Towards Greater Transparency: Strategic Forces Command of India

Prof. Mohammed Badrul Alam

The Strategic Forces Command of India, which forms part of country’s Nuclear Command Authority, is responsible for the management and administration of strategic and tactical nuclear arsenal. Commensurating with the recommendations on national security management, the SFC came in to existence on January 4, 2003. While acknowledging the onerous tasks SFC was undertaking, more transparent measures have been declared recently geared towards clearing certain anomalies and in creating more transparencies on aspects of India’s nuclear policy.

One, India’s Strategic Forces Command will have the sole responsibility to give order for delivery of nuclear weapons after getting explicit approval from political leadership at the top. Two, the exact selection of the target area will be decided by the SFC through a calibrated, cumulative process involving various levels of decision-making and with formal approval by the Nuclear Command Authority at the highest level. Three, the Strategic Forces Command will manage and administer strategic forces by exercising complete command and control over nuclear assets and make all contingency plans as needed in fulfilling the required tasks. Four, SFC’s Command, Control and Communication systems have been firmly established and the command has attained a high state of operationalisation with the objective of inflicting punitive retaliation to adversaries and in causing unacceptable damage to their infrastructure facilities. Five, SFC has a fine pool of existing manpower consisting of personnel dedicated to operational, technical, administrative and training tasks backed up by an elite scientific community acting as a futuristic planning think-tank.

While all of the above measures are welcome, yet certain ambiguities of India’s nuclear doctrine still remain.

On matters of deterrence, it is still not clear whether India sticks to Deterrence by Punishment (which is preventing aggression by adversaries by threat of punishing retaliation) or Deterrence by Denial which is premised on the failure of deterrence. If it is the latter, how does India convince its adversary that aggression by the other side would end with a certain failure?

On the issue of No First Use of nuclear weapons which India is committed to as part of its official, declaratory policy, it is not clear how the country would defend if it is attacked with nuclear, chemical and biological weapons unleashed by non-state actors such as Al-Qaeda and other terrorist outfits. For South Asia, the volatility arising out of quagmire type situation on Kashmir has the potential of such an attack.

Similarly, on the so-called ‘redlines’ or nuclear threshold, the Indian point of view has not been clearly spelt out yet. Will it entail a substantial air/ground/sea attack by the adversaries? Will it entail a substantial loss of territory including nuclear installations? Will it be due to death or incapacitation of political leadership caused due to enemy action?

Another challenging task before the SFC is to being coordination among the tri-service command so that weapons would be readily deployed from its de-mated status. However, this requires speedy and proactive measures between the Defense Research & Development Organisation (DRDO), the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and the Services who are responsible for weapons assemblies, weapons cores and delivery systems respectively.

Finally, the open ended assertion in India’s nuclear doctrine that an appropriate disaster control system should be developed to deal with potential accidents is open to criticism. Given India’s extremely poor record in disaster management from the super cyclone of Orissa in 1999 to the most recent rain ravaged Mumbai in 2005, it is indeed doubtful if India, at least in the immediate future, has anything close to managing nuclear disaster should it occur from a nuclear first strike or from a retaliatory strike by the adversaries.

The good news, however, is the ongoing Confidence-Building Measures (CBMs) including military CBMs. The re-establishment of Hotlines between leaderships at the highest levels, the constraint measures not to attack each other’s nuclear facilities, notification measures related to military exercises, accords on prohibition of chemical weapons, etc, are steps in the right direction.

It is imperative on the part of present leadership to make sure that such CBMs do continue unhindered while trying to bring more clarity, transparency to India’s nuclear doctrine so vital for defending the country’s national interests.

Author Note
Dr. Mohammed Badrul Alam is Professor of Area Studies, Miyazaki International College, Japan