Do Nuclear Weapons Provide Security?

M. V. Ramana

(To appear in SEMINAR, New Delhi)

Having a gun pointed at you is an unnerving experience, even if you
have a gun yourself pointing at the other person. With the recent
tests, India and Pakistan are in a similar situation. They are now
certainly targets for the nuclear missiles of all the other nuclear
weapon states, as well as each other. This may or may not have been
true earlier, but one can be sure it is the case now. It is, of
course, not just the populace of India and Pakistan who inhabit the
bull's eye. Despite having thousands of missiles, people in the US and
Russia have lived in the constant fear that Washington, Moscow, or
their own city could be destroyed in a moment. Knowledge that they are
being targeted cannot provide security, only insecurity, to the people
of the US and Russia, as well as India and Pakistan.

From Crisis to Disaster

What then is the security rationale for building nuclear weapons? The
usual justification offered is that nuclear weapons are needed to
deter the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons by another
country. Underlying the concept of deterrence is the idea of Mutually
Assured Destruction - that any use of nuclear weapons by two countries
possessing large nuclear arsenals would lead to massive destruction in
both countries [1]. The idea of deterrence is that faced with this
prospect of destruction, no country would initiate war. This notion
of nuclear deterrence, by being articulated often enough, seems to
have become accepted as true. Deterrence, however, is not a law of
nature like the theory of relativity. Underlying it are various
assumptions, any of which may turn out to be false at any given point
in time. And, the result of any failure could be catastrophic.

The most basic assumption is that States are unitary, rational
decision-makers trying to maximize their expected utility [2]. In
reality, of course, this is far from true. Nevertheless,
international relations scholars often assume this because it makes it
easier to make predictions. Both the assumptions of unitary actors and
rationality become particularly problematic during periods of crisis,
especially war. Then, the multiplicity of individuals, institutions
and interests that shape decision making become crucial and could lead
to outcomes that would be termed irrational [3].

Irrational behaviour could also manifest itself at the individual
level. An example of this was Richard Nixon who, under the strains of
his final days in the presidency, is said to have sobbed, beaten his
fists on the floor of his office, and to have mused about his ability
to release the forces of nuclear disaster. The (then) Defense
Secretary Schlesinger took special precautions to prevent any of his
orders to nuclear forces from being carried out [4]. Had there been an
international crisis during that period, there is no way of knowing
how Nixon would have acted. Use of nuclear weapons by Nixon, or by any
other leader at any other time, would have meant the death of
deterrence - and millions of people.

The counterparts of Nixon in South Asia could be Vajpayee or George
Fernandes or Mulayam Singh Yadav or Nawaz Sharif or Gohar Ayub
Khan. The question to think about is if anyone would, or should, feel
secure with the knowledge that these people have the lives of millions
of people in South Asia at their mercy. Nuclear war could result from
either a wrong judgement on their part or by genuine mistakes.

Despite these unwarranted assumptions, as the main piece of evidence
for trusting their arguments, believers in nuclear deterrence offer us
the fact that the US and the Soviet Union did not go to (major) war
against each other during the Cold War. Political scientists and
historians have long contested the suggested explanation that it was
nuclear weapons that kept the peace. Many, even believers in
deterrence, would point to a whole range of factors that aided
stability: the legacy of the second world war, bipolarity, economic
independence rather than interdependence, and so on [5]. It has even
been argued that "while nuclear weapons may have substantially
influenced political rhetoric, public discourse, and defence budgets
and planning, it is not at all clear that they have had a significant
impact on the history of world affairs since World War II. [6]" Thus,
evidence for deterrence is weak, at best. Further, the absence of war
so far does not imply that the same would hold true during other
circumstances and for all time.

Over and above these arguments for why deterrence may not be based on
well-founded assumptions, it is worth noting here that a growing
number of military officials with concrete experience of working with
nuclear weapons have questioned the logic of deterrence. Commander
Robert Green, a retired British Naval officer, calls nuclear
deterrence a "dangerous illusion" [7]. According to General Lee Butler,
who headed the US Strategic Air Command, the world "survived the Cuban
missile crisis no thanks to deterrence, but only by the grace of
God. [8]"

Thus, to reiterate, deterrence is based on faulty assumptions and may
break down, especially in crisis situations. For example, a single
rash act, or even rumours of a planned attack by the adversary, may
trigger off nuclear war. If that happens, the massive destructive
power available to both sides, intended precisely to strengthen
deterrence, would ensure large-scale death and destruction.

For the present, let us grant the votaries of deterrence their
security blankets and see what else needs to be in place for nuclear
arsenals to even pretend to offer security.

The Sentinels of Doom

Having a large nuclear arsenal alone does not seem to be sufficient
for deterrence. The US and Russia live in perpetual fear that the
other may launch a first strike and hence have put into place early
warning systems. Multiple satellites monitor the whole world looking
for signals of missile launches. Once detected, there are early
warning radars that would take over and follow missile trajectories
and pass on the data to processing centers. From thereon, there are
communication systems that attempt to ensure that information is
conveyed to more senior decision-makers.

These satellites and early warning radar systems gave them information
within one and a half minutes of the possible launch of a missile. The
analysis of this data took about two and a half minutes. During the
next few minutes, decision-makers could discuss the likelihood of the
attack being real. If no other explanations could be found for the
signals, the President would be notified and he could call the other
side to check if there had been an accidental launch of the
missiles. All this was possible because missiles take about 25 minutes
to travel from one country to the other. Further this also allowed
various fail-safe measures to be built into the system as a hedge
against miscalculation. The system, thus, provides for many layers of
evaluation of accuracy of signals and decision making.

Despite the enormous financial and technical resources invested in
setting up and running these early warning systems, and trying to make
them fool-proof, these systems failed frequently. Information on these
failures is largely kept secret. It is known, however, that between
1977 and 1984 the US early warning system showed over 20,000 false
alarms of a missile attack. Over 1000 of these were considered serious
enough for bombers and missiles to be placed on alert [9].

There were similar scares on the Russian side as well; a recent
example is worth recounting. On January 25, 1995, military technicians
at several radar stations across northern Russia thought they had seen
a single missile from a US submarine coming towards Russia. This
information was passed on through the chains of command to President
Yeltsin who activated the "nuclear briefcase", thus putting Russian
forces on high alert. Subsequently, after about eight minutes, senior
military officers determined that the rocket was headed far out to
sea. The rocket turned out to be an American scientific probe to study
the Northern lights [10].

In the case of South Asia, even if such systems could be set up at
enormous financial costs that we can scarcely afford, they would just
not suffice. Both India and Pakistan are adjoining nations with a long
border. Missile and airplane flight times are very short. A Prithvi
missile takes between three to five minutes to reach almost anywhere
in Pakistan. A Ghauri missile would take about five minutes to reach
Delhi. Where, then, is the time for analysis of signals from
satellites and radars, or to discuss the threat? How can leaders on
both sides talk and check if the launch was accidental or intentional?

Because of this short warning time, both nations are likely to adopt a
policy of launching their missiles as soon as there is a likelihood of
the adversary launching an attack, or risk the prospect of losing
their missiles on the ground. In light of the multiple possibilities
for false alarms, this policy would almost ensure that nuclear weapons
are used, sooner or later. If missiles like Prithvi and Ghauri are
loaded with nuclear warheads and deployed on hair-trigger alert, the
people of India and Pakistan are doomed to living in constant

Remembering Dr. Strangelove

Even if one were to believe in deterrence, nuclear weapons pose
conflicting demands. On the one hand, they have to be dispersed and in
the hands of the military so that they could be used as soon as there
is warning of an attack by the adversary. On the other hand, the
decision to use these weapons is so momentous that one would like only
the highest levels be able to order their use, that too after due
deliberation. A third dimension is added by the widespread,
large-scale effects of nuclear war - these could disrupt communication
systems that allow leaders or commanders to communicate with field

Command and Control Systems are systems put in place to minimize the
chances of inadvertent or unauthorized use of nuclear weapons. This is
an arrangement of facilities, personnel, procedures and means of
information acquisition, processing, and dissemination used by a
commander in planning, directing, and controlling military operations [11].

Most discussions of command and control emphasize the technical
measures, implying in the process that if the technology is available
then one can feel secure. However, even the most sophisticated
technical devices could be rendered worthless if improperly
implemented [12]. For instance, one popular device to block
unauthorized detonations is called Permissive Action Links (PALs). It
is possible to imagine a PAL-code arrangement in which, due to concern
about possible breakdown of communication with the field commander,
higher authorities allow local access of the code. In such a case,
regardless of how sophisticated the PAL hardware may be, unauthorized
launch is possible.

Even the most advanced Command and Control systems are not
foolproof. One only has to see Hollywood movies, starting with the
classic Dr. Strangelove, to visualize possible scenarios under which
unauthorized attacks could take place. Here, as in other realms, truth
could indeed be stranger than fiction.

Given the novelty of the situation, despite assurances by the Prime
Ministers of India and Pakistan, it is highly unlikely that any
foolproof Command and Control system would have been worked
out. Indeed, Prime Minister Vajpayee has even said that India does not
intend to "replicate the kind of command and control structures"
possessed by other nuclear weapon states [13]. Thus, at the current
moment, once weapons are assembled and handed over to the military,
there is always a constant fear that some military official, for
whatever reasons, may decide to launch an attack against the "enemy".
The way to avoid such issues is simply not to assemble nuclear
weapons. Even some advocates of nuclear deterrence in India, recommend
keeping nuclear weapons dismantled and their components stored
separately [14].

Nuclear Weapons Accidents

Setting up these early warning systems and command and control
mechanisms do not preclude the possibilities of accidents involving
nuclear weapons. Despite safety and security measures, such accidents
continue to occur around the world. Between 1950 and 1990, just the
United States had over 175 accidents involving either nuclear weapons
or vehicles that are suspected to have been carrying nuclear weapons

The greatest danger, which has fortunately never happened, would come
from the accidental full-scale detonation of a nuclear
weapon. However, there have been numerous accidents in which the
chemical explosive surrounding the radioactive core of a nuclear
weapon has exploded. For example, on 17 January 1966 a B-52 bomber and
a KC-135 refueling tanker collided in mid-air near Palomares,
Spain. The B-52 crashed and four hydrogen bombs (15-25 Megatons) were
separated from the plane. The chemical explosives in two of the bombs
exploded leading to release of radioactive material in the middle of a
populated area. A similar accident near any of the densely populated
South Asian cities could make Bhopal pale in comparison [16].

A Mini Chernobyl?

If the number of accidents involving nuclear weapons seems high, the
number of accidents (or incidents, as they are referred to by
officials) in nuclear reactors would be even more. Many, of course,
are in reactors used primarily to produce energy. Most of them do not
lead to any large-scale consequences. The main people at risk are the
workers in these facilities. But, as the Chernobyl accident showed,
when nuclear reactors have a major accident, then huge regions are at
risk. For example, even in Connecticut, USA, there was a 26% increase
in thyroid cancers due to radiation from Chernobyl [17]. While the
Chernobyl reactor was primarily intended for the production of nuclear
energy, even accidents at reactors that produce plutonium for nuclear
weapons, which are typically smaller and somewhat different in the
details of construction and operation, would lead to qualitatively
similar consequences.

Even under normal conditions facilities involved in manufacturing
nuclear weapons - which include uranium mines, fuel element
manufacturing plants, nuclear reactors, reprocessing centers and spent
fuel storage sites [18] - cause radiation related diseases to people
living in their vicinity [19]. Further, nuclear weapons, as we have
seen recently, have to be tested. It has been estimated that nuclear
testing the world over would lead to over 430,000 cancer fatalities
[20]. So far, these victims of nuclear weapons manufacture and
testing have been the main casualties of nuclear weapons since
Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Except under the narrowest definitions of
security, the nuclear weapons complex would certainly count as a
source of insecurity, especially to communities living near any of
these facilities.

Non Nuclear Threats

Nuclear weapons also pose non-nuclear threats. For nearly the whole
period of the "long peace", the US and the Soviet Union were engaged
in a series of proxy wars of which Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan are
just the most prominent examples. Nuclear weapons, by seemingly
protecting their homelands, allowed these wars to be fought [21]. It
is no wonder then that violence and militarism in Kashmir became
intensified around the period when Pakistan started claiming and
feeling confident about its nuclear capability in the late 1980s.

Despite claims that the establishment of nuclear capability in South
Asia would freeze the Kashmir conflict, recent acts of terrorism in
the valley have demonstrated that nuclear tests have not changed the
situation. The security of the people of Kashmir, as well as people
living in other arenas of covert warfare between India and Pakistan,
are certainly not enhanced by the bomb making capabilities of the two
countries. Further, there is also the risk that even a small battle
could escalate into nuclear war.


In summing up, we see that nuclear weapons lead to different kinds of
insecurity. Some like those from proxy wars or from accidents in
facilities involved in producing nuclear weapon components do not even
involve nuclear weapons in any way. But the great danger comes from
the possibility of a nuclear explosion, by mistake or otherwise. It is
worth emphasizing what this could lead to. If a small nuclear weapon
with the same yield (15 kilotons) as the one that was dropped on
Hiroshima more than 50 years ago were exploded over Bombay or Karachi,
the number of immediate deaths could be as high as half a million
[22]. This does not include the deaths that would arise from cancers
and other diseases that result from the long-term effects of
radiation. Further, in the event of such an attack, it is not just
those who are in Bombay or Karachi at the time of the explosion who
are affected. Radioactive fallout could spread across large regions
due to wind and radiation levels will remain high for a long period of
time. Thus, the range of the destruction extends across space and
time. India and Pakistan now have to come to terms with Robert Jay
Lifton's statement: "The central existential fact of the nuclear age
is vulnerability.[23]"

The way out of this predicament is to work for the abolition of
nuclear weapons - both locally and globally.


1. Mutually Assured Destruction, like much of the language that is
used in discussing nuclear weapons, camouflages what is being talked
about. Even official policymakers occasionally admit this. For
example, Fred C. Ikle, who went on to be the US Undersecretary of
Defense during the Reagan administration, says, "Assured Destruction
fails to indicate what is to be destroyed; but then 'assured genocide'
would reveal the truth too starkly...keeping ready arsenals for
instant and unrestrained slaughter of men, women and children is
likely to impose a wrenching perspective on the officialdom of both
nations." See, Fred. C. Ikle, "Can Nuclear Deterrence Last Out the
Century," Foreign Affairs 51 (1973).

2. Honore M. Catudal, Nuclear Deterrence: Does it deter? (London:
Mansell Publishing, 1985) p. 56.

3. Patrick M. Morgan, Deterrence: A conceptual analysis (Beverly
Hills: Sage, 1977) pp. 101-102.

4. Bruce Russett, The Prisoners of Insecurity: Nuclear Deterrence, The
Arms Race, and Arms Control, (San Francisco: W. H. Freeman and
Company, 1983) p. 121

5.John Lewis Gaddis, "The Long Peace: Elements of Stability in the
Postwar International System," International Security (Spring 1986) 10
No. 4.

6. John Muller, "The Essential Irrelevance of Nuclear Weapons:
Stability in the Postwar World," International Security (Fall 1988) 13
No. 2.

7. Commander Robert Green, "Why Nuclear Deterrence is a Dangerous
Illusion", Agni: Studies in International Strategic Issues
(January-May 199) 2 No. 3

8. General George Lee Butler, "Time to End the Age of Nukes", Bulletin
of the Atomic Scientists (March/April 1997) pp. 33-36.

9. H. L. Abrams, "Strategic Defense and Inadvertent Nuclear War," in
Inadvertent Nuclear War: The Implications of the Changing Global
Order, edited by, H. Wiberg. I.D. Petersen, and P. Smoker, (Oxford:
Pergamon Press, 1993) pp. 39-55.

10. Bruce G. Blair, Harold A. Feiveson and Frank von Hippel, "Taking
Nuclear Weapons off Hair-Trigger Alert," Scientific American (November

11. Paul Bracken, The Command and Control of Nuclear Forces, (New
Haven: Yale University Press, 1983) p. 3.

12. Peter D. Feaver, "Command and Control in Emerging Nuclear
Nations," International Security, (Winter 1992/93) 17 No. 3

13. Kenneth J. Cooper, "Leader says India has a 'Credible'
Deterrent," Washington Post, June 17, 1998

14. General K. Sundarji, "Imperatives of Indian Minimum Deterrence,"
Agni: Studies in International Strategic Issues (May 1996) 2 No. 1

15. Shaun Gregory, The Hidden Costs of Deterrence: Nuclear Weapons
Accidents, (London: Brassey's, 1990)

16. It has been estimated that dispersal of kilogram quantities of
Plutonium (used in nuclear weapons) could cause a few thousand deaths
due to cancer. See Steve Fetter and Frank von Hippel, "The Hazard from
Plutonium Dispersal by Nuclear-warhead Accidents," Science and Global
Security (1990) 2 pp.21-42.

17. Permanent People's Tribunal, Chernobyl: Environmental, Health and
Human Rights Implications, (Geneva: International Peace Bureau, 1996),

18. One of the largest nuclear disasters prior to the Chernobyl
accident was the explosion of a storage tank containing high-level
nuclear waste at the Chelyabinsk-65 nuclear weapons complex. The story
of this disaster and the efforts to suppress knowledge of this may be
found in Z. A. Medvedev, Nuclear Disaster in the Urals, (New York:
Vintage Books, 1980).

19. Nuclear Wastelands: A Global Guide to Nuclear Weapons Production
and its Health and Environmental Effects, edited by Arjun Makhijani,
Howard Hu, and Katherine Yih, By a Special Commission of International
Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and The Institute for
Energy and Environmental Research, (Cambridge, USA: The MIT

20. International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and
Institute of Energy and Environmental Research, Radioactive Heaven and
Earth, (London: Zed Books, 1991).

21. See, for example, Gar Alperovitz and Kai Bird, "The Centrality of
the Bomb," Foreign Policy (Spring 1994) pp. 3-20.

22. M. V. Ramana, "Bombing Bombay? Effects of Nuclear Weapons and a
Case Study of a Hypothetical Explosion," International Physicians for
the Prevention of Nuclear War Report (forthcoming).

23. Robert Jay Lifton and Richard Falk, Indefensible Weapons: The
Political and Psychological Case Against Nuclearism, (USA: Basic
Books, 1982).