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Essence of Deterrence

January 07, 2003

Times of India

Essence of Deterrence
By K Subrahmanyam

Finally the cabinet committee on national security has come out with its decisions on what are popularly called nuclear command and control.Not surprisingly, it has accepted the draft nuclear doctrine released in August 1999. It has endorsed the main principles incorporated in the draft doctrine that the Indian nuclear capability will be used only in retaliation, but that the retaliation will be punitive.

It also endorses that the nuclear force will be based on a strategic triad, the policy being to have a minimum credible nuclear deterrent, supremacy of civilian control of the release of weapons and no delegation of powers of use to the armed forces.

The draft doctrine vested the power to release the weapon in the prime minister and his designated successors. The cabinet committee on national security has now announced the formation of two councils, a political and an executive one. Councils are useful in discussing strategy, plans, logistics, targeting policy and information campaigns. But councils cannot replace command and control functions. In the 1960s, countries like Germany demanded a finger on the nuclear button. After a lot of deliberation, the US created the NATO nuclear ministerial planning group but kept the nuclear button in the exclusive possession of Washington.

Two years ago, there was a seminar in Bangkok comprising Indian, Pakistani and US strategists. The Pakistanis made a song and dance about their having committees for nuclear command and control while the Indian draft nuclear doctrine vested the power solely in the prime minister and his designated successors. I asked the former US defence secretary, William Perry, who was present, for his views. He said committee deliberations would be possible if a nuclear action was being planned but when there has to be a response to a nuclear attack that has to be, in all probability, an executive decision.

New Delhi is not going to plan a nuclear attack and under its ‘no first use' doctrine will only respond to an attack. While contingency planning for such a retaliation can be deliberated upon, planned for and projected by the two councils, they cannot play an effective role in command and control which is essentially an executive function. This decision has to be taken in minutes. That was the reason why the national security advi-sory board vested the power in the prime minister and his designated successors.

The crux of command control is the command chain when the prime minister is in a position to exercise it and when he is not because of a decapitation attack on the Capi-tal wiping out the entire political and military leadership. The credibility of the Indian retaliatory ability which would deter a sabre-rattling Islamabad depends on the explicit and transparent projection of such a survi-vable command and control system. This, in turn, calls for, as has been done in the US, a clear projection of political and military succession and the survivability of command and control to carry out punitive retaliation. The first step is to have the strategic forces' command far away from New Delhi with full knowledge of targeting plans for retaliation.

Second, the political succession has to be clearly defined. In the US, on 9/11, the president was taken to the strategic forces headquarters and the vice-president whis-ked away to a secret location. Whenever a threat is anticipated, the vice-president is separated and kept in an unknown destination in constant touch with the president and other members of the National Security Council through safe and uninterruptible communication channels. US law provides for succession of up to more than 20. Military succession too is well defined.

The command chain runs in normal times from the president, to the defence secretary, the chairman, joint chiefs of staff and the strategic forces both in the US and NATO. This is what command and control is all about. Islamabad had earlier announced committees like our newly-announced councils. But that was to obfuscate the reality of its nuclear weapons being in the sole command of the chief of army staff.

The Indian ‘no first use' policy and consequent retaliatory strategy requi-res a delicate balancing between the imperatives of ensuring the survivability of the retaliatory capability through deception, camouflage, mobility and redundancy in strike capabilities. It must also impress upon the adversary that he cannot successfully target the force and get away without punitive punishment. While the former considerations justify secrecy, the latter calls for a transparent projection of capabilities without compromising secrecy. This is where the strategic triad in the strike force comes in. The command and control chain from the political level to the implementing level should also reflect its survivability under the worst conditions of decapitation attack. That is the essence of deterrence.

How we proceed will be watched by our adversary who has been indulging in provocative nuclear sabre-rattling with- out much international disapproval. The alternative chain of command and arrangements to continue the vital institutions of the republic without interruption in case of a decapitation attack and the capability for punitive retaliation should be impressed on the adversary and should be credible to our own people.


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