It was Einstein who said that the advent of nuclear weapons has changed everything except man’s thinking about war. We are living in an age where modern nuclear weapons and their potential for widespread death and destruction make Hiroshima and Nagasaki look like a Sunday picnic. Both India and its neighbour to the west are reported to have around 130 to 140 bombs that flattened both these cities. The fatalities were around a hundred thousand instant deaths. This was the immediate damage, not to talk of delayed effects like cases of blood cancer and mutilated limbs in the succeeding generations reported even now.

Today, the flying time between India and its neighbour for an aircraft carrying such bombs is 8 to 13 minutes. A single bomb that flattened the two cities, if dropped over any crowded city, say in north India could result in several million instant deaths. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were sparsely populated, with mostly single storeyed wooden structures. Today’s cities are overcrowded, with skyscrapers closely built. Modern scientific studies have researched the direct and collateral damage that a nuclear device would inflict on the civilian population. Carl Sagan and Richard Turco are the leading Western scientists who have extensively studied the horrific consequences of even a limited nuclear exchange.

“Nuclear explosions over urban areas (besides killing millions) could generate an extensive pall of deadly asbestos fibres from the pulverization of buildings insulated with this substance. The fine asbestos fibre would drift over large areas exposing multitudes to the long term prospect of deadly cancer. Average surface temperature would fall to minus 13 celsius …. a disaster for agriculture.” The extreme danger posed by an all-powerful Supremo, virtually accountable to no one, during an actual crisis can be well-imagined with historical experience. Clausewitz again: “The study of history must be at the centre of any advanced study of war.”

The last time a nuclear device was exploded, the main key was undoubtedly in the safe custody of US scientists working with President Truman. It was the height of war against Japan, when the commanding US general simply took away the key from the scientists, and without any civilian authorization unleashed the two bombs. History records that President Truman was sleeping at the time. The US General was aware about the consequent unspeakable horror in the two cities, primarily civilian targets. And yet, he readied three more atom bombs to be exploded over three more cities, again without any civilian authorization. The scientists were too overawed to resist the Generals.

Meanwhile, President Truman had woken up and he was horrified to learn about the use of atom bombs. He countermanded the Generals and stopped further bombing raids. The US learnt its lessons well, about the absolute imperative of firm civilian control over the armed forces. Or, did it? In 1962, the world was again on the brink of a catastrophe over the Cuban missile crisis. The then Soviet Union had clandestinely smuggled some nuclear missiles next door to the US, in Cuba. There was nuclear confrontation between the two super powers, overloaded with nuclear weapons that packed enough destructive capacity to wipe out each other many times over.

Fortunately for mankind, the crisis was resolved and the two leaders, Kennedy and Khrushchev, signed a peace deal. The deal between the two sovereign states was “rejected” by the then US Air Chief, and he made his intentions, or shall we say ambitions, known publicly. It sent shockwaves throughout the civilian US establishment when he asserted that his Air Force would start bombing Cuba “within the hour”. The Air Chief had to be almost physically prevented from carrying out his suicidal mission. Had he done so, the world would have been plunged into a nuclear war with consequences too horrible to describe. The future of mankind was at stake.

“The combat ceased for want of combatants”. As it is, India and its neighbour are on a knife-edge. Whereas India has openly declared its policy of “no first use” of nuclear weapons, our neighbour has not done so. It has openly said that in view of India’s acknowledged superiority in conventional weapons, it would resort to ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons if it felt that its existence was at stake, whatever that means. It has further warned that any thrust into its territory would be met with nuclear weapons. Whereas India’s nuclear weapons are under firm civilian control, our neighbour’s are “firmly” under its Army’s control. Some theoreticians draw a distinction between strategic and tactical nuclear weapons. It is an academic pastime, with no relevance to reality.

Once nuclear weapons are used, there is no knowing where it would end. The situation could easily spin out of control, and the civilian political leadership could be left stranded. The nuclear weapons are carried by air. Whereas the march of land forces can be halted, and sailing ships even with nuclear warheads can be ordered back home, air power once unleashed would be virtually impossible to control. A Supremo in the saddle would surely raise doubts about our overall intentions among our potential adversaries, and fuel mutual suspicions if not passions, without any strategic advantage to us.

It will give propaganda mileage to our adversaries, and strengthen the influence of hotheads amongst its military. It will give a fillip to the adversary’s military adventurists, and promote belligerent behaviour. It will further weaken its civilian leadership, nominal at the best of times. According to the former US Defence Secretary, veteran General James Mattis, our neighbour to the west is already the fastest growing nuclear power in the world. The concept of a Supremo lends no advantage to India’s civilian Government, either tactical or strategic. Ironically, ‘single point advice’ has no meaning in terms of modern military strategy in the nuclear age.

(The writer is a retired IAS officer)