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The more lethal suicide bombers

February 23, 2011

LOBBYISTS for nuclear arms everywhere, more so in India and Pakistan, would like us to have unalloyed faith in their infallibility. Whatever the nature of their nuclear doctrine, be it declared or wrapped in secrecy, they want their brainwashed citizens to feel invincible under their stewardship.

These lobbyists are more dangerous than any religiously driven suicide bomber. The religious fanatic sheathes his recklessness in his willingness to die for an intractable divine cause. Nuclear lobbyists make a living by selling pipedreams of a heaven on earth. The operative phrase 'if we survive the holocaust' is relegated to an unreadable fine print

The media mostly follows the Pied Pipers unquestioningly, which leaves large swathes of humanity vulnerable to accepting the doctrine of mass suicide without being told in clear terms what horrific possibilities millions of jingoistic cadre had become party to.

While major nuclear powers are at least trying to grapple with a bad situation as reflected in the latest START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) confabulations, India and Pakistan remain cavalier. True to form, the nuclear menace, despite the fact that we have had a few close calls, is not even mentioned clearly as a topic for official discussion.

So much premium is given in the globally forced dialogue to issues ranging from the Tulbul project and the mapping of a maritime boundary, counter-terrorism or even Kashmir and Siachen — which are extremely important in their own right — that “peace and security, including CBMs” is all that we get as an inserted topic that may take us close to a discussion on the nuclear threat, if at all.

The inherent risks of a nuclear conflict in South Asia are, of course, not just related national doctrines or the number of warheads that each side is said to possess. A palpable and ever-present threat comes from a possible technical failure or a computer glitch.

Earlier this month, a group of international activists and scientists attending a meeting in Delhi of the World Academy of Art and Sciences wrote a letter to the Indian prime minister and to the Congress party president to highlight this aspect of the danger.

Of the examples quoted in the letter of the close calls that scientifically advanced nuclear rivals like Russia and the US have had, the more bone-chilling incidents could apply in equal measure to India and Pakistan, not the least because of their shared borders that give them little or no lead time to verify an error from a real launch.

Some nightmare scenarios the letter shared with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh go as follows:-

“On Nov 9, 1979, computers at three US military command centres simultaneously picked up over 200 missiles from the Soviet Union headed for the United States. Officials had only minutes to assess what appeared to be a massive, first-strike nuclear attack. As minutemen missile launch control centres in the Midwest were readied, national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski prepared to call President Carter when he was informed that threat was reassessed at 2,200 missiles, enough to end the United States, and by fallout and nuclear winter, perhaps the entirety of civilisation.

“Just before he picked up the phone, he was informed that the satellites designed to detect launches and early warning radar systems indicated that there was no missile attack at all. Senator Charles Percy had been visiting a defence facility and an officer, wanting to impress the politician regarding the seriousness of his mission, had mistakenly put a training tape into the wrong computer.

“On June 3, 1980, US command posts again indicated a Soviet attack, and again launch crews for Minuteman missiles were given preliminary launch warnings and bomber aircraft manned. Computer displays showed two missiles attacking, then none, and then 200. A simple computer chip had malfunctioned.

“On Aug 30, 2007, a US B-52 bomber was mistakenly armed with six nuclear warheads and flown for more than three hours across several states. “On Oct 19, 2007, the Department of Defence and Air Force released a report that concluded handling standards and procedures had not been followed. Four commanders were relieved of their commands, numerous personnel were disciplined, and, in the wake of this and other incidents, Secretary of the Air Force Michael Wynne and Chief of Staff of the Air Force General T. Michael Moseley resigned.

“While US nuclear near-misses might be under-reported, we know only a fraction of the errors that occurred in the silos and command posts of the former Soviet Union.

“On Sept 26, 1983, the Soviet Union's launch detection satellites reported that US Minuteman intercontinental missiles had been launched. Lt Col Stanislav Petrov, however, concluded that his satellites had malfunctioned and, on his own authority, prevented a Soviet alert.

“On Jan 25, 1995, the Russians mistook a weather satellite for a nuclear weapon launch from a submarine off the coast of Norway. President Yeltsin said the next day that he had activated his 'nuclear football' — a device that allows the Russian president to communicate with his top military advisers and review the crisis in real time. Recent mishaps should cause continuing concern.

“Such incidents are not unique to the United States and Russia: Vanguard Le Triomphant

“On Feb 3, 2009, the , a British Royal Navy nuclear submarine, and , a French nuclear vessel, collided in the Atlantic Ocean. Both carried nuclear warheads and were on routine patrol. Defence officials said they were 'unable to see each other'.

“Even under the best of circumstances, amid good relations between countries, mistakes can, and have been made — especially given the limited time allowed to discern fact from fiction. As President Reagan admitted: 'Six minutes to decide how to respond to a blip on a radar scope and decide whether to unleash Armageddon! How could anyone apply reason at a time like that?'”

That's what the arriving India-Pakistan talks should primarily focus on. We'll get the rights for the Kashmiris if we survive a possible computer glitch, something which no nuclear lobbyist would admit to. They are the real suicide bombers.

The writer is s correspondent in Delhi. jawednaqvi@dawn.com