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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 54, February 2001

Myths and Realities of Nuclear Command and Control in India and Pakistan

By Admiral L. Ramdas


I have been invited to make some observations on the paper by Dr. Shaun Gregory entitled 'Nuclear Command and Control in South Asia'. Most of my comments are based on my experience and personal knowledge of the systems that obtain in South Asia and especially in India. I am committed to the movement for total nuclear disarmament and am a member of the Co-ordination Committee of the National Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace. In putting this piece together, I have also drawn extensively on my involvement with the Pakistan India Peoples' Forum for Peace and Democracy, as Chairperson of the Indian chapter; and also on my role as leader of the recent delegation to Pakistan of the India-Pakistan Soldiers' Initiative for Peace.

The Pokhran and Chagai Tests, May 1998

The nuclear tests conducted by India and Pakistan in May 1998 - Pakistan's tests being a predictable, direct response to those of its neighbour's - sent shock waves across the globe. The tests were quickly followed by both countries declaring themselves as nuclear-weapon states. The justifications put forth by them for their actions were anchored on the well-known virtues of the bomb as propagated by the the 'N-5' countries before them. The prime factor which motivated the tests in India were the domestic political ambitions of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government and pressure from the scientific community engaged in the nuclear weapons programme. The continued neglect by the nuclear-weapon states of Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) provided added justification.

The Pakistan-India Nuclear Equation: Some Genuine Concerns

The continuing adversarial relationship between the two countries has already resulted in three wars, and a limited war in Kargil in April-May 1999, barely a year after the nuclear tests. Some people in responsible positions, both in India and Pakistan, advocated the use of the nuclear weapons during the war in Kargil. In view of this, and also the existing, rather primitive command and control facilities, genuine concerns have been expressed by many observers regarding the safe and proper management of nuclear weapons by both India and Pakistan. Dr. Shaun Gregory dismisses this view rather summarily by stating "this analysis oversimplifies the situation, pays insufficient attention to balancing factors, and smuggles a number of unfounded assumptions." He goes on, "the point at issue is whether a stable nuclear relationship can be constructed in South Asia. Much of the answer to this question rests on whether robust command and control arrangements can be put in place to meet the requirements of stable deterrence."

Stable Deterrence

'Stable deterrence' is but a mirage! This concept pre-supposes a mind- and technology-freeze by potential adversaries. It also assumes a halt to proliferation after a certain number of weapons and delivery systems have been reached. Unfortunately the quest for superior technology, combined with the desire to have an edge over the adversary, creates, if anything, a perpetually asymmetrical situation, leading to anything but stability.

Command and Control

As of now, there is simply no robust command, control, communications and intelligence systems (C3I) in place in either state. Given the economic and technological constraints, this is not likely to materialise for some time to come. All this makes the entire security environment in South Asia extremely dangerous and highly unstable.

The credit given by Dr. Gregory to both India and Pakistan for their 'reflection on the understanding' of the experience of the N-5 countries, is expressed as follows: "...this reflection encompasses a rich understanding of nuclear deterrence, nuclear doctrine, strategy, posture, command and control arrangements and the role of arms control and confidence building measure..."

This sounds reassuring, but in the view of many who have studied and worked in this field, it is, unfortunately, neither convincing nor backed up by the situation on the ground in both countries. To illustrate this point, it might be useful to briefly recount some recent incidents concerning 'command and control' and crisis management in India.

  • The Purulia Incident (December 1995), where weapons were air-dropped by a civilian aircraft in the eastern part of India without any detection and/or interception of the said aircraft
  • The shooting down of the Pakistan Navy's 'Atlantique' aircraft by the Indian Air Force in peacetime (August 1999)
  • The hi-jacking of the Indian Airlines aircraft (December 1999) and the consequent lack of timely and efficient management of the situation
  • The recent earthquake in Gujarat and the near total collapse of administrative machinery and rescue efforts
  • The poor safety record in the nuclear power and mining industry
Given this kind of track-record, it is difficult to accept the reassurances regarding 'safety' and 'command and control' which have been provided from time to time by government agencies, their nuclear scientists, and also independent analysts. This is not to say that there is absolutely nothing in place by way of command and control systems, but the technologies to ensure safety and to prevent accidental deployment of nuclear weapons are still at an embryonic stage.

Dr. Gregory's suggestion that "the imposition of high level control can be addressed by relatively low-tech procedural means such as the two-person rule (reinforced by command authority separation) and the expedient of keeping warheads and delivery systems separated until required" merits further examination. What Dr. Gregory is suggesting is virtually the 'de-alerting' of weapons. From my own standpoint, this is indeed an excellent idea, and a wonderful first step towards total nuclear disarmament. However, as far as 'command and control' is concerned, the two-person formula is fraught with danger unless there are matching technological interlocks in place. This holds true especially in the context of South Asia and also raises the question as to who will oversee this 'de-alerting' of nuclear weapons. The operationalising of nuclear weapons from a de-alerted state, given India's stated doctrine of 'no-first use', is unworkable because of the inordinate time delays this will impose on a second-strike response. This suggestion is therefore unlikely to be accepted or implemented, a sad fact which once again highlights the inadequacies of the 'command and control systems' currently available.

The Bilateral Nuclear Relationship

Whilst sketching the historical development of nuclear capabilities of India and Pakistan, Dr. Gregory goes on to say that "consequently both parties have already managed a functional bilateral nuclear relationship for more than a decade, and have steered this relationship through three important crises ... Brasstacks in 1986/87 ... Zarb-e-Momin in 1990 ... and Kargil in 1999."

The point to note about Brasstacks and Zarb-e-Momin is that these were major exercises conducted, by India and Pakistan respectively, after prior notification to each other. The question of adroit management of the nuclear environment was therefore not the real issue. Some analysts have given the 'crisis' label to these events. Whilst, no doubt, these exercises were closely followed by professionals on both sides, there was really no war hysteria prevalent at the time. Last but not least, delivery systems for the nuclear weapons were simply non-existent except for the air-dropping of nuclear bombs, procedures for which had not been perfected.

As for Kargil, we only managed to avert a catastrophe by the closest of margins, with some individuals in responsible positions in both countries advocating the use of nuclear weapons. This narrow escape was not due to any special nuclear relationship or understanding, but to heavy international pressure, especially that exerted by the United States. Such pressure worked in this case because the war was limited to Kargil and no international boundaries had been crossed.

War-Fighting Traits of India and Pakistan

Sundry points brought out by Dr. Gregory in this regard include the following:

  • Intra-war escalation control
  • Propensity to bilateral political and military dialogue to contain conflict
  • Aversion to systematically attacking civilian targets
  • Mutual assured destruction - of Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi in Pakistan, and of Delhi and Mumbai in India - as a powerful deterrent against nuclear risk-taking
  • The continuing presence of Muslim populations in India in excess of those in Pakistan, as a restraining factor against attack on civilian targets
  • The overarching dependence by Pakistan on the influence of the international community, especially the USA, in respect of its nuclear policy
As far as intra-war escalation control - the ability of political and military dialogue to contain conflict - is concerned, no such mechanism actually existed during any of the conflicts that have taken place. Such dialogue usually either preceded or followed a conflict - be it 1948, 1965, or 1971. The only exception was when India asked Pakistan to surrender during the 1971 war in the erstwhile East Pakistan, which led to the creation of Bangladesh.

The effectiveness of 'mutually assured destruction' of major cities as a factor against nuclear risk taking would be a dangerous assumption. Should the two nations go to war with conventional weapons, and should one of Pakistan's major cities be directly threatened, it is quite on the cards that they may be tempted to carry out a first strike with nuclear weapons against Delhi or Bombay, or both. The deterrence factor is therefore most unlikely to work in this case. In such a case even international intervention is unlikely to avoid such a development.

Civil Military Interface

In India as of now, the military has not been fully integrated into the nuclear weapons control chain. In Pakistan on the other hand, the nuclear button is solely in the hands of the army. Neither of these situations are conducive to effective command and control.

Dyadic Coupling

The 'dyadic coupling' mentioned by Dr. Gregory for integrating the national nuclear command and control systems of both India and Pakistan is certainly a novel idea - but one that is perhaps still ahead of its time. Unless the two countries are able to resolve outstanding bilateral problems, including that of Jammu and Kashmir, any meaningful 'coupling' is totally unrealistic. This observation is based on the experience of numerous 'Track II' initiatives which have failed primarily because of the inability to integrate the 'techno-fix' with the political aspects which underpin India-Pakistan relations.

Fundamentalism and Terrorism

South Asia is also witnessing a trend of rising fundamentalism. India, Pakistan and Afghanistan each have their own brands of extremists. It will indeed be a frightening day should such groups gain access to nuclear weapons - a possibility which cannot be totally ruled out. Such groups do not work on the basis of conventional political logic or other norms of behaviour, and can therefore be totally unpredictable. A recent example was the open advocacy of 'jihad' or holy war as a legitimate means of defending a particular 'Vision of the Nation State', a view proffered by a former Chief of Army Staff and currently head of a well known Policy Research Institute in Pakistan.

Conclusion: National Missile Defence as an Example of the Wrong Approach

The National Missile Defence programme of the United States adds yet another dimension of difficulty to this already nightmarish situation. All other nuclear-weapon states, with the notable exception of the UK, have expressed their serious concern over this development as it is bound to trigger yet another nuclear arms race in the new millennium.

Nuclear weapons and their proliferation have to be addressed globally. Till such time as the N-5, India, Pakistan and Israel run down their nuclear weapons to zero, no C3I systems, no matter how well structured can ever attain the mythical state of 'stable deterrence'. Given the reality of this situation, can we then truly expect 'nuclear détente' in South Asia?

Admiral L. Ramdas (Retired) is a former Chief of Staff of the Indian Navy.

© 2001 The Acronym Institute.