The myth of deterrence

Print edition : July 04, 1998

FOR the 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 subcontinent. 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 the restraint they advocate 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 weapon 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 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 from what Robert Jay Lifton calls nuclearism. Jingoism is inseparable from, and indeed lies at the root of, 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 compunction about underlining the "threat" from a nuclear Pakistan, and simultaneously advocating that India meet the threat through the deplorably cynical means of deterrence. This is the same inverted logic that Prime Minister A. B. Vajpayee deployed when he declared that Pakistan's tests had vindicated India's stand!

Curiously, not one of these hawks has thought it 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 from 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 that of 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 but it is deeply fraught with grave risks that 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 the Warsaw Pact countries pursued it without "political engagement", but because nuclear deterrence is morally "abhorrent", illegal, and strategically unacceptable and irrational. The concept of nuclear deterrence uncritically and dogmatically assumes that nuclear adversaries always know and rationally calculate the risk of inviting an "unacceptable" level of damage and therefore forever behave "responsibly". However, if this were true of strategic planners and generals, that is, if they never make a strategic miscalculation, then there would not 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. And 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 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 operation of the Indian Peace-Keeping Force in Sri Lanka too are examples of strategic miscalculation. Again, in countries that have run clandestine or semi-clandestine weapons and technology acquisition programmes - 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 the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and nuclear scientists, have consistently underestimated Pakistan's capabilities. Some of them even dismissed 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" and that technology 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 Pokhran-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.

INDIA 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 reports said a test never took place at all. Meanwhile, what is forgotten is that Pakistan can inflict more or less assured damage on India with its (more reliable) Hatf-I and Hatf-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 unilateralism 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 is exactly what happened with "Star Wars". This spells a situation of mutual confrontation, permanent instability and perpetual hostility - the opposite of what deterrence theory says.

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 for a nuclear attack - which night 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 in a cavalier manner?

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 from 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 doctrines.

THIS is neither 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 U.S. 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 seven U.S.) were lost at sea. Seven nuclear reactors (five Soviet, two U.S.) from nuclear-powered submarines are under water.

Activists wearing skull masks protest in Calcutta on May 16 against the nuclear testing by India.-JAYANTA SHWA/ REUTERS

In his book The Hidden Cost of Deterrence: Nuclear Weapons Accidents (Brassey's, London, 1990) Shaun Gregory 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 involves 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 and 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 component.

Recent disclosures about the Cuban missile crisis are hair-raising. Right at the start of it, in October 1962, the U.S. Strategic Air Command secretly deployed nuclear warheads on nine of the ten test Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles at the 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 for an attack, the consequence 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 kind of imperfect war- and crisis-prevention infrastructure that the five NWSs have. To do so would be economically ruinous. These 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 turmoil.

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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