Home > News > Columnists > Admiral J G Nadkarni (retd)
Risking the future
January 16, 2003
By a strange coincidence a number of issues and statements relating to nuclear weapons have surfaced recently helping to bring this rather important subject under the spotlight. Drawing some of the flak which was until then singularly focused on Iraq -- which the United States is bent on bringing to justice for secretly producing weapons of mass destruction -- was North Korea, for its nuclear weapons capability.
While the world was watching these developments came the rather brazen and somewhat irresponsible declaration from General Pervez Musharraf that he was planning the use of nuclear weapons if India had launched an attack across the international border last year. When his cavalier statement produced howls of disbelief and anger across the world, the general's regular trouble-shooters sprang into action claiming that their boss had meant no such thing. To top the recent nuclear stories was the Indian government's announcement of setting up the Strategic Weapons Command to bring India's nuclear response in the case of any eventuality under one umbrella.
It is just as well that the very crucial issue of nuclear weapons has brought about a much needed national debate. For a while the nuclear question was nearly forgotten while the nation dealt with financial scandals, religious extremism, Gujarat riots and of course the World Cup. Unfortunately, having uncorked the nuclear genie four years ago, having developed both weapons and delivery systems and having seen our neighbour across the border match us test for test, weapon for weapon and missile for missile, we can no longer treat it with the same lethargy and red tape that the government brings to other defence issues.
A little history about the development and proliferation of nuclear weapons over the past 50 years will not be out of place. The world was a comparatively harmless place until the United States introduced the first weapon of mass destruction by dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The weapons were puny by later standards. But the latent power in these bombs was apparent by the damage and the casualties they caused. The US tried its best to keep the technology of these weapons to themselves but soon other countries followed the US lead. The Soviet Union joined the nuclear club in 1949 and Britain and France soon afterwards. China had its nuclear weapons by 1962. Then there was a lull for a while.
During the next 20 years the big five began to build their weapons stockpiles. The thermonuclear bomb (sometimes called the hydrogen bomb) was invented. Not only did the weapons stockpiles get bigger but the yield of weapons increased dramatically. Most of the new weapons had destructive powers a thousand times more than the Hiroshima bomb. The delivery systems improved. It was now possible to deliver weapons not only from aircraft but also from ships, submarines and missiles. The increased ranges of Intercontinental Ballistic missiles made it possible for countries like United States, Russia and China to target each other from home. By the eighties the US had a stockpile of over 12,000 warheads and Russia about 9,000, enough to blow the world up hundreds of times.
In 1968 the United States alarmed by the steady increase in the countries possessing nuclear weapons promoted through the United Nations the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The treaty wanted to divide the world into nuclear-weapon nations and non-nuclear-weapon states. The possession, development and deployment of nuclear weapons was to be restricted to the five nuclear weapon nations and others had to forever forsake the development and use of these.
Not unnaturally India called the treaty discriminatory and despite considerable US and international arm twisting has steadfastly refused to sign the treaty. India was joined by Pakistan and Israel. Others like South Africa, who initially demurred, eventually signed the treaty. Now North Korea, which had signed the treaty has withdrawn from it.
Over the past ten years many countries have decided that they want to join the exclusive nuclear club, some openly and others covertly. It is by now an open secret that Israel has both nuclear weapons and credible delivery systems. Countries like Brazil, Argentina and South Africa are known to have an advanced nuclear programme and should they decide to go nuclear it should not take them long to produce their first weapons. Not only is the technology now readily available but practically every major country has nuclear power reactors allowing them to produce the raw material required to make modest bombs.
India conducted its first nuclear explosion in 1974. Over the next 20 years the country restrained itself from weaponising. But the threat from China was increasing. China had more than 50 missiles in Tibet aimed at Indian targets. India was also aware of Pakistan's drastic efforts to close the nuclear gap and produce weapons of its own. Under the circumstances India has had little option except to produce nuclear weapons and perfect the delivery systems.
Unfortunately, possession of nuclear weapons also brings along with it enhanced national responsibility on their deployment and use. Use of nuclear weapons, either by design or even inadvertently is unthinkable and will bring doom and large scale destruction. An absolutely foolproof organisation must be set into place to ensure that the weapons are stored properly, guarded and do not fall into wrong hands. At the same time they must be available for use at an instant's notice if they are to be a deterrent. A clear-cut policy must be developed and made public regarding the use of these weapons leaving an adversary in no doubt what the consequences would be should he decide to be adventurous.
Command and control should be both flawless but at the same time devoid of the usual glitches and ponderous decision making. Above all it must still function if the entire top leadership is wiped out in a first strike by the enemy.
All these are difficult issues to resolve. Unfortunately, our progress on these issues so far does not fill the average citizen with much confidence. It has taken four long years for us to enunciate a nuclear doctrine. The command and control organisation has been drawn up but again will it be able to act fast enough or will it take its own time before retaliatory measures are taken. India, quite rightly, has taken a decision never to launch a "first strike". Any sane and civilised country will decide similarly. But this gives the advantage to Pakistan, whose president has already announced that he will have no compunction in using weapons should the need arise.
And what does one make of Musharraf's bragging? The worst mistake India can make is not to take him seriously. That was the mistake India made in the eighties when our scientists were telling our political leaders that Pakistan was 'ten years behind us' in its nuclear programme. The shock came when they exploded their nuclear weapons just a few days after ours. The general may like to boast a little from time to time but we are at least quite certain that he has a firm control over his weapons.
The situation will be infinitely worse if for some reason Musharraf is overthrown and the weapons fall into the hands of Taliban style extremists or some irrational jingoists on this side. Even in the worst days of the Cold War, both the US and the Soviet Union realised the devastating potential of a nuclear exchange and began to take steps to cap and reduce the chances of an all out nuclear war.
Both India and Pakistan have had their day in the sun. Both have bragged enough about how their weapons are better than their adversary's and how the other side will be totally annihilated should they dare to start a nuclear war. In fact the image which comes to mind is of Pakistani and Indian leaders sitting on heaps of ash of what was once the great cities of Lahore and New Delhi, proclaiming to the world how they finished off the adversary.
There will be no winners in a nuclear exchange. It will set both countries back a century. The sensible thing for the leaders of both nations is to eschew bragging and think about how to prevent a nuclear war.