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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 54, February 2001

A Formidable Challenge: Nuclear Command and Control in South Asia

By Shaun Gregory

The level of international attention focussed on South Asia in the wake of the 1998 Indian and Pakistan nuclear weapons tests provides evidence that the risks of the use of nuclear weapons or even nuclear war are widely perceived to be genuine. Much international anxiety has crystallized around a perception of India and Pakistan and their respective nuclear programs, which seems tailor-made to underline the distinctions between the acknowledged nuclear powers (N-5) and the South Asian nuclear upstarts. Loosely sketched, this perception is one of economically, politically, and technologically limited states struggling to come to terms with the novelty of managing nuclear weapons technology in the context of rhetorical hostility, a history of bilateral warfare and a degree of political instability on both sides, overshadowed by the tinderbox of Kashmir. India is characterised as increasingly assertive and casually indifferent to the security of its sub-continental neighbours; Pakistan as unstable and risk-taking. Viewed in this way, it is difficult to see how a stable bilateral deterrent relationship can emerge, and comparatively easy to conjure a multitude of superficially plausible scenarios by which South Asia could descend rapidly into nuclear chaos.

In many important respects this analysis oversimplifies the situation, pays insufficient attention to balancing factors and smuggles in a number of unfounded assumptions. Leaving aside such questions as whether either state ought to divert precious resources to nuclear weapons given the needs of their respective peoples or the implications of Indo-Pak proliferation for the NPT, the point at issue here 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 (C2) arrangements can be put in place to meet the requirements of stable deterrence. These are primarily: assured high-level (preferably political) control of nuclear forces; the prevention of accidental, irrational or unauthorised use of nuclear weapons; the assurance of nuclear weapons operations to meet the requirements of strategy; and, arrangements for escalation control and nuclear war termination.

The evidence from the region suggests that these requirements can be met and that many are presently in the process of being met on both sides. This does not mean there are no risks, gaps or potential instabilities, but it does suggest that the nuclear situation is more stable and the problems more subtle (though no less demanding) than the foregoing simplifications allow.

The idea that India and Pakistan are new nuclear states is misleading. Both have had civil nuclear programs since the 1950s, India detonated a nuclear device in 1974 and both India and Pakistan weaponised their nuclear devices in the late 1980s. The tests in 1998 therefore represent an important step in the evolution of the bilateral nuclear relationship but not the geopolitical transformation some have argued. 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; "Zab-I-Momin" in 1990; and Kargil in 1999.

Secondly, while hostile rhetoric reflects bilateral tensions and also serves national political purposes, it may contribute to deterrence through threat and ambiguity, and undoubtedly draws international political attention. More importantly here it also masks the true degree of political and military realism in the respective national elites, and obscures the extent of bilateral political and military dialogue in place (albeit suspended temporarily in the wake of Kargil).

Thirdly, it is evident that in addition to direct technical assistance both India and Pakistan have benefited greatly from reflection on the experiences of the N-5 powers as they emerged as stable nuclear states in circumstances which in almost all respects were technically inferior to those of late twentieth century India and Pakistan. 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 measures. This suggests that while India and Pakistan may not escape all the emergent nuclear problems of the N-5 neither are they doomed to repeat them.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, both states have shown considerable skill in fashioning a nuclear posture and command and control arrangements in line with the limits of their national circumstances. With relatively few nuclear weapons in their respective nuclear arsenals, the two states have eschewed elaborate doctrine and strategy and premised deterrence on assured retaliation and counter-city targeting. India has openly declared a no-first-use policy of more than rhetorical value and, while Pakistan keeps this option open, both states have rejected nuclear war-fighting options as provocative, escalatory and beyond their deterrence needs.

The simplification of their nuclear postures in this manner has greatly reduced the demands on Indian and Pakistani command and control arrangements. Both states - facing similar thematic challenges to the N-5 - are developing US-style hierarchical C2 systems (though in Pakistan's case presently minus the political element). However, without the need for the complex targeting and precise escalation control of, for example, NATO's flexible response; with missile flight times to city targets a matter of six minutes or less; and, with assured retaliation underwritten in the medium term by dispersal, decoys, and redundant communication systems, many of the more demanding C2 challenges such as strategic and tactical warning, maintaining high levels of alert and provisions for Launch-On-Warning or Launch-Under-Attack are peripheral or simply irrelevant. Moreover, in these circumstances key C2 requirements such as 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.

Such measures also address many of the anxieties about accidental, irrational and unauthorised use relying, as does the United Kingdom, on the integrity and obedience of officers, the separation of procedures, checks to control those with access to nuclear weapons, and the requirement for the collaboration of multiple individuals to effect nuclear activities. The oft-repeated regional demand for N-5 assistance with PAL-type technology to strengthen high-level control trades on international anxiety and derives largely from the legitimacy which would be transferred to India and Pakistan with such technology (assuming a way round the NPT could be found) rather than a pressing technical need.

Meeting the operational requirements of nuclear first-use makes few rigorous demands on command and control. Nor does measured retaliation, since neither side can be confident of decapitating or even significantly degrading the others nuclear infrastructure.

The claim that Kashmir or a crisis like Kargil could provide the spark for the use of nuclear weapons or even nuclear war is usually premised on many easy assumptions about the dynamics of escalation from a low-level conflict to a cross-border war and from a cross-border war to crossing the nuclear threshold. In fact the history of conflicts between India and Pakistan shows a high degree of intra-war escalation control, a repeated propensity to bilateral political and military dialogue to contain conflict, and an aversion to systematically attacking civilian targets (which both Indians and Pakistanis contrast with western practice evidenced from Guernica via Dresden, Hiroshima and Vietnam to Serbia in 1999). In the nuclearised context since the late 1980s the evidence suggests greater caution still in containing conflicts at the lower levels, a point often overlooked when Kargil is presented as evidence that nuclear weapons do not constrain conventional conflict.

Three other factors at least have to be added to this analysis. First the notion that the assured mutual destruction of cities (Pakistan has but three targets, Islamabad/Rawalpindi, Lahore and Karachi; and modern India could scarcely survive the destruction of Delhi and Mumbai) is a powerful deterrent against nuclear risk-taking. Second, the demographic points that partition in 1947 divided families and peoples and that there are more Muslims in India than in Pakistan with all that this implies about the threat of either to the population of the other. Third, the sentiment, widely expressed in the region, that a serious war with even a whiff of serious nuclear risk would bring the international community and particularly the United States swiftly into the situation. The latter indeed may be a core element of Pakistan's nuclear policy, and its refusal to rule out first-use, much as it was of South Africa's in the 1980s.

This analysis does not mean that there is no risk of nuclear use or nuclear war in South Asia or that there is no risk of escalation from the conventional to the nuclear level. It does however suggest that research and the promotion of bilateral dialogue and stability in the region should seek to avoid the assumptions and simplifications that obscure many of the region's real nuclear uncertainties. Taking these factors into account there appear to be at least seven issues which neither overstate the problems nor understate the risks:

1) Bilateral perceptions: a clear obstacle to achieving a stable nuclear relationship is the polarized perception of the other evident in each state. For India the locus of nuclear risk lies in the Pakistan military. It is seen as undemocratic and thus unaccountable politically for its actions and insulated in important respects from the wider, and by implication more level-headed, elite discourse in Pakistan. It is seen also as risk-taking in supporting Kashmir separatism and regional "terrorism" and in its past history of going to war with India despite the preponderance of Indian military power. The threat for India is thus that the Pakistan military may initiate an over-ambitious conventional conflict that it subsequently feels it has to defend by nuclear means. For Pakistan the locus of nuclear risk lies in an increasingly hard-line and assertive India confident of growing US support (not least in relation to China and the Muslim world) and thus prepared to exercise conventional and nuclear pressure on its neighbours in a process of regional "Finlandization". As the underlying fundamentals favour India, and as India's nuclear weapons program is less threatened by international sanctions than that of Pakistan, the fear of the latter is that it may be subject to conventional and nuclear blackmail and thus forced to defend its vital interests to the point of a nuclear exchange.

The core issue here is that these perspectives point up the polarization of bilateral perceptions and thus provide insight into the rigidity of the respective internal debates which make creative thinking difficult and the implementation of novel ideas even harder.

2. Perceptions of risk: a related issue is that at present there appear to be only limited regional perceptions of the shared bilateral risks of nuclear war (notwithstanding some relevant bilateral agreements and elements of the presently suspended Lahore Declaration) and thus little recognition of the need to recalibrate other national strategic priorities - national defence, Kashmir, etc - in relation to the over-riding strategic imperative of avoiding nuclear war. The issue is complicated further by the asymmetry between Pakistan's preoccupation with India in its security thinking and India's focus on a range of security questions of which Pakistan is but one.

3. Technology drive: there are powerful reasons for believing that the trajectory of nuclear hardware procurement in both India and Pakistan point in the longer term to the emergence of high level or even "hair-trigger" nuclear alert postures, perhaps within the next 10-20 years. Such a posture would seriously, perhaps fatally, undermine the factors presently acting for regional nuclear stability. Discomfortingly, the regional confidence which exists in present arrangements may itself smooth the path to such postures by underpinning the belief that they can be successfully managed.

4. Command and control challenges: despite learning from the experience of the N-5 both India and Pakistan still face the technical challenges of developing, deploying and maintaining a robust nuclear command and control system in a novel environment. Such challenges include the costs of paying for adequate systems, phasing in the systems without creating instabilities or vulnerabilities, handling transitional failures and malfunctions before systems become reliably operational in situ, and system implementation in the context of a degree of infrastructure fragility evidenced, for example, in both countries' intermittently functioning power and telecommunications systems.

5. Civil-military relations: a further tension between India and Pakistan is the opposing challenges each faces in moving towards an appropriate civil-military balance in the management of nuclear forces. For Pakistan the task in the context of the military dominance of nuclear weapons is one of "civilianisation", that is bringing political elements into nuclear decision-making and implementation in a manner which properly reflects the public good and the will of the people. For India the task is effectively the reverse: to "militarise" a nuclear posture which at present is dominated by the government and civil organizations to ensure that the military is fully integrated in nuclear decision-making and fully functional operationally.

6. Dyadic coupling: there appears as yet to be little acceptance of the idea that in a conflictual context the nuclear weapons of two protagonists become in certain respects coupled to one another, not least through the interaction of their respective command and control systems. Consequently it is appropriate in relation to some issues to conceptualise the situation not as two national systems but as one coupled dyadic system. The acceptance of this idea has important implications for national systems and bilateral dialogue and management, while its neglect carries risks of unexpected and potentially destabilising interaction.

7. Escalation control: notwithstanding the arguments against rapid or inevitable escalation to the nuclear level in the event of conventional conflict, there remain escalation issues around the performance and vulnerability of command and control systems in the context of a serious conventional conflict as the control-readiness trade-off shifts towards the possibility of nuclear use. One important point is the risk that the deployment of nuclear weapons and the command and control systems to support them may erode the "distance" between low-level conflict and the possibility of nuclear use (such an erosion could occur, for example, if lucrative nuclear targets - such as storage facilities or critical C2 nodes - were vulnerable to preemptive conventional or nuclear strike). A second point is an evident lack of regional attention to de-escalation and war termination, both of which require pre-planning and bilateral provisions if there is to be any confidence in their efficacy during a conflict or following nuclear use.

In sum these issues add up to a formidable challenge to India and Pakistan and to the international community hamstrung by the provisions of the NPT and the need to avoid being seen to legitimise nuclear proliferation. Such issues nevertheless demand urgent attention. Many regional commentators on both sides now see a confluence of factors - including the release of Kashmiri leaders following the Air India hijacking around whom a more concerted push for Kashmir independence may coalesce, a growing instability in Pakistan as the military government struggles to meet the country's economic and political needs, and a hardening of the Indian attitude in seeking, in the wake of Kargil, to impose higher costs on Pakistan for "adventurism" - posing the real risk of a dangerous confrontation between India and Pakistan in the near term.

Dr. Shaun Gregory is a lecturer at the Department of Peace Studies, University of Bradford, UK. The author is grateful to the United States Institute for Peace (USIP) for funding this research and to the Institute for Strategic Studies in Islamabad and the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis in New Delhi for hosting him during research visits.

© 2001 The Acronym Institute.