Command and Control of Nuclear Forces in South Asia --


(Reproduced with permission from SPs Military Yearbook 2001)

New Delhi, 04 May 2001

Alexei Arbatov has expressed the view in Jonathan Schell's book The Gift of Time' that the only possible or desirable relationship between two nuclear powers is mutual nuclear deterrence unless they are allies or out of range. India and Pakistan are both deemed nuclear powers having acquired nuclear weapons in 1998. They are neither allies nor out of range but they have so far not managed to establish a stable nuclear deterrence between them. The main reason for this is that they have yet to create robust and responsive command and control systems for their nuclear weapons.

Command and Control System

This is not unusual for countries in the initial stages after becoming nuclear. Their tendency is to build up the visible symbols of their nuclear strength like warheads and missiles rather than expend funds on the 'soft kill' areas like command and control and electronic warfare, whose benefits are intangible. A large inventory of nuclear weapons by itself however, cannot ensure deterrence during peace or their effective use in war. The weapons must be complemented by a suitable command and control system (also called C"l for Command, Control, Communications and Intelligence).

A command and control system is an arrangement of sensors, communications and command centres. Its major areas are warning and damage assessment, command and decision making, and supporting communications. Like the nervous system of the human body, it is used to carry out the will of the command authority. An enduring command and control system means having absolute control over nuclear weapons under all conditions and at all levels. If command and control fails, nothing else matters.


Deterrence on the other hand is the nuclear stalemate between two nuclear powers whereby either side refrains from using nuclear weapons first out of fear of retaliation. It is a state of mind and is brought about by a command and control structure that is capable of absorbing a first strike and thereafter reconstituting itself to carry out a retaliatory strike. The danger lies not so much in an annihilating first strike as in the perceived inadequacy of the command and control system. Deterrence could fail if an impression is conveyed that either side is not fully organised to retaliate, or that its capability to retaliate could be seriously undermined by a nuclear first strike. If however, the deterree is convinced in his mind that the deterror's command system will function smoothly in all respects and under all conditions, he will not be tempted to undertake a first strike.

Political leaders, particularly in India,  seem  to  recognise  the controlled release of nuclear weapons during war as the only function of a command and control system, but this role only comes into play after deterrence has failed. The primary function of a command and control system is to create deterrence for

which its deployment in peace is imperative. In this period it must throughout the year convey the country's will to deter by planning, controlling, signaling, ensuring safety, and preventing accidental release of weapons. In fact, raising the nuclear alert state through the command and control system can be the most significant deterrence message that a country can send.

An incident that took place in the Indian subcontinent illustrates the role a command and control system can play during peace in deterring a nuclear war. A few years ago the western media printed the news that due to India's worsening relations with Pakistan over Kashmir, it had moved its nuclear missiles from their peace time location in the south of the country to a location close to the Pakistan border. The news item created a sensation. The Indian government was quick to deny it but the whole affair could have easily snowballed into a nuclear confrontation. With no nuclear command and control system deployed, the most reliable indicator of the country's state of nuclear readiness and intentions was missing and the situation was ideal for rumours to flourish. Considering the tense relations between the two countries and the large scope for misunderstandings, Pakistan could have been tempted into pre-empting India by undertaking a first strike.

Imperatives in South Asia

It is to obviate the possibility of such incidents that it is essential for the two South Asian countries to deploy a nuclear command and control system. There are other imperatives too. While the consequences of a nuclear war are horrendous anywhere, they will be utterly devastating in the Indian subcontinent. In no other area are two nuclear adversaries, geographically as well as in other ways, so closely intertwined. For eight months in a year the winds blow from Pakistan side towards India. The fallout of a nuclear attack on Pakistan will therefore drift towards northern and western India. Similarly, there are a number of rivers that flow through India and then enter Pakistan. A nuclear attack on India would pollute their water. The time of flight of a missile from launch to impact between the two countries is less than two minutes in most cases leaving no time for any precautionary act even if a warning is received.

There is also another important reason. Most people who migrated to Pakistan after partition left behind some members of their families in India. There are thus people in both countries that have relatives on the other side of the border and whose Iives would be threatened in case of a nuclear attack. India and Pakistan therefore cannot afford to have a nuclear exchange even by accident and an essential requirement for this is for both sides to have a reliable command and control system.

One of the reasons why the two countries may be hesitating at structuring a nuclear command and control system could be the expense involved preferring, as already mentioned, to rather spend their relatively modest budgets on acquiring warheads and delivery systems. The perception that a command and control system is astronomically expensive is based on the systems established by the two nuclear super powers, USA and Russia. There is in fact no standard model for a nuclear command and control system. Each country must design its system according to its own technological capabilities, security commitments and nuclear policy The requirements of India and Pakistan are quite different from those of USA and Russia and their command and control system need not be anywhere near as expensive as theirs.

The USA, for example, has a nuclear arsenal running into thousands of warheads that are deployed around the world on Iand, air, and sea based delivery systems. Its technological capabilities in the field of nuclear weaponry, delivery systems, communications and space are highly advanced. In Russia it faces an adversary that has an equally large arsenal and advanced technological capabilities and is capable of accurately targeting its nuclear weapons. It therefore has to have a very complex and sophisticated command and control system with ground, air, and space based sensors backed by a multi-level communication set up.

The requirements of India and Pakistan are very modest in comparison. Both have only a small number of nuclear weapons to control and their deployment will be within the borders of their respective countries only. India has a limited capability for launching reconnaissance and communication satellites while Pakistan has none. Both sides lack the capability to target the other's nuclear weapons accurately and can only engage his value targets with any degree of confidence. Neither has any sea based nuclear weapons platforms to control. India however has another adversary in China whose technological capabilities are superior to Pakistan and is capable of engaging weapons accurately. It will need to cater for the China factor also in designing its command and control system.

'Decapitation' or the separation of the weapon systems from the command authority is however within the capability of both sides. One way of achieving this would be to target and destroy the national command authority. This could be dangerously destabilising. The national command post must therefore be hardened to withstand a nuclear attack. In addition, there is a need for a clear line of succession so that even if the attack is successful the nominated successor can take over immediately.

The other possible method of decapitation is to target the communication system which is far more vulnerable. Survivability of communications is essential because, apart from controlling the weapon systems, they are also required to run the government, organise civil defence measures, and ultimately terminate hostilities. Communications must therefore not only be hardened against the effects of a nuclear attack but must also be reliable and survivable.

Pakistan's Command and Control System

There is little indication that all these requirements have been taken very seriously in the subcontinent. Of the two, Pakistan appears to be more in tune with the rest of the world in appreciating the necessity of nuclear command and control. It has a focused nuclear strategy primarily aimed at deterring India from exploiting its conventional military superiority against it.

It has already established a National Command Post at Faislabad with an alternate site at the Air Force base at Chaklala. In addition it has also given out the broad outline of its proposed command and control system. The Nuclear Command Authority (NCA) will be the central authority under which there will be a Strategic Plans Division, a Development Control Committee, and an Employment Control Committee. All the country's strategic organisations involved in research and development of nuclear weapons will be placed under the NCA. The mechanism for policy formulation, employment and development control over all strategic nuclear forces and strategic organisations has thus been created.

Indian Perceptions

India, on the other hand, has taken no overt steps towards establishing a credible command and control system. Little is officially known about its thinking on the issue apart from the draft Nuclear Doctrine which is vague on specifics. This document lays down that the nuclear weapons will be tightly controlled and the authority to release them for use will be the Prime Minister or his designated successor. Apart from that it only emphasises general requirements like the need for survivability, flexibility, responsiveness, unity of command and so on. This draft has not been officially approved so far and nor have the Prime Minister's successors been designated. Some initial steps towards establishing a skeleton command and control system may have been taken but there is no information about it. In India there is little transparency where nuclear issues are concerned.

India's thinking on the question of nuclear deterrence and the need for command and control system for nuclear weapons appears to be at variance with those of the other nuclear powers if one were to go by what George Perkovich has to say in his book India's Nuclear Bomb'. Perkovich interviewed a few Indian politicians and nuclear scientists and according to him their general feeling was that it was possible to effect deterrence without prior deployment of nuclear weapons mated to delivery systems. This is apparently the government's view as well and may explain why no steps have been taken till now to deploy nuclear weapons.

Those interviewed also had some apprehensions about establishing a command and control system. It was felt that if a proper system with set rules and procedures was deployed there was a danger that the control of the scientific establishment and political leadership over nuclear weapons would be eroded. Moreover, if nuclear weapons were deployed the military would assume a major policy making role, which was against the past practice of excluding it from anything dealing with nuclear issues. They felt that it would adequately serve the purpose if the weapons were given to the armed forces at the appropriate time.

This is confused thinking with a touch of naivete and is perhaps the reason why there is no visible evidence of a command and control system for the Indian nuclear forces. There could be two other possible reasons. One is that the detailed structuring of the command and control system can only be carried out by the armed forces and they are as a matter of policy excluded from nuclear planning. The other is that India's acquisition of nuclear weapons was not in response to any particular threat whereas a command and control system has to be designed on the basis of a specific threat. China was cited as the threat after the nuclear tests in 1998 but if that were really the case India should have developed its nuclear capability in the 60s and 70s when its relations with China were at their nadir.

A weak or non-existent command and control system that cannot survive an attack is an incentive to strike first and is a destabilising factor because a wrong signal or an accident could launch a nuclear war. An effective and survivable system on the other hand allows the leadership to see the situation as it develops. It collects information and presents it to the decision-makers in the appropriate manner so that it can decide what action to take to achieve deterrence.

It is simplistic on the part of the Indian leadership to presume that there is no particular need for a nuclear command and control system in normal times and the weapons can be handed over to the armed forces at the last moment when required. Anyone who has functioned under time pressure and in the stressed environment of war knows that a certain amount of pre-planning, delegation of command, extensive exercises simulating various contingencies and rehearsals of drills and procedures are required to achieve the desired level of effectiveness. This can only be possible if the system is deployed in peace. India also needs to crystallise its threat perceptions so that the command and control system can be tailored to meet it.

Make a Beginning

A command and control system evolves over a period of time and improves as it is progressively modified to overcome the shortcomings noticed during war gaming and other exercises. What India and Pakistan need to do is to make a beginning and put into place an elementary system to start with. This can be refined in course of time and made more survivable. A start needs to be made immediately. Both also need to be a little more transparent about the subject because lack of factual information could give rise to rumours and undermine deterrence

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