Minister's Committee, the Chiefs of Staff Committee, Joint Planning Committee, a Joint Intelligence Board and another dozen committees of the government to take decisions concerning various aspects of defence below that within the governmental framework, located in the Cabinet Secretariat. Interestingly, the Joint Planning Committee was to be in permanent session with a permanent staff "in particular to prepare plans for the joint employment of the three armed forces." Unfortunately, the permanent staff was never set up. In 1986, the government established a joint Defence Planning Staff of the Chiefs of Staff Committee. However, its relationship with the Joint Planning Committee was never clear. The result was that the operations branch of the individual Services kept operating nearly autonomously. This, in turn, created numerous incidents that have tended to increase the gap of mutual understanding of roles and missions, especially between the army and the air force. Over the decades, the effort of the army and the navy then has been to try and bring as much of the air power as possible under their own control. But classic cases of failure of joint planning naturally arose out of the failure to establish the requisite structures for this purpose which in turn also adversely affected the development of a culture of jointness that is so much talked about but rarely practised these days.
There is a need to address the question of where the inputs to the DCC or the Cabinet Committee on National Security would come from. These inputs will be a mixture of the military elements and political-diplomatic implications of decisions. Thus, an increasing amount of military component gets introduced into the command and control system as we move down the ladder of national command and control of the nuclear arsenal. The logical locus of such component of the management system is the Ministry of Defence. Other ministries and departments like the Finance Ministry have an important role to play in the force planning though their role in force employment would perforce be limited. In my view, the Defence Minister's Committee (DMC) should be resurrected (with some modifications) at an early date with the clearly defined role of decision-making about strategic planning and force structure planning, including that for nuclear weapons. The DMC would naturally be chaired by the defence minister, and have as its members, the minister for state for defence, the three defence Services chiefs, the defence secretary, the foreign secretary, secretary Department of Atomic Energy, the home secretary, scientific adviser (SA) to the defence minister, the chairman Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) and the finance secretary. The DMC should be logically served by a professional strategic planning staff under the defence minister (in the Ministry of Defence) which should be able to situate the nuclear strategy and policy within a broader strategic planning for defence.
Below the ministerial level, the requirement shifts to more military-specific planning and direction-the nuts and bolts, so to say. This is really what should be treated as a task of what may be termed as the Nuclear Planning Group which would work out the detailed targetting policy. This is the sort of function that the IAF has been undertaking for decades in respect of COSC targets. The Nuclear Planning Group should preferably be headed by the defence minister himself with the three chiefs of staff, SA to the defence minister, and the defence secretary as members. The Defence Planning Staff is really now in a position to perform the role of an integrated staff and provide staff support for the Nuclear Planning Group that will go into detailed planning in respect of targetting policy, dispersal policy, deception policy, survivability policy, communication policy, etc.
Operational Command and Control
That takes us down to a different level, that is, operational command and control of the nuclear forces. In this case, the authority for exercising the overall operational command and control over the nuclear arsenal, and certainly the control aspect should rest with COSC. If and when we have a permanent chairman, chiefs of staff, or a chief of defence staff, then obviously he will become the spokesman for the COSC but even then a Defence Planning Staff will be needed which should operate through the COSC.
Below the planning and management level, what we need is an operational force with requisite command and control to suit the doctrine and force structure. For quite some time, the primary nuclear delivery system will remain the combat aircraft. The overall IAF infrastructure provides a sound building base for implementing the strategy to operate the nuclear strike component from widely dispersed sites and maintain deception and dispersal strategies. Conceptually, the task at the operational level is the same that is performed by the IAF day after day. Strike aircraft of today are capable of performing dual-role (conventional as well as nuclear weapon delivery) tasks. The optimum approach would be to reassign some elements of the IAF strike aircraft assets for the nuclear delivery role. In order to optimise the command and control capabilities, it would be useful to create a Strategic Air Command through reorganising of existing assets. Very few changes will be needed to create a Strategic Air Command which would have operational command and control of nuclear delivery assets. Such an organisation would be ideally capable of absorbing surface-to-surface ballistic missiles into its structure as and when they are ready for induction-a process that is bound to be spread out over time-and be able to keep taking in and absorbing additional models of surface-to-surface missile systems as we go along and they are inducted into service. The reasons for this approach are fairly simple. This will have the main strike aircraft component that will also obviously have a dual role. They could be armed with conventional precision guided munitions (PGMs), possibly to take out even a nuclear facility or elements of the nuclear arsenal of the other side, or to undertake a nuclear strike Where do we draw the line between strategic strike with conventional weapons, PGMs and strategic strike with nuclear weapons, especially of different yield?
The surface-to-surface missile, especially land based, in terms of its operational utilisation, in terms of its management, in terms of its command and control, is no different than the strike aircraft. We must make sure that we do not have strike forces, especially aircraft, heading on their own under different commands, different authority, and surface-to-surface missiles under a different one, and try to do coordination at that stage. That could spell disaster. There has to be unity of command of strategic strike capabilities and, hence, a single operational command to employ capabilities, including nuclear weapons. This will obviously include suitable electronic warfare systems, requisite strategic reconnaissance systems, a suitable space-based and ground-based electronic early warning system, and if and when we get these, anti-ballistic missile systems. Should this remain an Air Force Command totally? I don't think so. I think it should have on its staff officers from the other Services to be the primary advisors to the commander of (conventional and nuclear) strategic forces. What are the larger implications of this beyond turf battles and loyalties?
The third element concerns the assumption that seems to have gathered strength over time that the nuclear warheads would or should be held in the jurisdiction of the scientists. The warhead making process, its maintenance, its overhaul, its efficiency and everything that goes into it, certainly is a scientific job to be managed within the scientific establishment. Also, for a different reason, which is more related to nuclear arms control and nuclear diplomacy, I recommend that we establish a clearly demarcated military facility within the Department of Atomic Energy so that warhead construction and maintenance can be linked to the military side without interfering with the civil programme for peaceful purposes. I firmly believe, although it needs to be debated in the years to come, that the defence forces must hold the nuclear warheads. If nuclear scientists are required for field maintenance and handling, they should be coopted from the Atomic Energy establishment. But they will have to be brought under the Army, Navy or Air Force Act.
To handle safety and the management and maintenance of the warheads at the end point, the main work would continue to be undertaken by the Department of Atomic Energy. There are two issues to be considered. First, who would control the warheads? Second, this will also decide who releases them to those who control the delivery systems. In my view, the warheads should be controlled by the Indian Army. The Indian Army is the most suitable agency really capable of providing the type of security and physical safety to the warheads that will be required in highly dispersed conditions across the country, with many of them being shifted in a variety of ways. The Indian Army itself will have to create an elite type of force for such a purpose for it is quite likely that for every one actual warhead, we may require a number of dummy warheads which will still have to be protected the same way. That is the only way we can enhance their survivability. There are many lessons we can draw from the experiences of the air forces of the world, not only just ours, on how they manage their survival, deception and duplication plans. It is useful, for example, to see how Iraq managed deception with dummy missiles and the movement of missiles all over the place. It is an essential element that I think the army has the basic ability and organisational capabilities to handle. There would be a parallel chain of command where this links up with the HQ of the Strategic Command to be able to ensure that the release of nuclear warheads is carried out only when there is an agreement between the senior air force man, the senior army man and senior naval man there. This would build in security locks in terms of utilisation of warheads in a contingency.
Communications are going to be the crux of the command and control system and they will also determine how the system will operate in an emergency after absorbing a first strike. The starting point is to accept the philosophy and the doctrine that the nuclear arsenal will be widely dispersed, mobile, will be moving around at frequent intervals, so that at no stage can the adversary have a clear idea or possibility that he can actually decapitate the nuclear capabilities in a preemptive strike. So we need to make sure that the first strike by an adversary does not degrade our capabilities to an extent that we cannot impose a counter punishment that is unacceptable to him. Deterrence requires that the adversary should be sure that there would be a substantive surviving nuclear arsenal that will hit back within a very short period. This requires gearing up of the communications systems. We may have to seriously think of setting up an integrated Defence Communication Command (or agency) under the COSC where obviously the Indian Army would be the major partner. We must ensure compatible and inter-operable communication systems and frequencies.
One last word. A lot of parameters will be altered if tactical nuclear weapons are introduced into the equations, since this will alter the requirements of command and control very fundamentally. So that is one decision that must be clear early on, and then a clear posture, publicly taken on that issue, must be adopted. We must not even have any suggestion that we will have tactical nuclear weapons or that we will in any way engage in the use of nuclear weapons in a battlefield situation. If we have nuclear warheads of sub-kiloton range, they are perfectly usable on very specific, specialised target systems, but still for strategic impact and not in terms of tactical or battlefield effect. Nuclear deterrence must rest firmly on assured retaliation in strategic terms, finally but clearly linked to a response that will inflict unacceptable damage on the potential aggressor even with the surviving arsenal, after absorbing a first strike.
In recent times a view has been propagated that we should have a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) as a single point of advice on military matters and he will also command a tri-Service nuclear Strategic Command for operational purposes. The merits or otherwise of having a CDS and its utility and efficacy before we have a modicum of integration between the top military hierarchy and the Ministry of Defence require serious consideration. But this is not the place for it, except in its implications for nuclear command and control.
For a long time, the main (and in the shorter period of the next 5-6 years, the only) delivery system for nuclear weapons operationally available would be strike aircraft. The number of such aircraft (essentially the Su-30s and Mirage 2000s) would remain limited to around 80 aircraft for many years to come. Jaguar strike aircraft will have to be limited to the western sector alone for a variety of reasons. The Su-30s and Mirages would constitute the primary strategic strike force with conventional as well as nuclear weapons. Aircraft for escorting the strike missions (normally equal to or more than the number of aircraft armed for strike role) would also have to be found from the same pool. Thus, we are looking at a serviceable and operationally available fleet of around 25 strike aircraft. The question that operational planners will have to struggle with is how to define the chain of command for nuclear strike and that for conventional strike if the authority for controlling such strikes is not the same?
If the CDS is to be the operational commander of nuclear forces, then the strike aircraft designated for nuclear strike will have to be placed under his command and control. How many out of the 25 should be so designated? The issue really is that the moment we start distributing strike capabilities into penny packets, violating the central principle of employment of air power, we will run into serious problems, undermining our nuclear deterrence posture. Incidentally, this problem of duality of command would also exist if a separate operational command chain outside the air force is created for the nuclear arsenal. To make such a system work, we would need to create sufficient assets for the two different and separately designated roles of conventional and nuclear strikes. That implies increasing the size of aircraft-based strike forces with consequent rise in costs and force levels without any concurrent benefit in terms of credibility and operational effectiveness of strike capabilities. After all, we do not expect to fight a nuclear war, nor does it make sense to prepare for one if for no other reason than that there would be no winners from the consequent holocaust called war.
What is even more critical is that as long as India adopts a doctrine and strategy of no-first-use, survivability of the nuclear arsenal would be the key to the efficacy of the credible minimum deterrent. It is also clear that the nuclear arsenal would be the primary target for an adversary who must aim to take out the arsenal if it is to preempt a retaliatory strike and its punitive effects. It would, therefore, be vital to ensure dispersal and deception of assets to enhance survivability. If we are to designate the nuclear strike force from within the present size of strike forces and place it under a separate operational command authority, we would be creating conditions for presenting a smaller target system for the adversary's preemptive decapitating strike and, thus, making its task easier. Under these circumstances, we would not only be going in for a significant quantity (and proportion) of idle (nuclear armed) strike assets which would be required only for nuclear retaliation, but also risk erosion of survivability of the nuclear strike force.
As regards ballistic missiles, once again a degree of confusion and turf battle seems to be affecting rational objectivity. In the early 1980s, when the Integrated Guided Missile Programme was initiated, the Indian Air Force and the Indian Army came to the mutual understanding that all systems beyond 25 km of the forward line of our own troops would belong to the air force both in terms of ownership as well as operational command, control and employment. However, the army gradually sought the Prithvi-150 surface-to-surface missile to cover a range of 150 km. It may be recalled that this missile was not to be armed with nuclear warheads and five types of conventional warheads were being developed for it. The issue even at that time was the risk of inherent lack of coordination of finite number of missiles and aircraft (for COSC targets) for strategic strike, controlled and operationally employed by two separate Services whose leaderships have often agreed that coordination between the two Services in the past had often been weak. The late General K. Sunderji, who is acknowledged as the architect of nuclear strategy in the Indian Army, as the chief of Army Staff, believed and accepted that the longer range Prithvi-250 was to be an air force system. And there was no doubt at that time that the longer range IRBMs (intermediate range ballistic missiles) like the Agni and its follow-on variants would be air force systems. Strike capabilities are not dependent only on aircraft and missiles, but involve the complete system of reconnaissance, surveillance, target intelligence and command and control. These have to be integrated into the overall strike capabilities.
However, after the overt nuclearisation in 1998, we seem to have suddenly sought a separate tri-Service command whose contours are not clear. This clarity is vital in ensuring that a potential adversary does not derive conclusions that coordination of nuclear (aircraft and different missile) strike forces could be weak and might offer an opportunity which it could exploit. This sort of conclusion could encourage adventurism as we have seen Pakistan indulging in, in the past, based on flawed assumptions. With nuclear weapons, this is no longer a matter of victory or defeat, but of mass destruction and survival of the state and society.
One last, hypothetical scenario for consideration. In the worst case, an adversary hits India with nuclear weapons first. The most logical target for him to concentrate on would be the national command authority, the alternate command post and the nuclear delivery systems. Assuming that the adversary succeeds in neutralising at least the command posts with nuclear weapons, it would be necessary for the surviving residual Indian forces to deliver a punitive retaliatory strike which would impose "unacceptable punishment" on the attacker. This is the central logic of the no-first-use strategy to deter a nuclear attack. There are two choices for an efficient command and control under the degraded situation. One is the tri-Service command which would require forces, bases, infrastructure and redundancy to operate a retaliatory strike under these circumstances. The other is to use the existing air force infrastructure, capabilities, procedures, systems and forces. How would a tri-Service command operate under these circumstances? Would it not be necessary to create another independent force (like the US Strategic Command which its navy refused to join even with the nuclear armed nuclear submarines) with its own redundant command and control infrastructure and manpower? Would such a strategy require hundreds if not thousands of nuclear warheads and delivery systems? The latter approach, however, would utilise existing air force infrastructure across the country and the regional commands and their chain down to the operational delivery units, with systems and procedures tested in wars and refined over the decades. We would then require only a minimal extra communications systems and a couple of dozen with an existing higher survivability potential. In the former case, the alternative would be the readiness and willingness to use nuclear weapons first, even if for pre-emption. Then we would be back to a complex, costly and elaborate command and control system to manage a much bigger arsenal and nuclear force like the first tier nuclear weapon states did at costs which obviously would be unaffordable for us and far more risky, with trigger alerts and much greater delegation down the line.
Note 1: This would be so also in the case of nuclear coercion by a task force of the type symbolised by the USS Enterprise in 1971.Back
Note 2: This is why it would be necessary to maintain a high level of conventional military capability which should provide the requisite superiority for effective defence of our borders.Back
Note 3: Jasjit Singh, "Nuclear Doctrine for India," in Jasjit Singh, ed., Asian Strategic Review 1998-99, (New Delhi: IDSA, 1999).Back
Note 4: Shaun R. Gregory, Nuclear Command and Control in NATO (London: Macmillans Press Ltd, 1996), p.139.Back
Note 5: The British reliance on the Trident-based deterrent flows from this logic. It must, however, be noted here that there are other difficulties of a submarine-based nuclear deterrent, especially with regard to effective command and control.Back