Living With The Bomb


Pervez Hoodbhoy

The nuclear nightmare has come true. Taunted, jeered, and threatened by BJP India until it could resist no more, Pakistan too has gone nuclear. Understandably, as of the time of this writing, joyous crowds are still dancing in Islamabad over its stunning response to Shakti '98. They, like the crowds which had celebrated in Delhi just a while ago, are quite oblivious to the real meaning of what has really happened. But as the nuclear cycle advances to the next notch, and harsh economic realities start to bite, the real gravity of the situation will inevitably sink in. Meanwhile the cabal of neo-fascists and RSS fanatics in Delhi -- the same that had planned the May 11 tests -- is pondering its next move.

Let us face facts. Our world changed irreversibly and totally just 3 weeks ago; it is now a world where nuclear annihilation henceforth shall always be just around the corner. Generations to come -- if they come -- in both Pakistan and India will agonize over how it all really happened. But it is fruitless to ask for history to be undone. Instead pragmatism demands that we look towards what is next and delineate what needs to be done for mutual survival. With the primal, bestial, and instinctual responses of the two huge nations in the present state of strong arousal, the ongoing cycle of action and reaction desperately needs interruption. Unless moderated and cooled, this lethal competition has an obvious end point.

The immediate formulation of effective war-avoidance measures is crucial. This means devising a set of technically sound procedures and devices that will make difficult the unauthorized, unintentional, or accidental use of nuclear weapons. Indeed, it is highly probable that should nuclear war ever take place, it will not be by the conscious design of Pakistani and Indian leaders but, instead, through miscalculation or unintended use of the weapons in some form. These horrific possibilities will remain as long as nuclear weapons remain. But one can -- and absolutely must -- work towards reducing probabilities. Otherwise India and Pakistan may provide to the world the first proof of failure of nuclear deterrence.

Consider first the issue of launch authority. In Pakistan there already exists a nuclear coordinating authority consisting of the president, prime minister, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, the chief of army staff, and the airforce and navy chiefs. In India there is certain to be a corresponding body. Among other things, one hopes that the rules for the two nuclear bodies have been written so that complete unanimity is required of all available members as a condition for launching a nuclear strike; the disagreement of even one member should be sufficient to halt a strike.

Even more importantly, the weapons should be configured so that local commanders, missile operating crews, or pilots, are not able to conspire into launching a nuclear strike on their own initiative. Failing this, a small group of wrongly informed or zealot officers from either the Pakistani or Indian side could start a full-scale nuclear war if they are in possession of the necessary codes and keys. Pakistan, in particular, has a long history of coups and extremist officers who have defied authority and tried to seize power. One should not dismiss the nuclear dangers that this poses.

Recognizing that unauthorised use was a dangerous possibility, much effort was devoted by the US in the late 1960's onwards towards developing technical devices known as Permissive Action Links (PALs). These highly sophisticated computer-chip based safety devices prevent an assembled nuclear weapon from being armed unless all pre-programmed requirements are satisfied. This includes the final launch permission received from the proper authority, possibly received directly by the weapon through radio contact.

Now that nuclear weapons are here to stay on the subcontinent, one hopes that the advanced nuclear weapons states will share PAL technology with Pakistan and India. It is a virtual certainty that the first generation of the Indian and Pakistani weapons do not possess adequate safeguards. The one natural objection to sharing PAL technology is that it also reveals details of weapons design. However, it cannot hurt to make known the general principles of PAL design in sufficient detail so that Indian and Pakistani bomb designers could adapt it for their own weapons.

While unauthorized launch is a chilling possibility, there are certainly other dangers as well. In fact there are numerous examples where miscalculations by military leaders in Pakistan and India have provoked wars and near catastrophes. In 1965, President Field Marshal Ayub Khan, father of Pakistan's hawkish minister of defence, had sent paratroopers to Kashmir in the hope of stimulating the local population to rise up in arms against unpopular Indian rule. While he expected an Indian response in Kashmir, to his surprise India attacked across the international border and a full-scale war ensued. In 1987, General Sunderji's infamous Operation Brasstacks nearly provoked a war with Pakistan, a war which no one really wanted at that time.

Can future miscalculations or conflict escalation be avoided? Unless the two armies are separated from each other along the Line of Control in Kashmir, this will be very difficult. It is therefore in the mutual interest of both countries to agree to a large presence of United Nations troops in Kashmir. By doing so, Pakistan will have succeeded in further internationalizing the Kashmir issue, and India will have gained in having slowed the flow of Pakistani supported militants across the border. Will India agree? Even if it does not, it has been pointed out by international relation experts that the Security Council could request an urgent Advisory Opinion from the International Court of Justice without the consent of either government.

To conclude: it is absolutely imperative for Pakistan and India to have the best possible command and control systems, working hotlines, and satellite data gathering systems. This diminishes the chances of accidental war, as well as preemptive strikes motivated by unfounded or imaginary fears. But there will be no margin of safety left if Indian and Pakistani nuclear weapons are stored in assembled form rather than as separated components, and if the delivery of nuclear weapons is by missiles rather than aircraft. A 2-5 minute flight time, almost zero chances of interception, and the impossibility of recall make nuclear-tipped missiles the most fearsome and dangerous element in the nuclear game. If either country deploys its missiles, or keeps ready-to-use bombs, life shall then dangle from a single strand of hair.

[Pervez Hoodbhoy is a professor of Physics at the Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad.]

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