Reducing the Nuclear Danger

One 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.

Although 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).

There 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).

There 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.

The 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.

There 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 certifiable imbeciles.

The 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 their rivalry.

MIND (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.

The 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.

This 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”.

The 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.)

Not to be dismissed is the possibility of nukes falling into the hands of vengeful or terrorist sub-state groups.

The 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 the Ghauri.

Not 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.

All 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.

Another 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.

Equally 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.

Such 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.

NRRMs 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 denuclearisation.

Author: Praful Bidwai

Praful Bidwai is a New Delhi-based political analyst and peace activist, a columnist with twenty-five Indian newspapers and co-author (with Achin Vanaik) of New Nukes: India, Pakistan and Global Nuclear Disarmament. He shared the International Peace Bureau's Sean MacBride International Peace Prize for 2000 with Vanaik.