Feb 21, 2002

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Risk of nuclear attack worsening

Few Canadians are aware that North America is vulnerable to acts of anonymous atomic terrorism. In Canada, articulation of these fears generates eyes rolling and mutterings about U.S. paranoia.

By Douglas Ross
Despite 9-11, few canadians have noticed the ever-worsening risks of nuclear use posed by the continuing proliferation of nuclear weapons. Fewer still are aware that North America is also vulnerable to acts of anonymous atomic terrorism. American fears of such attack intensified three-and-a-half years ago after a defector from Soviet military intelligence gave testimony to Congress about plans to deploy nuclear weapons near Washington and other U.S. sites between 1989 and 1991. Those fears were invoked again recently by the head of the U.S. customs service as it sought placement of U.S. officials at Canadian ports. In Canada, articulation of these fears usually generates eyes rolling upward and mutterings about U.S. paranoia when, instead, we should acknowledge the heightened dangers that all North Americans now face. For much of the past four years, and especially since the December 2001 terrorist attack on the Indian parliament, international security analysts have been warning of the risk of escalation arising from the Indo-Pakistani conflict. The December 2001 issue of Scientific American, for example, featured an article on this rivalry which pronounced South Asia to be “the most likely place in the world for a nuclear war.” Escalation risk While the risks of escalation to nuclear use from the long-simmering conflict over Kashmir are real, it is also true that both the Indian and Pakistani militaries have warheads that are operationally ready. A condition of relative deterrent stability exists because of the mutuality of the nuclear threat. This amounts to an equilibrium of sorts, but conditions can hardly be called safe. Both Indian and Pakistani missile warheads (or gravity bombs carried on supersonic fighter-bombers) are dispersed at a number of locations. Any effort by either side to attempt a disarming surprise attack would carry with it enormous risks of missing a few of the atomic weapons in the target state, weapons that presumably would then be launched back at the attacking state's cities. Caution and prudence are thus mandatory: both sides have powerful incentives to refrain from actions that would increase the risk of uncontrolled escalation. It has been estimated that each 15 kiloton (or Hiroshima-size) bomb detonated on Indian or Pakistani cities might kill from 150,000 to 800,000 people within a few months of detonation. The launch-to-impact flight time of missiles in South Asia would be between three and five minutes. This is so short a time that it may already have caused the pre-delegation of launch authority from civilians to the senior military, allowing them to fire nuclear missiles in retaliatory salvos based on tactical radar warning of attack alone - prior to the actual detonation of bombs on national territory. This creates a small but finite risk of nuclear war caused by false warnings of attack generated by electronic, mechanical or even human intelligence failures. Furthermore, Pakistani military strategists apparently believe (or hope) that their nuclear arsenal can be used in a tactical battlefield role to neutralize India's conventional force superiority without provoking a full-scale nuclear war. Indian awareness of such calculation has created more than a little risk that a perceived imminent use of Pakistani atomic strikes on invading Indian armoured forces (perhaps bent on teaching Pakistan a lesson regarding support for terrorism in Kashmir and elsewhere) might well provoke the Indian government to launch a major pre-emptive or preventive attack on all suspected Pakistani nuclear weapons sites and development facilities. India continues to build up its conventional forces along the 2,900 kilometer border. Recent Indian efforts to begin construction of an impermeable barrier of barbed wire fences and 1.5 kilometer-deep minefields along its entire length may eventually reduce the scale of the problem of cross-border terrorism. But such efforts will take time to complete and terrorist groups will no doubt be stimulated to greater ingenuity in smuggling weapons and bomb-making materials into Kashmir. In the meantime, despite a steady stream of high-level American and Commonwealth mediatory emissaries, the risk of an Indian invasion to suppress suspected terrorist training sites, and of a consequent Pakistani first use of tactical atomic bombs remains all too real. In the Middle East nuclear danger is certainly at least as grave as that in South Asia. Some analysts would say it is much greater because of the imbalance of nuclear forces in that region. Western analysts credit Israel with an arsenal of between 100 and 300 bombs and missile warheads, some fraction of them consisting of either boosted fission or authentically thermonuclear devices with explosive yields of 100 kilotons (6 to 7 times the explosive power of the Hiroshima bomb) or more. Both Iraq and Iran have been pursuing nuclear technologies and mounting covert atomic and thermonuclear weapons development programs for at least 15 years. Egyptian authorities have also claimed to have the capability to exercise a nuclear option within two years of a decision to do so. Iran is thought to be within one to two years of its first atomic weapons, while some analysts believe they may already possess a small arsenal courtesy of hired Russian scientific help. The chief source of concern in the region, however, remains Iraq. Iraqi tests The Iraqis may already possess a few atomic weapons, although recent public American estimates of operational atomic capability have been pushed back to 2005. In February of 2001 the London Sunday Times published accounts by Iraqi defectors claiming that Iraq in fact carried out two atomic tests in 1989 in excavated caverns under Lake Rezzaza, southwest of Baghdad. At least two usable atomic weapons were claimed to be in Iraqi hands already - with more fissile material on the way from scores of small dispersed uranium enrichment sites. The same report also referred to Israeli military sources who claimed that the Israeli military chief of staff had been instructed by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to prepare for possible preemptive attacks against Iraqi ballistic missile launch sites near the Syrian border. Israeli authorities are apparently planning to blanket the region with many neutron bombs intended to create sufficient electro-magnetic pulse such that the electronic systems on all Iraqi weapons would be destroyed, preventing their launch.

As in South Asia, the risk of false Israeli preemptive or preventive nuclear strikes (because of inaccurate warnings of imminent attack) is thus serious. But unlike South Asia, there is an additional cause for worry: because Israel's arsenal is quite large and well-developed while the Iraqi program is still in its infancy, there is undoubtedly pressure from within the Israeli military and political elite to consider strangling the baby in its cradle - to use a phrase employed by American strategists when considering the same temptation vis-a-vis China in the early 1960s. U.S. government documents recently made public have confirmed that the Kennedy administration's nuclear strategists also developed a plan for a surprise attack on all Soviet bomber and missile bases using only 55 B-52 aircraft. The pressure on the Israeli leadership to consider such options is, of course, far greater than it was on the Americans who had the Pacific and Arctic Oceans separating them from their nuclearizing rivals and a vastly larger area in which to hide their own retaliatory weapons. The passing of the Cold War and the breakup of the Soviet state persuaded many Canadians that the dangers of nuclear war had receded dramatically. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The naïve early twentieth-century belief that Canadians live in a fireproof house far from the flames of war appears to have reasserted itself once more. Such isolationist self-delusion must be dispelled to clear the way for a more effective Canadian response to the security challenges we now confront. Douglas Ross is a professor in SFU's deparment of political science.

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