Terror by clerical error

20 Dec 2007


INDIA’s top missile scientist unveiled plans last week to build a ballistic missile defence by 2010 that should effectively tackle the threat from Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. Dr V.K. Saraswat was also quoted as saying that the proximity of Pakistan’s assets would give India just three to four minutes to respond to a perceived attack.

The missile defence system now on the anvil would protect ‘high-value’ assets and major cities like Delhi and Mumbai.

Informed people would consider the plan delusional, and therefore dangerous. Russia and the United States, with far greater lead-time to respond to each other’s nuclear threat and with a highly refined command and control mechanism, still do not have a completely trustworthy system in place.

The official doomsday scenario written by the US government during the Cold War — called The Emergency Plan Book — would make countries like India and Pakistan look not just ill-prepared to consider the use of nuclear weapons but also ill-advised to flaunt them. For all its sophistication and years of preparedness for nuclear attack on its territory, the United States looked pretty vulnerable as recently as Sept 11, 2001. How the administration went round like a headless chicken in the aftermath is nicely recorded in The Doomsday Scenario, a 2002 book based mostly on the Emergency Plan, which author L. Douglas Keeney wangled from a library during a brief period when it was declassified.

During the Cold War, more than $45bn was spent to protect both senior US government officials and the general public in the event of a nuclear attack. This funding supported everything from the production and distribution of films and pamphlets instructing citizens how to mitigate the effects of a nuclear blast and fallout to the secret construction of massive underground facilities to allow the government to continue to operate during and after a nuclear war.

The extensive and extremely expensive plans to build massive blast and fallout shelters for the populace were systematically rejected by US presidents on the grounds that they did not want to create a national panic. The Congress balked at the price tag and the military leaders argued that it was more sensible and cost-effective to invest in offensive weapons to deter war and, if need be, wage war. One fallout of the Sept 11 attacks was that for the first time the United States activated its Continuity of Government plans (COG), some of which have been lampooned in Michael Moore’s film Fahrenheit 9/11.

But the real emergency envisioned in The Doomsday Scenario, cited by Keeney, pertained to “kiloton and megaton-sized bombs” that would “pummel our industrial, transportation, communication, and financial centres in a sustained downpouring of warheads”. The national landscape, according to the American response plans, “would be blurred with smoke and haze and littered with death and destruction and contamination, with only the most rudimentary fragments of community and government surviving”.

Said the Emergency Plans Book, “12,500,000 are suffering from blast or thermal injuries and have an immediate and evident need for treatment.” The surviving labour force is “engaged in large numbers in disposing of the dead”.

America’s shipping ports would be clogged with sunken ships; it would be a nation of people scrounging for food, “with crematoriums working around the clock”.

Ironically the current discourse on nuclear weapons in Islamabad and Washington DC and Dr Saraswat’s plans to defend India’s high-value assets, whatever that means in the context of millions dead, are so obviously unreal. America’s headache stems from the fear of Muslim extremists taking control of the nuclear trigger. That the bomb looks any more secure with the followers of other faiths is one of the big fallacies of our times.

We did feel (or know) during the 2002 India-Pakistan stand-off that a more real nuclear threat could come from any ‘mad major’ lurking within the chain of command of either country. And why blame the mad major when the political leadership of that period on both sides looked quite prepared to do the job of, let’s say, Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper?Do we remember the delusional commander of a US air force base in Dr Strangelove who initiated an attack plan to strike the Soviet Union with nuclear weapons? He had set out to thwart what he believed was a Communist conspiracy to “sap and impurify” the “precious bodily fluids” of the American people with fluoridated water which he believed had caused his impotence. Change the bodily fluids with some other catchphrase that sells with our people and we are in the same league with Stanley Kubrick’s villainous brigadier.

The advent of Al Qaeda as the all-pervasive ogre out to destroy the world tends to lull us into the false belief that the messianic zeal of the president of the United States is any less threatening. The readiness to use tactical nuclear weapons against Iran or any other country (don’t forget the Seventh Fleet flexing its muscles in the Bay of Bengal not too long ago) is at par with the clarion call for “aar paar ki larai” (fight unto finish) that emanated from the Indian leadership.

Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine too comes ironically from a highly disciplined and professional army, not gun-toting mullahs. It signals the readiness to be the first one to stage a nuclear strike. Add to this conundrum the bristling tensions between the United States and Europe on the one side confronted by an increasingly insecure but militarily powerful Russia, and we have a serious problem on our hands.

In our self-absorption with Narendra Modi in India and the hurly-burly of January elections in Pakistan, there has been a tendency to miss out on the subversive action underway in our vicinities that is of equal if not more serious consequence to the region. Last month Russia’s parliament voted to suspend compliance with a key Cold War treaty limiting conventional forces in Europe as Moscow signalled it was weighing new force deployments on its western flank. Last week Russia’s defence officials warned that any Iran-bound missile from Europe travelling over Russian air space could be read as enemy action by its trigger-ready retaliatory system.

Stanley Kubrick’s film was loosely based on Peter George’s Cold War thriller novel Red Alert, also known as Two Hours to Doom. Dr Strangelove satirises the Cold War and the doctrine of mutual assured destruction. For India and Pakistan, with just three to four minutes to take evasive action, if Dr Saraswat’s count is right, there won’t be any time for Brigadier General Ripper to deliver all his humorous lines before doom strikes us suddenly. Whether the threat comes from a Muslim cleric or a clerical error of a secular nature, it would still spell disaster for millions.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in New Delhi.