You are here

Re-visioning the Nuclear Command Authority

Ali Ahmed was Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
  • Share
  • Tweet
  • Email
  • Whatsapp
  • Linkedin
  • Print
  • September 09, 2009

    In a new book Nuclear Strategy: India’s March Towards a Credible Deterrent, Dr. Manpreet Sethi has recommended a restructuring of India’s Nuclear Command Authority. Since India’s nuclear doctrine is premised on ‘Assured Retaliation’, nuclear retaliatory attacks can only be authorised by the civilian political leadership through the Nuclear Command Authority. Presently, the Nuclear Command Authority, as approved by the Cabinet Committee on Security on 04 January 2003, stipulates:

    ‘3. 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.

    4. 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 recommendation is that the Service Chiefs be included as members in the Political Council also. This is an important suggestion deserving of attention. The recommended improvement is persuasively argued. Firstly, it wishes to take the present system that is seemingly an institutionalisation of pre-existing informal networks, a step further. Inclusion of the Service Chiefs in the Political Council would enable provision of informed advice to the political decision maker directly by the end-users. This is all the more imperative given the linkage in the Southern Asian setting between conventional and nuclear deterrence. Secondly, Dr. Sethi believes that the fear of militarisation is overblown since military leaders are demonstrably sensitive to the issue of political control of the military in a parliamentary democracy. Lastly, the argument has it that the presence of military members would enhance credibility of deterrence and would sensitise both civil and military leaderships to each others’ compulsions and preoccupation. The expectation is that this would result in ‘synergy of thought, planning and effort.’

    The major point made is that military input would be made available in the Political Council better. This begs the question as to whether the present system adequately caters for this. In so far as the nuclear advisory role of the Service Chiefs is concerned it is through their membership in the Executive Council, as explicated in Para 4: ‘It (the Executive Council) provides inputs for decision making by the Nuclear Command Authority.’ This mandates the Chiefs, as members of the Executive Council, to proffer input as required. The Chiefs are also readily available for direct interaction with the Political Council on invitation. Further, the Defence Minister, who is a member of the Political Council, is privy to their advice. Thus their position can be expected to be taken into account in any nuclear related decision.

    What are the implications of having the Service Chiefs as members of both Councils? In such a case not only would they be providing inputs as part of the Executive Council but also sitting in judgment over their own input and that of other members of the Executive Council as part of the Political Council. The key to the argument for change is whether such an arrangement is better. There are some negatives that need to be considered.

    Firstly, nuclear weapons in the Indian schema are political instruments for deterrence. Attacks, which in India’s case can only be retaliatory attacks, can only be authorised by the civilian political leadership. The Political Council is to serve as the forum for deliberations on this score with nuclear decision making being the preserve of the Prime Minister as the head. Therefore, having military members may impact the complexion of India’s approach to nuclear weapons altogether. The argument that the Chiefs be members, alongside civilian ministers, in this Council would be to privilege them beyond the limits of the Indian system of military subordination to civilian control. However, if at all the Political Council is to profit from their institutionalised presence to the degree recommended, then this cannot be with them as co-equals as members, but as a separate nuclear advisory panel subsumed in the Political Council. The recommendation then would require modification along these lines. On such a panel must also figure the National Security Advisor, who it can be expected would be in a position to integrate and present the civilian dimension of input.

    Secondly, recourse to organisation theory may help, in particular the Bureaucratic Politics model. The succinct proposition here is ‘where you stand depends on where you sit.’ The corollary is that apex organizational leadership tends to believe ‘what is good for General Motors is good for America.’ Personalities also play a role, especially the ability of the organizational head ‘to stand the heat in the kitchen.’ Thus, advice and solutions do not emerge from a detached consideration of problems in the logic argument-reflection-choice, but by the ‘push and shove’ of agencies, represented by their parochial leadership. Pre-existing action-channels, bargaining games, and power play as the mechanism of choice characterize this model. Decision-makers can thus be viewed realistically as ‘following’ rather than ‘leading’ in an environment of constraints. Further, the organizational head has the brief to protect organizational interests. Key to success is enterprise in getting other agencies committed to the coalition, in order to gain confidence of the primary decision-maker. The personal chemistry between the organizational head and the political decision-maker is also a factor in the effectiveness of the former. In light of this and given the larger Indian cultural milieu, more narrowly its strategic culture and the historical record of policy and decision making, it would be difficult to concede this recommendation without a pause. While granting that the well spring of the recommendation is to avoid this very clutter, it is neglectful of the human dimension of decision making dynamics packaged by organizational theory.

    Thirdly, the recommendation is for inclusion of all there Service Chiefs, perhaps in deference to the extant reality of absence of an integrating military authority in the form of a Chief of Defence Staff. Though the Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee translates and transmits the requirements of the Political Council to the Strategic Forces Command, instead of naming him alone to the Political Council, the recommendation interestingly requires representation of the three Chiefs. Following from the discussion of organizational theory, divergence in the view of the three could lead to considerable strain in deliberations in the Political Council, which in the time-critical and psychologically intense conditions of ongoing conflict is entirely avoidable. Perhaps, a modification to the proposal could be representation only of the Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee, or better still, the long pending creation of a Chief of Defence Staff to fulfill the principal military advisory role. The proposal serves as a powerful argument to bring about the necessary conclusion to higher defence organization reforms pursuant to the Arun Singh Task Force recommendations. For this to happen, the services require to be on the same page, an unlikely proposition as things currently stand in this matter.

    Lastly, the assumption that the Chiefs would be able to comprehend the full extent of the security predicament in a war gone nuclear due to nuclear ‘first use’ by the opposite side requires examination. Clearly, it is easy to concede that national security is largely vested collectively in their offices and their higher level training and service experience enables them to comprehend national security in a multidimensional manner. However, in the Indian scheme, they are also the operational heads of the three services. In a conflict, military pressures are likely to supersede political considerations. This is a problem with the office of the Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee too, who has at best a first-among-equals position. If Huntington is to be heeded, the military has a characteristic of privileging military compulsions over the political once conflict is underway; even if it is also most reluctant to venture into a conflict in the first place. This characteristic will be heightened were a von Molkean interpretation of Clausewitz as the ‘Mahdi of Mass’ were to be subscribed to. Therefore, the inclusion of military chiefs could affect the manner in which nuclear use is actually viewed during a conflict, with the military view gaining ascendance over the civilian-political view. Thus, even if this is only a possibility, it detracts from the suggested institutional innovation.

    In conclusion, stasis is the enemy of perfection. The nation demands nothing less than the closest approximation to perfection humanly possible in its nuclear related decision making. The recommendation imbued with this spirit is therefore a welcome development. Here, the debate initiated has been joined equally earnestly.