Military & Aerospace

Nuclear Command and Control: Locating the Strategic Forces Command
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 01 Mar , 2022

It’s possible that the full length nuclear doctrine – of which only the abridged version is in the public domain – explicates a thorough nuclear command and control (C2) arrangement. In the current nuclear C2, the Commander-in-Chief (C-in-C) Strategic Forces Command (SFC), who ‘manages and administers’ the SFC, hasdual reporting lines.While operational authority over the SFC is said to lie with the National Security Adviser (NSA), the SFC once had an administrative reporting line to the Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC), which is presumably now the remit of the Permanent Chairman (PC) COSC.

This article discusses the nuclear C2 in relation to the SFC. Closing on 20 years since its formation, its well-regarded success as a joint (or is it exclusive political) command bears discussion alongside the ongoing one on jointness. Also, much doctrinal and hardware development has occurred, necessitating a revisit to the fundamental verities. Even if the current arrangement has stood the test of time and there is a case for ‘not mending what ain’t broke’, the intervening two decades is good enough reason to revisit assumptions and arrangements. This article proceeds to do so by looking only at the paper trail, limited though it is on nuclear C2, since a keener look ‘inside the box’ is not possible owing to confidentiality that attends nuclear matters in general.

Whither command authority over SFC?

An academic has described the nuclear C2 arrangement as: ‘the command of India’s nuclear forces flows from the PMO (Prime Minister’s Office) through the office of the NSA to the CCoSC (Chairman COSC) and the SFC commander.’ This indicates NSA’s operational line over both the CCOSC and SFC as regards decision implementation on nuclear matters.

Whether this is ‘proper’ must be examined in light of the criteria of command’. The definition may provide a handy yardstick to examine if command relationships in regard to the very potent SFC are adequate. A definition from Indian Army Doctrine (pp. 31-32) can help in this regard:

Command is the legal authority exercised by the commander…. It carries with it the responsibility for planning, organising, training, directing, coordinating and controlling military forces to accomplish assigned, implied or inherent missions together with administrative responsibility for supply, health, welfare, morale, discipline, assignment and relief of personnel.

There are two aspects to command in relation to the SFC. The first is that of the C-in-C in regard to the SFC itself. This is disposed off here at the very outset, with the focus shifting to the second, more significant, aspect of nuclear C2: Who does the C-in-C SFC in turn report to?

It is self-evident that by this definition the C-in-C SFC’s command authority over SFC assets – described as ‘manages and administers’ – is rather limited. The two terms do not lend confidence in the nuclear C2 standard put out by the Draft Nuclear Doctrine have been met, specifically: “For effective employment the unity of command and control of nuclear forces including dual capable delivery systems shall be ensured.” The terms ‘manages and administers’ is not a viable substitute for a command relationship between the commander charged with execution and his tools.

The second aspect is of the location of the SFC in the nuclear C2 arrangement. The amendment to the Allocation of Business rules on the appointment of the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) gave out the authority of the CDS in his capacity as PC COSC. The press release on the appointment of the CDS informs that the CDS ‘will not exercise any military command, including over the three Service Chiefs, so as to be able to provide impartial advice to the political leadership.’ His command authority is restricted to ‘(T)ri-service agencies/organisations/commands related to Cyber and Space.’

Since SFC does not find explicit mention, the PC COSC relationship to the SFC is subsumed in his nuclear role: ‘the Military Adviser to the Nuclear Command Authority (NCA).’ The earlier mandate of administrative oversight that logically devolves on the PC COSC does no find explicit mention among his duties, but can be presumed. Even so, it is a notable omission, even if a premeditated one.

The relationship of the PC COSC with the SFC is restricted to an indirect advisory role on nuclear matters and a (presumed) direct one in terms of administrative oversight. More on the former role later, but, prima facie, mere administrative oversight appears suboptimal. Quite like the other Cs-in-C of geographical commands of the Services who report to their respective Service Chiefs -who exercise command authority – the C-in-C SFC as head of a functional joint command would imply being accountable to the PC COSC. Earlier there being a rotating Chairman COSC, this aspect did not figure. But with a PC COSC, it demands relook. However, this too may not be relevant considering the purely political control on this strategic asset.

Need for clarity

As for the advisory role of the PC COSC, this too could do with enhancing. For this the popular understanding of the SFC being operationally under the NSA needs to be problematised. It is surprising that there is no mention of nuclear C2 in the Allocation of Business rules. The NSA, with a term co-extensive with the prime minister, is‘the Principal Adviser on National Security matters to the Prime Minister; and the National Security Council.’There is no reference to any executive role, which puts into question the operational authority that the NSA is supposed – in the popular narrative – to exercise over the SFC.

The cryptic 2003 press release with an abridged nuclear doctrine is the only official clue to go on. It reads: ‘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.’ This has been translated as allowing the NSA,as chair of the Executive Council,operational authority over the SFC:C-in-C SFC being a member of the Executive Council.

The Political Council,being ‘the sole body which can authorize the use of nuclear weapons (italics added),’ cannot delegate its authority to the NSA.The Executive Council ‘executes the directives given to it by the Political Council.’ In other words, a subordinate committee (Executive Council)is empowered by and answerable to the higher committee (Political Council).

Recall also, the single-point authority given in the Draft Nuclear Doctrine, thus, ‘(T)he authority to release nuclear weapons for use resides in the person of the Prime Minister of India (italics added),’ was not replicated in the 2003 nuclear doctrine. The latter reads: ‘The Political Council is chaired by the Prime Minister. It is the sole body which can authorize the use of nuclear weapons’ (italics added).

The inference is that the C-in-C SFC, a member of Executive Council, is answerable to the Political Council as part of the collective, the Executive Council, answering to the collective, the Political Council.Such an interpretation of the official nuclear doctrine in effect suggests -irrespective of the NSA’s presumed operational authority – that there is no single-point authority – military or civilian – overseeing the three-star C-in-C SFC. This suggests that the Draft Nuclear Doctrine’s call for ‘unity of command and control of nuclear forces’ has not been fully met as yet. The operational and administrative disjuncture militates against ‘unity of command’, which reasonably ought to apply to a significant force as the SFC.

Changes proposed

The finding here so far is that command relationships in respect of the SFC are not strictly compliant with the definition (covered earlier) of ‘command’: ‘Command is the legal authority exercised by the commander… (italics added)’. There is no ‘commander’ the C-in-C SFC reports to, unlike other Cs-in-C of the three Services.In the ongoing jointness debate, C2 of joint theatre commands is a significant aspect of the debate. However, the C2 over the functional command, the SFC, has not figured so far. The ongoing defence reforms offer an opportunity for explicit insertion into the nuclear C2 arrangement a military superior for the C-in-C SFC in a consequential addition to the remit of the CDS as PC COSC.

Even in the presidential system of the United States (US), the NSA does not have executive responsibility, with the command authority over combatant commands, such as the Strategic Command that controls the nuclear weapons, resting with the US president and is exercised through the Secretary of Defence.

The PC COSC as lead military adviser to the NCA must be part of the Political Council, as a permanent invitee. Being on hand, the PC COSC would be able to receive the nuclear directives directly from the Political Council, of which the defence minister – the civilian political authority over the military – is part. Operational authorization of nuclear weapons can thus be transmitted to the SFC through a single –uniformed – chain of command.

By virtue of such empowerment of the PC COSC, he could also co-Chair the Executive Council. This will ease implementation since execution now is a combined civil-military activity; not all nuclear warheads being in a de-mated state.

The PC COSC would require a nuclear staff asa separate vertical in the HQ Integrated Defence Staff. Hiving off the strategic weapons’ ‘employment-related’ operations staff from the Strategy Programs Staff, with the nuclear weapons ‘development-related’ staffretained under the NSA,will be necessary.

This onerous responsibility requires that CDS’ bandwidth needs to be enlarged. To avoid an overload, the Secretary Department of Military Affairs hat of the CDS can be shed to a three star vice CDS.

Arguing for the makeover

With the SFC ‘under command’ the PC COSC, deterrence is the gainer. Continuing with a nuclear C2 that sufficed over the past two decades needs a debate in light of India’s changed security situation.The PC COSC is best positioned to keep a tag on the escalatory dynamic of conflict, making for an efficacious discharge of his nuclear advisory role. Having an executive role alongside makes for a neater nuclear C2 arrangement, that should impress prospective foes.

Escalation possibilities necessitate keeping an intimate eye on when and how nuclear weapons can move from the backdrop to foreground and responding appropriately. Whereas the full spectrum deterrence threat held out by Pakistan is a concern, China continues to modernize its nuclear arsenal. Consequently, military factors in the nuclear domain are of increasing import in conflict. The PC COSC presence in the Political Council in an advisory capacity will ensure that military factors are not blindsided, but resilience of response compels a military – uniformed – chain of command.

Irrespective of validity of the conception that ‘nuclear weapons being political weapons are not meant for warfighting’, periodically revisiting the concept is warranted. A military chain of command for the SFC does not violate this principle since it does not in any way affect the C2 doctrinal principle: that authorization for nuclear use rests with the Political Council headed by the prime minister and advised by the NSA. 

The change can also ease the span of control issues for the National Security Council system under the NSA. The NSA would then have more attention span for forward looking and civilian predominant areas – nuclear weapons development, general deterrence and a holistic national security overview. The NSA’s ambit has increased lately, with his wearing the hats of the Defence Planning Committee and the Strategic Policy Group. Therefore, both an explication and revision of his mandate is in order.

The counter argument

The plausible counter argument is that operational authority is better retained by the NSA. The NSA is more situationally aware of the political and diplomatic dimensions of conflict. Neither should the NSA be responsible to identify the target that is to be engaged. An entirely separate and independent group/committee should be made responsible for this task reporting directly to the Political Council and PM.It is the overall situation rather than its narrowly military coordinates that will drive nuclear input and decision making. Next, he is also better positioned in conflict to oversee the responsiveness of the civilian nuclear complex.

Considering the nature of the asset it is necessary to have two independent channels receiving the authorisiation for use of a strategic nuclear weapon as well the specific target/targets to be engaged. Therefore, NSA and the Executive Council should independently authorise the SFC for the use of the weapon and the target/targets to be engaged.

Finally, if command over the SFC is vested with the PC COSC, this would be a departure from the military understanding of ‘command’: directing military forces for achieving military objectives. The SFC does not easily come under this definition since it is not meant to deliver on strictly military objectives as are other military forces. India is not venturing into the realm of low yield nuclear weapons and therefore there is no call for a military command over SFC. 


The proposal is the next logical step in the incremental co-option of the military into national security structures. A maturing of the three systems involved – the CDS, the SFC and the NCA – allows for inclusion of nuclear C2 in the consideration on ongoing defence reforms.  With a new CDS in saddle soon, the proposal here can be thrashed out in the ongoing debate on jointness, the SFC being a significant- and popularly regarded as the most successful – joint command. Rebuttal of the counter argument in favour of the status quo is not attempted here for reasons of space as much as keeping powder dry if a debate ensues. There is also little doubt that nuclear C2 has gone much further than the initial steps reviewed in this paper cover. At a minimum, the government needs bringing such defacto strides into the open domain since these depict implacability of the deterrent, enhancing deterrence. At a maximum, the government could take the next steps in nuclear weapons operationalisation by indubitably domesticating these in military structures, thereby – yet again – boosting deterrence.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Ali Ahmed

 is a retired infantryman, blogs on security issues at He is author of India's Doctrine Puzzle: Limiting War in South Asia (Routledge 2014). 

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