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India & Pakistan Walk a Fine Nuclear Line

Praful Bidwai

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As India and Pakistan ready their nuclear arsenals for deployment, their leaders seem to be slipping into denial mode, refusing to acknowledge that they are being inexorably sucked into a dangerous, and potentially ruinous, nuclear arms race.

The continued development of nuclear arsenals by India and Pakistan is risking the entire subcontinent.

Pakistan has just conducted a series of three missile test flights in the course of 11 days. Two of the tests, on October 8 and October 14, were on a medium-range 700 kilometre missile called Shaheen-I. On October 2, Pakistan test flew the Ghazanavi (or Hatf-III) with a range of 290 kilometres. Both missiles are capable of carrying nuclear warheads. Indian officials have shrugged off these tests as “nothing special”. India’s foreign secretary, Kanwal Sibal, said there was “nothing new” in Pakistan’s short-range ballistic missile tests. “[The Pakistanis] have conducted missile tests before.”

This is extraordinary because these missiles can reach medium-sized cities in India, to kill hundreds of thousands of citizens. There is no conceivable defence against them or means of preventing their entry. Strangely, Indian Defence Minister George Fernandes’ first reaction was, “It has to be seen whether the missile is [Pakistan’s] own or provided by North Korea or China.” Yet it is irrelevant whether the missile technology is indigenous to Pakistan or sold to it. It would be just as lethal - assuming it works. The smugness of the Indian authorities is astonishing and shocking. It speaks of a cavalier disregard for security, and an obsessive wish to accelerate the arms race with Pakistan.

As for Pakistani officials, they claim that the timing of their tests was based on the country’s missile defence needs. “The timing of the tests reflect Pakistan’s determination not to engage in a tit-for-tat syndrome to other tests in the region,” the military spokesman said. “Pakistan will maintain the pace of its own missile development program.” Islamabad claims the tests demonstrated “Pakistan’s technical prowess” in missile technology. “They also reflect Pakistan’s resolve and determination to continue to consolidate its minimum deterrence needs and national security.”

The regime in Pakistan feels under constant pressure to keep it's nuclear capacity in line with India's.

However, many media reports say the tests were aimed at showing Pakistan’s “protest” and “frustration” at India’s procurement of an airborne radar system from Israel, with Washington’s approval. The Phalcon early warning system was jointly developed by Israel and the United States. Last week, India signed an agreement with Israel and Russia for the supply of the Phalcon, to be mounted on a Russian-made Ilyushin-76 aircraft platform. The Phalcon will function as a command and control post in the sky and allow the detection of aircraft or missile launches deep inside Pakistan territory.

Pakistan has forcefully protested against the sale of the Phalcon and demanded that Washington supply it airborne radars, F-16s, unmanned aerial vehicles or drones and Cobra helicopters “to restore the weapons balance” in South Asia. Pakistan Defence Secretary Hamid Nawaz Khan said last month, “Pakistan believes that a conventional balance [is] the key to maintaining peace between India and Pakistan; the nuclear threshold would come down, if this balance was disturbed.” He claimed that “the Pentagon had agreed to help effectively check the imbalance of power being created by India in the region”.

Since then, Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf has pledged to do whatever it takes to maintain the current “no-win situation” with New Delhi. In an interview with the Malaysian newspaper “New Straits Times”, he said, “We will maintain that no-win situation come what may. The world should know and India should know. They [Israel and India] have reached an agreement and we will counter it.”

Musharraf expressed his impatience with New Delhi’s refusal to resolve the Kashmir issue through bilateral negotiations. Just last month, Musharraf and Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had a hostile exchange at the United Nations General Assembly. Vajpayee accused Pakistan of continuing to sponsor “cross-border terrorism” in Kashmir. Musharraf accused India of “state terrorism” and violating Security Council resolutions on Kashmir, meanwhile still trying to muscle its way into the council as a permanent member.

Both Pakistan and India are doing all they can to improve their nuclear capabilities.

It is not just Pakistan that is making proactive moves in the missile and nuclear fields. Last month, India announced it was proceeding to deploy and “consolidate its nuclear deterrence”. It is raising a special artillery division to manage its nuclear-capable missiles. The existing Agni and Prithvi missile groups will be integrated into this division.

Equally important, Fernandes declared on October 5 that India’s short and medium-range nuclear-capable ballistic missiles were ready for deployment and that the nuclear command chain, including alternative “nerve centres,” was in place, giving India an effective retaliatory capability. Fernandes said, “We have established more than one [nuclear control] nerve centre.” Nuclear command shelters have also been established. An underground shelter is now reportedly under construction right in the heart of New Delhi, designed to protect the cabinet and top military commanders from a decapitating nuclear strike. By building such a shelter, the Indian government has acknowledged that the danger of a nuclear strike is not hypothetical or distant; it is real.

However, it is doing absolutely nothing to protect the capital’s 15 million citizens against such a devastating attack. This involves a bizarre and perverse notion of security - not for the people or the nation, but for a handful of powerful individuals. The contradiction also exposes an anomaly at the heart of India’s nuclear doctrine and its much-vaunted pledge of no-first-use: India won’t be the first to use nuclear weapons against anyone. This seeks to achieve security through an assured second-strike capability: by retaliating massively. But such retaliation can at best be an act of senseless revenge, not one that protects the lives of one’s own citizens or soldiers, but instead wreaks untold havoc on civilians in an adversary state after hundreds of thousands of one’s citizens have perished.

India and Pakistan have now reached a critical, perilous, turn in their nuclear journey. The arms race between them at both the conventional and nuclear levels is too stark and blatant to escape notice. But their leaders deny this altogether. On Sunday, Vajpayee said, “We are not in any arms race with anybody. Whatever steps India has been taking [are] for self defence.” He added, chiding Pakistan, “Those who are themselves acquiring weapons are blaming us.” Now, any state that participates in the arms race, either as an initiator of new moves or reactively, can claim it is acting in “self defence”. That is the very logic of a nuclear arms race, with escalation built into it. That does not negate the reality of the arms race, or make it less dangerous.

Published Thursday, October 16th, 2003 - 01:51pm GMT

Asia Times

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