Wednesday, July 16, 2014
In the 21st century, South Asia faces an uncertain future where the forces of cooperation and conflict are simultaneously at work pulling the region in opposite directions. On the one hand, there is widespread consensus among the people on both sides of the India-Pakistan border that peace is the only solution, while on the other hand extremist forces are gaining strength in the corridors of power in both countries.
The enduring rivalry between India and Pakistan seems to have buried all hopes for peace and stability in the region under the shadows of mutual distrust of each other. After the 1998 nuclear tests, South Asia has emerged as a more dangerous place, taking mutual hostility up a notch. However, alarmingly, the political leaderships of Pakistan and India, both de-facto nuclear states, appear either stubborn and unwilling or afraid to take bold steps to explore new economic opportunities for about 1.5 billion poverty stricken people in the region.
The existence of nuclear weapons in South Asia is a matter of serious concern, with the region being considered by all leading experts a nuclear flashpoint. The possession of around 100 nuclear weapons by each country creates the possibility that nuclear warheads could be used in times of conflict. It is generally impossible to forecast the initiation and predict the conditions that could prevail in any such kind of accidental attack.
Nuclear tipped missiles may suffer mechanical failure or deflection in flight, allowing for the possibility of missiles falling within one’s own territory. Also, the possibility of accidental or unauthorised nuclear weapons exchange further exacerbates fears of cataclysmic destruction.
In South Asia, though the number of nuclear weapons in stockpiles is not very high, the risk of their use, by design or accident, is rapidly growing. Any such use would kill tens of thousands of people in an instant. Anticipating these risks, both countries signed the ‘Agreement on Prohibition of Attack against Nuclear Installations and Facilities’ on December 31, 1988. The agreement stipulated that both parties would keep each other informed about the exact locations (longitude and latitude) of all nuclear facilities and installations and exchange lists containing all necessary information on 1st January of each year.
Since January 1992, India and Pakistan have been exchanging lists of their respective classified nuclear installations but a lot more needs to be done to reduce the nuclear risks facing the region.
In the Lahore Declaration of 1999, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Indian prime minister A B Vajpayee agreed to explore new areas of cooperation in order to minimise the risks arising from the possibility of an accidental nuclear war between the two countries. But the Indian nuclear establishment remained unwilling to take practical steps in the following years. It was only after a long span of eight years in 2007 that both countries signed another agreement, agreeing to notify “each other immediately in the event of any accident relating to nuclear weapons, under their respective jurisdiction or control.”
But there is no publically available information regarding the safety-security management of nuclear weapons in pursuance of the said agreement. There is also a dire need to slow down the rapid expansion and diversification of strategic missile forces on both sides of the border.
The official version is that the nuclear forces of both India and Pakistan are not on hair-trigger alert. During peacetime, warheads are stored in a disassembled state and the fissile core is kept separate from other physical components at different locations.
Samar Mubarakmand, the nuclear physicist, is of the view that “The weight of a nuclear warhead is between 25 and 30 tons [combined delivery system], which is assembled only at the eleventh hour if [it] needs to be launched…If a nuclear weapon doesn’t need to be launched, then it is never available in assembled form.”
However, media reports suggest that both countries have around five to ten assembled nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert for use during a sudden warlike situation because of very limited time available to respond in case of a nuclear strike. And these weapons can be used accidently, which could also be misinterpreted as a deliberate act, resulting in a full-scale nuclear war.
More alarmingly, thousands of personnel working at various levels in vast nuclear weapons-related infrastructure are also vulnerable to terrorists’ influence or psychological weaknesses. In the past, many incidents have been reported where the personal conduct of people working at sensitive levels in India’s nuclear security infrastructure was found objectionable.
In 2006, Alan Robock, a famous American climatologist, undertook extensive research on the consequences of a potential limited nuclear war between Pakistan and India. Examining the effects of this scenario, he found out that even if the two countries use less than one-half of their current arsenals, more than 20 million people would die within the first week from blast effects, burns and radiation exposure.
In addition to eradicating the social infrastructure, nuclear attacks will leave long-lasting and extreme environmental effects. A nuclear war between the India and Pakistan will totally change the politics and geography of both countries and provoke shocking responses from the people of both countries.
Abolishing nuclear weapons is a paramount challenge for the peoples and governments of both India and Pakistan. Many nuclear experts opine that a nuclear war between the two countries will not remain limited to South Asia and is also likely to engulf other nuclear powers. The bottom line is that discussions about nuclear weapons should not just focus on narrow perspectives of nuclear security but also on the indiscriminate devastation they cause.