A Hotline between National and Nuclear Command Authorities to Manage Tensions

Introduction

India and Pakistan could benefit from establishing a dedicated, secure, and redundant 24/7 communications link – a “hotline” – between their respective NCAs (the National Command Authority in Pakistan and the Nuclear Command Authority in India), the top decision-making bodies on nuclear issues.1 Twenty years after becoming overt nuclear powers, India and Pakistan have not established a direct communications link between their respective nuclear apparatuses. This is despite three major crises during this period (in 1999, 2001-2002, and 2008), and regular firings and militant attacks across the Line of Control (LoC). In contrast, the United States and the Soviet Union established their nuclear “hotline” 14 years after the USSR became a nuclear state.

There are two broad models for this communications link. They are not mutually exclusive, but overlap and reflect the range of linkages that were established between adversaries in the Cold War. The first would be a nuclear risk reduction center (NRRC) comparable to what the United States and Soviet Union created in the late 1980s. The second is a hotline patterned after the U.S.-Soviet hotline established in 1963 in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The latter would be similar to what Aditi Malhotra suggested in South Asian Voices, reflecting on the 20-year anniversary of the nuclear tests.

As first proposed (in the early 1980s), an NRRC was intended to facilitate negotiations and support procedural and technical measures to reduce nuclear risks, create a buffer for nuclear discussions from the ups and downs of U.S.-Soviet relations, provide instant communications, and reassure worried publics.2 Notably, the NRRC linked civilian decision-makers, although there was military involvement. What emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s was a more modest center that focuses on the information exchanges to support a variety of nuclear arms-control treaties, although it has expanded its role to support the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

The U.S.-Soviet nuclear hotline was established in 1963 after the Cuban Missile Crisis. In the wake of their near war experience, both sides realized that there was no secure, authoritative, reliable, and rapid communications method between their respective nuclear command-and-control apparatuses. However, unlike the NRRC, which is controlled by civilians in each country, the hotline runs only between the headquarters of U.S. and Soviet/Russian militaries.

There is currently no communications link between nuclear apparatuses in India and Pakistan, and the hotline between Indian and Pakistani foreign secretaries has been moribund since it was agreed to in 2005. Consequently, nuclear risks in South Asia are increasing as both countries pursue destabilizing weapons, such as battlefield nuclear weapons and ballistic missile defense,3 and both countries pursue aggressive policies against each other, including support for cross-border militancy and short-war contingencies (also known as Cold Start).

The Proposal

India and Pakistan would benefit from establishing a link between their nuclear apparatuses that is more robust than the U.S.-Soviet/Russian hotline. However, attempting to create an NRRC-like structure, even one stripped down to the current version, is well beyond what the mutual relationship would currently tolerate. Attempting to establish an NRRC-like structure could be a recipe for failure. The U.S.-Soviet/Russian NRRC was only established at the end of the Cold War after years of arms control negotiations and treaty implementation, significant interaction between each country’s nuclear and military establishments, and diminished mutual hostility. 4 These conditions are unlikely to exist in South Asia for many years.

Instead, this proposal seeks a “hotline-plus” communications link. At some point in the future, when relations become more stable, this could grow into an NRRC-type arrangement. This hotline-plus should include the key military and civilian organizations responsible for nuclear issues in order to address the array of nuclear challenges and to take advantage of modern information/digital technology.

The hotline-plus should entail direct 24/7 secure communications between each country’s top nuclear command elements – the NCAs. These would benefit from having dedicated staff, facilities, and communications in both capitals and, if needed, in distributed locations elsewhere. Locating this structure at the top of the government indicates the importance of nuclear issues and helps facilitate the execution of decisions.

Like the U.S.-Soviet/Russian NRRC, this structure can be used to exchange information, including ballistic missile test launches and annual data exchanges, as well as to support future negotiations and additional confidence-building measures. Like the U.S.-Soviet/Russian hotline, it can serve as a secure communications link between military command-and-control elements. A structure at the NCA level would encompass civilian organizations and serve as a vital link to coordinate nuclear safety, health, and environmental concerns between neighbors. While modern information/digital technology can greatly facilitate connectivity in a way not possible during the Cold War, India and Pakistan would benefit from exchanging liaison officers to reduce risks of misinterpreting information and to build trust.

Potential Benefits

Neither New Delhi nor Islamabad is pushing for a hotline, and neither is willing to implement such an initiative in response to international desires. Relations between the two are poor, with considerable mutual hostility and no trust. Both are content to use existing formal and informal diplomatic links to communicate with each other, supported by the hotline between their respective armies to manage the level of violence along the LoC. Regardless, there are two potential benefits that support their national interests that may transcend their mutual enmity: managing risks associated with expanding nuclear infrastructure, and the need to manage unforeseen actions or events during major crises.

Managing Safety, Health, Security, and Environmental Risks

India and Pakistan are expanding their nuclear programs, including civilian power-generation and research capabilities. Consequently, there are more facilities, more sensitive material being shipped, and more people involved, increasing the odds of accidents and security problems. India is seeking to expand its civilian nuclear-power industry significantly to support economic development and reduce pollution caused by coal and other fossil fuels. While implementation of its plans has slowed, India wants to build more than 20 nuclear power reactors over the next couple of decades. Meanwhile, Pakistan is buying Chinese nuclear power reactors to reduce oil imports and support economic development.5

There is a real prospect of an accident or security incident occurring. Almost every other country with nuclear power reactors has experienced incidents ranging from small-scale accidents to major events (e.g., Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima). Given the already fraught relations between India and Pakistan, the chance that such an incident could be misinterpreted by the other is high, especially given the expansion of social media and the risks of rumors and “fake news.” Just as important is India and Pakistan’s physical proximity, which means that an accident in one could cause health and environmental threats in the other in a matter of hours or days.

A direct 24/7 communications link would provide a ready and rapid means to inform the other side of what really occurred. Moreover, depending on the location of the incident, a nuclear hotline may allow for coordination of a response if there are health or environmental risks. Such a hotline would include civilians, thereby linking the key elements directly affected by such a reactor accident. Establishing this hotline at the NCA level would also combine military and security elements that could aid in dispelling rumors. By integrating civilian and military elements, those organizations with the most capacity to respond to a serious accident would be quickly mobilized. India and Pakistan have agreed in broad terms that nuclear accidents are issues they should discuss, and an NCA hotline could serve as the communication link.

Managing Crises

A hotline is likely to be of little benefit in preventing a crisis if India or Pakistan is intent on using force or threatening force, including nuclear weapons, to gain political advantage. Nonetheless, a communications link between their NCAs would be useful in reducing the risk that unintended ups and downs in their relationship could escalate beyond what the either side expects. In this way, a hotline between the NCAs would serve the same function as the existing hotline between the directors general of military operations (DGMOs), but for nuclear crises. The existing DGMO hotline was established in 1990, and it has limited, but not stopped, the violence along the LoC. India and Pakistan have normalized its use to manage tensions and calibrate actions in order to prevent escalation beyond the level that either government wants. As both countries deploy and normalize their nuclear forces aimed at each other, they should establish a similar means to manage potential nuclear tensions.6

Beyond the broader mission of managing crisis-escalation risks, the changing nature of nuclear forces in India and Pakistan makes crisis de-escalation increasingly challenging. India and Pakistan are increasingly using mobility and dispersal to ensure survivability. As a crisis develops, both countries will disperse weapons as a part of their mobilization efforts.7 After a crisis peaks and both sides decide to end the standoff, they will need to return their forces to garrison and lower readiness. Monitoring and verifying this redeployment of nuclear systems will be a major challenge, especially since tensions and mutual mistrust will be high. A hotline would be essential in providing a means to coordinate de-escalation and ensure that one side does not think the other is cheating.

A simple example is illustrative of the potential benefit. After a crisis ends and both sides are returning forces to garrison, a deployed missile launcher could have an accident or break down and cannot be moved. A hotline would provide a rapid and ready way to inform and reassure the other side.

Pakistan is introducing battlefield nuclear systems to counter a potential Indian conventional offensive.8 Consequently, there is a prospect that these weapons may be moved into the field early in a crisis and be physically closer to forces that had engaged in combat. As a result, coordinating de-escalation will become even more important, challenging, and time-constrained, necessitating a rapid and authoritative conversation between the two governments to avoid misperceptions and reigniting the crisis.

India and Pakistan are developing sea-based nuclear weapons, potentially prompting changes in their mobilization; deployment; and command, control, and communications systems. During de-escalation, the nuclear weapons could still be at sea for several days, with a potentially less assured way to prevent the misinterpretation of actions and to ensure that conventionally armed ships and aircraft – or civilian shipping – do not inadvertently impact de-escalation.9

One of the drivers for creating the U.S.-USSR hotline in 1963 was the difficulty both sides had in monitoring de-escalation, including at sea, with tensions and tempers still high. After it was signed in 1972, the United States and USSR used the hotline to support the Incidents at Sea Agreement to manage interactions at sea.

Most observers believe that the most likely trigger for a major crisis with nuclear implications is a very large terrorist attack in India by Pakistan-based militants, necessitating intense crisis-management efforts by a third party in addition to the governments in Islamabad and New Delhi. Analysts will debate the extent of Pakistani government control over anti-India militants, but previous crises have contributed to the presumption of culpability if not support. In such a case, a nuclear hotline would afford the opportunity to contain a crisis and limit escalation if events appear to get out of control.10

Roadblocks: Political Will and Organizational Disconnect

There is no political interest in either capital to establish a link between their NCAs, and the two governments have allowed their existing arrangement between the foreign secretaries to lay fallow. Senior decision-makers are otherwise preoccupied, and bilateral tensions undermine any desire to look for ways to minimize nuclear risk, especially since both sides view a nuclear crisis as a very low-probability event. Some on both sides will perceive that a hotline would amplify risk-taking and reinforce deeply set nuclear narratives. After more than 70 years of animosity, this objection will not be overcome easily. However, given the expanding civilian nuclear programs in both countries, Pakistan’s fielding of battlefield weapons, and plans to place weapons at sea, New Delhi and Islamabad need to act to address concrete national interests and isolate the broader argument about national narratives.

There will also be concern that this hotline could be used for espionage and deception. The concern over espionage, which was also raised for the U.S.-Soviet hotline and NRRC, has proven to be unfounded, and in any event could be addressed by sound technical and procedural devices as well as by competent expertise. The possibility of deception will always be present, as is the case in the absence of a hotline between NCAs. A hotline is not going to solve all problems; it just provides one means among others to communicate a solution.

The other main obstacle is the organizational disconnect between India and Pakistan’s nuclear apparatuses. The current DGMO hotlines work because similar organizations and people are communicating with each other – an Indian brigadier can talk to a Pakistani brigadier, and they have similar responsibilities and roles and can speak on similar terms. This does not exist with regard to nuclear issues.11

Pakistan’s NCA, the National Command Authority, is dominated by the military, even with civilian politicians involved in decisions. Moreover, the management and operation of the nuclear forces is centralized under the Strategic Plans Division, which effectively provides a one-stop shop for nuclear issues. In contrast, India’s NCA, the Nuclear Command Authority, is dominated by civilians centered in the prime minister’s office and involving the civilian national security advisor. In contrast to Pakistan, the management and operation of nuclear forces in India involves strong institutional roles for the civilian Department of Atomic Energy and the Defence Research and Development Organization, in addition to the military’s Strategic Forces Command and service chiefs.12

Establishing a hotline between the NCAs links similar organizations in India and Pakistan. In each case, the command-and-control elements in charge of the military and civilian nuclear programs are connected, enabling communication and decision-making by like organizations regardless of whether the issue is an accident at a power plant, a military crisis, or de-escalation after a military crisis. While India and Pakistan manage their nuclear apparatuses in distinct ways, they both have comparable peak organizations in their respective NCAs. Like the DGMO hotline, an NCA-to-NCA hotline would enable like organizations to communicate with each other.

Aditi Malhotra in South Asian Voices made a good proposal by suggesting a hotline between the country’s national security advisors as a way of addressing this issue. The challenge is that the advisor in Pakistan may or may not have much power, and centering the link on individuals as opposed to an institution may not capture the organizational diversity in the management of nuclear forces within each country.

Dim Prospects: Outside Pressure and Assistance Required

India-Pakistan relations are likely to remain poor for the foreseeable future. As a result, ideas that originate on the outside, but with logic that can be subsequently embraced by India and Pakistani decision-makers, could help alleviate tensions, especially those related to crises. The United States historically played the key role, as it did in facilitating the 1990 DGMO hotline. However, since then, the U.S. regional role has shifted, as Washington is more focused on Afghan-Pakistan issues and counterterrorism than on India-Pakistan and nuclear stability.

Moreover, Islamabad believes that the United States favors India over Pakistan, as evidenced by the U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Cooperation Initiative. As a result, Washington may not have the influence it once had in the region. Some have suggested including China in South Asian nuclear discussions, given the triangular nature of the regional balance. While Beijing might eventually become supportive, it lacks experience with nuclear hotlines and has historically shied away from nuclear diplomacy in South Asia. Also, Indian-Chinese tensions are likely to be fraught and become increasingly nuclearized as New Delhi fields long-range missiles against China.

The key to moving forward is likely to depend on timing – having an initiative to offer at the right time, when both sides are looking for something tangible during periods when the relationship is improving. India-Pakistan relations fluctuate over time like an irregular sine wave. During a period of eased tension, senior decision-makers often look for useful ideas to advance relations, and a nuclear hotline could serve this goal.

Editor’s Note: This essay is part of a new Stimson Center bookOff Ramps from Confrontation in Southern Asiaand has been republished with permission. The book features pragmatic, novel approaches from rising talent and veteran analysts to reduce tensions resulting out of nuclear competition among India, Pakistan, and China. The full book is available for download  here.

Image 1: Flickr

Image 2: Corbis News via Getty

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  1. Verghese Koithara, Managing India’s Nuclear Forces (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2012); and Feroz Khan, Eating Grass: The Making of the Pakistani Bomb (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012).
  2. Michael Krepon, Nuclear Risk Reduction in South Asia (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004); Barry M. Blechman and Michael Krepon, “Nuclear Risk Reduction Centers,” Significant Issues Series (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, Georgetown University, 1986).
  3. Gurmeet Kanwal, Sharpening the Arsenal: India’s Evolving Nuclear Deterrence Policy (Noida: HarperCollins, 2018).
  4. Krepon, Nuclear Risk Reduction in South Asia.
  5. Kanwal, Sharpening the Arsenal; Khan, Eating Grass; and Koithara, Managing India’s Nuclear Forces.
  6. Kanwal, Sharpening the Arsenal; Koithara, Managing India’s Nuclear Forces; Krepon, Nuclear Risk Reduction in South Asia.
  7. Kanwal, Sharpening the Arsenal; Khan, Eating Grass; and Koithara, Managing India’s Nuclear Forces.
  8. Kanwal, Sharpening the Arsenal; and Koithara, Managing India’s Nuclear Forces.
  9. Kanwal, Sharpening the Arsenal; and Koithara, Managing India’s Nuclear Forces.
  10. Kanwal, Sharpening the Arsenal; and Khan, Eating Grass.
  11. Kanwal, Sharpening the Arsenal; Khan, Eating Grass; and Koithara, Managing India’s Nuclear Forces.
  12. Kanwal, Sharpening the Arsenal; Khan, Eating Grass; and Koithara, Managing India’s Nuclear Forces.
Posted in , Civil-Military Relations, Crisis, India, Nuclear Weapons, Pakistan

Harry Hannah

Harry I. Hannah served as a senior analyst in the U.S. intelligence community, where he provided analysis on regional and international security issues for more than 33 years, including most of the last 14 years assessing South Asian strategic issues.

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