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India Establishes Formal Nuclear Command Structure
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Kerry Boyd

For the first time since declaring itself a nuclear-weapon state in 1998, India publicly announced a formal nuclear command structure under civilian control January 4. It had previously been assumed that India’s nuclear arsenal was under civilian control, but little was known about the country’s chain of command.

India has been in the process of developing a formal command structure for some time, and it is unclear whether the newly announced command structure existed secretly before and is now being publicly announced or whether it is newly established.

According to the Ministry of External Affairs, India has established a Nuclear Command Authority that includes a Political Council and an Executive Council. India’s prime minister chairs the Political Council, and it is the only body with authority to order a nuclear strike. The national security adviser chairs the Executive Council, which advises the Nuclear Command Authority and carries out orders from the Political Council.

India’s Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), which approved the announcement of the new command structure, also approved on January 4 the appointment of a commander-in-chief of the Strategic Forces Command to take charge of the nuclear arsenal. It is expected that a senior Air Force officer will be nominated for the position.

India’s announcement reiterates several established elements of India’s nuclear weapons policy, including its goal of a “credible minimum deterrent” and its “no first use” policy, which states that India will only use nuclear weapons in retaliation for a nuclear attack on Indian territory or forces. The announcement included a new caveat to that policy, however: India now says it “will retain the option” of using nuclear weapons to retaliate against a biological or chemical weapons attack against India.

Although the announcement provides a clear public picture of India’s basic nuclear command structure, some questions remain. The Ministry of External Affairs indicated that the CCS “approved the arrangements for alternate chains of command for retaliatory nuclear strikes in all eventualities”—possibly referring to a case in which the prime minister might be incapacitated during a nuclear crisis. It is unclear what the alternate chains of command might be and whether they are civilian or military.

Aziz Ahmad Khan, spokesman for Pakistan’s foreign office, said January 6 that India’s establishment of a command and control system is long overdue, Pakistan’s Daily Times reported. Pakistan has a formal, military command structure with President General Pervez Musharraf as the final authority. Musharraf took power in an October 1999 coup.

Last spring, as tensions intensified, the international community became concerned that a months-long military standoff between India and Pakistan could escalate to a nuclear confrontation. India and Pakistan first announced that they had conducted nuclear weapons tests in 1998, although India conducted what it called a “peaceful nuclear explosion” in 1974.

Posted: January 1, 2003