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The nuclear thick-skins

Published : Nov 07, 2003 00:00 IST

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Pakistan's medium-range ballistic missile Shaheen.-HO/FILES/AFP

Pakistan's medium-range ballistic missile Shaheen.-HO/FILES/AFP

Indian and Pakistani policy-makers are becoming increasingly cavalier as they rush headlong towards nuclear weapons deployment.

CONSIDER this glaring contradiction. Our government claims it is making us citizens more secure by building nuclear weapons and inducting them into our armed forces. India, of course, does not want to use these instruments of mass destruction. But they will effectively deter our enemies, especially Pakistan, from using their weapons against us. Our true security lies in the assurance, indeed the certainty, that we citizens will never be attacked with nuclear weapons.

On the other hand, the same government is building a high-technology underground shelter where key decision-makers in the Nuclear Command Authority will be housed - a select band of people, perhaps a couple of dozen individuals, or members of the Cabinet, for whose sake this extraordinarily well-reinforced underground shelter is being built right inside South Block (in Rashtrapati Bhavan) in the heart of New Delhi, at a reported cost of Rs.1,100 crores. The stated purpose? In the event of a nuclear attack, there should be no decapitation, no crippling of the decision-making authority, which is meant to ensure that the operative part of India's nuclear doctrine - the delivery of a retaliatory second strike on the adversary - is put into practice.

Clearly, the government acknowledges that there could be a nuclear strike on India's capital. That is a finite possibility. In fact, according to an official press briefing, the government is building one more nuclear weapons-proof shelter within a radius of 400 km from Delhi - in Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh or Madhya Pradesh. This only reinforces the conclusion that a nuclear attack is officially acknowledged as finitely probable.

In that case, what happens to us citizens - to start with, the 15 million citizens of the capital, and potentially, the 300 million others, urban Indians (assuming that cities are the likeliest nuclear targets). Well, frankly, there will be no shelters for them. The nation cannot afford them; it is not practical. Thousands of buildings in which bunkers might be located are themselves likely to collapse and be gutted by firestorms under the impact of blasts, shockwaves and extreme heat which a nuclear weapon will produce. Besides, radiation will come chasing after those who take refuge in the few structures that survive.

So there can be no secure refuge for citizens, as distinct from a handful of VVIPs. But Defence Minister George Fernandes seems to have a brilliant idea: use the Delhi Metro's underground tunnels as a nuclear shelter: He says, "Some countries have modified their underground railway network into shelters."

This is about as close as you can get to a Tughlaqian fantasy, or King Canute's delusion about stemming the tide: ionising radiation will get into underground tunnels just as assuredly as into conventional air-raid shelters - assuming (wholly irrationally) that the Metro can survive the heat and blast effects of a nuclear explosion in the first place!

Nor should our Bhabha Atomic Research Centre scientists' claim about limiting the damage from radiation be taken seriously. These are about administering iodine pills. This is at best a snake-oil remedy; at worst, a dangerous nostrum. The principle is to saturate the human body with the "good" isotopes of iodine (I-127, I-125), so that it need not absorb "bad", radioactive but chemically identical ones (like I-131) given out by a nuclear explosion. But Iodine-131 is only one of more than 200 radionuclides released in a nuclear blast. There are dozens of others, such as plutonium-239 (named after the Greek God of Hell), the most toxic substance known to science.

Let us face the truth. There is not, cannot be, any protection or cure for the people from a nuclear bomb - no military counter, no civil defence, no medical remedy. These weapons destroy the very systems and institutions that can help in more "normal" disasters: fire-tenders, hospitals (typically located in city centres, which are likeliest to be hit), and other emergency services. Thus, it is advisedly and with much wisdom that the world's most representative organisation of peace-minded doctors, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, says there can be no cure for the health damage wreaked by a nuclear bomb. A poster in its public education campaign shows a telephone receiver dangling from the base, announcing, "In case of a nuclear attack, don't bother to call your physician".

It is with this unassailable logic in mind that the great historian and peace activist, E.P. Thompson, tore to bits the British government's misleading publicity package gratuitously advising its citizens about what to do in case of a nuclear attack. The package was entitled `Protect and Survive'. Thompson (with Dan Smith) countered it with `Protest and Survive', a classic text of the peace movement.

Our peculiar tragedy in India and Pakistan is not just that we face a far graver - because likelier - nuclear danger today than, say, Britain did in the 1970s and 1980s, but also that our leaders are supremely smug about that danger. They behave as if it did not exist or were something that should only worry hypochondriacs. They are perpetually in denial mode: their first response to uncomfortable questions is to dismiss the significant likelihood, indeed the possibility, of a nuclear strike on an Indian (or Pakistani) city.

This likelihood is far, far higher than was the probability of a nuclear exchange between the two great rivals of the Cold War after the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. By the mid-1960s, the United States and the Soviet Union began to negotiate confidence-building, crisis-diffusion and arms control measures, which significantly reduced the chances of the accidental, unintended or unauthorised arming and firing of nuclear weapons, and lowered the likelihood of a misreading of each other's moves. Besides, distance was on their side. Missile flight-time between the U.S. and the Soviet Union's mainland cities was never less than 30 minutes - indeed, it was much longer until the early 1980s.

Missile flight-time between some of India's and Pakistan's biggest cities such as Delhi, Karachi, Mumbai or Lahore is three to eight minutes - which is far too short an interval in which to take corrective measures, such as cancelling missile launch orders or rectifying wrongly read radar signals.

That is why the peace movements of India and Pakistan have stressed the critical importance of nuclear restraint even after Pokhran-II and suggested some measures - slowing down the stockpiling of fissile material and manufacture of warheads, and halting processes such as fitting of warheads/bombs on to missiles, and above all, deploying nuclear weapons in the field. It remains imperative that the firebreak between the manufacture of nuclear weapons and their deployment be maintained. Before Pokhran-II, both India and Pakistan had nuclear capability. But possessing the technological ability to forge plutonium or uranium into an explosive assembly is one thing and launching a programme to make nuclear weapons is quite another.

The manufacture-deployment firebreak is about to disappear as India and Pakistan rush headlong towards nuclear weapons deployment. The significance of the first-ever meeting of India's recently constituted Nuclear Control Authority on September 1 followed tit-for-tat two days later by a meeting of the Pakistani National Control Authority (NCA), lies just here. The Indian NCA decided to accelerate the deployment of nuclear weapons and "consolidate ... nuclear deterrence". Pakistan's NCA too declared that it would make "qualitative upgrades" in the nuclear programme and fortify national security. Later, General Pevez Musharraf told Toronto Star: "They (India) must know that we can retaliate in a big way".

Since then, India has let it be known that it is raising a special artillery division in its Southern Command to manage its nuclear-capable missiles. The existing Agni and Prithvi missile groups will be integrated into this division. Fernandes declared in an interview with Press Trust of India (October 5) that India's short and medium-range nuclear-capable ballistic missiles are ready for deployment and the "nuclear command chain", including alternative "nerve centres", is in place, giving India an effective retaliatory capability.

Pakistan will no doubt match India, following a well-established pattern of action and reaction in the nuclear arena.

THE nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan is no longer latent or hidden. It is out there in the open. Its most visible expression is the series of competitive missile test-flights the two have conducted over the past year. The latest were the three missile test-flights by Pakistan in less than a fortnight. Two of the tests (October 8 and 14) were of a medium-range (700 km) missile called Shaheen-I. And on October 2, Pakistan test-flew the Ghazanavi (or Hatf-III) with a range of 290 km. They are both nuclear-capable. Islamabad says the tests were meant to demonstrate "Pakistan's technical prowess". "They also reflect Pakistan's resolve and determination to continue to consolidate its minimum deterrence needs and national security."

And yet, Indian officials shrugged off these tests as "nothing special". Foreign Secretary Kanwal Sibal said there was "nothing new" in the October 2 missile test. "They (the Pakistanis) have conducted missile tests before." True to type, Fernandes went one better. He was nonchalant about the significance and consequences of the tests. He rhetorically said: "It has to be seen whether the missile is their (Pakistan's) own or provided by North Korea or China".

This is truly, breathtakingly, extraordinary: these missiles are capable of incinerating lakhs of Indian civilians at one go. From the security point of view, it is irrelevant whether the technology they use is indigenous, or Pakistan bought or stole it. All that matters is whether it works, as it manifestly did.

Equally worrisome is the tests' timing, although this was not an immediate reaction to an Indian test. Officially, Islamabad claimed that the timing "reflects Pakistan's determination not to engage in a tit-for-tat syndrome to other tests in the region... Pakistan will maintain the pace of its own missile development programme... " But Pakistani media reports say the tests were an expression of Pakistan's "protest" and show its "frustration" at India's procurement of the Phalcon air-borne radar system from Israel, with Washington's approval. Last month's agreement between India, Israel and Russia for the supply of the Phalcon, to be mounted on a Russian-made Ilyushin-76 aircraft, has upset Pakistan. The Phalcon will allow the detection of aircraft or missile launches deep inside its territory.

As recompense, and as a means to "restore the weapons balance" in South Asia, Pakistan has demanded that Washington supply to it airborne radars, F-16s, unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) and Cobra helicopters. Otherwise, warned Pakistan Defence Secretary Lt. Gen. Hamid Nawaz Khan last month: "Pakistan believes that a conventional balance [is] the key to maintaining peace between India and Pakistan; the nuclear threshold would come down, if this balance [is] disturbed". Since then, Musharraf has pledged to do whatever it takes to maintain the current strategic balance or "no-win situation" vis--vis New Delhi. In an interview to Malaysia's New Straits Times, he said: "We will maintain that no-win situation come what may. That the world should know and India should know. They have reached an agreement and we will counter it."

And yet, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee blithely says: "We are not in any arms race with anybody... Whatever steps India has been taking [are] for self-defence." And he chides Pakistan: "Those who are themselves acquiring weapons are blaming us." This "self-defence" argument won't wash. Any state that gets sucked into an arms race, either as an initiator or re-actively, can claim it is acting in "self-defence". That is the very logic of a nuclear arms race, which has an action-reaction rationale - and escalation - built into it. The "self-defence" excuse does not negate the reality of an arms race, nor make it less dangerous. Nor can it obscure the fact that in matters nuclear, India has always been the initiator and Pakistan the follower. The whole point about an arms race is that none of its participants can determine its pace or direction as independent variables. An adversary has to act in relation to, and after considering or, in anticipation of, the rival's moves.

So under the pretence of "self-defence", our leaders are sleepwalking towards a nuclear confrontation, with potentially grave consequences, including a second Hiroshima or Nagasaki, albeit on a larger scale, given the greater population density of our cities.

AS argued repeatedly in this Column, it is a historic folly to base national security on the slippery and delusory notions of nuclear deterrence. Throughout the Cold War, deterrence, with thousands of nuclear weapons on high alert, remained uncertain, risky and fraught with technological snafus and accidents. There were thousands of false alerts in reaction to which retaliatory actions were ordered - and cancelled at the very last minute.

Some new and extremely disturbing disclosures about the British experience with deterrence now come from the Ministry of Defence, which was recently forced to publish a list of 20 mishaps with nuclear weapons between 1960 and 1991. These document serious accidents: trucks carrying nuclear weapons on British roads overturned on two occasions, and cars crashed into two convoys. Nuclear weapons were dropped or fell on four occasions, and other munitions struck nuclear weapons four times. Four of the incidents happened abroad, in Germany, Malta and near Hong Kong.

A particularly nasty mishap took place in 1960 in Lincolnshire. The Ministry said: "An RAF (Royal Air Force) nuclear weapon load carrier, forming part of a convoy, experienced a brake failure on an incline and overturned." Three years later, there was another "brake failure on a nuclear weapon load carrier" on the border of Lincolnshire and South Yorkshire.

According to the same report, in 1956, a bomber careened out of control and ploughed into a bomb dump housing three nuclear weapons, tearing it apart. The bomber exploded and threw burning fuel over all the weapons. There were at least two accidents with U.S. nuclear weapons on British soil too, both in Suffolk.

India and Pakistan are far more accident- and disaster-prone than Britain, the U.S. or the Soviet Union. We have an appalling record of military accidents, including the loss of 200 warplanes, and countless fires in ammunition dumps and ordnance factories. The latest robbery of computers in two high-security Defence Research and Development Organisation facilities in Delhi is a grim reminder that we might not be any luckier with the greatly more hazardous nuclear technology than we have been with conventional arms. In that case, God alone can save us from our leaders - and a nuclear catastrophe.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Nov 07, 2003.)

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