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Pakistan Coup Tells Us a Lot About the West's Attitude to Nuclear Weapons



November 17, 1999

LONDON- The West has gone uncannily calm about last month's military take-over in nuclear-armed Pakistan. Could it be embarrassment, that it hasn't delivered on the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty - an essential ingredient in the grand bargain of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty that states that the old established nuclear powers will make significant progress in disarmament in return for the rest of the world - 95% of it in fact - abjuring manufacture of their own nuclear weapons? Or is it just carelessness that takes its cue from President Bill Clinton's lack of conviction on the urgent necessity for nuclear disarmament?

It is a quite extraordinary silence. Nowhere else in the world does the military - so blatantly at least - have its finger directly on the nuclear trigger. There has always been, right through the darkest days of the Cold War, the buffer of civilian authority. Even when the Soviet Union was overthrown and the newborn Russian federation fell heir to its nuclear arsenal, and for the first time in history the nuclear baton was passed, it was done in a careful and responsible manner.

Or could it be perhaps that the West knows that in practice civilian control has never been quite what it was made out to be? The so-called sophisticated civilian-headed command and control system, wrapped up in the mystique of "deterrence", that was supposed to work by making sure by mutual fright that an order to press the button would never be given, has been all along only a half-baked story meant more to reassure an anxious public than to reflect reality.

In the early 1970s Bruce Blair, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, was a U.S. Air Force launch control officer for Minutemen nuclear missiles. He observed that there was a profound discrepancy between the drills that he was rehearsing and the publically declared policies of the government. Deterrence was the public policy and this was supposed to mean that the U.S. armoury was capable of surviving a Soviet attack and then retaliating. Blair realized how rarely he was asked to drill for such an eventuality. The drill was to fire even though no Soviet attack had yet occured, either launching the missiles for a pre-emptive strike or else on receiving a warning that Soviet missiles had been launched.

Once demobbed Blair went on to become what "The Washington Post" has described as America's "leading expert on nuclear command and control". His later research deepened his earlier conviction that deterrence theory was severely holed, below the water line. The command and control apparatus was so vulnerable to being decapitated by a nuclear strike that it was very doubtful in practice if the U.S. could deliver a single, prompt, retaliatory attack. Indeed, this is why his military superiors had insisted on the training and drilling they gave. The emphasis on being prepared to launch on warning, a dangerous, hair-trigger posture, was at least a practical and doable one.

Of course, this pressed decision making down to minutes - for the president about three. Blair's later work showed that the Soviet president was in a similar predicament. Moreover, since the end of the Cold War the situation has worsened, owing to the steadily increasing accuracy of the missiles, not to say the simultaneous deterioration of the Russian radar and other detection and warning devices.

General George Lee Butler who until 1994 was the military officer in charge of all U.S. nuclear weapons has taken the public argument a stage further. Deterrence, he now says, "worked best when we needed it least". In moments of calm it seemed to produce equilibrium and equanimity. But "in moments of deep crisis it became irrelevant". He observes that during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 there was no talk of deterrence during those critical 13 days. Both sides realized deterrence had failed. They were on a collision course, a count down to nuclear war. "What you had was two small groups of men in two small rooms groping frantically in the intellectual fog in the dark, to deal with a crisis that had spun out of control". If deterrence really worked rational men would not have allowed the situation to get so close to the danger point. One truth always overlooked by western proponents of deterrence was that the Soviets never believed in it; they thought a nuclear war was winnable.

Robert McNamara, who as Secretary of Defense was at the epicentre of the Cuban missile crisis has long said, "We came within a hair's breadth of war". Nuclear deterrence, McNamara argues, is simply too dangerous. "It is very,very risky. Even a low probability of catastrophe is a high risk." And we now know not just the inner details of the Cuban missile crisis but how, at least a half dozen times, American nuclear missiles were nearly fired because of misinformation, insubordination or accident.

The fact is, as these men, intimate with the chain of command, know, the whole system was - and still is - on a dangerous hair-trigger, with a president or prime minister's ability to override it extremely circumscribed. This is why McNamara was moved to tell both presidents Kennedy and Johnson to their face, "Don't follow Nato policy. I don't care what happens, if the Soviet Warsaw Pact is, in fact, overrunning West Germany, don't launch nuclear weapons."

This brings us back to Pakistan. Are Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac quiet because although they know the tinder that lies between India and Pakistan is easily combustible, it is, in reality, a no more dangerous situation than it was when there was a civilian government in power. Yes, India and Pakistan are on a hair-trigger and there is a real danger of a nuclear war, but then the civilian buffer zone was so thin anyway it would only be a useless pretence if more fuss were made now than it was a couple of months ago.

If India and Pakistan are playing a dangerous game with nuclear matches then so indeed are the U.S., Russia, Britain, China and France. All that can be said is that with two more actors on the nuclear stage the probability of accident or miscalculation is now raised a few more degrees. In all likelihood, someone, somewhere will one day give the order to fire. We live with that. Why?


Copyright © 1999 By JONATHAN POWER


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