Many a Chink in India’s Nuclear Chain of Command
CDS done with, now for the NSA please
The government has made its choice of first Chief of Defence Staff (CDS). It has been a no-brainer for a while now as to who it would be. Frontrunner General Bipin Rawat has bagged the race. He aced any rivals there might have been by a last minute surge, in belittling the leadership of the country-wide, largely-leaderless and spontaneous protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). With an extension in uniform till 65 years of age, he would be around for most of the balance tenure of this regime. This indicates why he nabbed the post.
Even as the last lap was underway in the CDS race, the mandate of the CDS was put out by the government. The process had been set off by the prime minister’s announcement at Red Fort. From the timing of the release of the mandate, immediately prior to Rawat’s retirement, it was clear that the job was going to him. Else, there would have been no hurry to do so.
More than another three years of Rawat in the headlines, it is this hurry to get a regime loyalist into the CDS sinecure – anyone with illusions on the CDS efficacy in the Indian bureaucratic system may now lay them to rest – that can potentially cost the country dearly. This article spells out a deficit in the charter, that did not find mention in the preceding debate on the CDS.
The charter of responsibilities of the CDS post include being permanent chair of the chiefs of staff committee, heading the soon-to-be-created department of military affairs within the ministry of defence and acting as a single point military advisor to the defence minister. Alongside, he would be sitting in on the national security adviser headed defence planning committee and the defence minister chaired defence acquisition council. Along with the three chiefs, he would also be part of the now NSA-led strategic policy group, a pillar of the national security council system. He is also to be military advisor to the nuclear command authority (NCA).
Of interest for the purposes here is his location in the decision making tree on nuclear matters. As are the other three chiefs, he would also be in the NCA’s executive council that is headed by the NSA. The NSA by virtue of being secretary to the nuclear command authority’s ministerial-level political council is charged with implementing its decisions as head of the executive council. As military advisor to NCA, the CDS presumably will be an invitee to its meetings.
However, the operational control of the strategic forces command (SFC) rests with the NSA, while the CDS has administrative control over the nuclear forces and as part of the executive council under the NSA. This makes his say a nebulous one in the implementation of the political council decisions. There is no nuclear staff in the headquarters integrated defence staff that he would head as part of his permanent chairman of the chiefs of staff duties. There is no question of a nuclear component in the department of military affairs that will be set up for him to head.
In the current system, the nuclear think tanks of the government report to the NSA. The SFC is merely an organization to implement nuclear decisions, as it should be. There is a strategic planning staff, reportedly in the NCA, presumably reporting to the NSA. There is also a strategic programs staff in the NSC Secretariat, again outside of the CDS ambit. There is also a military advisor already under the NSA, traditionally held by a retired military man.
This is an anomaly of sorts. The vesting of executive authority over the most significant portion of India’s war making machinery is with neither an elected official nor an official. Instead it is with a prime ministerial appointee, the NSA, who is “the principal advisor on national security matters to the prime minister”. This clarification was done last August, as an afterthought nearly two decades into its existence, in the allocation of business rules of the government that also make clear that the NSCS will be the secretariat for the PM-led National Security Council (NSC). No such clarity obtains in relation to the NCA.
There are two approaches to a critique of the current system: theoretical and practical.
It does not require theory to discern that the most significant issue in nuclear decision making is accountability. In a democratic set up this would be responsibility and accountability of a democratic authority. While the system is clearly predicated on the final say being with the prime minister assisted by his ministerial colleagues, the insertion of the NSA as the next tier is unfathomable. The arrangement of dubious legality undercuts the Indian democratic system of parliamentary accountability of the cabinet.
There is no Constitution-compliant parliament-adopted charter for the NSA. This appointment is at the behest of the prime minister and relevant press releases have it that it is ‘coterminous with the prime minister’s tenure or till further orders, whichever is earlier’. Sister democracies - the United States and United Kingdom - have the NSA position, with the US system having the due legislation, but both do not vest their respective NSA with executive authority.
In the nuclear decision and implementing loop, it cannot be that a commander-in-chief of strategic forces reports to a civilian having no clear and sanctioned position. Yet in India, this is indeed the case. The uniformed superior of the commander strategic forces command instead has only administrative lien and no staff to undertake the military-relevant nuclear advisory function. How the CDS will fulfill his defence advisor function in the NCA is left to imagination.
Whereas much ado has been witnessed over the writing up of the mandate of the CDS, there has been little let on in the open domain of the NSA’s remit. All that is known is that he has a finger in every pie – intelligence, information domain, defence planning etc. It is not known if the business rules of government have been reframed to account for his consequential presence in the system. The NSA is inordinately empowered and – worse - remains outside of the legislated lines of authority, responsibility and accountability.
A way to remove the anomaly would have been to have the CDS have operational control over the strategic forces command by removing the NSA from the chain. For this he would need to have the requisite staff support under him. The NSA could continue in a strategic-political advisory capacity to the political council, with the CDS in attendance for military advice, receiving of orders and implementing these. Both NSA and CDS should figure in the political council of the NCA, but with the CDS not merely in an advisory, but an executive, role; the advisory role being inherent in his tasking as first among equals in the military top hierarchy.
The second direction of critique is whether the NSA-centered system remains efficacious for nuclear decision making, with the insertion of a CDS into it. This is easier to establish since into this regime’s sixth year the decision making system is clearly dysfunctional. Its choice of first CDS, based on parochial considerations of political like-mindedness, best illustrates the strategic vacuity at its core.
This decision alerts to the problems that can accrue in an NSA-CDS system with the two personages occupy respective chairs. The NSA, with security forces as a hammer in hand, sees every political and security issue as a nail. Thus, political matters become securitized – such as the counter CAA protests and security forces unleashed. The army chief and now CDS has consistently played along, not only acting as his master’s voice, but chiming in with his bit. Thus, in the current system, the NSA is likely to remain hardline and any advice he receives will only be music to his ears.
A system over-reliant on the NSA is faulty to begin with. Personality oriented, it can but have little institutional strength. As seen, in the nuclear dimension, it is structurally flawed. It is with this system in place, India is liable to approach any forthcoming crises. Given that the hardline is set to persist, with no checks and balances left even from a traditionally and characteristically cautious and conservative military, the nuclear dimension of crises cannot be neglected hereon.
This implies that the NSA-CDS relationship in the nuclear decision making and implementation loop needs rethinking. The regime would do well to cap its reputation for national security dynamism by getting on with the long-pending restructuring of the NSA position, making it an advisory rather than a trouble shooting one. Now that it has a CDS of its choice in place, it must divest the NSA of nuclear decision implementation in favour placing the responsibility with its CDS.