For decades, military planners in the United States, former Soviet Union, and the other nuclear weapons states have convinced themselves that their nuclear weapons are a deterrent. The nuclear annihilation that would follow if these weapons were used was supposed to make any enemy stop, think, and decide that war was not worth the consequences. To make sure that an enemy had no doubt about these consequences, all the nuclear weapons states created nuclear arsenals designed to fight a nuclear war. Nuclear deterrence was built on assuming that one day the simple fear of nuclear weapons would not be enough and the weapons would have to be used.
The reliance on nuclear weapons that could be used in a real war led each nuclear weapons state to live in perpetual fear of a surprise attack that would make their weapons useless. This fear was greatest during the Cold War, when each side thought the other could not be trusted. The US and Soviet Union addressed their fears by building enormously complex early warning systems that would let them know they were about to be attacked and give them time to launch their nuclear weapons before they were destroyed.
The early warning systems of the superpowers had another crucial role. Since any war would have meant nuclear war, both sides wanted to make sure that war did not begin by accident. Early warning systems created time during which people could make decisions using real information about what was actually happening rather than responding simply on the basis of fears of what might be about to happen.
The US built and still operates the biggest and most sophisticated early warning system. It is based around a missile warning system and works by collecting information from satellites that can detect the launch of missiles from another country and radars around the world that can follow the missiles to see where they are going. The information is transmitted from these satellites and radars to where it can be processed by computers and then analysed and interpreted by people. To make sure that this is done seriously and properly, this assessment is done at several places separately. If the information is determined to be reliable, it is sent to more senior people who are supposed to decide how to respond.
When the satellites and radars say that missiles may have been launched towards the US, there is a Missile Display Conference among the commanders of the places where the analysis of the information is carried out. If they decide that the danger is serious, and not a mistake made by the satellites, or radar, or somewhere along the communication system, or a mistake by one of the people who is supposed to interpret the information, then a Threat Assessment Conference is called. This includes the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee and senior military commanders.
At the same time as a Threat Assessment Conference is called, a state of alert is declared, fighter aircraft take off, nuclear-armed bombers are told to start their engines, and missiles are readied for launch. This is the last step before a Missile Attack Conference. This is where the President is told what has happened, and asked to decide what is to be done.
Both the US and the Soviet Union, now Russia, had these multiple levels of decision making because they had the time to check, and double check, to make sure that they knew what was happening. Their satellites and early warning radar systems gave them information within one and a half minutes of the possible launch of a missile. They took about two and a half minutes to work out what was happening from this information. A meeting could be called and a threat determined a few minutes after this. In other words within about six or seven minutes, it was possible to decide if a nuclear attack may have started. Since the missiles would have taken about 25 minutes to travel from the US to the Soviet Union or in the other direction, there was still time for a final confirmation that the missiles were real. There was even time left to find out if there had been an accidental launch of the missiles, and to decide what to do.
Given the terrible consequences of nuclear war, enormous financial and technical resources were invested in setting up and running these early warning systems, and trying to make them fool-proof. However, history shows that these systems failed. Not once, or twice, but frequently. There is no real history of all the failures. It is known, however, that between 1977 and 1984 the US early warning system showed over 20,000 false alarms of a missile attack on the US. Over 1000 of these were considered serious enough for bombers and missiles to be placed on alert.
Some of these incidents give terrifying insights into how easily even the most carefully designed and technologically advanced warning systems can go wrong. Two instances will suffice. In November 1979, the US missile warning system showed that a massive attack had suddenly been launched. Jets were launched, and a nuclear alert declared. There was no attack. There were no missiles. The warning was due to a computer that had been used to test the warning system to see how it would behave if there was an attack. Somebody had forgotten to turn off the computer after the exercise.
A second example was even more dramatic. In June 1980, the early warning systems showed that two missiles had been launched towards the US. This was followed by signals that there were more missiles following the first two. A Threat Assessment Conference was called. The situation was considered to be sufficiently serious that the President’s special airplane was prepared for take-off. Again there was no attack, nor any missiles. The reason for the mistaken signals, and interpretations, was eventually traced to a computer chip that was not working properly. The repeated failures of the US early warning system led at one time to an official enquiry which reported that the system “had been mismanaged… by the Air Force, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Department of Defence”. In other words, every institution assigned to make sure the system worked had failed in its task.
It was not just the US system that failed. While there is little information yet on how the Soviet Union managed its nuclear weapons warning systems, there is at least one example from recent years that suggests it cannot have worked any better than the US system. On 25 January1995, a Norwegian rocket was launched to take scientific measurements. The Norwegian government told the Russian government in advance that this would happen. Nevertheless, when the rocket was picked up by Russian radar it was treated as a possible missile attack. It seems a warning was sent to the Russian defence minister’s headquarters, the Russian military leadership, and to the commanders of Russian missiles that an attack may be underway. A message was then sent to Boris Yeltsin, the Russian President, and an emergency conference called with nuclear commanders over the telephone. Boris Yeltsin has confirmed that such an emergency conference did take place.
Fear and paranoia
The lessons for India and Pakistan are obvious. Experience shows that in any real crisis involving the two, fear and paranoia soon become overwhelming. One need look no further than the recent panic about a possible pre-emptive attack on Pakistan’s nuclear facilities by India. The fear was there despite a nearly ten-year-old agreement not to attack each other’s nuclear facilities. In the absence of basic trust, generals on each side will always assume those on the other side might want to launch a surprise attack, and will want, in turn, to be prepared to respond with nuclear weapons.
The need for early warning systems is therefore clear. But, even if Pakistan and India had the technology for early warning, and even if it worked reliably, they could not use it, geography has made sure of that. The time to take decisions will not be available to either Pakistan or India. Instead of the 25 minutes that the US and the Soviet Union had, it would take a Prithvi missile somewhere between three and five minutes to reach almost anywhere in Pakistan. It would take the Ghauri missile about five minutes to reach Delhi. In such a short time, an early warning system could give warning of what might be happening, a meeting could be called, and then time would run out. There would be no time to decide whether the warning was real, or a mistake. The decision would have to be made on either launching the missiles immediately or taking the risk of the missiles being destroyed before they could be used.
In order to avoid such a situation, some people may suggest that India and Pakistan find a way to create time for the generals to make sure they know what is happening in any future crisis. It may be possible to create such time by an agreement whereby each side would keep its warheads stored separately from missiles and airplanes and let the other side check to make sure this was indeed the case. Any nuclear attack could then only come after the warheads were taken out of storage and then loaded onto missiles or planes, and an attempt to do so would be detected.
But this is, at best, a desperate measure. The lack of trust is so great that making sure an agreement was being honoured would require an extraordinary system of allowing inspections of each other’s missile and airforce bases and nuclear facilities. There is no prospect of that happening. But, any agreement without such inspections would mean the generals on each side, fearing their counterparts had secretly hidden a few nuclear warheads with some missiles, would do the same. The nuclear dangers would remain despite an agreement, and might actually become greater. The alternative is simple. No nuclear weapons mean no nuclear crises. No nuclear crises mean no danger of nuclear war.
Zia Mian and A H Nayyar are nuclear physicists and peace activists.