Space age strategic defence

THE DEFENCE Minister, George Fernandes, recently (October 5) claimed that the country's nuclear command chain, including alternative "nerve centres," was in place, giving India an effective retaliatory nuclear capability. "We have established more than one (nuclear control) nerve centre," said the Minister. Under this scheme underground bunkers are constructed for safekeeping of highly equipped networking in more than a dozen underground places linked to the central nerve command of the Nuclear War Defence Council. The Bunker High Command Post will be stocked with food and fuel and equipped with all necessary electronic communication networks capable of commanding a retaliatory nuclear strike. Since New Delhi is committed to "no first use" doctrine, in case of the first nuclear strike by enemy, our Strategic Defence Council along with a few select Cabinet members are supposed to hide inside the bunkers, 200 to 300 metres deep in the Earth.

During the Cold War decades, both sides of the warring states had indulged in building such underground silos to bury their missiles and nuclear warheads. They also constructed nuclear power reactors for gathering weapons grade plutonium. India too followed the nuclear route to its defence planning. Undisclosed millions had been diverted to the Atomic Energy "for Peaceful Purposes," and we demonstrated the great pride in explosions at Pokhran-1, and Pokhran-2. Recently the Cabinet is reported to have approved a project for construction of a Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR), 500 MW capacity. According to the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, Dr. Kakodkar, the PFBR is to demonstrate feasibility of power production. Evidently, the PFBR is not meant to help our national power requirement.

The life of a breeder reactor is about 25 years. But the cost of its decommissioning is four times the cost of its construction spread over 60-100 years. Besides, there are no textbooks on decommissioning of plutonium producing breeders. The entire nuclear route leaves behind hazardous waste for future generations. Admittedly, the nuclear energy was attractive for its "dual-purpose" advantage but having stockpiled 50,000 nuclear warheads, and about 1000 tonnes of weapons grade plutonium, the advanced countries are now in a fix with these non-usable stockpiled weapons grade plutonium. It is costing billions of dollars on safe-keeping of radioactive valuable waste.

In the mid-80s, scientific studies resulted in the two powerful terms introduced into lexicon: nuclear nights and nuclear winter. By 1985, nuclear weapons had become useless stockpiled anti-life instruments of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). Washington and Moscow both had reached the MAD race together and eventually agreed to nuclear disarmament. The problem they faced however was: what to do with the tens of thousands of nuclear warheads whose efficacy with time lapse was becoming doubtful? And yet they are dangerous not to enemy but to their own masters. Disarming, decommissioning and destruction of these thousands of life-threatening nuclear weapons posed the most serious and extremely costly problems for scientists and engineers of the most powerful advanced nations.

Nevertheless, world peace and security was still endangered as the comparatively less advanced countries could also acquire a few of these useless stockpiled handy tools of mischief and terrorism. To describe this new strategic defence scenario a new expression had been coined: Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). In the case of two superpowers, the level of destructive force was MAD, but in the case of Iraq and Jehadis, it is WMD. In sanctioning funds for the PFBR and in approving the construction of underground command bunkers, we are repeating the folly of the Cold War nuclear strategy. During the early decades of the Cold War (1950-70s), nuclear weapons were considered the currency of power but global environmental consequences of "nuclear winter nights" turned them means of absolute insecurity and destruction.

It is estimated that after a nuclear detonation, the heat flare within 10 km of the hypocenter, in one or two seconds, will develop intensity thousands of times of the Sun. But this brief two seconds would set ablaze everything around — paper, clothes, shades, fuel, furniture and entire building structures. The primary fires partially offset by a powerful air wave, issued from the hypocenter, will raise scattering sparks, blazing debris, splashes of burning and short-circuits in electric mains which would produce extensive `secondary fires' causing blast waves demolishing constructed structures, and disrupting and destroying the entire electronic communication systems. The first and the secondary blasts will simultaneously set huge fireballs and in a chain reaction create wind storms by continuous supply of gush of oxygen for the burning fires in and around the nuclear hypocenter. These massive firestorms would throw thousands of tonnes of debris up to the heavens, which eventually in return journey would be descending on earth with increasing destructive force. No fire control system would operate, nor would there exist any civil defence mechanism.

The defence pundits who have advised the Union Government to go for the PFBR, and approved the construction of underground Nuclear War Council Command Post bunkers had not realised the advancement in destructive force of MAD weapons. Underground bunkers were designed for the traditional warfare. In the 21st century's advanced war-science systems there is no sanctuary when the very aim of attack is not to conquer the territories but the obliteration of entire civil population.

Moreover, the Command Council inside the bunkers will be sitting ducks for the enemy, since the advanced "bunker-buster earth penetrator" weapons have been developed which are stationed high above beyond ground reach. Moreover, the Commanders and the civil authority inside the bunkers, even if survived a few hours or a few days, without supply of fresh air and water, they would not be able to come out of the bunkers. What would they command? How would nuclear retaliatory strike take place? And what would they defend? All around there would be radioactive dust and debris, without sunlight, under nuclear night, frozen in the nuclear winter. Only god knows for how long total darkness and nuclear winter would last?

There is asymmetry between New Delhi and Islamabad, but due to close proximity, in terms of destructive effect we have achieved strategic nuclear capability of Mutual Assured Destruction. For us, therefore, the question is not of "national security" but the security of entire life support eco-system on the Indian subcontinent. The nuclear night and the nuclear winter that would follow a nuclear conflict would lead to irreversible calamity for the entire SAARC humanity, a clear possibility of total obliteration of all civilisation in the South Asian region.

The purpose of research and development of scientific weapons is to provide safety and security and keep sustainable civil order. But any efforts toward nuclearisation of our defence only contribute towards extinction. Nuclearisation of defence in the 21st century space age is an obsolete concept. However, if we have to keep up with ever advancing military science, we must plan for space age security. At present, our defence technology is overwhelmingly heavy with nuclearisation, and lacking futuristic vision 2020. The war science paradigm has shifted from the nucelar weapons to strategic security from outer space. It is prudent to support our space exploration programme.

President Abdul Kalam has described advantages of space age strategic planning. "Having crossed the industrial age, we are in the knowledge age. India has tremendous capabilities to be a leading country in information technology. Space technology combined with information and communication technologies will provide greater opportunities for India to be one among the lead countries for future space activities. It is an opportune moment narrowing the difference between developing and developed nations," says Dr. Kalam.


Director, Centre for Science

Policy Research, Dehradun

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