Nuclear hazards

Need For Confidence Building Measures

The Statesman | May 30, 2001

Nuclear weapons states must clearly spell out their strategy, inspire confidence in their adversaries that they will abide by their declared stance and should give credible evidence that adequate checks and balances have been built into their nuclear decision-making process and nuclear weapons handling procedures.

Since it is now clearly recognised that nuclear wars cannot be won and therefore ought not be fought, each nuclear-armed adversary must develop confidence in the sincerity of the other to ensure that the unthinkable will not be attempted or allowed to occur due to laxity in safety and security measures and procedures. Nuclear weapons states (NWS) must clearly spell out their strategy, inspire confidence in their adversaries that they will abide by their declared stance and should give credible evidence that adequate checks and balances have been built into their nuclear decision-making process and nuclear weapons handling procedures. It is also necessary to convince the adversary that nuclear weapons are firmly under civilian control and that such control will not be delegated to military authorities except under the most extreme circumstances.


Paul Bracken has written: “With atom bombs to back | them up, governments have a tendency to say things that aggravate a.crisis. [he same thing happened early on in the Cold War, for example, when Khrushchev threatened to “bury the United States.” But the dangers of such explosive rhetoric soon became apparent. By the end of the Cold War the United States and the Soviet Union were using only the most restrained diplomatic language, even when their military moves were much more aggressive…in Asian crises this lesson hasn’t yet been learnt…The shaky control of Asian nuclear forces increases the danger of accidental or unintended war…unique conditions in Asia heighten the dangers…the level of mistrust is extreme to the point of pathology… the world has reasons to worry about whose fingers are on the nuclear triggers in countries such as Iran, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan and North Korea… A strategy of restraint needs to be communicated in advance if it is to evoke limitation in attack for fear of the consequences…”.

Despite Bracken’s convincing logic, it is apparent that the Asian nuclear powers are passing through the same phase that characterised the early years of nuclear deterrence between the two superpowers during the Cold War. However it would be foolish to ignore the lessons of the instability and risks engendered by the first 50 years of nuclear weapons — lessons like those from the Cuban missile crisis. Asia s nuclear armed adversaries must heed the lessons of the past and take all steps necessary to ensure deterrence stability.

The aim of instituting confidence building measures (CBMs) is to avoid tensions arising from mistrust. misperception, accidents and military brinkmanship. Neither India and Pakistan nor India and China are likely to have such high stakes in a future conventional conflict that they would be prepared to risk nuclear exchanges. Once this realisation dawns, it will be but a short step forward to working out a mutually acceptable “no first use” treaty — the ultimate nuclear CBM. However, it will be a long while before China and Pakistan singly or jointly agreed to sign a no first use treaty with India.

There is an inescapable necessity for India, China and Pakistan to mutually develop nuclear CBMs and institute verifiable nuclear risk reduction measures (NRRMs). A number of bilateral and multilateral measures could be considered for implementation by the Southern Asian NWS in a graduated manner. The first of these could be an agreement on storing nuclear weapons in 4 disassembled form, i.e., keeping the atomic core and the conventional high explosive (HE) bomb casing, including the trigger mechanism, separate during peacetime storage.

Another viable measure would be to enter into an agreement on the non-use of short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) for nuclear deterrence. SKBMs like India’s Prithvi (range 150250 km) and Pakistan’s Hatf (derivative of Chinas M-11).

range less than 300 km), are extremely destabilising due to their greater mobility, ability to deploy quickly and the short time of flight that gives virtually no reaction time before the missile impacts. India, Chine and Pakistan would do well to exclude this class of missile completely from their nuclear arsenals. China must withdraw the large number of SRBMs that it has stationed in Tibet.


Agreement could also he reached on the non-deployment of intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM) regiments and their logistics support elements during peacetime. As India, China and Pakistan do not have the satellite surveillance capability to continuously track each suspect ballistic missile storage site and the numerous highways and railway lines on which the missiles can be moved, the deployment of missile regiments would be inherently destabilising. The prior notification of flight tests of ballistic missiles to all nuclear-armed neighbours and to the UN secretary general should be a measure that is easy to agree on. In due course, it should be possible to agree to make a distinction between missiles inducted but not deployed. Such an arrangement would be precursor for a de-targeting agreement.

Subsequently, when the basic warhead and delivery system technology has been mastered to a satisfactory level of assurance, the respective nuclear forces are credible enough to achieve deterrence stability, and the world draws progressively closer to total nuclear disarmament, nuclear CBMs and NRRMs could be upgraded to include measures that might appear fanciful today: a regional and global missile flight test ban: verifiable deployment restrictions and limitations missile-free geographical zones and restrictions on the total number of missiles that each of the NWS may have in its arsenal. As mutual trust gradually builds up, efforts to upgrade and strengthen existing nuclear risk reduction measures could include improved hotlines, shared early warning arrangements and intrusive onsite inspections.

Some analysts have even recommended that unilateral measures should be adopted where agreement is not easy to reach. These could include advance notification of impending missile flight tests, prior information about the movement of nuclear-capable air force squadrons from one base to another and identification and notification of training areas for nuclear forces units to distinguish them from deployment areas. Such measures undoubtedly have several disadvantages and impact negatively on operational flexibility. However, since the issue at stake is one that is critical for national security, the negative aspects could be overcome with concerted efforts.


Nuclear CBMs and NRRMs would require credible verification regimes to be effective. Verification could involve intrusive techniques such as over-flights up to an agreed depth inside each others territory. la the initial stages of | mutual confidence building it would be advisable to desist from insisting on foolproof verification regimes. Gradually, as confidence levels increase and the political and diplomatic climate improves, stringent verification regimes can be progressively incorporated. The first short step forward for India, China and Pakistan is to accept the need for nuclear CBMs and NRRMs as an inescapable national security and possibility. It is imperative that the government concerned view this responsibility not only as a short-term necessity but as their bequest to posterity.

In defence analyst K Subrahmanyam’s view. “The most constructive way of building confidence… is to follow the example of the US-Soviet dialogue at Helsinki in which both sides spoke frankly about their respective capabilities. That led to a whole series of arms control negotiations. If knowledgeable teams from India and Pakistan met and have a free and intellectually honest discussion, they will find many points of convergence… It is easier to build confidence on the basis of mutual acceptance of harsh ground realities than on the basis of unverifiable declarations”.

Nuclear safety, security, confidence building and risk reduction are issues that need urgent attention not only in Southern Asia but also internationally, particularly among the N-5 or P-5. However most Western diplomats, political leaders and analysts tend to focus on India and Pakistan only due to their misperception that Southern Asia is a nuclear flashpoint.

At the same time, no effort should be spared to pursue the goal of total nuclear disarmament because the most supreme NRRM would be the complete elimination of nuclear weapons.

It is also important to ensure that the confidence building process extends beyond the political, diplomatic and military establishments. The public has the greatest stake in ensuring that the nuclear button is never again pressed.