Little is known of India’s nuclear command and control (C2) systems. It cannot, therefore, be assumed that these only exist in a rudimentary form. However, from what is in the open domain, it is equally clear that there is considerable scope for improvement in C2 systems. This is not so much in technical terms as in terms of ensconcing the deterrent into India’s strategic doctrine and culture. This paper brings to bear a social science perspective on the issue. The finding is that democratic political control requires being exercised over the deterrent, in terms of both its development and employment. The original system of the prime minister being in control of a secretive nuclear complex is now obsolescent. The nuclear complex is no longer nascent, requiring protection from nonproliferation pressures. Greater control needs to be exercised over it lest the internal democratic balance tilt away from parliamentary accountability in favour of the proverbial “military-industrial complex,” of which the nuclear “strategic enclave” is a major component. Such accountability needs begin with reassertion of India’s approach to nuclear weapons as “political weapons” in India’s nuclear doctrine. This would undercut any tendencies in expansion of the nuclear complex beyond the “minimum” in favour of a “credible” nuclear deterrent. The C2 systems would then remain “relaxed” as against any compulsion to move towards “ready.”
The nuclear complex is no longer nascent, requiring protection from nonproliferation pressures.
The aim of the paper is to discuss India’s nuclear C2 system. There is a gap in literature on this score. The work on this was when the deterrent was being forged over the turn of the century and restricted itself to how the deterrent should shape up and what this implied for nuclear C2. The discussion has been limited since on the manner the deterrent has grown, with only a few scholars, such as Rajesh Basrur and Manpreet Sethi, continuing to look at the issue.1 The paper attempts to fill this gap. It is divided into three parts. In the first part, theory is disposed of. In the next, C2 theory is situated in the Indian context and in the last part, issues emerging in terms of departure of practice from theory are highlighted.
The problem with any such effort is paucity of information. This is true in the Indian case for security issues, since declassification is not resorted to and official reticence is all pervasive. In light of this, that the C2 arrangements of a nuclear complex would be classified is understandable. The transparency that needs to attend deterrence applies to doctrine and a sense of resolve, not to specific aspects of institutions, technology and procedures that constitute C2 systems. For credibility of deterrence, a putative enemy at best needs to know that the doctrine can be executed—a function of C2. In any case, the enemy cannot risk assuming that these would not work.
This is true in the Indian case for security issues, since declassification is not resorted to and official reticence is all pervasive. In light of this, that the C2 arrangements of a nuclear complex would be classified is understandable.
Simply put, doctrine comprises how a nation views nuclear weapons and what it intends to do with them. C2 is how it is able to use these as desired. Two points need be raised at the outset: one, that writings on C2 have been mostly prescriptive, and, two, that insights from foreign C2 systems need to be adapted to the Indian context and conditions, particularly since the manner the U.S. (a major source of nuclear theory), for instance, approaches nuclear weapons being vastly different from that of India.
A definition of C2 states as follows: “An arrangement of facilities, personnel, procedures and means of information acquisition, processing, dissemination and decision making used by national command authorities and military commanders in planning, directing and controlling military (nuclear) operations.”2 The array of C2 functions is considerable, ranging from intelligence, early warning and its assessment and communication to decision makers, IT-enabled deliberations, decision making, and communication to units executing the decisions, supervision, damage assessment and a rerun of the cycle. To Robert Osgood, nuclear C2 systems comprise facilities, equipment, communications, procedures, personnel and the structure essential for planning, directing, and controlling nuclear weapon operations and support activities; manufacture, ownership, custody, manning and operation, and military command of weapons; planning the strategy for using nuclear weapons (their number, type, deployment and the contingencies, methods and targets of their employment); the political decision to use or not to use nuclear weapons and the political decisions to govern the use of nuclear weapons in combat.3
In a democratic system, that translates into parliamentary oversight in addition to cabinet responsibility. This helps avert technological determinism and avoidable arms races.
These functions are to be performed under pressures of crisis or of unfolding conflict and in peace, in a zero-error environment. It does not need Clausewitz to remind theorists and practitioners that the medium comprises friction, fog of war, emotions, fears, uncertainty and risk. Since technology is a vital component of all this, Murphy’s Law would be in operation. Multiple agencies and hierarchies being involved, which at the best of times work at cross-purposes, C2 is indeed critical. Its key feature is that it needs to be survivable, i.e., has the ability to operate in chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) environments through hardening, mobility, redundancy or concealment. This is to prevent a successful decapitation strike, either by elimination of the national leadership or military command networks or their being rendered ineffective due to communication problems between sensors, decision makers and nuclear units. Nuclear C2 needs to cover the entire nuclear trajectory, from development through deterrence to employment. Usually, the focus is on deterrence and employment that are crisis- and conflict-related. Instead nuclear developments must also be placed under political control in peacetime. In a democratic system, that translates into parliamentary oversight in addition to cabinet responsibility. This helps avert technological determinism and avoidable arms races. C2 helps ensconce the nuclear instrument in the state’s strategic doctrine and wield these as necessary for both deterrence and on its breakdown.
C2 comprises an alphabet soup encompassing the entire nuclear complex.4 For instance, the complexity of C2 is reflected in the new acronym C4I2SR.5 The extraordinary power that nuclear weapons confer, it is only right that extraordinary measures are taken to keep these under control. The key concept is “Always/Never,” implying nuclear weapons “always” work as intended and “never” when not intended. This entails “positive control,” meaning that the orders are transmitted down the chain. “Negative controls” are measures that prevent unauthorised use. These can be technical (permissive action links) and procedural (SOPs, two-man rule, etc.). “Assertive control” is centralised control, while “delegative control” means decentralisation. Assertive measures are when nonuse is privileged, while delegation is preferred where use is countenanced in some circumstances. The paradox is that the measures taken to prevent unauthorised use could result in a “fail impotent” situation, while those to ensure that weapons work when required may result in “fail deadly.”6 The preference of the state for assertive or delegative depends on two factors, its doctrine and its apprehension over safety and security. Safety is in relation to accident prevention, while security is concerned with unauthorised use.
These can amount to pathologies in a nuclear complex if political control is inadequately exercised. Political control in literature has hitherto confined itself to control over the military.
In respect of doctrine, a significant conceptual dyad is “certainty/ambiguity.” These are the diverse views on the question: What deters? Is certainty required, or is the very risk of nuclear use enough to deter? The declaratory doctrine is used for communication of intent to serve deterrence. This may not always reflect the operational, or employment, doctrine. Ambiguity could also serve deterrence by building uncertainty. It relies on risk assessment and influences risk perception of the enemy. The point is that certainty of retaliation is not necessarily essential for deterrence such as in doctrines like mutually assured destruction (MAD) and countervailing doctrine. The very possibility of retaliation serves to deter and undergrids deterrence based on existential and minimum deterrence. This doctrinal distinction is important from the view of controlling the development of the deterrent. While the capability of causing unacceptable damage is desirable from a second-strike point of view, such damage must be “sensibly” defined. This precludes MAD and the levels of megatonnage this entails. It helps keep the deterrent finite, affordable, simple, secure and safe.
Nuclear C2 is predicated on doctrine. For instance, the C2 implications for the U.S. of massive retaliation of the fifties, flexible response of the sixties and the countervailing doctrine of the seventies were different. This required constant upgrades in C2 structures, procedures, technology and investment.7 The C2 configuration of a nuclear force that is integrated with its conventional counterpart to deter conventional war is different from that of one under No First Use (NFU) stipulations. Even under NFU, the C2 system could be a ready one or a relaxed one, depending on what nuclear posture is adopted, a “launch on warning,” “launch under attack” or one that determines the nature of the strike prior to response.
Essentially, a nation has to answer for itself the questions “What is to be deterred?” and “What deters?” The doctrine is a product of the strategic culture and security circumstance. However, organisational theory informs that bureaucratic politics and institutional interests have a major role. These can amount to pathologies in a nuclear complex if political control is inadequately exercised. Political control in literature has hitherto confined itself to control over the military. This needs to expand to include the nuclear complex since the complex is now a major component of military power and is not entirely a military domain, given the pervasive presence and power of civilian technologists.
As with any organisation, there is a tendency for mimesis,8 to copy those perceived as advanced. This importing of best practices increases resemblances through a process called isomorphism.9 This is not necessarily good in case the unsuitable assumptions are also imported uncritically. For instance, following the American way of a large and variegated arsenal, a state may end up in a “creeping growth” model, moving it from “minimum” to “limited deterrence,”10 While C2 organisations need to be learning organisations, there is a need to ensure that the technological and organisational momentum is controlled. This is a function of C2 in peacetime. Learning has advantage particularly to ward off accidents. The risk of these grows in crisis and in face of conflict. In such circumstance, alert measures are upgraded and nuclear signalling resorted to. The C2 system requires being responsive to these demands, even while not precipitating the crisis into conflict.
In the C2 system, the political level is distinct from the strategic level. Thinking on C2 is usually restricted to the latter. This is not unreasonable given the compulsions of “always/never” and of safety and security.11 However, the political level is equally critical. Firstly, at this level, there needs to be a legal authorising instrument, empowering decision makers to make policy and decisions, as is the case with the US National Security Council Act.12 Such legislation must designate the command authority, the succession sequence, the consultation mechanism and parliamentary oversight. Uppermost among decision imperatives is that of accountability in a democratic polity. There is a limit to upward delegation of powers that the people can give to decision makers. While power is required for provisioning security, this cannot be to the level of countenancing national suicide.
In peacetime, the system would require periodic exercises and testing and evolving in light of the lessons learnt. Self-regulation of the institutional heads would need to be exercised to ensure that institutional interest remains distinct from the national interest.
This has significance for deterrence doctrines that invariably promise violence at levels that cannot be sustained by societies. It follows that what cannot be sustained should not be inflicted, since retaliation in kind would make survival of the state and polity a risky proposition. This is the paradox of deterrence that has been lived with by democracies as the US and those profiting by its extended deterrent. However, there are clear differences between the conditions of the Cold War and the Indian security context.13 It is with some sense that India’s Draft Nuclear Doctrine of 1999 rejects Cold War logic to inform doctrine.14 Secondly, international normative and legal frameworks would also impinge.
Scarcity of reflection on this in strategic literature indicates that these are usually disregarded in strategic thinking. This is untenable in light of the developments in the legal regime and institutionalisation underway, such as the International Criminal Court.15 Lastly, peacetime control requires ensuring that the nuclear doctrine is ensconced in strategic doctrine and that “strategic enclaves” do not have a political overstretch.16 This helps keep open democratic space from the shadow of the giant, closed and powerful nuclear complex.17
The strategic level provides the holistic politico-military assessment as input and executes the decisions reached. There may be a need to convey dissent in such cases. General Sundarji writes that the military leader should be permitted to take his disagreement to the Supreme Commander in such instances.18 Implementation would entail coordinating action at the conventional-nuclear juncture of the military situation with the diplomatic and intelligence dimension.19 Internal security and disaster response would acquire heightened focus in case of nuclear exchanges. In peacetime, the system would require periodic exercises and testing and evolving in light of the lessons learnt. Self-regulation of the institutional heads would need to be exercised to ensure that institutional interest remains distinct from the national interest.
“¦the strategic circumstance may well dictate nuclear response, irrespective of the promise of unacceptable damage. The enemy cannot know the response and, therefore, cannot rule out “unacceptable damage” in retaliation.
The military has a significant role at the execution level. Given the technological sophistication in intelligence requirements and the armament, a multiagency framework is inescapable. This is thought to also help preserve the internal balance against any agency getting too powerful and in preventing militarisation. The military is involved with early warning, assessment, targeting and damage assessment. The communication links from the multiple command posts and operations rooms to the units would require being robust, secure and redundant. The system would be considerably IT reliant, with data management and decision support software at hand. Assertive and positive control would be the mainstay of the system. Paradoxically, this may increase with crisis onset and in conflict. Enabling transparency for purposes of nuclear signalling would be a challenge as also deciphering enemy nuclear signalling as distinct from the real thing. Security is a mainstay of the system and is dependent considerably on the system of selection and training of the personnel. C2 would include melding of information, electronic warfare and deception operations. Managing the conventional-nuclear interface for escalation control would require thinking through apriori.
The major insights from the preceding theory are that, firstly, the political level is distinct from the strategic level. For instance, in the U.S. system, political leaders are the decision makers, with the intelligence and military chiefs being statutory advisers at this level. Secondly, institutional interests are distinct from national interests. These may be coincident in some cases, but this is not a given. Sensitivity to insights from organisational theory needs to be there.20 This has lessons for institutional heads having to perform both representative and advisory functions. Thirdly, the requirements of deterrence require differentiation from employment. For instance, even if “unacceptable damage” is promised and capability created for this end, this is not necessarily to be inflicted in retaliation, given the polity’s own vulnerability to unacceptable damage.21 Instead, the strategic circumstance may well dictate nuclear response, irrespective of the promise of unacceptable damage. The enemy cannot know the response and, therefore, cannot rule out “unacceptable damage” in retaliation. Therefore, deterrence is not compromised. This implies that declaratory doctrine can be distinct from operational doctrine. The implication for C2 is that it needs to reflect ability to execute declaratory doctrine, for credibility, but must be responsive to any departures in executing nuclear retaliation. Flexibility is as much a criterion as certainty. Not only must C2 be able to threaten escalation but it should also be able to call any exchanges to a halt at the lowest level of escalation.
The Indian Setting
The keystone of Indian thinking is that nuclear weapons are taken as “political” weapons meant for deterrence. This owes to the understanding that these are distinct weapons, not to be confused with or taken as an extension of a weapons continuum. Their military utility that helps make deterrence credible is incidental. Key features of the Indian system are democratic political control, India’s unique mix of resolve and restraint as its strategic culture, and the civil dominance of the civil-military equations. Any technological impetus to nuclear matters has been limited by political control sensitive to security considerations. As a result, India has progressed from “existential” and “recessed” deterrence of the nonweaponised period to “minimum” deterrence since Pokhran II. However, it could be at the cusp of a move to “limited” deterrence,22 with the triad to be in place by mid-decade. India professes NFU and “credible minimum deterrence” which keeps the C2 system simple, manageable and less costly. Institutionalisation underway is along lines of a balance between hardware, software and wetware. India’s technological capability and increasing financial outlays enable it to aim for effectiveness and efficiency or deepening, as against expansion or widening of the nuclear complex.
Any technological impetus to nuclear matters has been limited by political control sensitive to security considerations. As a result, India has progressed from “existential” and “recessed” deterrence of the nonweaponised period to “minimum” deterrence since Pokhran II.
The Draft Nuclear Doctrine outlines the requirements of the C2 system, serving, in its words, to outline “the broad principles for the development, deployment and employment of India’s nuclear forces. Details of policy and strategy concerning force structures, deployment and employment of nuclear forces will flow from this framework and will be laid down separately and kept under constant review.”23 The Draft deems “punitive retaliation with nuclear weapons to inflict damage unacceptable” to the enemy as adequate for deterrence. There is no mention of quantum of the retaliation. “Sufficient” is a term it uses to define this, indicating the flexibility available to decision makers. The C2 parameters are “a robust command and control system” and “the will to employ nuclear forces and weapons.” An aspect that came in for some criticism was its felt necessity for a “capability to shift from peacetime deployment to fully employable forces in the shortest possible time.” It posited “procedures for the continuity of nuclear command and control shall ensure a continuing capability to effectively employ nuclear weapons.” The specifics on C2 in its para 5 are reproduced below.
Command and Control
5.1. Nuclear weapons shall be tightly controlled and released for use at the highest political level. The authority to release nuclear weapons for use resides in the person of the Prime Minister of India, or the designated successor(s).
5.2. An effective and survivable command and control system with requisite flexibility and responsiveness shall be in place. An integrated operational plan, or a series of sequential plans, predicated on strategic objectives and a targeting policy shall form part of the system.
5.3. For effective employment the unity of command and control of nuclear forces including dual capable delivery systems shall be ensured.
5.4. The survivability of the nuclear arsenal and effective command, control, communications, computing, intelligence and information (C4I2) systems shall be assured.
5.5. The Indian defence forces shall be in a position to, execute operations in an NBC environment with minimal degradation;
5.6. Space based and other assets shall be created to provide early warning, communications, and damage/detonation assessment.”
The Draft attracted its fair share of attention, perhaps as intended by the national security adviser (NSA) when he chose to release the Draft, otherwise reportedly meant to be kept confidential by its drafters. Of significance for C2 is the call to rapidity (rapid) in the shift from peace to war posture. However, from a doctrinal point of view, the scope for flexibility built into the formulation of “unacceptable damage” was that it was intended as a “peacetime” posture for deterrence. This implies that a wartime posture could be more realistic, practical and situation dependent; in other words, flexible.
The Indian defence forces shall be in a position to, execute operations in an NBC environment with minimal degradation.
The Draft formed the basis of the official nuclear doctrine of January 2003. The doctrine in specific spells out that India’s would be “a credible minimum deterrent” with a posture of “No First Use” and that “nuclear retaliation to a first strike will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage.” Its C2-relevant extract is below. 24
- “Nuclear retaliatory attacks can only be authorised by the civilian political leadership through the Nuclear Command Authority.
- The Nuclear Command Authority comprises a Political Council and an Executive Council. The Political Council is chaired by the Prime Minister. It is the sole body which can authorize the use of nuclear weapons.
- The Executive Council is chaired by the National Security Advisor. It provides inputs for decision making by the Nuclear Command Authority and executes the directives given to it by the Political Council.
- The CCS reviewed the existing command and control structures, the state of readiness, the targeting strategy for a retaliatory attack, and operating procedures for various stages of alert and launch. The Committee expressed satisfaction with the overall preparedness. The CCS approved the appointment of a Commander-in-Chief, Strategic Forces Command, to manage and administer all Strategic Forces.
- The CCS also reviewed and approved the arrangements for alternate chains of command for retaliatory nuclear strikes in all eventualities.”