[Source: "Frontline" July 17, 1998]

To prevent megadeath, don't make nukes

Praful Bidwai

Nuclear war avoidance cannot be reliably achieved through
deterrence plus technology fixes. The only course is never to
make and deploy nuclear weapons.

For more than 1.1 billion people of India and Pakistan, the
nuclear nightmare is neither distant nor something to be merely
imagined. They are amidst it. The threat of megadeath hangs over
the sub-continent. It is a real, felt, danger. New Delhi's
epochal blunder, indeed crime, in putting India on the course of
overt nuclearisation, duly replicated by Islamabad, has suddenly
made a nuclear attack or war a ghastly, awesome, but wholly
realisable possibility. The thought is chilling.

Some of the hawks who have for years egged on the two governments
to cross the nuclear threshold--they include defence and nuclear
scientists--are now counselling "restraint", and warning against
jingoism and triumphalism. But their "restraint" is of a peculiar
variety. It has less to do with a genuine effort to pull back
from the nuclear brink, than with deterrence-based mutual
understanding between India and Pakistan after they have already
gone over the brink and become full-fledged nuclear weapons
states (NWSs).

A profound contradiction lies at the heart of this position. On
the one hand, it is they who first played the jingoistic card and
started from flag-waving and tub-thumping about India's right--
and the dire need--to make nuclear weapons--in faithful imitation
of the P-5. On the other, they now want to sever the jingoism
that is inseparable from, indeed lies at the root of, what Robert
Jay Lifton calls nuclearism. On the one hand, they advised,
chided, jeered and begged Pakistan to go nuclear, and were
relieved when Islamabad finally tested. On the other, they now
have no compunctions in underlining the "threat" from a Nuclear
Pakistan, and simultaneously advocating that we meet the threat
through the deplorably cynical means of deterrence. This is the
same inverted logic that Vajpayee deployed when he declared that
Pakistan's tests had vindicated India's stand!

Curiously, not one of these hawks has thought fit to warn against
or criticise the specifically communal spin that the BJP has
quite naturally put on its decision to make nuclear weapons.
Although many of the hawks are self-professedly secular, they
fail to see, or turn a blind eye to, the link between the Bomb
and communalism; for the advocates of Hindutva, that link has
been explicit right since 1951, regardless of India's security
environment or external relations. Suddenly, for them, "security"
provided by the Bomb has become overwhelmingly important. What is
a little sacrifice of democracy or secularism when the very
security of the state is at stake?

Their concern, like those whom Noam Chomsky targets in his
classic American Power and the New Mandarins,, has been to
invent, in the fashion of the true intellectual supplicant to
power, ex post rationalisation for the Bomb, and fanciful
arguments about how nuclearisation will enhance security.
However, so absurd does this proposition seem under the shadow of
a mushroom cloud over India and Pakistan that the hawks have to
concede that special, elaborate, measures are essential to combat
the insecurity created by nuclearisation. This is tantamount to
first inflicting an injury upon oneself and then prescribing
expensive treatment for it! Here comes the argument for
"sobriety" and "restraint" while dealing with nuclear weapons.
Its function is to make these instruments of mass destruction
seem inevitable, respectable and "normal", and perpetuate them
exactly in the manner of the five NWSs--by relying on nuclear
deterrence and creating a panoply of high-technology measures to
prevent their accidental, unintended or unauthorised use.

Not only is the intention behind this exercise questionable. It
is deeply fraught with grave risks which defy technology fixes,
however sophisticated. To start with, contrary to what our hawks
say, India (rightly) opposed nuclear deterrence for 50 years not
because NATO and Warsaw Pact pursued it without "political
engagement", but because nuclear deterrence is morally
"abhorrent", illegal, and strategically unacceptable and
irrational. It uncritically and dogmatically assumes that nuclear
adversaries always know and rationally calculate the risk of
inviting "unacceptable" level of damage and therefore forever
behave "responsibly". However, if this were true of strategic
planners and generals, i.e. if they never make strategic
miscalculation, then there wouldn't be so many conventional wars
and violent conflicts. It simply makes no sense to assume that
what holds true for conventional wars does not, cannot, apply to
nuclear conflicts. After all, although nuclear weapons pose a far
graver danger, the mindsets , the men and the decision-making
processes that operate in the two cases are the same. As are the
criteria to determine what constitutes "provocation", cause for
retaliation or grade of response.

For mutual deterrence to succeed between two adversaries, both
must pursue identical strategic policies (of relying on threats
to protect their security). More, they must agree on levels of
armed preparedness that can effectively deter. Deterrence must
work 100 per cent of the time. Or it is no good. If breakdown
means catastrophe. In reality, there is no such congruence and no
shared understanding on policy or preparedness. For instance, one
side might seriously believe that in a situation where war seemed
inevitable, the best course would be to strike pre-emptively. The
other side might not. In 1965, Ayub Khan really thought that the
people of Kashmir would rise in revolt against New Delhi if
Pakistani troops were infiltrated into the Valley, and hence it
was strategically logical to start a pre-emptive war with India.
The result is history. The Bangladesh war and the IPKF operation
in Sri Lanka too are examples of strategic miscalculation. Again,
in countries that have run clandestine or semi-clandestine
weapons and technology acquisition programmes--and both Pakistan
and India fall in this category--there are serious gaps in
information on each other's capabilities, weapons stocks and
potentials. Therefore, there may be no shared understanding on
the levels of arming adequate for deterrence.

Thus, Indian leaders, advised by DRDO and nuclear scientists,
have consistently underestimated Pakistan's capabilities, some
dismissing even the possibility that Pakistan could have mastered
uranium enrichment to produce quantities large enough for a
number of Bombs: after all, its technology was "stolen", it can
never be fully absorbed. Underlying this misjudgment is neither
solid information nor intelligent guesswork. It is pure hubris:
if India could not (and until recently it probably did not)
master enrichment, how could Pakistan? This masks the fact that a
great deal of nuclear technology now in India's possession came
from abroad, including the CIRUS reactor, the source of the
plutonium for Pokharan-I. Nuclear technology everywhere is one of
the world's most transferred and traded commodities. Many claims
of indigenisation are hollow. But let that pass.

We may be making a similar mistake about Pakistan's missile
capabilities too. Many Indian media reports--and these do
influence generals--about Ghauri, for instance, claimed without
substantiation first that this was a Chinese missile, and then
that it was North Korean. Some said a test never took place at
all. Meanwhile, what is forgotten is that Pakistan can inflict
more or less assured damaged on India with its (more reliable)
Hatf-I, and -II missiles. It does not need an intermediate
missile. Again, the Agni's claimed success appears to have been
exaggerated. What has been tested so far does not quite amount to
a prototype: it is only a "technology demonstrator", not a
missile that flies and lands reasonably accurately anywhere.

Further, deterrence is fraught with a runaway arms race, and is
inherently unstable and degenerative in character. If rationality
were so unfailingly central to it, the world would not have seen
such an obsession with "more is better" as to amass an overkill
capacity of 69,000-plus weapons of assorted sizes and lethality
during the Cold War. The plea that India and Pakistan will be
"different" is altogether lame. The logic of nuclearism and
nuclear deterrence rarely makes national distinctions. In the
absence of full information, and a common understanding on just
how much force is necessary to deter the adversary, deterrence as
it is practised is subjective and unilateral, and usually based
on the enemy's intentions as well as capabilities. The
adversary's reaction too is subjective and unilateral. Such
unilaterialsim contains the seeds of a fight for superiority--
just that technological edge that will make you supposedly
invincible. That edge becomes all-important to the very concept
of security. That's exactly what happened with "Star Wars". This
spells a situation of mutual confrontation, permanent instability
and perpetual hostility--the opposite of what deterrence theory

Most hawks and supposed "realists", who root for deterrence
despite all this, usually acknowledge one problem: there is a
real, serious risk of accidental, unauthorised or unintended use
of nuclear weapons, and that very special--and very expensive--
measures are necessary to reduce that risk. For instance, a group
of fanatical officers might want to attack the "enemy" with
nuclear weapons. Pakistan has had a history of attempted coups by
Islamic zealots. Or, a nuclear weapon might be fired in assumed
retaliation to a nuclear attack--which might not be one at all.
Or there might be confusion about the line of command. Who
authorises the use of nuclear weapons? through what process? how
is this communicated to those in the battlefield? how are the
triggers actually activated? what precautionary measures are
instituted to ensure that nothing is done hastily or cavaliarly?

Such measures involve close surveillance through expensive
satellites, radars and early-warning systems; PALs (permissive
action links, or computer-chip-based safety devices to prevent
assembled weapons for being armed unless all necessary procedural
requirements are fulfilled); establishment of launch authorities
with an unambiguous line of command; special weapons
configuration so that local commanders or missile crews cannot
pull the trigger; alternative structures in case of decapitation
of existing military commands; multiple hot lines at different
levels of the hierarchy; regular exchange of information about
some aspects of each other's weapons disposition and crisis-
avoidance precautions, and transparency about strategic

This is neither as cool nor simple as it may sound. It is
frightfully expensive, accounting for one-half or more of the
costs of nuclear programmes--over $2,500 billion in the U.S.
alone. It is typically associated with fear and nervousness, and
proneness to panic. Robert S. Norris of the National Resources
Defence Council of the U.S., which has published authoritative
Nuclear Weapons Databooks, says: "The US did all the war-
avoidance stuff" ..."with a vengeance for 40 years". "It's a
miracle that we made it through" without a catastrophic
accident... "It was a gigantic and very expensive enterprise."

However, accidents there have been, and frightful ones at that
despite the billions spent on their prevention. It is pure luck
that they were not more catastrophic than anticipated. For
instance, according to Greenpeace, as many as 51 nuclear warheads
(44 Soviet and 7 US) were lost at sea. Seven nuclear reactors (5
Soviet, 2 US) from nuclear-powered submarines are under water.

Shaun Gregory in The Hidden Cost of Deterrence: Nuclear Weapons
Accidents (Brassey's, London, 1990) painstakingly documents with
cited sources no fewer than 224 accidents involving nuclear
weapons. These include four categories. Group 1 is the accidental
or unauthorised detonation or possible detonation of a nuclear
weapon which could create a war risk; Group 2 ranges from
accidental detonation without a war risk to radioactive
contamination. Group 3: accidents to vehicles which are carrying
or may have been carrying nuclear weapons. Group 4 includes other
significant accidents.

By Gregory's reckoning, there were as many as 10 Group 1
accidents, 59 Group 2 accidents, 137 Group 3 accidents. Group 4
claims 18. Within Group 2, as many as 17 involved radioactive
contamination, five involved accidental detonation of a weapon
and 112 seizures, theft or loss of a nuclear weapon or weapon

Recent disclosures about the Cuban missile crisis are hair-
raising. Right on the start of it, in October 1962, the US
Strategic Air Command secretly deployed nuclear warheads on nine
of the ten test ICBMs at Vandenberg Air Force Base and then
launched the tenth missile on a pre-scheduled test over the
Pacific. Had Soviet intelligence learnt of the warhead deployment
and mistaken the test launch as an attack, the consequences would
have been a full-scale nuclear war. In yet another incident, the
North American Air Defence Command was told that a nuclear-tipped
missile was launched from Cuba and was headed for Florida. When
the detonation failed to occur, it was discovered that a radar
operator had inserted a test tape simulating an attack from Cuba
into the system, confusing control room officers. Had the mistake
not been detected, there could have been a catastrophe.

The point is simple. No amount of technological sophistication
could eliminate the risk of a nuclear attack/war even among the
most advanced NWSs. Such risks are particularly, in fact
frightfully, high in the case of India and Pakistan. They lack
the technological and financial means for creating even the
imperfect war- and crisis-prevention infrastructure of the five
NWSs. To do so would be economically ruinous. There are countries
that have repeatedly failed to set up strategic authorities like
the National Security Council and establish regular
communications on the hot lines between their directors-general
of military operations. Both have entered a phase of deep
political instability, economic uncertainty and increased social

This spells a grave danger, which must worry all sane, well-
informed people. India and Pakistan face a critical choice: to
take the high-risk NWS route to nuclear deployment and create
highly imperfect, inadequate and super-expensive crisis-
prevention mechanisms while relying on a doctrine which we
rightly rejected for 50 years; or stop their nuclear preparations
and refuse to produce nuclear weapons. The first means courting
disaster. The second means maintaining a firebreak between
testing and weapons production, which allows a return to sanity.
If we do not wish to be incinerated into particles of radioactive
dust, we should make that choice now.

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