Tuesday, 22 February 2022


Defence Reform: Giving teeth to the new Chief of Defence Staff

India is temporarily back to the erstwhile system of a rotating Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee (CCOSC) in which the senior most serving Service Chief tenanted the appointment. It’s now over a month since General Bipin Rawat’s untimely demise in saddle, but the new Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) has not been appointed as yet.

The jointness initiative has been at a pause. The Services have been asked to turn in studies on how each wished to see jointness shape up. Appointed interim CCOSC, General Naravane, though familiar with the fledgling steps taken on jointness so far, cannot take it forward full throttle.

This indicates certain sanguineness that the CDS will not be overly missed, even though the CDS appointment is triple-hatted, with the third hat being that of Secretary Department of Military Affairs.

This complacence owes to the CDS appointment missing a vital ingredient, that of command authority. His command authority is restricted to ‘Tri-service agencies/organisations/commands related to Cyber and Space.’ Therefore, his absence does not appear critical.

However, this inadvertently gives rise to a question that curiously has not figured with any salience in the strategic commentary so far. Since the CDS’ command authority does not include the Strategic Forces Command (SFC) in its remit, who exercises command authority over the SFC?

The CDS, in his capacity as Permanent Chairman (PC) COSC, is only ‘the Military Adviser to the Nuclear Command Authority (NCA).’ The NCA’s Military Adviser being absent appears to have been easily reconciled with. The implication is that the SFC does not report to the PC COSC.

A cursory look at the security situation over the past two years, when a military crisis has been ongoing in Ladakh, suggests that keeping deterrence honed would be a priority. To be sure, there is no nuclear dimension to the crisis, but general deterrence is never meant to be upfront. It is to be quietly ticking away in the background.

Persisting with a structural flaw in not having the SFC under a command authority and having a part-time Military Adviser to the NCA – which is what a reversion to the rotating Chairman COSC implies – means a neglect of deterrence.

The forthcoming appointment of the new CDS can only resolve the latter. The suggestion here is that the former deficit also be simultaneously addressed. 

Ambiguity galore

In the current nuclear command and control (C2) arrangement, the Commander-in-Chief (C-in-C) Strategic Forces Command (SFC), who ‘manages and administers’ the SFC, has dual reporting lines: with operational authority lying with the National Security Adviser (NSA) and being only administratively under the PC COSC.

An academic has described the nuclear C2 arrangement as: ‘the command of India’s nuclear forces flows from the PMO (Prime Minister’s Office) through the office of the NSA to the CCoSC (Chairman COSC) and the SFC commander.’ However, there is no mention of nuclear C2 in the Allocation of Business rules.

The NSA, an unelected civilian presently with cabinet rank and with a term co-extensive with the prime minister, is ‘the Principal Adviser on National Security matters to the Prime Minister; and the National Security Council.’ There is no reference to any executive role for the NSA. Therefore, there is no legal basis for the NSA’s operational authority over the SFC.

The cryptic 2003 press release with an abridged nuclear doctrine is the only official clue to go on. It reads: ‘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.’

This has been translated as allowing the NSA, as chair of the Executive Council, operational authority over the SFC, the C-in-C SFC being a member of the Executive Council. Does this also mean that the NSA also has operational authority over the other members that include Service Chiefs and the PC COSC? Chairmanship of a committee does not imply subordination of the members by the Chair.

The Political Council, being ‘the sole body which can authorize the use of nuclear weapons,’ cannot delegate its authority to the NSA. The Executive Council – as a collective - ‘executes the directives given to it by the Political Council’. In other words, a subordinate committee (the Executive Council) is empowered by and answerable to the higher committee (the Political Council).

In this interpretation, the C-in-C SFC, a member of Executive Council, is as part of the collective, the Executive Council, answerable to a collective, the Political Council.

Recall the Draft Nuclear Doctrine had named the prime minister, as head of the Political Council, the sole authority for nuclear use authorization. The relevant para reads: “The authority to release nuclear weapons for use resides in the person of the Prime Minister of India, or the designated successor(s).”

The official doctrine departed from this by vesting the authority with the Political Council, stating: “The Political Council is chaired by the Prime Minister. It is the sole body which can authorize the use of nuclear weapons.”

In effect, a three-star C-in-C SFC is without a single-point superior with command authority overseeing him and his Command. The Draft Nuclear Doctrine’s call for ‘unity of command and control of nuclear forces’ has apparently not been met.

It’s possible that the full length nuclear doctrine – of which only the abridged version is in the open domain – explicates a thorough nuclear C2. Even so, the lack of transparency that gives rise to such ambiguity does not help with deterrence.

Why fix nuclear C2?

To vest the NSA with operational authority over of the SFC is an anomaly in India’s democratic system of governance based on collective ministerial responsibility. The NSA’s advisory role is understandable. But an executive mandate with operational authority over a critical military formation – the SFC - is at odds with the ministerial system.

Even in the presidential system of the United States (US), the NSA does not have executive responsibility, with the command authority over combatant commands, such as the Strategic Command that controls the nuclear weapons, resting with the US president and is exercised through the Secretary of Defence.

The belief that ‘nuclear weapons are political weapons, not weapons of warfighting,’ may have led to the civilian political authority channeling its nuclear directives through a civilian NSA. The apprehension may be over militarization of nuclear decisions. Since the NSA would be on hand for a holistic input, such a situation would not arise. The NSA has a Military Adviser in the National Security Council Secretariat, a military veteran, who can potentially provide a second opinion to the military’s advice.

Changes necessary

The PC COSC as lead military adviser to the NCA must be part of the Political Council as a permanent invitee. Being on hand, the PC COSC would be able to receive the nuclear directives directly from the Political Council, of which the defence minister – his boss - is part. Operational authorization of nuclear weapons can be transmitted to the SFC through a single - uniformed - chain of command.

By virtue of this empowerment of the PC COSC, he could also co-Chair the Executive Council. This will ease implementation since execution now is a combined civil-military activity, not all nuclear warheads being in a de-mated state. 

With the SFC ‘under command’ of the PC COSC, deterrence stands to gain. Departing from the nuclear C2 that sufficed over the past two decades needs a debate in light of India’s changed security situation. The security juncture is appropriate for the military to take over the operational reins of the SFC, the logical final step in the structural inclusion of the military.

In the interim - at a minimum - the role of the PC COSC in relation to the SFC must be explicated by in the mandate of the new CDS. Leaving the SFC out of his remit is either an oversight, that can be remedied, or is result of a misplaced sense of confidentiality, which too needs amending.