Guest Column | Arms and the Men

Instead of an arms race, India should focus on strategic and nuclear force restructuring

Lt Gen. Balraj Nagal (retd)

The five pre-1998 nuclear powers have matured their Nuclear Command and Control Structures, and Nuclear Forces Structures (NFS) over a period ranging from 70 years for the US to 50 years for China.

The Cold War arms race created thousands of systems for command and control or functioning of military forces. The C4ISR systems deployed or under development provide 24 hours continuous surveillance of each other’s areas/offensive weapons, detect movement of strategic systems or change of deployment patterns and allied/linked systems. The command and control of these powers are well developed, with state-of-the-art electronic systems to function under NBC conditions. The command centres are located in deep underground hardened shelters, capable of withstanding nuclear attacks, functioning 24×7.

Today, the US, Russia and China deploy Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) with ranges of 10,000 km or more, the US and Russia operate SSBNs with missiles with ranges of 10,000 km and China is in the process of operationalising a SSBN with missiles of 7,000-8,000 km range; the UK and France operate SSBNs with ranges of 10,000 km, the air element of the triad has bombers with air launched cruise missile (ALCM). In addition, it merits mention that China today deploys missile systems of 600 km, 1,100 km, 2,150 km and cruise missiles of 1,500 km range to cater for Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Southeast Asia, India and US naval forces operating in the Pacific Ocean/seas in the proximity of the Chinese coast.

Pakistan deploys missiles with ranges of 180 km, 290 km, 450 km, 700 km, 1200 km and 2,000 km, besides cruise missiles of 350 and 700 km. The US has fielded missile defence at select areas and will also provide coverage to allies. All strategic nuclear forces have matured to fulfil the needs of strategic deterrence. During the Cold War, NATO and Warsaw Pact in addition to strategic deterrence adopted nuclear war fighting strategy, and during this period the arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons dominated the inventory and reached thousands of weapons.

India has organised its nuclear command and control/nuclear forces in the last decade or so. The question arises on how much India has learnt from these powers, whether it acquired a command and force structure that will meet the needs of deterrence, nuclear signalling and operational readiness? Command and force structures in essence include C4ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance), Command and Control centres, military forces to operationalise the nuclear deterrent, nuclear hardware, delivery systems, and bases or locations to house/deploy the systems. These aspects are discussed in ample detail in the book Managing Nuclear Operations by Ashton B. Carter and others. All countries build and operate their strategic and nuclear force structures based on the adopted nuclear doctrine and strategy. India follows the strategy of nuclear deterrence, policy of No First Use (NFU) and massive retaliation, therefore, it will build nuclear structures to suit this requirement.

Broadly, these monitor the adversary, conduct surveillance, detect launches of missiles or aircraft delivered weapons, track path of delivery systems, destroy incoming delivery systems, confirm nuclear strikes, absorb the losses due to counterforce and countervalue strikes, decision to retaliate, order retaliatory strikes, launch massive retaliation strikes, assess damage to targets, order additional strikes where required, remain prepared for and conduct follow on strikes till the adversary submits, and maintain arsenal for other adversary. This is a simplistic description of the complex requirement of nuclear operations, however, this matrix will be used to describe (within classification limitations) the requirements for India, some aspects suggested would be the author’s ideas.

The first issue which emerges from C4ISR is command and control, and therefore structures need to be created to provide direction and guidance on doctrine, policy, strategy, monitor situations, develop and manage nuclear forces during peace, and command these in war.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Badami Bagh cantt in Srinagar
Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Badami Bagh cantt in Srinagar

Amongst the nuclear weapons nations, two distinct governance systems exist, the singular decision i.e. presidential (USA, Russia, France and China) and the collective i.e. cabinet/parliamentary (UK, India, Israel and Pakistan). The former allows decision-making by the president which appears fast and capable of immediate orders in the face of nuclear strikes, whilst the latter is joint decision by the cabinet and could be slower but is acceptable to a nation with NFU. India put in place the highest level command and control structure by creating the National Command Authority (NCA), which has a Political Council (PC) to decide on doctrinal and policy matters, give directions on development and nuclear strategy, command nuclear forces, control nuclear and fissile material production, monitor the progress of developmental activity, approve nuclear signalling policy, lay down safety and security policy and ensure implementation, and order retaliatory nuclear strikes.

The NCA at the second level has the Executive Council (EC) to bring before the PC all doctrinal and policy issues which require approval, provide analysed, scrutinised and validated inputs for decision making, the EC is responsible to ensure implementation of PC decisions through subordinate organisations. The secretariat to the NCA is also in place with the desired expertise and capability to provide inputs required by the leadership. The NCA is provided inputs from the ministry of external affairs (MEA), ministry of defence (MoD), armed forces, intelligence organisations and numerous agencies of the government.

Nuclear signalling was a weakness in the years following the release of the nuclear doctrine in 2003, at best it appeared a knee-jerk reaction. Nuclear war demands a 24×7 functional chain of command, with continuity of government and laid-down chain of succession, as exists in the older nuclear weapon states. India, too, has instituted similar procedures and processes to ensure continuity of government and decision-making in the event of nuclear war, some nations reveal the chain of succession and some keep it secret, India has decided to keep the chain of succession secret.

The political command and control authorities and military nuclear forces including the command elements must survive nuclear strikes to continue governance and order retaliation. This is achieved either by positioning them in deep underground NBC protected shelters or by keeping them mobile and dispersed including airborne; India too has followed the same principles. The creation of the command and control centres requires hardening to very high levels with support systems to function in an NBC environment. The processes and procedures to ensure safety of the political leadership, the chain of succession and military nuclear forces leadership are in place but remain in the classified sphere.

The organisations to produce, store and move fissile material and nuclear weapons, and operate India’s nuclear forces include the Strategic Forces Command (SFC), Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) and the armed forces elements in support of these organisations. The SFC is responsible to manage, administer and operate the triad, ensure readiness levels as ordered by the PC, deploy on mobilisation/emergency measures as part of overall plan and execute retaliatory strikes on orders.

The SFC is a tri-services organisation, to man and operate the nuclear weapons and vectors, the qualitative requirements desirable will be discussed later. Open domain information states that India’s triad consists of aircraft (Mirage 2000 and Jaguar), land missiles [(Prithvi, Agni-1, Agni-2 and Agni-3) (underdevelopment Agni-4 and Agni-5)], sea leg (Dhanush missile and underdevelopment SSBN Arihant with Sagarika missile) for nuclear weapons delivery. The DRDO is responsible for the development of all delivery systems and in assisting the DAE in the weapons programme, the DAE is the primary organisation for fissile material production, nuclear weapons development and production. Other support organisations for the NCA and SFC include intelligence agencies, military intelligence and departments from the armed forces and civil organisations.

A NFU policy increases the requirement of intelligence of adversary intention, warning and information about movement and deployment of nuclear weapon systems, release and firing of deployed nuclear weapons, detection and tracking of the fired weapons and confirmation of countervalue/counterforce targets struck/destroyed. To achieve the stated capability, today state-of-the-art surveillance and detection satellites are placed in orbit (multiple capability infrared, optical or radar). The surveillance/detection satellites need to be complemented with different characteristic satellites to track missiles for ballistic missile defence systems and to predict strike areas. The tracking satellites will not suffice to provide accurate and precise locations of in-flight missiles, therefore radars with over-the-horizon capability and high resolution characteristics will be mandatory as part of missile defences. The third category is communication satellites for command and control, forces administration and logistics purposes. The clarity, continuity and area coverage provided by the satellites offer distinct advantages for use in communications by strategic systems.

Today, some nations have satellite kill capabilities, therefore protection and redundancy has to be built into these assets, from this flows the necessity of hunter-killer satellites, to be placed in orbit before a crisis, this being a time and effort consuming exercise, must be planned and executed during peace time. The first three categories of satellites need redundancy and advance life cycle planning for overlapping and continuous coverage.

Another unique feature of ISR is that critical technologies for these satellites are not shared, hence each nation has to develop these from the technical base of the country. The satellite warning, surveillance and detection capability must be augmented by electronic interception means and cyber warfare. To detect and confirm nuclear strikes, sensors are placed throughout the length and breadth of the country, these include optical cameras, seismic, radiation, wind and infrared detectors. In the present era the electronic media has entered most areas in the country and may also assist in reporting nuclear explosion where connectivity is not disrupted/ destroyed in spite of radioactivity and ionisation accompanying the explosion.

The next aspect of C4ISR is communications, this is the crucial link in nuclear operations, the extent of use includes linkage from ISR sensors to the command centres, intelligence and information feed to analysis centres, inter and intra nuclear forces usage, command links, international links under NBC conditions, armed forces communication networks, and host of other networks that support government functioning during war and peace. The above is only to demonstrate the complexity of the subject and is not the entire range of communication required, some aspects remain under classification for security reasons. These networks function over the full spectrum of communications, at present include radio waves, cable networks of all types and satellite networks.

The requirement of each vector or command link is unique, determined by the advantages and limitations of each link, for example SSBNs operate at Very Low Frequency (VLF) underwater or Very High Frequency (VHF) through satellites, whereas, command and technical links can function on radio frequencies/satellite networks/cable networks. Similarly, land nuclear forces can operate on the links used by command channels and airborne nuclear vectors operate on limited links but include satellite operated networks. All these links need to be secure and protected from intervention or interception or interference or intrusion or disturbance or destruction, therefore they need specialised security cover for software and hardware. NBC protection is a highly specialised field, with regular advances in military technology, both in offensive and defensive systems. The most secure and reliable means remain ‘embedded cables with protective features at vulnerable points’, however, it is not desirable or feasible to depend only on one means, therefore duplication or redundancy is mandatory, as a matter of principle all means must be used in all links/nets. Nuclear operations by nature are network centric, to ensure coordination and synchronisation in intelligence, decision and response.

Before discussing the qualitative requirements of missiles and force composition, a short analysis of deployment areas and their implications on force structuring is merited. The US, Russia and China are located at large distances from each other (main Russian and Chinese centres are at considerable distance from each other), have large land mass, allowing dispersed deployment, the geographical placement requires each to deploy long range missiles to threaten the adversary. These ICBMs are located inland, hence provide depth and protection from the sea.

All three countries have long coastlines to provide sea access, allowing deployment in the oceans, Russia has a limitation of unfettered access to the Atlantic Ocean through the North Sea whilst its east coast is surrounded by the US and allied bases in the Pacific Ocean. China, too, has a similar situation off the coast, bordered by the US and allied bases ranging from Japan in the north to Philippines/Vietnam in the south. These limitations impose major disadvantages on Russia and China, access to sea is not feasible without being monitored by the adversary, this allows building of database, tracking and finger printing of all SSBNs moving out to sea, to avoid detection and tracking implies limiting their deployment close to coast in limited areas, thus deny range and time of flight advantage to the SSBN missiles.

India does not have the land mass size of the US, Russia or China, however, it still has a big enough land mass to deploy its credible minimum deterrent in areas well away from the international border and the sea coast. At present, the greater vulnerability lies closer on the north and west border, thus, the deployment must be well away from these areas, which in turn will determine the range of missiles against adversary(s). Fixed silo based missiles can be identified during peace, however, India’s mobile missile system does not suffer from this disadvantage, both the road and rail launchers can be hidden in remote or distant areas till required for retaliatory strikes.

A deployment area away from the international border denies the adversary the capability to launch counterforce strikes with short and medium range missiles as also keeps the nuclear vectors out of conventional weapons attack by land or air. Whilst the deployment may not prevent counter-value strikes on targets in the vicinity of the international border, but ensures retention of greater retaliatory capability, a psychological advantage with India and a distinct drawback for the adversary seeking to reduce the retaliatory capability.

The area suitable for deployment of strategic forces is hilly terrain, with forest cover which adds to concealment and dispersal. The existing and developing road network as well the expansive rail network are suited to the movement and deployment of strategic forces, this advantage besides allowing rapid movement and concealing nuclear forces, aids surprise and compounds the difficulty of detection by the adversary. From these advantages and the existing availability of land-based missiles, it emerges that the mainstay of India’s nuclear forces in the foreseeable future will be land vector, till the sea vector is available to replace part of the land vector.

India has a long coastline bordering the Bay of Bengal, Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean, the seas are also well away from the main deployment areas of the five old nuclear powers. This sea zone provides India with a unique advantage of large areas for deployment of the sea vector and sea bases with easy access to the blue waters. The heavy sea traffic in certain areas of this sea zone, helps as well as disadvantages the use of the area by the SSBNs, however, on the whole it is beneficial to deploy strategic assets in the vast sea zone, (China is making efforts to acquire sea bases at the rim of these seas/ ocean to gain control and domination of the sea zone).

The sea leg of the triad provides the least vulnerable delivery means, and hence, gives India the option of benefitting from the advantage. Whilst SSBN technology is the most difficult to master, now with INS Arihant close to being commissioned, it is time for India to focus on the development of the sea leg of the triad. The sea vector in the long run should become equal to, if not bigger, than the land vector. In literature in the open domain, the doctrinal problems of command and control or delegation of authority are often discussed as possible impediments to the fielding of the sea vector, having deployed the first SSBN these ‘so called’ issues will be resolved, maybe these doubts are raised by inimical agencies to cause delay in operationalisation of the SSBNs. This apprehension or fear must be jettisoned to obtain strategic benefits, the deployment of the sea vector in greater strength should enhance our deterrence capability.

To further strengthen the capability, India should operate hunter killer SSNs in our area of operation. A recent news item carried information that India will construct SSNs in the foreseeable future, a very positive sign. The ability to dominate the sea zone of interest will allow safe and unhampered operations by SSBNs besides sea control and sea denial operations. The long coastline and large number of islands offer India many places to construct strategic sea bases close to deployment areas, with concurrent advantage of short movement time for repair and refit, or administrative change of crew, and maximum time on deterrent duty.

The advantages conferred by the land and sea areas for deployment of nuclear forces will determine the characteristics of the delivery systems to be developed and deployed in these areas. What are the main considerations to develop missile systems? The first is range, to be able to deploy the missiles deep inside the country in protected areas and still reach the targets. Second, adequate payload capability to deliver the requisite yield weapons. Third, rugged systems to deploy and operate under field environment in all climatic conditions. Fourth, quick deployment and short firing time. Fifth, robust cannisterised systems for operating under-field environment and reduced maintenance requirements. Sixth, solid fuel with extremely high rate of burn to provide excellent acceleration with resultant high cruise speed. Seventh, exceptionally precise guidance for pinpoint strikes. Eighth, manoeuvrability to avoid enemy interception systems. Ninth, ability to carry decoys to confuse and bypass defensive interception systems. Tenth, MIRV capability. Eleventh, protective measures to prevent accidental launches, and twelfth, easy transportability for launch from dispersed locations. The land vector missiles deployed in the depth areas will require ranges to cover territories of both adversaries, ideally if one/two type of missiles could be deployed it would help in inventory management and training.

However, the ranges required to cover the two adversaries are distinctly unequal, which implies at least two types of missiles based only on range considerations be deployed, the types of missiles may further increase if MIRV concept is implemented. Today, India has operational missiles of 3,000 km range with Agni-5 of 5,000 km range under development. An analysis of the distances to both adversaries main areas indicate that land missiles of ranges of 3,000 km will cover Pakistan and to cover whole of China a missile range of 6,000 km will be sufficient. All these missiles should incorporate features discussed above in this paragraph. The current missiles of shorter range (Prithvi, Agni-1 and Agni-2) can be phased out once longer range missiles with advanced features (Agni-3/4 or new generation missiles) are brought into the operational inventory. The short range missiles are labelled destabilising, being located closer to the battlefield and the international border, and are not easily detected and have shorter flight time. For the SSBNs, missiles with ranges of 3,000 km will provide the desired coverage over Pakistan, and for China a missile with range of 6,000-7,000 km would be necessary.

In all nuclear weapon nations the first delivery system of the triad was the air vector. India, too, has followed the same course. The old nuclear nations fielded bombers as the delivery platform for long ranges whereas India lacks a bomber in its arsenal. This lacuna limits the ranges at which the air leg of the triad can deliver the nuclear weapons without cruise missiles and the problem of range is further compounded. The air defence systems in service necessitate escort packages right up to the target area, which further restrict the range of air vector. Till the bomber and cruise missile shortcomings are addressed, India will be handicapped in its nuclear air operations to limited ranges.

With a policy of NFU, defensive measures assume great importance. India is in the process of developing the Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD), many tests of the interception missiles have been conducted, some success seems to have come the way of DRDO, but no claims have been made by the scientists about operationalisation of the BMD, implying that it may be a long way before it is fielded by the SFC. The BMD essentially comprises three distinct parts. First, surveillance and detection means to include satellites and human resources. Second, tracking means through satellites and radars, and third, interception systems at exo-atmosphere and endo-atmosphere levels. Interception of missiles of different ranges requires separate interceptors, a big challenge as India is confronted with adversaries whose missiles have ranges of 180 km, 290 km, 450 km, 600 km, 750 km, 1,100 km, 2,000-2,150 km, 3,000 km, 5,500 km, 7,000 km and 10,000 km. Today, the US missile defence system does not cover the entire US mainland or Europe, at best it provides partial coverage. Given the complexities and cost involved in putting in place BMD to cover India, it may be prudent to protect only important areas to include value areas, command centres, important political centres e.g. national capital or critical industrial areas.

The big debate during the past few years in the strategic circles and the Indian media has been on the yield of the thermonuclear tests in May 1998. The world over weapon yields rose during the Cold War to several megaton levels, as research and war gaming progressed, these yields came down based on efficiency, desired damage, size and miniaturisation, and law of diminishing returns.

As the world develops to higher living standards, and becomes averse to damage and destruction, incapable of absorbing losses and fatalities, even small weapons can cause alarm and concern in the population and political leadership; the case of North Korea is a pointer in this direction. This does not imply that India should not make higher yield weapons, but is advisable not to get into a race to produce weapons of extremely high yield, hence prudence lies in optimising the yield to meet strategic needs. Miniaturised warheads are required for MIRV missiles, to deliver greater value per missile; they are also required to fit into smaller nose cones of cruise missiles. As protective systems go deep underground a need has arisen to develop earth penetrator nuclear weapons (US conventional weapons developed in the past few years have demonstrated the technology), therefore nuclear weapons should build in the earth penetration capability.

All nuclear weapons have a specified life, the old nuclear powers have refurbishment schedules and spend large sums of money to maintain weapons at optimum state, as our weapons complete their life cycles these will undergo similar procedures. The weapons have to be ruggedised to go through the life cycle from production, transportation, storage, mating and storage with delivery system, movement with vector to deployment areas, operation under field conditions for land vector and in SSBN, withstand shock, vibrations, spin, acceleration and deceleration in flight, for air dropped weapons the effects are similar to those experienced by the aircraft and air delivered weapons.

To operate the weapons and vectors, specialist trained manpower is essential, besides the technical processes involved in the operating the complex systems that comprise a missile and weapon, a crucial aspect is psychological conditioning of officers/ soldiers/ sailors/ airmen to continue to perform their duties under nuclear attack, severe radiation environment or conventional attacks. SFC is tasked to train and prepare this specialist manpower, after 11 years in existence it has achieved the assigned role and responsibility.

Cyber warfare is the latest feature to be addressed in nuclear operations, capabilities of adversaries are generally not well known, therefore only anticipatory action can be taken, but counter capability and emergency reaction needs to be built in the nuclear weapons organisation.

India’s strategic structure is the result of knowledge gained from other countries, political structures in India, learning curve of strategic organisations and research by institutions in the country. India has a matured system in place, security and technology challenges will arise and India must remain capable of responding to the environment that may emerge. The political leadership has given requisite direction, guidance and support, however all three legs of the original triad have inadequacies in the opinion of strategic experts, these are a result of slow progress by DRDO in the field of delivery vectors.

The Integrated Missile Development Programme initiated in 1983 has some success to its credit, but the reality is that the pace of development is slow compared to the geopolitical and security requirements. Delay in the decision to become a nuclear weapon state has resulted in India being well behind China in the strategic field, to pose a deterrent threat there is nothing in the inventory 15 years after the Pokharan tests.

The DRDO should hasten the delivery of Agni-5 and longer range sea launched ballistic missiles, develop a bomber with long range capability and construct bigger SSBNs at a faster rate. ‘Performance audit’ and ‘corrective action’ of strategic development appears a weak area with the political leadership, it is important that those assigned the responsibility to direct, guide and monitor the strategic programme deliver before another crisis causes embarrassment and humiliation. It is time for India to close the gap with our adversaries, future generations and history will not be kind to the present, if we do not leave behind a legacy of assured deterrence, to ensure peace, prosperity and security.

(The writer is former C-in-C, Strategic Forces Command, and first Chief, Strategic Programme Staff)