The Indian Nuclear Command Authority


On January 4, 2003 India publicly announced a formal nuclear command structure under civilian control. Which made public a set of political principles and administrative arrangements to manage her arsenal of atomic weapons. Although the broad outline of India’s nuclear doctrine was already known, but the nature and chain of her command and control over the nuclear weapons had remained unclear. In fact, on August 17, 1999 an officially constituted advisory panel to the Indian National Security Council released draft of her nuclear doctrine. Only a formal Indian parliament’s approval of that draft is awaited.

The Indian Government filled that gap by revealing that a two-layered structure called the Nuclear Command Authority (NCA). NCA would be responsible for deployment, control and safety of Indian nuclear weapon assets. In a statement issued after the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) meeting-attended by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, his deputy Lal Kishenchand Advani, Defence Minister George Fernandes and Foreign Minister-the government announced, any decision to launch a nuclear attack will be taken by the political leadership and executed through the nuclear command. Moreover, the CCS also approved arrangements for alternate chains of command for retaliation in all eventualities. The important details of the CCS announcement are the following:

The NCA comprised: Political Council, and An Executive Council.

The Political Council Chaired by the Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Power: It is the sole body, which can authorize the use of nuclear weapons.

The Executive Council Chaired by the National Security Adviser to the Prime Minister Brajesh Mishra. Responsibility: Provides inputs for decision making by the NCA and executes the directives given to it by the Political Council.

Commander-in-Chief of Strategic Forces Command. He is responsible for the administration of the nuclear forces. A senior officer of the Air Force is expected to be nominated to the post. It’s seemed that Air Marshal Teja Mohan Asthana – the commander of the Southern Air Command-would be the first chief of the Strategic Forces Command. It was also reported that besides those from the services, the Strategic Command would have a fair number of civilian staff, including experts from the Indian Nuclear Energy Commission and missile experts from the Defence Research and Development Organization. Significantly, the creation of the Strategic Forces Command had ended the tussle between General Headquarters Indian Army and Air Headquarters Indian Air Force for the control and command of Indian nuclear arsenal, till the writing of these lines.

Nuclear Policy

India builds and maintains a credible minimum deterrent.

India would use nuclear weapons only in retaliation against a nuclear attack on Indian territory or on Indian forces anywhere.
The civilian political leadership through the NCA can only autho- rize retaliatory attacks.

India would not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states.

Against nuclear weapon powers, its strategy would remain one of “No-first use”. But the nuclear retaliation to a first strike will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage on the enemy. Therefore, India would build and maintain a credible second-strike capability.

India will exercise its nuclear option, if her territory or her forces are attacked with biological and chemical weapons.

It maintains strict control over the export of sensitive technologies and materials.

It would continue the moratorium on further nuclear testing.

It is ready to join multilateral arms control agreements and a commit-ment to global disarmament. It seems that she will participate in negotiations of the Fissile Material Control Treaty.

The CCS once again confirmed the essence of the 1999 nuclear draft as an official policy. The structure, therefore, would help India to ensure a swift retaliatory strike and avoid any confusion that was bound to unfold if it faced a nuclear, chemical or biological attack. The only new element in the doctrine is the interesting caveat it has introduced to its “No-first use” posture. India said its arsenal aimed to deter threats not just from nuclear weapons but also those from chemical and biological weapons. “In the event of a major attack against India, or Indian forces anywhere, by biological or chemical weapons, India will retain the option of retaliating with nuclear weapons,” the CCS said.

India’s establishment of a nuclear command and control system was aimed at giving a structure to its strike capability. In addition the announcement to use nuclear weapons if attacked with biological and chemical weapons was an important extension of her policy of using nuclear weapons. This proves that nuclear weapons and their use is very much a part of India’s strategic policy.

The United States has also retained a nuclear retaliatory option to prevent nations with chemical and biological weapons from assuming that the use of these weapons of mass destruction will not invite a nuclear response. Significantly, President Bush’s new security doctrine suggests that the United States will henceforth attack adversaries to prevent them not only from using but also from acquiring the technologies associated with weapons of mass destruction. While following the Americans’ experience, India may adopt this strategy in the near future.

The Indian CCS, however, did not announce all. Missing from its statement is the actual composition of the NCA at its Political and Executive levels. The Government also mentions that it has “reviewed and approved the arrangements for alternate chains of command for retaliatory nuclear strikes in all eventualities”. This is a reference to a situation in which the Prime Minister may be incapacitated during a crisis. But the CCS did not reveal how the power to press the nuclear button would move down to the political chain in the event of such a contingency. Importantly, the acute problem-technological backwardness – exists in the process of succession within the command authority. India lacks the ability to install uninterruptible communication channels between different levels of succession.

Among its other recommendations, the National Security Advisory Board had asked the government to review its no-first-use of nuclear weapons policy in light of the history of the last four years in its National Security Review, submitted to National Security Advisor Brajesh Mishra on December 2002. The CCS didn’t accept this recommendation. It makes sense that a country with large conventional resources will not renounce the option of No First using nuclear weapons. But the recent developments indicate that India is hurtling towards inducting nuclear weapons into her armed forces. In the near future, India may give up her present force-in-being nuclear posture and assemble and operationalize her nuclear weapons. India possesses nuclear capable surface to surface short/medium range ballistic missiles (Prithvi’s and Agnis) and aircraft (Jaguars, Mig-27, SU-30 and Mirage 2000). In addition India has plan to put some of her nuclear weapons at sea in order to protect them from attack. Therefore, India has been trying to get an Akula II class nuclear submarine from Russia on lease.

It’s imperative that Pakistan shall monitor and analyze the recent nuclear and missiles related developments in India carefully. Pakistan’s response shall be calculated and mature so that without compromising on her deterrence, she refrain from dragging into an expensive arms race with her adversary.


C. Raja Mohan, “Nuclear Command Authority comes into being”, The Hindu (January 5, 2003)., Josy Joseph, “India sets up Strategic Forces Command”, Rediff. com (January 4, 2003),  , and see Kerry Boyd, “India Establishes Formal Nuclear Command Structure”, Arms Control Today (January/ February 2003). “Abandon no-first use policy, Security Board tells govt” (January 9, 2003) .