The significance of the strategic nuclear complex was brought out in the controversy over remarks of the retiring Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee that India's response to nuclear attack would be 'very heavy'. The remarks reportedly did not amuse his boss, the defence minister, as they were made when the India-Pakistan foreign ministers talks were ongoing.

To what extent is the Chairman COSC the custodian of the nuclear baton? The current juncture provides an opportunity to reflect on the wider issue of command and control of the nuclear complex, both in peace-time and during wars.

The Saxena task force will reportedly work on a national security doctrine. The idea is that once the national security survey is done, then the structures necessary to keep the country secure would be thought through. The task force's composition and parameters have not been officially released yet; the time is yet ripe to influence its terms of reference to include the nuclear complex.

Command and control of the nuclear complex takes place at different levels. The upper - political - level is of democratic control by the political leadership, which is in turn accountable to the parliament. The second, grand strategic level, is through the national security council system integrating national security experts, the military and technologists. The third one, the strategic level, is the operational one of the Strategic Forces Command.

The official doctrine of 2003 vested decision making authority in a 'council' headed by the prime minister, as against the proposal in the Draft doctrine of 1999 vesting this in the PM personally.

 •  Muddling along, strategically
 •  Government versus military
 •  A 'general' need for reform
 •  Next phase of reforms

Currently, the Political Council of the Nuclear Command Authority is authorised to employ nuclear weapons. The official doctrine of 2003 vested decision making authority in a 'council' headed by the prime minister, as against the proposal in the Draft doctrine of 1999 vesting this in the PM personally. The power to use nuclear weapons is to be exercised through the Executive Council and the Strategic Forces Command, reporting to it through the National Security Adviser. The Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee, under whom the SFC works, is represented in the Executive Council.

There are problems at the all three levels. Relatively lesser known are those existing at the strategic level, since the work of the SFC is necessarily shrouded in secrecy. At this level, integrating the technologist into the chain of command is possibly a challenge since the military holds the delivery systems, the atomic energy technologist is entrusted with the weapons core and the DRDO representative is in charge of the weapons assembly.

At the second level, it is well known that the COSC is 'double hatted'. He is not only the chief of his service but 'first among equals' among the three chiefs. He is by the latter responsibility also to oversee the SFC. The relationship between the military man in charge of the SFC, the COSC and the NSA is also somewhat nebulous. This results in inadequate attention to the working of the SFC by either the NSA, who presumably would expect the COSC to do the supervisory role, or the COSC, who cannot possibly have the time.

The creation of the post of Chief of Defence Staff would presumably resolve this considerably. But the relationship with the NSA would require working out. The SFC cannot be left to serve to two bosses. Unity of command is a universally hallowed command principle in the services. It must be the CDS who is unambiguously in charge. The NSA heads the Executive Council of which the COSC is currently is part. But with the CDS available, the Political Council needs a military adviser to complement the advice of the NSA.

The belief that such advice will be overly militaristic may not be warranted. After all, civilian militarism is also not unknown. The advantage of having clear lines of command and responsibilities is that it would enable accountability. Keeping the nuclear decision making mechanism and process diffuse may make the weapons appear more usable. Pinpointing responsibility will help with self-deterrence, since post bellum accountability will be easier to exact.

Since the nuclear complex, including the Atomic Energy Commission is partially outside of the defence ministry, the defence reforms would be complete if they included the nuclear complex also. This is the opportunity to domesticate it. Presently, it is overseen by the prime minister, but is notably scientist-bureaucrat driven. As a result, institutional interests have a wider play in the way the complex works than is warranted. The place of nuclear weapons in national security needs spelling out and the reforms could emplace the system that will provision it.

As suggested by a noted nuclear watcher, WPS Sidhu, this can be done by having either a new parliamentary committee serve as check or increase the powers of the standing committee on defence to do the same, 'in camera' if necessary. India's nuclear trajectory is now at a juncture that this can be done with maturity and relative openness, as any democratic state should.

Why are these steps necessary?

A discussion on the upward delegation of nuclear-related decision making is needed now, even if some of it were to take place secretly. India's idea that nuclear weapons are political weapons is right, and India has rightly forsworn being the first to introduce them into conflict. Still, the country's proactive conventional doctrine is out of step with its nuclear doctrine, as is evident from India continuing to think of 'heavy' response. With Pakistan's unveiling its tactical nuclear weapon, Nasr, as noted by Manoj Joshi in his columns, the nuclear factor is far more in the foreground than is being acknowledged.

The defence sector cannot be reformed in isolation of its place in national security - that could cause an imbalance in governance. The 'defence versus development' debate is not yet a settled one, either; this is all the more reason to have Parliament more involved in the oversight of the nuclear complex. Ultimately, the elected representatives are the ones who have responsibility for ensuring the security of the nation, and also for delivering economic and social development. The legislature's role as check on the executive can be fulfilled as well, with parliamentary oversight.

The right step to take now is to broaden the Saxena task force's terms of reference. While it is likely to take a deep look at the CDS issue, this is insufficient. The task force must look beyond the defence ministry into the relationship between the legislature and the executive. The legislature should, on its own, bring this on to its agenda, since the executive is unlikely to think of widening the remit of the task force on its own.