No Time to Think
Zia Mian & A.H. Nayyar
For decades, military planners in the United States, former Soviet
Union, and the other nuclear weapons states have convinced themselves
that their nuclear weapons are a deterrent. The nuclear annihilation
that would follow if these weapons were used was supposed to make any
enemy stop, think, and decide that war was not worth the consequences.
To make sure that an enemy had no doubt about these consequences, all
the nuclear weapons states created nuclear arsenals designed to fight a
nuclear war. Nuclear deterrence was built on assuming that one day the
simple fear of nuclear weapons would not be enough and the weapons would
have to be used.
The reliance on nuclear weapons that could be used in a real war led
each nuclear weapons state to live in perpetual fear of a surprise
attack that would make their weapons useless. This fear was greatest
during the Cold War, when each side thought the other could not be
trusted. The US and Soviet Union addressed their fears by building
enormously complex early warning systems that would let them know they
were about to be attacked and give them time to launch their nuclear
weapons before they were destroyed.
The early warning systems of the superpowers had another crucial role.
Since any war would have meant nuclear war, both sides wanted to make
sure that war did not begin by accident. Early warning systems created
time during which people could make decisions using real information
about what was actually happening rather than responding simply on the
basis of fears of what might be about to happen.
The US built and still operates the biggest and most sophisticated early
warning system. It is based around a missile warning system and works by
collecting information from satellites that can detect the launch of
missiles from another country and radars around the world that can
follow the missiles to see where they are going. The information is
transmitted from these satellites and radars to where it can be
processed by computers and then analysed and interpreted by people. To
make sure that this is done seriously and properly, this assessment is
done at several places separately. If the information is determined to
be reliable, it is sent to more senior people who are supposed to decide
how to respond.
When the satellites and radars say that missiles may have been launched
towards the US, there is a Missile Display Conference among the
commanders of the places where the analysis of the information is
carried out. If they decide that the danger is serious, and not a
mistake made by the satellites, or radar, or somewhere along the
communication system, or a mistake by one of the people who is supposed
to interpret the information, then a Threat Assessment Conference is
called. This includes the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
Committee and senior military commanders.
At the same time as a Threat Assessment Conference is called, a state of
alert is declared, fighter aircraft take off, nuclear armed bombers are
told to start their engines, and missiles are readied for launch. This
is the last step before a Missile Attack Conference. This is where the
President is told what has happened, and asked to decide what is to be
Both the US and the Soviet Union, now Russia, had these multiple levels
of decision making because they had the time to check, and double check,
to make sure that they knew what was happening. Their satellites and
early warning radar systems gave them information within one and a half
minutes of the possible launch of a missile. They took about two and a
half minutes to work out what was happening from this information. A
meeting could be called and a threat determined a few minutes after
this. In other words within about six or seven minutes, it was possible
to decide if a nuclear attack may have started. Since the missiles would
have taken about 25 minutes to travel from the US to the Soviet Union or
in the other direction, there was still time for a final confirmation
that the missiles were real. There was even time left to find out if
there had been an accidental launch of the missiles, and to decide what
Given the terrible consequences of nuclear war, enormous financial and
technical resources were invested in setting up and running these early
warning systems, and trying to make them fool-proof. However, history
shows that these systems failed. Not once, or twice, but frequently.
There is no real history of all the failures. It is known, however, that
between 1977 and 1984 the US early warning system showed over 20,000
false alarms of a missile attack on the US. Over 1000 of these were
considered serious enough for bombers and missiles to be placed on
Some of these incidents give terrifying insights into how easily even
the most carefully designed and technologically advanced warning systems
can go wrong. Two instances will suffice. In November 1979, the US
missile warning system showed that a massive attack had suddenly been
launched. Jets were launched, and a nuclear alert declared. There was no
attack. There were no missiles. The warning was due to a computer that
had been used to test the warning system to see how it would behave if
there was an attack. Somebody had forgotten to turn off the computer
after the exercise.
A second example was even more dramatic. In June 1980, the early warning
systems showed that two missiles had been launched towards the US. This
was followed by signals that there were more missiles following the
first two. A Threat Assessment Conference was called. The situation was
considered to be sufficiently serious that the President's special
airplane was prepared for take-off. Again there was no attack, nor any
missiles. The reasons for the mistaken signals, and interpretations, was
eventually traced to a computer chip that was not working properly.
The repeated failures of the US early warning system led at one time to
an official enquiry which reported that the system "had been
mismanaged... by the Air Force, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the
Department of Defence." In other words, every institution assigned to
make sure the system worked failed in its task.
It was not just the US system that failed. While there is little
information yet on how the Soviet Union managed its nuclear weapons
warning systems, there is at least one example from recent years that
suggests it cannot have worked any better than the US system. On January
25, 1995, a Norwegian rocket was launched to take scientific
measurements. The Norwegian government told the Russian government in
advance that this would happen. Nevertheless, when the rocket was picked
up by Russian radar it was treated as a possible missile attack. It
seems a warning was sent to the Russian defence minister's headquarters,
the Russian military leadership, and to the commanders of Russian
missiles that an attack may be underway. A message was then sent to
Boris Yeltsin, the Russian President, and an emergency conference called
with nuclear commanders over the telephone. Boris Yeltsin has confirmed
that such an emergency conference did take place.
The lessons for India and Pakistan are obvious. Experience shows that in
any real crisis involving the two, fear and paranoia soon become
overwhelming. One need look no further than the recent panic about a
possible pre-emptive attack on Pakistan's nuclear facilities by India.
The fear was there despite a nearly ten year old agreement not to attack
each other's nuclear facilities. In the absence of basic trust, generals
on each side will always assume those on the other side might want to
launch a surprise attack, and will want, in turn, to be prepared to
respond with nuclear weapons.
The need for early warning systems is therefore clear. But, even if
Pakistan and India had the technology for early warning, and even if it
worked reliably, they could not use it, geography has made sure of that.
The time to take decisions will not be available to either Pakistan or
India. Instead of the twenty-five minutes that the US and the Soviet
Union had, it would take a Prithvi missile somewhere between three and
five minutes to reach almost anywhere in Pakistan. It would take the
Ghauri missile about five minutes to reach Delhi. In such a short time,
an early warning system could give a warning of what might be happening,
a meeting could be called, and then time would run out. There would be
no time to decide whether the warning was real, or a mistake. The
decision would have to be made on the basis of either launch the
missiles immediately or take the risk of the missiles being destroyed
before they could be used.
In order to avoid such a situation, some people may suggest that India
and Pakistan find a way to create time for the generals to make sure
they know what is happening in any future crisis. It may be possible to
create such time by an agreement whereby each side would keep its
warheads stored separately from missiles and airplanes and lets the
other side check to make sure this was indeed the case. Any nuclear
attack could then only come after the warheads were taken out of storage
and then loaded onto missiles or planes, and an attempt to do so would
But this is, at best, a desperate measure. The lack of trust is so great
that making sure an agreement was being honoured would require an
extraordinary system of allowing inspections of each other's missile and
airforce bases and nuclear facilities. There is no prospect of that
happening. But, any agreement without such inspections would mean the
generals on each side fearing their counterparts had secretly hidden a
few nuclear warheads with some missiles, and would do the same. The
nuclear dangers would remain despite an agreement, and might actually
The alternative is simple. No nuclear weapons means no nuclear crises.
No nuclear crises means no danger of nuclear war.