Vice Admiral Verghese Koithara (Retd.), in his latest book ‘Managing India’s Nuclear Forces’ has stirred up hornet’s nest by highlighting some very pertinent points on the management of India’s nuclear forces and certain lacuna in it.
Strategic thinker Vice Admiral SCS Bangara (Retd.) is so impressed by the book that he penned down a review article of more than 2000 words. We have decided to publish his ‘review article’ on the book and hope that the readers would be delighted to read his analysis and comments on the book and the subject.
Vice Admiral (Retd.)
Publisher- Routledge Taylor and Francis Group
Price- Rs. 795.00
"What an esoteric subject?" some would say. Most of our knowledgeable citizens would know little about matters nuclear and even less about our Nuclear Forces. Management of such a force is best left to the professionals, you might think. But as in all matters of state, where tax payers’ money is committed, every citizen has a right to know how his money is being spent. Moreover, since it is the combined efforts of scientists and the users, i.e. the Military, who plan and run operations under the overall control of the Government of the day, information on such matters are understandably closely guarded. Nevertheless there is a definite need to encourage the emergence of a vibrant breed of scholars and analysts who can contribute significantly to the nuclear debate in India. This book eminently serves that purpose and hence is a valuable addition to the literature on the subject.
In a vibrant democracy, academics and specialists in this field are expected to keep the debate on nuclear issues alive, on all aspects contained in open source material. In a country as young as India, there is a reluctance to share information owing to near absence of policy on declassification of information and the acute feeling of insecurity among those who occupy high office.
The author of this book, Vice Admiral Verghese Koithara (Retd.), is a rare example of one who was not privy to Management of Nuclear Forces. He had to first understand the nuances of production of nuclear weapons, the delivery systems in all three dimensions, i.e. air, surface and underwater, the Command and control facilities, policy formulations, geo strategic and geo economic imperatives, strategic analysis and finally the operational deployment of such weapons.
Given the scarcity of material on such subjects and the scanty indigenous written material, he had to seek views of experts of repute in the western hemisphere too. Thus the uniqueness of our nuclear programme was matched, if only, by the unique efforts of the author who has received compliments from reputed personalities. This includes Arun Singh, Stephen Cohen, Ashley Tellis, Rodney W Jones and Arun Prakash, among others. Arguably, some of his deductions are hypothetical-not entirely based, albeit, on hard to get empirical evidence- and some inferred from discussions with knowledgeable sources.
The Author has opted to arrange his thoughts under 12 lucidly written chapters which target both the nuclear community and the scholars who are desirous of noting the perspectives of a Military mind. Notable books by Indian authors on India's nuclear programme were written by Raj Chengappa and Bharat Karnad. The author, however, rightly points out that the subject of 'management of nuclear forces has been largely avoided' till now.
The Introductory chapter makes a few assumptions which may need deliberation. The first pertains to the scientific community assuming all control over the nuclear programme, owing to their association with its earlier benign avatar of peaceful nuclear experiments. The author also implies that the 'barren relations' between the Political leadership and the Military, post independence, was a contributory factor for the exclusion of the Military in all policy formulations.
Peter Douglas Fever, in his well acknowledged book, 'Guarding the guardian' outlines the continuous and ongoing struggle for over six decades, between the Civilians and the Military in USA, on matters of custody and use of the nuclear bomb. While discussing the chapter on the atomic energy act and the origin of assertive control, he traces the inevitable contradiction on modes of control. He establishes that the increase in the inventory of nuclear weapons and the changing threat to US security, had led to more and more of delegative control to their military. This was necessitated more by operational and safety imperatives. He also infers that the battle for assertive and delegative control would continue to be fought even in countries with a strong, time- tested democratic polity. Technology based safety/launch controls would eventually play an important role in resolving the optimal mode of control of nuclear weapons.
It is true that our Military could have been involved from day one as was the case in Project Manhattan, which incidentally had a team of serving officers outside the direct control of the Military. There is little doubt that the Military has considerable experience of storage, transportation and safety of any weapon system. The Indian model however used the expertise of serving military officers in most activities related to weaponisation, albeit, under the close scrutiny of Civilian scientists. In the Indian context the lack of experience in dealing with the Military, understanding their ethos and their fierce loyalty to the' team', as also the comfort of political leaders to work closely with civilian scientists, largely contributed to the adoption of assertive control. More pertinently, the Politico-Military interface in India and the maturing of such a relationship is still under review, while the same had matured considerably in USA, post the Civil War and the Great wars. That the whole process of development and deployment of nuclear weapons in India was managed without serious mishap is a tribute to the maturity of all concerned. Ours is indeed a 'unique model', as the author describes it.
Perhaps the author has flagged this controversial issue to emphasise the need to find an early resolution to the Civil-Military anomalies that continue to sequester the Armed forces from all policy formulations related to National security. Hopefully the creation of Strategic Forces Command (SFC), would largely, if not entirely, fill the void. However the need to integrate the armed forces under a single operational head, as also the MOD with the service headquarters, is sine qua non of Managing nuclear forces. Hence the repeated thrust on the systemic changes urgently required in India.
In order to remain focused on the Indian context, this article examines practical issues of force management raised in the book rather than the interpretation of the theory of strategic consideration, deterrence, hardware etc. These have been well covered by many an expert of NWS. The author has merely touched upon the relevance of these topics as a backdrop to his assertions.
While commenting on the Force Management System, the author makes three telling points. First, that the Indian Ministry of Defence, has by default or design, or both, abdicated its role to the 'strategic enclave'. This is a term coined to describe the tight control exercised by the scientists of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), Department of Space(DOS) and Department of Defence Research and Development(DRDO).
That a 'strategic enclave' came into existence can possibly be attributed to the two volumes of Business Rules for Ministries, issued in 1961, under the constitutional powers vested in the President. This document, reportedly modified on numerous occasions, failed to assign any role to the senior hierarchy of the Armed forces of India. To this day they continue to function as attached offices of MOD. Ironically when the decision to go nuclear was taken, the MOD themselves remained out of the loop as no attempt was made to amend the business rules of the Govt, owing to secrecy of the project and the experimental nature of its development. Consequently, since DAE and DOS and later DRDO- all run by scientists who had the ears of the PMO- did not find the need to involve MOD. It perhaps became a functional necessity to permit DAE, DOS and DRDO to wear multiple hats with delegated powers, so as to expedite decision making. In hind sight, this informal arrangement contributed (until recently) to the successful completion of space, nuclear and missile programmes of India. It also promoted better integration and cross pollination among these functionally intertwined departments.
The other significant point to note is that, much like the armed forces, the members of the strategic enclave, are professionals who remain in the department for decades, as opposed to the staff of MOD who continue to be "Rolling Stones". They neither have a need for long term perspective nor the loyalty to the department they serve, due to such short stints. In any event had the MOD been involved in this programme, every aspect related to weapon and force configuration would have had to be referred to the three service headquarters. None among the bureaucracy would have had the knowledge to respond to nuclear force related issues. By functioning as a post office, MOD could not have met the time schedules of this programme, even with best intentions. The RM, in his individual capacity may have been in the loop from time to time.
The above may suggest that the decision taken to keep MOD out of the loop was a fortuitous one. This however does not augur well for the Military, who would ultimately bear the responsibility, God forbid, to use the weapon in anger. Our unique model thus found the next best answer, i.e. to selectively involve uniformed officers to fill the void in operationalisation of the weapon. Indeed, there is a high degree of probability that the programme was successful due to the unstinted support of numerous specialists from the Armed forces of India. They chose to remain anonymous and unrecognised to date. It is this that facilitated the seamless operational transition to SFC, which came into being in January, 2003.
Yes, ours was a unique model which did not follow the Western example, simply because there were no organisational structures which even remotely resembled the established structures of the West. That we have reached an acceptable level of operational readiness may soon lead to less emphasis on the US/Soviet model, which has hitherto monopolised all discussion on the subject. 'Necessity being a mother of all inventions', we could expect to see many more organisational variants among aspiring NWS, in the years ahead.
Secondly, the author very correctly brings out the inadequacies in Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) and National Security Council (NSC) both with no active participation of the Armed Forces. This is an area of deep concern in the context of Nuclear Operations. Business rules would need to rewritten to address the direct involvement of services in these structures, perhaps, after implementing the pending decisions on CDS and integration of MOD. These are prerequisites to a meaningful and effective C&C structure. Here again we could have an Indian variation, but prudence dictates the active participation of the custodians and end users of the weapon, even as we are poised to deploy the third dimension of the nuclear triad.
Third, the author has adequately flagged the dominant role played by the PM and NSA without the formal involvement of the Armed forces. At the apex level, without the active involvement of serving personnel from the forces, it is well nigh impossible to plan and coordinate deployment and launch, that too, of a second strike. Short cuts have been resorted to by employing retired senior officers to sustain the programme. Wearing multiple hats and following ad-hoc procedures, which may be possible at the developmental stages of a project, are recipe for disaster in the long term. The recently alleged scam in DOS, should suffice to underline the damage caused by a self perpetuating system, with little or no checks and balances.
The chapter on nuclear strategy clearly articulates the need to debate the principles of deterrence and the considerations for a well structured policy. The absence of white paper and clearly spelt out and documented National security strategy has led many to believe that we do not have a culture to strategise. In reality, this has not been spelt out by the Government of the day, owing to inability on the part of the MOD to write anything of substance without the help of service headquarters. It would, however be erroneous to deduce that mere absence of a document implies total absence of operational plans to deliver when the chips are down. The Indian Military is more than capable of rising to the occasion when required. However, it would be imprudent to assume that they can deliver every time, despite continued systemic weaknesses that remain unaddressed.
The Author devotes a chapter to MOD. There are some comparison with Israel and UK, who also have a Parliamentary system of governance.. A good system of Governance is predicated on the fact that Ministers and Parliamentarians would be well educated on matters security. Alas, that is not the case in India. It would be unrealistic to think that this situation will improve in the near future. To realise dreams that have taken a century or more in well established democracies, we would at best hope to compress the time for development and maturity to the extent possible. The political reality of our story, could have added some weight to this chapter.
The final chapter of 'Many Faceted Challenges’ raises some exciting topics for scholars and analysts to debate. The author juxtaposes a view held by some that India may rely on the nuclear protection of USA. Some of the tacit assumptions quoted by him and the view on reliance on USA can best be hypothetical in content. It may also be unkind to those who worked to build an indigenous capability despite the constraints of technology denial regimes.
The involvement of NCA in frequent sessions of war gaming and table top situations is necessary to enable them to arrive at decisions based on analysis. This is even more relevant to India and Pakistan, as both have assumed that the Political leadership can deliver when required without due preparation and understanding of the nuclear environment. Getting them into the Operations Room as often as possible would indeed pose a challenge.
Admiral Koithara has stirred up hornet's nest. Nothing but good would emerge from it, provided the academics, scholars and analysts start a much needed debate. A student and a researcher would do well to capture the essence of Managing Nuclear Forces-a virgin topic on offer.
(Vice Admiral SCS Bangara, Former C-in-C of Southern Naval Command, was the first Deputy Chief (Operations) of Integrated Defence Headquarters. He was also the Chairman of Joint Operations under COSC.)