Dedicated Nuclear Cadre

The Task Force on National Security, chaired by Naresh Chandra, the all-purpose bureaucrat, had an open-ended brief. The one area, however, the Task Force was expressly told to keep off  by the National Security Adviser related to the country’s nuclear deterrent in all its aspects. This may be because the Manmohan Singh regime is intent on leaving a legacy — a spruced up nuclear secretariat. It didn’t want the Task Force to muck around, disturbing and complicating the efforts already underway with its  recommendations. The former Commander-in-Chief, Strategic Forces Command (SFC), Lieutenant General B.S. Nagal, was hired after his retirement to, in effect, fashion in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) an Indian version of the professional and effective Pakistani nuclear secretariat — Strategic Plans Division (SPD), Chaklala.

What Lt. Gen. Nagal picked up about nuclear strategic issues during his tenure at SFC is hard to say. As an infantry officer (Jat Regiment) he has left no paper trail in terms of articles in professional journals, etc. to betray his thinking, certainly nothing on strategic subjects. Then again, maybe he was selected because of the PMO’s confidence that he will implement plans it had chalked out.

Actually, as I have argued in my books and other writings, Pakistan SPD’s professionalism and competence in nuclear strategic matters is principally the result of painstaking and rigorous efforts over a long period of time to seed and nurture a force manned by a specialist cadre, and this is no bad thing for our SFC and the nuclear cell in the PMO to emulate. It will be an improvement on what presently exists. The capacity for deterrence heuristics requires considerable acquaintance with nuclear deterrence history and practice, enabling the SFC and the PMO nuclear cell to give the intellectual lead in shaping nuclear strategy or to input creatively into nuclear policy construction.

The central point about the success of the SPD and every other nuclear force is that the nuclear secretariat is run by a corps of officers with real expertise — top to bottom, who are recruited after intensive tests and psychological profiling, including their ability to handle extreme stress. In a recent book, retired Vice Admiral Verghese Koithara delves into some of the complexities of operationalising the nuclear arsenal and refers to appropriate “socialisation” of the personnel involved without, however, once mentioning the need for a dedicated nuclear officer cadre. Such a body of officers is at the core of professionalising the nuclear forces.

Indeed, without a specialist cadre that is fully versed and immersed in all aspects of nuclear deterrence — from designs of nuclear weapons and missiles to conceiving and designing command and control networks, from nuances in deterrence theory to practical problems of mobility, and from nuclear forensics to technology for secure command links — the country will be stuck with what we have: a Strategic Forces Command with military officers on its rolls who are professionals in conventional warfare but rank amateurs in the nuclear field. They have to perforce learn on the job, only for such learning to go waste once their three-year term ends, and they are posted elsewhere.

Appointments at all SFC levels are considered by the regular military officers as posting to be ticked before returning to the parent Service. There’s simply no incentive for them to even seriously consider becoming experts. This is not how a professional and competent SFC and secretariat will be obtained.

And yet such a strategic force leadershipis an absolute imperative because someone needs to keep their head about them in a crisis when, umpteen incidents have revealed in the past, that the Indian government panics, loses its composure or goes comatose at the first sign of trouble.

The lack of nuclear specialists in SFC ranks should concern the military but apparently it doesn’t. Most uniformed officers are contemptuous of Indian Administrative Service officers looking after child and family welfare one day, rural electrification the next, and on the third day landing up as defence secretary with not a clue and nothing to recommend such posting other than their ability to negotiate the bureaucratic maze of regulations and rules of business. This is no different from the SFC staffing pattern. Conventional military officers manning SFC, whatever their individual service records, come into the Command with minimal to non-existent familiarity with nuclear security issues. This doesn’t, of course, stop the SFC top brass from assuming airs of nuclear strategist and expert, any more than it prevents IAS officers from talking with authority on things they know little about.

On nuclear security matters, everybody in and out of uniform seems to have an opinion. It is the mark of a generalist culture which pervades the military as well, and is the reason why it will be difficult to wean the conventional military services away from the system of rotational postings in SFC. Nuclear security discipline-specialization can happen only if a “nuclear forces” option is made available to newly-minted officers at the National Defence Academy stage with a follow-on course before commissioning exclusively into SFC service.

We will know soon enough what Lt. Gen. Nagal has been up to at PMO. But whatever he is doing, it wouldn’t have hurt to have the Task Force on National Security report on the nuclear forces. Much of what the Task Force has recommended in the conventional military sphere seems reasonable and, even though there was no nuclear security-knowledgeable person as such in the group, it would have been useful to juxtapose their thoughts on the restructuring and functioning of SFC with what the PMO is doing to revamp nuclear decision-making and nuclear command and control systems.

[Published on Aug 16, 2012 as "INS: Indian Nuclear Service" in the 'Ásian Age' at and in the 'Deccan Chronicle' at ]

This entry was posted in Asian geopolitics, civil-military relations, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Air Force, Indian Army, Indian Navy, Indian Politics, Missiles, Nuclear Policy & Strategy, Pakistan, Pakistan military, Strategic Forces Command, Western militaries. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Dedicated Nuclear Cadre

  1. gururaj says:

    Mr Karnad, once again, my kudos for opening up new and refreshing ideas. The suggestion about personnel manning appointments for which they have been trained for is not something that any rationale and logical person can find fault with. However, the notion that a Indian Nuclear Forces Arm (or Service for that matter) that an armed forces officer, one assumes that you imply all the three services, (though you have not mentioned that aspect specifically in your article) can be commissioned into directly after commissioning, needs more analysis and debate. After all, isn’t some exposure in the regular army/navy/airforce desirable before opting for such a specialist organisation? Are officers of all seniority brackets really required? To quote directly from your article itself, you have correctly deduced that “And yet such a strategic force leadership is an absolute imperative”. What appears to be implied in your article is the that the need is at the senior levels of leadership, namely, at the strategic level only. Or may include middle to senior levels, with the middle levels also handling various day to day functioning and providing certain inputs for the policy makers? What about the civilian component? Or do you advocate it being a purely uniformed outfit, with civilian experts co-opted as consultants only? These are a few follow on issues that spring to mind. While on the subject of need for greater specialisation, what about the emerging cyber and space dimensions? Are they also not equally critical and vital and shuld’nt India commence by having a Cyber Command and a Space Command too? Currently, cyber security of the nation seems to be left entirely as an issue de-linked from the uniformed services with the latter responsible for security of only their own networks. Space continues to under the aegis of ISRO and Department of Space largely. Your views please, sir.

  2. I did not amplify on this in this piece owing to constraints on space,though I have talked to senior military officers over the years in training fora re: the subject. May dilate a bit more on this in another piece some other time. But here are some hints at how this option can be progressed.

    The point about NDA as take-off stage for Service options is that they will have pulled four years of exposure to the three conventional Services’ norms and chosen the basic Service, but thereafter they enter into a specialised in-Service preparation, in separate training capsules at Ezimala for navy, Dindigul for air force, and Denhradun for army, for service in SFC alone and throughout their careers. A follow-up Course, followed by refresher courses, mid-career, etc., would be in order as well. The idea is to minimize exposure to respective Service ethoses, etc., to avoid predisposing young SFC-bound officers along Service lines, etc.

    As to cyber and space warfare, they too, I agree require separate staffs, possibly specialist cadres. Unfortunately, the quite useless NTRO is heading the country’s cyber efforts and, given its awful bureacratic mindset and other bad habits — like siphoning off public mines, etc. its leaders have got into, there’s little hope there. I have tackled this in an earlier column — ‘Cyber Neanderthals’. As to Space, well, in military terms IAF wants to command and control appropriate assets, but other than one or two officers at the top, hasn’t developed any great skills in this sphere.

    • Ravi says:

      Currently AM Matheshwaran (SASO, IAF’s EAC) was previously Assistant Chief of Air Staff (Operations & Space) when he held the rank of AVM. If the IAF was all that serious about its Space Command, it should have had a dedicated cadre comprising of experts in remote sensing, etc and interacted with select personnel at ISRO, DRDO, and NRSA. Matheshwaran is probably one of the brightest IAF staff officers and should have been entrusted with this task.

  3. Sanjay Badri-Maharaj says:

    Sir, A most interesting article. My question is that in real terms – where is India now in terms of warheads and IRBMs/ MRBMs. Quantity has a quality all of its own. On an semi-related point, what do you think of DRDOs BMD efforts. Are they not an impressive step forward (even if they are not fully deployable in their current form) ?

  4. Ravi says:

    A superb and well written article. Mere token launches of strategic missiles, however sophisticated they may be (as the Agni V certainly is), followed by hysterical breast beating by the Indian public and bestowing of meaningless titles like “Agni putri”, etc. by the ignorant and sold out media upon the personnel involved does not comprise a strategic force. The Indian SFC in its current state is a farce, which Karnad has succinctly brought out.

    The SFC needs a dedicated cadre of career officers who are specialists in all aspects of strategic deterrence (including accounting procedures for fissile material and the state of affairs in other countries). The Pakistani SPD does possess such a cadre. For example, Maj. Gen. Ausaf Ali, DG Operations and Plans of the Pakistani SPD, who controls the Pakistani nuclear force has been with the SPD since its inception, has hardly been seen in public. He reportedly hardly meets with foreigners (perhaps, barring the Chinese), and on rare occasions that he has, it has been for specific SPD related purposes and/or to “send a message across”. In fact, very few photographs of him are even available in the public domain, this link providing one of the very few examples:

    Recently, Maj. Gen. Ausaf Ali was awarded by the Pakistani Govt. for “public services” on the occasion of that country’s Independence Day celebrations. The Indian Govt. would do well to reverse the pathetic state of affairs in the SFC ASAP, which if allowed to continue, will result in catastrophic consequences for India.

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