By David Arceneaux, Ph.D. Student, SU Maxwell School

(Working paper research funded by the Andrew Berlin Family National Security Research Fund)

Introduction: Rethinking Peter Feaver’s Framework

What factors explain command and control systems in emerging nuclear nations? Command and control systems are the operational means by which a state plans the management, deployment, and potential release of nuclear weapons.[1] When evaluating emerging nuclear powers, researchers often devote attention to the quantity and quality of a state’s physical nuclear arsenal while overlooking command and control structures.[2] These measures of nuclear capacity, however, are more useful for generating estimates of a state’s nuclear intentions than accounting for how a nuclear state’s organizations might operate in practice.[3] Any explanation of how these states operate in practice must account for the role of command and control. By explaining the factors that affect command and control systems within emerging regional nuclear states, researchers can better understand the practical employment of nuclear capabilities, which offers insight into how destabilizing future proliferators may be for regional and global security.

Nuclear proliferation is a timely topic of study. At the time of this paper’s writing, the United States and Iran have reached a tentative deal that the US hopes will prevent the development of an Iranian nuclear arsenal.[4] Furthermore, concerns over North Korea’s ability to weaponize its nuclear capability have once again arisen. Adm. Bill Gortney—commander of NORAD and US Northern Command—recently suggested that North Korea’s KN-08 delivery platform might be able to deliver a nuclear missile to the US west coast, despite the fact that the system remains untested.[5] This pair of observations demonstrates two different policy issues, however: nuclear proliferation and post-proliferation behavior. Although research on nuclear proliferation is extremely important, the prioritization of this topic has obfuscated the importance of understanding what states will do with nuclear weapons once they are acquired. A diverse arrangement of potential nuclear postures is available to regional nuclear powers, and it is the posture—not proliferation itself—that causes insecurity. Iran and North Korea have clearly demonstrated that some states desire nuclear weapons and are willing to incur great costs to acquire such capabilities. This study aims to shift focus to the study of post-proliferation behavior in regional nuclear states. By doing so, we may obtain a better understanding of the conditions under which nuclear proliferation is more or less threatening to regional and global security.

When Peter Feaver first explored the origins of regional power command and control systems in 1992, he faced a paucity of data on these systems.[6] The most recent nuclear event at this time was India’s “peaceful” nuclear explosion in 1974, which was not followed by another atomic test until India weaponized its latent nuclear capabilities in 1998.[7] Feaver explicitly noted this obstacle to inquiry, stating that “[r]eliable data on existing or developing systems of command and control in emerging nuclear nations are scarce.”[8] Conscious of these limitations, he established a deductively derived framework for evaluating an emerging nuclear state’s command and control systems as data became available. Feaver’s model has long served as a central framework for debating nuclear stability in proliferating regions, but it has recently been called into question for lacking systematic empirical evaluation. For instance, Vipin Narang plainly asks of the model: “Does the pattern of command and control arrangements match the theoretical predictions?”[9] Although this question remains relevant to explaining the conduct of new nuclear states, it nevertheless remains unanswered. Even with the newfound availability of evidence, no effort has been made to evaluate Feaver’s propositions.[10] This essay takes this lack of empirical evaluation as a point of departure.

In this project, I aim to further the literature on command and control structures in emerging nuclear nations by disaggregating the two key explanations from Feaver’s framework into their constitutive elements and subjecting the proposed hypotheses to evidence from the cases of India and Pakistan. Using observations from South Asia, I argue that a key factor in explaining an emerging nuclear state’s command and control system is the state’s preexisting pattern of civil-military relations. More specifically, this essay demonstrates that an increased level of military intervention in politics allows military organizations to institutionalize more responsive command and control procedures,[11] which may in turn increase the likelihood of preemptive or accidental nuclear use …[12]

To read the complete working paper, click here.


[1] This definition borrows from Vipin Narang, Nuclear Strategy in the Modern Era (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), p. 4. Alternative definitions are referenced at a later point in this project.

[2] See, for example, Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press, “The Nukes We Need: Preserving the American Deterrent,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 88, No. 6 (November/December 2009), pp. 39-51; Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press, “The End of Mad?: The Nuclear Dimension of U.S. Primacy,” International Security, Vol. 30, No. 4 (Spring 2006), pp. 7-44; Kenneth N. Waltz, “Nuclear Myths and Political Realities,” American Political Science Review, Vol. 84, No. 3 (September 1990), pp. 731-745.

[3] Peter D. Feaver, “Command and Control in Emerging Nuclear Nations,” International Security, Vol. 17, No. 3 (Winter 1992/93), p. 160. Emphasis in original.

[4] For a simple and useful overview of the points of contention and tentative results of the negotiations between the US and Iran, see William J. Broad and Sergio Pecanha, “A Simple Guide to the Nuclear Negotiations with Iran,” New York Times (2 April 2015), available at: <>.

[5] Jon Harper, “NORAD Commander: North Korean KN-08 Missile Operational,” Stars and Stripes (7 April 2015), available at: <*Situation%20Report&utm_campaign=SitRep04%2F08>.

[6] Feaver, “Command and Control in Emerging Nuclear Nations,” pp. 160-187.

[7] India’s permanent representative to the United Nations at the time of the test strongly asserts that India’s test was “conducted exclusively for peaceful purposes” and “had no military or political implications.” For the full statement, see Rikhi Jaipal, “The Indian Nuclear Explosion,” International Security, Vol. 1, No. 4 (Spring 1977), pp. 44-51. For an authoritative explanation of the development of India’s nuclear program, see Ashley J. Tellis, India’s Emerging Nuclear Posture (Santa Monica: RAND, 2001).

[8] Feaver, “Command and Control in Emerging Nuclear Nations,” p. 160.

[9] Narang, Nuclear Strategy in the Modern Era, p. 26.

[10] Although no effort has been made to use recent evidence to test Feaver’s framework, Feaver calls for such a study to be conducted. He observes, “As more information about emerging nuclear arsenals becomes available, the framework should be tested by comparing the expectations derived from the two propositions against data from specific countries.” Feaver, “Command and Control in Emerging Nuclear Nations,” p. 180n41.

[11] For arguments on the offensive nature of military organizations, see Barry R. Posen, The Sources of Military Doctrine: France, Britain and Germany Between the World Wars (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1984); Jack Snyder, “Civil-Military Relations and the Cult of the Offensive, 1914 and 1984,” International Security, Vol. 9, No. 1 (Summer 1984), pp. 108-146; Stephen Van Evera, “The Cult of the Offensive and the Origins of the First World War,” International Security, Vol. 9, No. 1 (Summer 1984), pp. 58-107.

[12] Scott D. Sagan, “The Perils of Proliferation: Organization Theory, Deterrence Theory, and the Spread of Nuclear Weapons,” International Security, Vol. 18, No. 4 (Spring 1994), pp. 66-107.

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