Accessibility links

World: Irreversible Milestone In Nuclear Age Now Passed

  • Julie Moffett

Washington, 26 August 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The editor of a well-known defense journal says the world has now passed a second "irreversible milestone" in the nuclear age as a result of the nuclear tests by India and Pakistan.

John Eldridge, editor of Jane's NBC (nuclear, biological and chemical) Defense Systems 1998-99, makes the comment in the recently released publication. Jane's Information Group, based in London, is the internationally recognized leader of defense journals and has several publications.

Eldridge says the first irreversible milestone in the nuclear age was the ending of the Cold War, and subsequently, the collapse of the concept of mutual assured destruction. He says the second milestone, now also passed, is the proliferation of nuclear weapons beyond the control of the five existing nuclear powers.

Eldridge explains: "The dangerous barter in nuclear weapons tests during Spring 1998 forced some rapid reappraisal by experts who had to reach into the past for inspiration in dealing with this field."

Eldridge says he believes there are two forces at work influencing the world's course of events. He says the first is the "increasing and uncontrolled access" to nuclear equipment and expertise.

Explains Eldridge: "The division of the former Soviet empire into its constituent parts has been predictably chaotic and acrimonious, allowing old wounds to open, especially along the political fault-lines of the southern edge. Conflicts in countries like Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia have certainly allowed the uncontrolled passage of people and equipment with nuclear aspirations."

According to Eldridge, the second force at work is the sudden emergence of a "dangerous nuclear dimension in regional and ethnic disputes" such as those between India and Pakistan.

Eldridge says that after the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb on the city of Nagasaki, Japan during the Second World War, the rules of nuclear deterrence evolved into a "game with clear rules." He says those rules were clearly understood by all the major nuclear players.

But Eldridge warns that the rules are not fully appreciated or adhered to today in the current crisis between India and Pakistan.

He says: "Maturity is absent in the current crisis. Delhi and Islamabad are only 700 kilometers apart. Warning time would be extremely short. The situation will need all the world's collective international expertise and diplomacy to defuse before there is a dangerous outbreak."

Eldridge also writes that the world's armed forces, once concerned only with major radiation problems, now must also begin preparing for low-level radiation accidents.

Says Eldridge: "UN peacekeeping operations seem increasingly likely to involve control of evacuation following a reactor incident or dealing with the downstream effects of collateral military damage to nuclear installations."

Eldridge says that he is also greatly concerned about the "relentless accumulation" of plutonium in the developed world.

According to Eldridge, although plutonium is a by-product of the nuclear power industry, its principle use is in the development of nuclear warheads. Otherwise, he says that plutonium simply exists as a highly toxic waste with which few governments seem to have any kind of strategy for its disposal.

Yet still another critical factor to be considered in the area of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, says Eldridge, are their potential development and use by terrorists. Eldridge says that in the past, the use of chemical and biological weapons were limited due to problems effectively integrating them into a coherent military strategy.

Eldridge says that countries didn't want to risk using such weapons because they feared retaliation of a similar kind, worried about what effect such an attack would have on military and political alliances, and were concerned that using these kinds of weapons might turn neutral neighbors into hostile forces against them.

But these issues do not concern terrorists, says Eldridge.

He explains: "Usually lacking the coherence of purpose for a proper strategy and placing a low value on human life -- even their own -- terrorist organizations may well see benefit in ad hoc toxic attacks."

As a result, Eldridge urges defense planners to re-focus on deterrence, whether it be against nuclear, biological or chemical weapons.

Eldridge concludes: "It is far more effective to render an attack unthinkable than to face the aftermath. In nuclear, biological and chemical terms, there are immense benefits in a demonstrable capability to defend effectively against an attack. Effective defensive measures are themselves a deterrent."