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Many a Chink in India’s Nuclear Chain of Command

Ali Ahmed |
The choice of CDS should alert us to flaws in the NSA-CDS system.
Many a Chink in India’s Nuclear

The government chosen India’s first Chief of Defence Staff. It is a no-brainer that front-runner General Bipin Rawat has won this race. He aced potential rivals in a last-minute surge by belittling the spontaneous countrywide protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), 2019. Rawat would hold his new post until he turns 65, which would cover most of the remaining tenure of the present government. This is one indication of why he has been picked.

The government recently released the mandate of the CDS post, which Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said would be created at his Republic Day speech from the ramparts of the Red Fort last year. The mandate just preceded Rawat’s retirement on 31 December 2019 as Army Chief. This rush to appoint him also made it clear that the job was his.

Now the nation can look forward to another three years of Rawat making headlines. Anyone harbouring illusions that a regime loyalist getting the CDS sinecure will make India’s military bureaucracy more efficient can lay them to rest. His selection will potentially cost the country dear.

There is also a deficit in the charter of responsibilities of the CDS that has not been skipped despite the long debate on the subject. It is that the CDS will hold a permanent chair of the Chiefs of Staff Committee which will head the soon-to-be-created Department of Military Affairs in the Ministry of Defence. The CDS will also be a single-point military adviser to the Defence Minister. He would also sit in on the Defence Planning Committee, headed by the National Security Adviser (NSA) and the Defence Acquisition Council or DAS, whose chair is also the Defence Minister. With the three service chiefs, he would also join the new NSA-led Strategic Policy Group, a pillar of the National Security Council system. And he will be a military adviser to the Nuclear Command Authority (NCA).

Of utmost interest is his location on the decision-making tree on nuclear matters. The NCA’s executive council is headed by the NSA, who, by virtue of being secretary to the Nuclear Command Authority’s ministerial-level Political Council, implements its decisions as the head of the executive council. As military adviser to NCA the CDS will, presumably, be invited to its meetings as well.

However, the operational control of the Strategic Forces Command or SFC rests with the NSA, while the CDS has administrative control over nuclear forces as part of the NSA’s executive council. What this means is that his role in implementing the Political Council’s decisions is nebulous. Although he is the Permanent Chair of the Chiefs of Staff, the Integrated Defence Staff has no nuclear staff that he would be leading. There is no question of a nuclear component being set up for him to lead in the department of military affairs.

In the current system, the nuclear think-tanks of the government report to the NSA. The SFC is merely an organisation to implement nuclear decisions. This is as it should be. There is a strategic planning staff, reportedly in the NCA, who presumably report to the NSA. There is also a strategic programs staff in the NSC secretariat, which is also outside the ambit of the CDS. There is also already a military adviser under the NSA, and this position has traditionally held by a retired military man.

This is an anomaly of sorts. The executive authority over the most significant portion of India’s war-making machinery is neither vested with an elected official nor an official. Instead, it is vested in an appointee of the Prime Minister, the NSA, who is the “principal advisor on national security matters to the prime minister”. This situation has existed for nearly two decades, but a clarification to this effect was made only last August, as an afterthought, in the Allocation of Business Rules of the government. These rules also make it clear that the NSC Secretariat will be the secretariat for the PM-led NSC. No such clarity obtains in relation to the NCA.

Both a theoretical and practical critique of the current system is therefore necessary.

The most significant issue in nuclear decision-making is accountability. In a democratic setup this responsibility and accountability must lie with a democratic authority. While India’s system is clearly predicated on the final authority being with the prime minister assisted by his ministerial colleagues, the insertion of the NSA as the next tier is unfathomable. This arrangement of dubious legality undercuts the Indian democratic system of the cabinet’s accountability.

There is no Constitution-compliant Parliament-adopted charter for the NSA. This appointment is at the behest of the Prime Minister and relevant government versions have it that it is ‘coterminous with the prime minister’s tenure or till further orders, whichever is earlier’. Sister democracies, the United States and United Kingdom, have the NSA position too. The US system has cleared the due legislation, but both countries do not give their NSAs executive authority.

In the nuclear decision-making and implementation loop, it cannot be that a commander-in-chief of strategic forces reports to a civilian who has no clear and sanctioned position. Yet, in India, this is indeed the case. The uniformed superior of the Strategic Forces Command has only administrative lien and no staff to undertake military-relevant nuclear advisory functions. How the CDS will fulfil his defence adviser’s function in the NCA is left to the imagination.

There has been much ado overwriting the mandate of the CDS, little about the exact role of the NSA is in the public domain. All we know is that he has a finger in every pie: intelligence, information, defence planning and so on. It is not known if the government’s conduct of business rules have been re-framed to account for his conspicuous presence in the system. Similarly, the eNSA is inordinately empowered and—worse—he remains outside of the legislated lines of authority, responsibility and accountability.

One way to remove this anomaly would have been to give the CDS operational control over the Strategic Forces Command, by removing the NSA from the chain. For this, the CDS would need to be given a requisite staff support to direct. The NSA could continue in an advisory capacity to the Political Council, with the CDS in attendance for military advice—receiving and implementing orders. Both the NSA and the CDS should figure in the political council of the NCA, but with the CDS in an executive and not merely advisory role. The advisory role is inherent to his being first among equals in the military top echelon.

The second critique is whether the NSA-centric system is still efficacious for nuclear decision-making now that the CDS has been inserted into it. Now in this government’s sixth year, the decision-making system is clearly dysfunctional. Its choice of the first CDS, based on parochial considerations of political like-mindedness, best illustrate the strategic vacuity at the core of this regime.

The choice of CDS should alert us to the problems that can accrue in an NSA-CDS system. The NSA, with the security forces in its hands like a hammer, sees every political and security issue as a nail. Thus, political matters become securitised—such as the counter-CAA protests and the unleashing of security forces against protesters. The Army chief, and now the CDS, have consistently played along, not only acting as His Master’s Voices, but fuelling this securitised vision of the state. In the current system, the NSA is likely to remain a hardliner.

A system over-reliant on the NSA is faulty to begin with. Being personality-oriented, it can have but little institutional strength. And it is structurally flawed in the nuclear dimension. But this is the system in place for India to approach any forthcoming crises. Given that no checks and balances are left even from a traditionally and characteristically cautious and conservative military’s point of view, the nuclear dimension of crises cannot be neglected from now on.

The NSA-CDS relationship in the nuclear decision-making chain needs rethinking. The regime would do well to cap its reputation for national security dynamism by getting on with the long-pending restructuring of the NSA position, making it an advisory rather than a trouble-shooting role. Now that it has a CDS of choice, it must divest the NSA of nuclear decision-making.

The author is is visiting professor at the Nelson Mandela Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution, Jamia Millia Islamia. The views are personal.

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