On April 19, India successfully fired its first true intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that can carry a one-tonne nuclear warhead across continents. By doing so, it joined a select group of five countries that already have this capability. Pakistan is not among them. Pakistan’s capability is India-specific and aimed at avoiding a war with it by making any thought of such a conflict cost-prohibitive. The same biting reality should hopefully also keep Pakistan in check. It is a perverse way of avoiding a war and ensuring peace but this is what you get in primal societies where enhanced means of extinction are celebrated by creating and joining select groups. Around two weeks back we were reminded of our exclusive honour as the only two nations in the world who were engaged in a war on the world’s highest battlefield. Citius, Altius, Fortius — we have given it a new meaning.
Somewhere in a discreet office in Pakistan, a nuclear scientist is in a serious conversation with a strategic planner trying to lead him on to that illusory goal of imitating the feat within a couple of years, only if the strategic planner could keep the funds flowing. He could extend the range of his current fleet of missiles to 5,000 kilometres, and then to 10,000 kilometres, by just adding another solid-fuel rocket motor and some further refinement of rocket motor technology. And he would say that that this would allow the missile to go thousands of kilometres up in the sky, and “thence upwards to the moon”! Sounds familiar? It should: 1949, and the Karachi Agreement, then 1972 and Simla; “thence north to the glaciers”! We are grappling with both the syntax and the various interpretations as we fight off the tragedy of April 7 at Siachen and the 8,000 others who have lost their lives since 1984 when another competitive undertaking set us onto the journey to discover whatever “thence north to the glaciers” meant.
The scientist would then add that such a long-range and high altitude re-entry could provide for multiple independently-targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) — eight to 10 nuclear bombs, each 20 times the destructive power of those that took out Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This means that there will be one missile carrying up to 10 nuclear bombs — a dream come true for any Dr Strangelove. You could rain them all at one place making sure that no one walked that piece of earth again, or through sheer marvel of technological beastliness target them at ten different places within a few hundred kilometres of each other. Imagine the perversity that entices a being and exhilarates him with this idea of complete extinction — not just death.
Somewhere out there, however, there are a few others who have their eyebrows curled up. Japan, Australia, the Koreas and who knows the Indonesians too could have dreams of their own. Those are only likely to be reinforced. Closer to home, the Iranians will find a valid justification to pursue what they are already being blamed for, which would then trigger responses from Saudi Arabia, Turkey and worries in most of Europe. China would have already have a plan on putting up a missile shield; India’s ability to target the Chinese ‘heartland’ will now serve to expedite its institution.
President Barack Obama was awarded a Nobel prize for peace without having earned it. However, after having accepted it, he carries a moral baggage to deliver on his qualification for the award. He has pushed the world on non-proliferation and disarmament. Pakistan has been under specific pressure on the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty. The Agni testing, however, lay waste any pretension of the world heeding him.
On April 18, I was invited to an Indian TV debate on the implications of what by then was an impending Agni V test. In a planned interview of about 22 minutes I could only participate for about five — for the remaining 17 the communications would not hold. The anchor, honest enough, could only admit that while we in South Asia indeed had lofty missions of intercontinental aspirations, we still had to learn to institute more reliable communications. That is the truth on both sides of the border.
I wonder what will come first: a South Asian on the moon, reliable communications, resolution of “thence north to the glaciers” conundrum, or a newer challenge of “thence upwards to the moon”. Whatever it might be, see you on the moon!
Published in The Express Tribune, April 26th, 2012.
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