India on Monday took stock of its nuclear arsenal and delivery systems like long-range ballistic missiles, fighter-bombers and warships towards its quest to have an operational nuclear triad -- the capability to fire nukes from land, sea and air -- in the near future.
Sources said the top-level meet held by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was "not just a general security review'' but in fact a full-fledged Nuclear Command Authority (NCA) conference to assess the steps being taken to consolidate and strengthen India's "minimum but credible nuclear deterrence".
The status of two crucial but delayed "strategic programmes", the 5,000-km-range Agni-V missile and indigenous nuclear submarine INS Arihant, is said to have figured in the discussion apart from "overarching strategic issues".
While the three-stage Agni-V is to be tested later this year, INS Arihant is also slated to go for "harbour and sea trials" once its miniature 83 MW pressurized light-water reactor gains "full criticality". The defence establishment is eager to induct INS Arihant, armed with 12 nuclear-tipped missiles, by next year because it will constitute the most effective and difficult-to-detect leg of the nuclear triad.
The NCA meeting was attended by defence minister A K Antony, national security advisor Shiv Shankar Menon , DRDO chief V K Saraswat and the three Service chiefs, Air Chief Marshal P V Naik, Admiral Nirmal Verma and General V K Singh, among others.
It comes close after ISI chief Lt-General Shuja Pasha's threat that Pakistan would give a befitting response to any Indian attempt to launch any Abbottabad-like operation since targets inside India "had already been identified'' and "rehearsals'' carried out.
This sabre-rattling comes in the backdrop of Pakistan furiously building up its nuclear arsenal, which already stands at an estimated 70 to 90 warheads compared to India's 60 to 80.
Pakistan's two new heavy-water reactors coming up at its Khushab nuclear facility are clearly geared towards producing weapons-grade plutonium to supplement its ongoing enriched uranium-based nuke programme, as reported by TOI earlier.
What has added to global concerns is the fear that jihadis may gain access to "loose nukes", enriched uranium or nuclear technology to make "dirty bombs" in the ever-deepening mess Pakistan finds itself in.
India, however, does not want to engage in a verbal spat with Pakistan. This much was evident with sources emphasizing the NCA meeting on Monday was "a routine pre-scheduled exercise" held once every three-to-six months to review the management of India's nuclear arsenal.
Pakistan does not have a clear-cut "no first-use" nuclear doctrine like India, having left it deliberately vague to unsettle India's conventional military superiority. Moreover, it's Army chief General Pervez Kayani who has his finger on the nuclear button in Pakistan.
In India, the NCA is controlled by the civilian leadership, with the "political council" led by the PM being the "sole body which can authorize the use of nuclear weapons''. The NCA's executive council, headed by the NSA, only provides inputs and "execute the directives'' given to it by the political council. There are, of course, "alternate chains of command'' for retaliatory nuclear strikes if the political leadership is "decapitated'' in a pre-emptive first strike by an adversary.
Both the NCA and the tri-Service Strategic Forces Command (SFC), which manages the nuclear arsenal, were created in January 2003 after the 10-month troop mobilization along the Indo-Pak border under Operation Parakram in the wake of the December 2001 terror strike on Parliament.