the Nuclear Danger
of the salutary lessons from the scary India-Pakistan standoff (which
has still not ended) is that the political and military leadership
of neither country can be trusted to desist from nuclear brinkmanship,
even downright nuclear adventurism. More than a billion people in
South Asia once again came close to the brink of a nuclear catastrophe
during the six-months-long eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation.
the more overt of the nuclear threats made since the Parliament
House attack originated from Pakistan, especially during May, Indian
leaders too delivered themselves of all manner of intemperate statements
beginning with Defence Minister George Fernandes (in December)
and army chief S. Padmanabhan (January this year).
is reason to believe that threats were not empty, but backed by
serious ground-level preparations in the form of bombs/warheads
being readied for delivery within a time-frame ranging from minutes
to some hours. (The second possibility arises from one interpretation
of India's current nuclear doctrine, of keeping warheads and missiles
separated and kept at some distance from one another at least
till such time as it has a substantially large arsenal, with a capability
to attack mainland China).
were reports too of special surveillance of each other's missile
dispositions, and in the Indian case, of a rudimentary (but perhaps
unreliable) command and control system having been put in place.
There were also training exercises to fight in an NBC (nuclear,
biological and chemical weapons) environment with equipment whose
utility is extremely doubtful. But let that pass.
point is, the nuclear danger was, and probably remains, very, very,
real. On the basis of a US official's (Bruce Riedel's) testimony,
Pakistan had prepared to launch a nuclear strike on India during
the 1999 Kargil war. It seems far more likely that both countries
made similar preparations in the more recent and potentially far
grimmer conflict, involving the largest military mobilisation
anywhere since World War II.
is an important lesson in this for everyone including, I venture
to say, supporters of nuclear weapons and advocates of deterrence.
There is an urgent need for nuclear risk-reduction measures in South
Asia simply because we must do everything possible to prevent
the use of nuclear weapons whether by miscalculation, accident or
design. Even hawks will agree on the first two, unless they are
likelihood of a nuclear conflict is higher in South Asia than anywhere
else in the world. Nuclear weapons are most likely to be used in
wartime or near-wartime conditions. That's when mutual suspicions
and tensions are greatest. This condition applies, with a vengeance,
to India and Pakistan, which have been at a hot-cold war for 55
years. Today, they are going through a particularly ugly phase in
(Movement in India for Nuclear Disarmament), a peace group set up
in 1983 in Bombay and then re-established in Delhi and Bombay in
1998, has proposed some highly realistic and modest nuclear risk-reduction
measures (NRRMs). They are meant to address four potential risks,
which are especially high in South Asia. These are: (a) use through
miscalculation because of faulty information processing or flawed
technologies; (b) unauthorised use; (c) accidents, fires and explosions
in the vicinity of nuclear weapons; (d) rumours of imminent use,
and hence, panic behaviour in crowded urban centres.
first of these dangers is often underestimated. But it bears recalling
that miscalculation, misperception, and technical glitches are extremely
common in the handling or management of nuclear weapons systems.
For instance, during the Cold War, just between 1977 and 1984, there
were 20,000 false alarms, of which 1,000 were serious enough in
the US to have to go to the next higher level of command for evaluation.
happened despite the fact that the US and the USSR had invested
something of the order of $900 billion in command and control systems
designed to prevent mishaps and errors in information processing.
The probability of miscalculation was high, but there was very little
time to take remedial action barely two to four minutes in the
case of a critical Presidential decision in the US, and not even
that in the USSR. The norm was "launch on warning".
danger of unauthorised use grows directly in proportion to the dispersal
of nuclear weapons (to protect them against strikes) and decentralisation
of command. This could acquire worrisome proportions in South Asia,
particularly in Pakistan, where fundamentalists have penetrated
the armed forces. (There are also reports of the army's inclination
to disperse nuclear weapons.)
to be dismissed is the possibility of nukes falling into the hands
of vengeful or terrorist sub-state groups.
third danger pertains to a South Asian speciality: propensity to
accidents and fires. India and Pakistan have extremely high rates
of industrial and military accidents roughly 10 times than the
world average. Such accidents can ignite the high explosive (HE)
lens or "trigger" surrounding the nuclear core of a bomb. This vulnerability
increases when nuclear weapons are kept on high alert and especially
when rockets are liquid-fuelled as are the Prithvi and
to be dismissed are panic behaviour and stampedes. In South Asia,
rumours can play a huge role. They are, typically, only poorly or
belatedly (if at all) countered by our governments.
this calls for several NRRMs. Arguably, the most important is de-alerting
or taking weapons off the state of instant readiness for use. The
most radical and most recommended form of this is to separate
the warheads from the delivery vehicles and place them at a distance
from one another. Incidentally, both India and Pakistan have endorsed
resolutions at the UN (the latest one being A/56/24C of November
29, 2001) calling for de-alerting.
measure is to dis-assemble the warhead by separating the HE from
the fission core. This will increase the time it would take to launch
a nuclear attack, and thus lower the probability of an accidental
initiation of nuclear war.
important are transparency and verifiability of NRRMs, and the translation
of certain doctrines into practical measures on the ground. For
instance, India and Pakistan can both take technical measures to
provide warnings that an unwarranted launch is being prepared, and
at the same time provide enough time for this to be checked. This
could prevent a panic-driven launch. India's No-First-Use pledge
and its "minimum nuclear deterrent" doctrine should logically rule
out tactical/battlefield nuclear weapons and a huge triadic (land,
sea and air-based) arsenal.
NRRMs have now become imperative. But their role should not be exaggerated.
NRRMs can make South Asia less unsafe in nuclear terms. But
they cannot make it nuclear-safe. This can only happen if
it becomes nuclear-free i.e. it eliminates nuclear weapons.
NRRMs are no substitute for disarmament.
or kindred confidence-building measures have another limitation.
They become most effective when located in a cooperative context
and based on a predisposition to trust. But that is no excuse for
NOT beginning a process to negotiate NRRMs for the safety and security
of South Asia's peoples, and as a step towards the region's complete
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