‘Secrecy as Security Strategy’ in India’s Nuclear Governance

Dr. Sitakanta Mishra
October 27, 2019


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Any attempt to fathom the exact contour of India’s nuclear weapons inventory and related assets would be futile as New Delhi adheres to a great deal of ‘secrecy’ as a security strategy, unlike the United States that publishes some technical safeguards and procedural steps it takes to secure its nuclear assets. ‘Secrecy’ has been a constant factor ever since India intended to develop “operational nuclear forces under the gaze of a hostile nonproliferation regime” and its lead enforcer, the United States. The Indian government has hardly shown what steps taken to ensure deterrence while maximizing safety and security. In addition, India’s self-imposed NFU posture necessitates ‘opacity and ambiguity’ in the steps it takes to ensure nuclear deterrence, which is viewed as a stabilizing factor in nuclear South Asia as it provides space for considerable speculation. 

‘Secrecy’ as a security strategy has been built into India’s nuclear program since its inception. India’s sharp reaction to the Baruch Plan (1946), which proposed to retain “managerial control or ownership of all atomic energy,” can be viewed in this regard. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru instructed Vijayalaxmi Pandit, India’s representative to UN, “to withhold wholehearted approval of the Baruch Plan because India may lose its sovereign right to explore and use its abundant natural resources like thorium.” Ever since, crucial decisions relating to India’s nuclear program have largely been oral, and are still shrouded in mystery. 

One often hears about US intelligence surveillance of the Indian test site at Pokhran. As per the recently declassified documents, after it became clear by USA reconnaissance satellite imagery that India was planning a nuclear test in 1995, the US Ambassador to India Frank Wisner “warned the Prime Minister’s Office that such a move would backfire.” Under US pressure, India had to abandon the planned test subsequently. In the years ahead, by maintaining stringent secrecy, India conducted a second round of nuclear test in 1998, skilfully defying US scrutiny. In 1998, while proclaiming itself as a Nuclear Weapon State and structured triad, India also infused secrecy into the governing structure of its nuclear assets. As India considers nuclear weapons as ‘political’ weapons, not for war initiating but for retaliation, ‘survivability’ of its nuclear assets is crucial. Survivability of assets can largely be ensured through sophisticated physical security, secrecy, and dispersal. An ambiguous and opaque nuclear weapons strategy, therefore, ensures survivability the best. Probably for that reason, India has not made any official statement regarding the detailed status and implementation of the draft nuclear doctrine, except the proclamation that it has been accepted by the CCS on 04 January 2003.

A degree of opacity undoubtedly strengthens India’s nuclear deterrent, but a complete lack of transparency is argued to lead to serious misperceptions and miscalculation. Owing to the “low levels of transparency” on nuclear materials and material security, India has been criticized and ranked low in the NTI Nuclear Material Security Index. As India’s deterrent [triad] is still in the making, any transparency initiative will have to be limited and certainly will have an impact on the reliability and survivability of its own capabilities. If India’s status upgrades from de facto to de jure nuclear weapon state, which is unlikely soon, or it achieves greater international acceptance owing to its increasing global clout and confidence, can India afford more nuclear transparency? Or, will the future nuclear weapons decisions of a ‘rising India’ remain inexplicable as usual?

The Security Framework

Firmly based on the “principles of democratic accountability and civilian control of the security sector to the specific area of nuclear weapons,” India’s political system acts as the foremost deterrent against misuse or misappropriation of its nuclear assets. India’s ‘assertive’ political control of its strategic assets which is discernible from the type of command and control system it has put in place. India’s draft nuclear doctrine categorically mentions that “Nuclear weapons shall be tightly controlled and released for use at the highest political level. The authority to release nuclear weapons for use resides in the person of the Prime Minister of India, or the designated successor(s).” Besides, active and passive defense measures, along with the intelligence systems in and around facilities, have turned India’s nuclear weapons domain an inaccessible fortress. However, post-1998, the Indian military seems much closer to the nuclear decision-making process in India.

With the Indo-US civil nuclear deal and the separation of India’s civilian nuclear facilities from the strategic program, the safety-security arrangement around nuclear facilities has been streamlined and smoothened. Besides, the governance of strategic assets has been straight forward. The Strategic Armament Safety Authority (SASA) that functions directly under the Nuclear Command Authority (NCA) is responsible for all matters relating to the safety and security of India’s nuclear and delivery assets at all locations. The Strategic Forces Command (SFC) has administrative control of Indian nuclear forces. It is believed that the physical security of warheads and components is provided by a specialized force drawn from the Indian Army. However, not much is known about the physical security arrangement for the strategic nuclear plants except the 2014 MEA document stating that “Separate institutions and operating procedures exist for nuclear security at India’s strategic facilities.” 

Generally, with the introduction of the third leg of the nuclear triad, the problem of unauthorized launch becomes a complex technological question. “India has not yet explained how it intends to retain active civilian control over its SLBM arsenal.” “For a sea-based asset, where deterrence is primarily achieved by long-term radio silence, and launching control is delegated to seniority on board the vessel, the existing command, and control model is not applicable. … As a designated second-strike capacity asset, India’s NCA is viewed not effectively and credibly implement fail-safe measures” on assets onboard the vessel. With the commissioning of Arihant, the nuclear submarine SSBN, with the ready nuclear system available with the commander, has the command and control structure, originally based on assertive civilian control, been silently revised? If so, “whose finger is on the nuclear trigger at sea?”

It would be unrealistic to assume that New Delhi has not yet adjusted or devised necessary command and control structure for its third leg of triad either within the existing doctrinaire position and command and control system, or tweaked it suitably. Taking a clue from other nuclear-weapon states having SLBMs, India might have resolved this issue through technological means like the USA did replace its ‘two-man rule’, or following the British principle of ‘beyond the grave’ pre-planned instructions to their submarine commanders. If not, it would be interesting to know if India has incorporated any other state-of-the-art system to govern the third leg of its nuclear triad, and how politically ‘assertive’ its command and control are.

One less debated aspect of India’s Command and Control discourse is the Alternate NCA (ANCA) or alternate chain of command in place. The Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), the apex political body on national security matters, on 04 January 2003 reviewed the operationalization of India’s nuclear doctrine and “approved the arrangements for alternate chains of command for retaliatory nuclear strikes in all eventualities.” As per the nuclear doctrine in vogue, in case of the Political Council of the NCA is obliterated due to first-strike by an adversary, there are alternate, pre-decided councils that will replace the Political Council and fulfill the NCA’s mission. But not much information is available on the contours of India’s ANCA with chains of constitutional and nuclear succession that best fit India’s political institutions and strategic situation, understandably for security reasons.

One can argue that “while announcing details about NCA, the CCS prudently attempted to strike a balance between transparency—assuring the world of civilian primacy and public accountability; and secrecy—protecting alternative chains of command and, thereby, strengthening nuclear deterrence.” Besides, India’s self-imposed NFU posture demands ‘opacity and ambiguity’ in steps it takes to ensure nuclear deterrence, which is viewed as stabilizing factors for nuclear South Asia while opening space for considerable speculation. Effectiveness of the Indian deterrent rests undoubtedly on the capability to survive the first strike and retaliate with massive force to cause “damage unacceptable to the aggressor.

The Doctrine-Strategy Linkage

If one observes India’s nuclear weapons governance system in totality, the central principle and core element is its ‘nuclear doctrine’ which largely determines its ‘nuclear strategy’; the nuclear strategy, in turn, determines the nature and substance of the ‘command and control’ system to execute the ‘strategy’. Therefore, there is a strong linkage between India’s nuclear doctrine, strategy, and its governance. If India’s nuclear doctrine undergoes a revision, what would be its impact on the overall nuclear governance structure in place is a matter of speculation. International security observers believe that increasing the number of strategic and tactical nuclear forces in South Asia adhering to assertive nuclear posture makes safety, security, and control issues far more problematic. Specifically, the requirement to keep warheads and delivery systems separate to ensure utmost security and control of assets from misuse or inadvertent use could add to design and maintenance problems.

Since 2014, the aptness of India’s nuclear posture has resurfaced as the BJP-led NDA coalition pledged in its election manifesto to “study in detail India’s nuclear doctrine, and revise and update it, to make it relevant to challenges of current times”. The former defense minister of the NDA government had also questioned why India could not say “we are a responsible nuclear power, and I will not use it irresponsibly” instead of affirming an NFU policy. The current Minister of Defence Rajnath Singh has recently said, though “till today, our nuclear policy is ‘no first use’, what happens in future depends on the circumstances.” All these indicate that a political mood is evolving in favor of a doctrinal review. If India undertakes a revision of its nuclear posture and adopts a “flexible response” or first-use strategy, it bound to have far-reaching implications on its nuclear governance.

India’s Exceptionalism

In a vibrant democratic set up like India, exercising democratic governance on security apparatus has always been a uniquely fraught issue. Tension is inherent between the needs for transparency, accountability, and oversight on the one hand, and the requirements for secrecy and swift, executive decisions on the other in the realm of national security. As controlling the nuclear bomb required extraordinary and unprecedented security measures (especially secrecy with “born secret” doctrine), governing the atom will remain inherently a real challenge to the norms and values of a democratic society. However, India has successfully imbibed absolute secrecy while nurturing liberal polity infused with an argumentative culture. Then, is India’s nuclear case exceptional?

Undoubtedly, with regard to the number of warheads, India constitutes only a fraction of the global inventory. Besides, there is no significant reported incident leading to a nuclear disaster in India. This does not, however, bestow any less responsibility. India has significant reasons to ensure stringent safe-keeping of its nuclear infrastructure. The complicated regional security environment, clandestine proliferation record, and thriving terror and smuggling networks in the neighborhood, and above all, the unique nature of its nuclear program necessitates nuclear governance in India to be a priority. Given India’s enthusiastic participation in all Nuclear Security Summits (NSS), while acknowledging the importance of nuclear security, one can sense that India is conscious of the fact that “credible threats exist and nuclear security is important”, and “India fully shares the continuing global concern on possible breaches of nuclear security”.

An Introspection

The general perception is that India’s nuclear warheads, barring the third leg of a deterrent, are stored in a partially-disassembled and de-mated state (not on hair-trigger alert). However, for India’s second strike posture, the most important thing is how fast it can retaliate. Reportedly, the DRDO was mandated to work on cannisterised systems that can launch from anywhere at any time for all Indian nuclear missile systems eventually. Even if the entire inventory is not cannisterised, yet one would believe that a part of India’s arsenal was kept mated in peacetime. Cannisterized missiles are mated and, if carried or loaded, they require special safety-security arrangements. No authoritative information is available about the level of the safety-security system in place in India in regard to its mated arsenal.

Except for anecdotal reports, there is no official account of India’s nuclear weapons inventory and their safe-keeping system in place. Understandably, the regional security environment and second-strike nuclear posture demand secrecy and opacity of India’s nuclear strategy and governance. But how long India will pursue an ambiguous nuclear strategy when it aspires and is already on the march to become a ‘major power’ of the world? As India has emerged as a powerful nation at the world stage, it should be confident about its nuclear weapons capability and not resort any longer to secretive governance structure, knowing the fact that “No-First-Use is not sacrosanct;”. As such, to a large extent is a self-imposed NFU posture, which does not allow India to bring outright transparency, and becomes “a strategic burden”.

Whatever may be the logic behind India’s secretive nuclear governance strategy, some transparency, as per its comfort level, on the nuclear safety-security strategy followed by putting in the public domain would effectively nullify baseless apprehensions. More importantly, a structured ‘nuclear knowledge management’ system would enhance public confidence in India’s nuclear security strategy and in turn, would increase public acceptance of new nuclear energy projects at home.

*** The author is Faculty of International Relations, School of Liberal Studies, Pandit Deendayal Petroleum University, Gujarat, India ***