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 www.asianage.com/columnists/ins-indian-nuclear-service-094 and in the ‘Deccan Chronicle’ at www.deccanchronicle.com/comunists/bharat-karnad/ins-indian-nuclear-service ]