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India's red phone: crossed wires

The US is talking nuclear management this week with both India and

When five masked hijackers took over Indian Airlines flight IC-814 last month - throwing India and Pakistan into new heights of tension - an hour went by before anyone told India's prime minister.

Atal Behari Vajpayee was traveling. So in that crucial hour, no decisions were made, even though the plane first landed on Indian soil. The official crisis group took hours to meet, and the Indian defense minister was not called on the scene for three days.

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While the story of delay and disunity in crisis is familiar here, the handling of the hijacking brought more than the usual self-recrimination and outrage in the news media.

But looking ahead, South Asian experts say recent miscues ought to be a wake-up call to a greater concern - crisis management between two newly nuclear neighbors that share great enmity, but which have not yet fully realized the complexities of a nuclear weapons enterprise.

Indeed, one of the chief nuclear subjects in London this week in the 10th round of talks between US Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott and Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh is "command and control" in a nuclear crisis. US officials still hold out hope in talks that India and Pakistan will not arm themselves with nuclear weapons. Even if India sticks to its intent of developing a "minimum credible deterrent" - thought at first to be a capacity for missile-and-airplane delivered weapons of mass destruction - the Indian program is still an estimated five to 10 years from serious deployment.

Still, both states have battlefield-useable nuclear weapons - and in recent years both states have gone regularly on high alert, as in July when Indian jets shot down a Pakistani surveillance plane.

"Let's say we are talking a couple years from now ... and suddenly Indian radar picks up an unidentified plane that is traveling from Lahore, [Pakistan]," says Stephen Cohen of the Brookings Institution. "What do you do? Or what if a hostile plane is not picked up by radar?"

The question, raised by the Dec. 24 hijacking, is not theoretical. In that case, the hijacked plane traveled from Indian airspace across the border to Lahore, was denied a landing, and then was forced to turn around and land just across the border, due to fuel shortages.

Problems beyond hijacking

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In the wake of the hijacking, the need for a greater overall competence in matters of security is articulated by such figures as K. Subrahmanyam, a key architect of India's nuclear policy. The hijacking "showed signs of tremendous incompetence," Mr. Subrahmanyam argues. "If you are incompetent for 364 and a half days a year, how can you expect people to act with remarkable efficiency for the one hour when it matters?"

In case after case, Subrahmanyam's question applies. When a 150 m.p.h. cyclone devastated Orissa state last fall, India was going on holiday. Three days of mayhem elapsed before ministers in New Delhi were seized by the magnitude of the crisis.

Likewise, weeks passed last spring before the Indian military discovered that Pakistan-based troops crossed their lines in northern Kashmir. The resulting fracas, the "Kargil war," became the first serious shooting conflict between two nuclear powers.

One bottleneck singled out for criticism by former military officials is the office of Mr. Vajpayee's chief secretary - a position that presently combines in one job what in the US context would be the White House chief of staff and the National Security adviser.

Diplomats say that "there is no set group that monitors the news or potential crises," as a European military attache put it. While the offices of senior officials often have a computer tuned to news wires, those wires are often unattended. "When they [officials] go home at night, they are usually out of touch," the attache says.

The Oct. 13 Pakistani coup, for example, took place in the early evening, but it was 10:30 p.m. before Indian officials were informed. An off-duty staffer who was surfing the Internet saw the alert well after the coup was over. Several foreign embassies in Pakistan whose officers learned of the coup earlier did not report it to Indian colleagues - thinking Delhi would already know.

By training and instinct, Indian bureaucrats and civil servants work in an extremely hierarchical manner - and are famously cautious about taking action that could later leave them open to scapegoating. In the hijacking case, when the plane landed in Amritsar there was no official senior enough to order the plane to be blocked from taking off. "No one wanted to later be blamed for a fiasco, if things turned out badly," the European official says.

Civilian control over weapons

At present, relations between civilian and military control of nuclear weapons is still nascent. India, unlike Pakistan, has a long history of civilian control of the military, and nuclear weapons are said to be still in civilian hands. Release of the weapons is strictly limited to orders between the prime minister and the head of India's Atomic Energy Commission, Rajagopal Chidambaram.

If the nuclear program spreads and becomes operational, the military will have to become more involved. But the nuclear doctrine is unclear, says Gen. V.R. Raghavan, former head of Army military operations. Will the Army, Navy, and Air Force each control their own weapons? Or will orders be given by a separate strategic command? India does not have a deputy prime minister (equivalent to a vice president). And in an era of coalition politics, (21 parties now form the government), authority for action is still to be decided.

Moreover, the peacetime assumptions of nuclear policymakers, and the realities of a crisis so extreme that they could be considered, are often leagues apart, experts say. In one scenario, for example, India or Pakistan have slowly escalated into a conventional battlefield war. One side has taken a huge toll on the other. One way to stop the defeat would be tactical nuclear weapons - something rationalized in the heat of battle as logical, yet which could spiral out of control.

"In the past 50 years the West has spent an enormous amount of time working through the complexities of a nuclear theology and practice," says Thomas Simons, former US ambassador to Pakistan. "Now the subcontinent in the next 50 will have to face these same questions."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society