Some weeks ago, the Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, was hospitalized for undergoing coronary bypass surgery. The issue then arose who would be in charge of India’s nuclear arsenal during his absence, since the Prime Minister, being the executive head of the government, is the release authority or the personage to decide on whether and when India’s nuclear weapons should be used in a national emergency. Should he be unavailable for any reason who will take this fateful decision? The entire gamut of nuclear emergencies and crises cannot obviously be foreseen, but the most probable circumstance requiring India to consider using nuclear defensive measures is the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons by Pakistan.
After India and Pakistan conducted their reciprocal nuclear tests in May 1998, and set themselves forth as de facto nuclear weapon powers a state of nuclear deterrence is deemed to exist between them. Both the Kargil conflict in May-July 1999 and the protracted border confrontation crisis over December 2001-October 2002, it would be recalled, did not proceed further. It is accepted that this stability was engendered by the establishment of nuclear deterrence between them. The fear in New Delhi and Islamabad that nuclear weapons might be used prevented the fighting from escalating during the Kargil conflict or a major conventional conflict being ignited during the border confrontation crisis. The key to nuclear stability in South Asia, therefore, is the possibility of nuclear weapons being either used or the threat thereof by the adversary, if redlines are crossed and/or impermissible actions are undertaken. It is consequently imperative that the fear of nuclear retaliation must remain credible at all times. Hence, the personage charged with the ultimate authority to order the use of nuclear weapons should be clearly identified and remain available 24x7.
Should the ‘release authority’ be unavailable for any reason, the successor should be apparent and immediately come into position to discharge these responsibilities. Who was in operational control of India’s nuclear arsenal during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s absence? Pranab Mukherjee? He was performing the Prime Minister’s functions, despite not being anointed the ‘acting’ Prime Minister for reasons linked to the Byzantine politics of the Congress (I). Decoded, what this means is that Mukherjee could discharge the duties of the Prime Minster, but was not conferred the ‘acting’ title, lest it offend other leaders in the party. Assuming, however, that Mukherjee was not the release authority, who was the mystery personage discharging these responsibilities? Transparency here would only strengthen the state of nuclear deterrence subsisting, because India’s adversaries must be assured that a seamless process exists in India for ensuring that an authorized release authority is available at all times.
It is believed apropos that in parallel with enunciation of the nuclear doctrine (August 1999) the Blue Book, which governs the handling of military conflicts, was amended. It was envisaged that, in a conflict scenario, a transition would occur in the nuclear alert status from green to amber to red. A Red Book had been finalized in 1995 laying out chains of command and succession in the political, administrative and military spheres. These arrangements, that are periodically reviewed, are in vogue, and are deemed adequate to sustain the fabric of nuclear deterrence. Its structure, it is believed, would strengthen with intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear missile armed submarines being deployed to provide India a Triad of nuclear weapons.
Three questions immediately arise. First, is the chain of command and succession by name or designation? In the United States, the President is the designated release authority, followed by the Vice President and the Secretary of State. It would be most unusual for changes to occur in their incumbency during the term of a President. But, in India, frequent changes routinely occur in critical positions in the political, administrative and military hierarchies; so the system obtaining for passing the baton becomes significant. Second, why is no publicity given to these arrangements? Surely, Indian citizens should be reassured that there is a steady finger on the nuclear button at all times. Third, how do members in India’s chain of command and succession equip themselves for their job? Are they aware how past nuclear emergencies and crises were handled? Or educated into the nuances of nuclear signaling, redlines, the costs of nuclear conflict and so on that constitute the arcane fundamentals of nuclear deterrence? Are simulation exercises held to acquaint them with their responsibilities?
No clarity is obtaining here. Should we then take on trust that India’s command and control over its nuclear arsenal is adequate? And that it matters little if the Prime Minister is temporarily out of commission, since the chains of command and succession established are robust? And that everyone in these chains is equipped for their job?