In December 1980, the US President received a recorded message from Muammar Al-Qadafi the President of Libya threatening to detonate a nuclear device that had been smuggled into New York unless his conditions with regards to Palestine were met within a stipulated time. There was an adjunct: In case the US President made that communication public, or made any effort whatsoever, to evacuate New York City, Qadafi would be obliged to detonate the device instantly. The recorded message was accompanied with enough documentary evidence (a blueprint and four pages of mathematical formulae) to remove any doubt about the ability of the sender of the message to execute his threat. The intelligence agencies confirmed that the voice was that of Qadafi. The threat was R-E-A-L.
That was fiction: “The Fifth Horseman” by the duo of Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre (1980). But what President Gerald Ford experienced earlier, in 1974, was not fiction. A group of Palestinians had threatened to detonate an atomic device in the heart of Boston unless eleven of their men in Israeli prisons were released. Notwithstanding the threat, Ford did work on an evacuation plan. Meanwhile, the blackmailers were caught and the threat turned out to be a hoax.
After that incident the US came up with a secret organisation to deal with such threats, real or hoax. Fiction and fact, this issue of nuclear blackmail did not end just there.
After the publication of the book (The Fifth Horseman), two journalists interviewed Qadafi and asked him what he thought of the book by Collins and Lapierre in which he had been projected as one terrorising the US with a nuclear device. Until then Qadafi had not known about the book, or the plot. He responded mysteriously, “In (any) case if ever that were to happen (Qadafi were to smuggle a nuclear device into a US city), it would be your fault because you gave me the idea.”
Fast forward to today and now. Nuclear Terrorism is no longer a figment of imagination; it is a reality. A news item published in an obscure corner of The Times of India (of Friday, February 22, 2019) reports a man being interrogated by the IB and the sleuths. He had confided that a girl he was communicating with on a dating app was talking about a nuclear attack on Delhi and that Rashtrapati Bhawan would be blown up.
There are reasons to believe that India, like the US and others, has plans and machinery to handle such threats and crises. The architects of India’s Nuclear Doctrine have crafted some of the most well defined guidelines (on nuclear issues). There is much substance in the “No First Use” policy that India professes.
India’s Nuclear Doctrine, the command and control structure etc. etc. are not the subject matter of this post––they have been very well articulated. Of concern today––in the post Pulwama rhetoric on both sides of India’s western border––is the ability of the Indian military apparatus to respond to a possible nuclear misadventure by an adversary or its proxy.
Are we prepared for a prompt (read “lightning”) and befitting response?
Hmm!!! Well, with the nuclear arsenal that it possesses, India can turn a prospective adversary into rubble (even after absorbing the first strike). There is no iota of doubt about that. What about the will to do just that? Read on…
When the balloon goes up, it will be the armed forces personnel who would be taking the physical actions to launch nuclear weapons––missiles, aircraft, warships or submarines. Generations of those very officers, who would be expected to act with great alacrity, have been fed on the idea that: “Nuclear weapons are not the weapons for fighting; they are meant for deterrence.” Although this is an undeniable fact, at times the stress laid on it, is far too much. Anyone who even appears to tow a different line even in theory or for the sake of an argument, does not find favour with the directing staff and senior officers who conduct war games. Officers with divergent views are sometimes ridiculed by their superiors/ colleagues.
An officer who has been groomed and trained for years to treat nuclear weapons as meant “ONLY FOR DETERRENCE” if, and when, ordered to fire a nuclear missile, would pause and have second thoughts. He would be inclined to verify the authenticity of the order. In a war involving use of nuclear weapons, a delay of a few seconds to respond to first use by an adversary might result in considerable degradation of the capability to cause unacceptable damage to the attacker.
So? Those who wear military uniforms need not be told that the weapons in their charge are not meant for use; they only need to be apprised––loudly, clearly and publicly, “These are weapons of mass destruction, use them only under the explicit orders of the leadership. This small change in approach will certainly not turn our fine men into trigger-happy warmongers. If at all, it will improve the response and make the deterrence more effective.