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BOOK REVIEW: Confronting the Bomb — Pakistani and Indian Scientists Speak out

Published in Daily Times / 6 Apr 2013

Edited by: Pervez Hoodbhoy
Preface by: John Polyani (Nobel Prize Winner)
Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal

I like to appreciate the little things in life, like nuclear fusion....” — Madison Hatter

On a pleasant February afternoon, a nuclear physicist calmly painted a chilling picture of what would happen in the event of a nuclear attack on our pretty little venue by the seaside. “O, we would be the lucky ones,” he declared, “.... eviscerated” within nano seconds, “...wouldn’t feel a thing. But those poor souls in Landhi,” he shook his head, “now they would suffer from radiation effects for years, and a slow painful end,” he added. Apparently, the devastation of Hiroshima would pale in comparison, given the size of Karachi’s populace and the prevalence of plastic.

The terrifying session served as a primer for Pervez Hoodbhoy’s new book, Confronting the bomb — Pakistani and Indian Scientists Speak out. Though this is a compilation of articles by scientists from both sides of the divide, 70 % of the pieces are by Professor Hoodhboy. The bomb reportedly viewed by the average Pakistani ‘as symbols of national glory and achievement’ and not ‘instruments of wholesale death and destruction’ takes centre-stage. The band of cheerleaders has been unceremoniously dismissed and a cluster of somber voices explode myths and trade horror stories on the consequences of playing with lethal payloads.

They take a less scenic route to chart Pakistan’s nuclear trajectory and sound the alarm over the nuclear world order. Apart from short bursts covering the usual timeline of events that left Pakistan vulnerable, and made them favour nuclear props over economic stability, comes an introspective study bent on penetrating the layers of obfuscation surrounding the bomb’s true potential, not as a deterrent but as a destroyer of worlds. It also probes the bomb’s credibility citing ill-advised misadventures like Kargil, which the former president, Pervez Musharraf continues to defend, as the only war caused by the presence of nukes.

The no holds barred discourse advances theories about early warning systems (they do not really work), challenges beliefs about Pakistan’s stability post bomb and inspects the integrity of statements made by a former interior minister who shall remain nameless that claim our nukes are ‘200 percent safe.’

When the book tries to determine the number of bombs needed, it cites figures from an article by a defence analyst: 10 bombs to take out two cities at 5 per city; 40 bombs if enemy has the ability to take out 50 percent of the arsenal in a pre-emptive strike and another 50 percent by interception. When the figure jumps to 1,000 bombs in response to 90 percent riposte and intercept capability of the adversary, Hoodhboy calls him out for his ‘de-generative logic’.

What prompts these calculations are explained in the next passage of the article, not included in this book. They do not imply a run to the market for a 1,000 bombs but list factors required for minimum credible deterrence. In the analysts words: “In actual case the increments in the enemy’s offensive and defensive capabilities may not be as large thus requiring only marginal adjustments to our own nuclear arsenal.” (Air Power in South Asia, Second Edition).

The author of these figures believes in the futility of an arms race remarking that the high statistics are merely for ‘ease of calculation’, avoid those decimals, and to make a point. With a retaliatory strike, the enemy takes out 900 bombs, which leaves a 100. The 90 percent intercept capability destroys 90 more in the pre-emptive strike, leaving 10 bombs, the same number needed to take out 2 cities. The destruction of two cities as minimum unacceptable damage is hypothetical and inflicting a much smaller level of pain could achieve the minimum deterrence clause in reality.

Of course, when both sides have 100 percent intercept or riposte capability, there is no deterrence and even an infinite number of bombs will be insufficient. That he is not a war mongering general but a former air force officer/analyst (the book also gets his name wrong) known in his circles for dispensing hard hitting truths, tends to get lost in translation.

Fluctuating bomb counts are just a tiny part of the picture and ‘Confronting the Bomb’ studies the changing regional dynamics should Iran succeed in its nuclear ambitions leaving the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia free to join the club, and the doomsday scenarios that follow. At the same time it doesn’t seem overly worried with the idea of a nuclear Iran opining that ‘unwelcome as having another set of nuclear issues would be, it would not necessarily be catastrophic’ further adding that ‘in all likelihood nuclear Iran would moderate its dangerous rhetoric and, like other existing global nuclear rivalries, this one too could be managed.

The book goes on to examine the peaceful uses of nuclear energy and scoffs at a 40-year-old vision that powers ‘nuclear energy projects that provide energy at a higher cost’, and are ‘located at unsafe sites’ adding to the ‘risk of catastrophic accidents’. It wonders at its decision makers who ‘remain intent on the nuclear dream when in the United States , the home of that dream, no new nuclear reactor has been built in three decades.’ It serves as an indictment of the policies and the fallacies that accompany the ‘crown jewels’ in our arsenal. ‘The hubris following the 1998 tests, together with the promise that the bomb would transform Pakistan into a technologically and scientifically advanced country, is now nowhere in evidence.’

During the book launch the writer opined that it fulfils 6 percent of the nuclear energy needs of India and 2 percent of Pakistan’s despite all the financial resources. “We have a toy at Kanupp with its miserable 70 percent MW power not enough to power a house in Golimar,” he concluded.

The writer goes on to show why the West cannot do a 'bin Laden' to our precious bomb despite the premise of a recently cancelled TV show Last Resort that nukes Pakistan and lives to tell the tale. Hoodbhoy calls such a contingency ‘a final act of extreme desperation’ and to properly de-fang Pakistan, ‘all major nuclear weapons facilities, reactors and uranium enrichment plants’ would have to be taken out'. That does not deter harmless looking scholars living in the west from making (un)educated guesses about the alleged sites.

The Last Resort scenario might require some suspension of disbelief but it also depicts a non-nuclear Pakistan in danger of being overrun by enemies now that its armory is short of ‘the bomb’. With this book a new chapter has been added where the bomb’s utility as a shield has been shoved aside while its role as mischief maker gets amplified.

Those who were not worried before will be left questioning the wisdom of keeping up with the Joneses after reading the 400 page document/cautionary tale. The book may serve as a deterrent for nations planning to go nuclear in the future. For those already in the game, it brings in the ghosts of past and present to quell the celebratory mood and rethink the future.

Book Image from Bina Shahs blog

Pervez Hoodbhoy Image Copyrighted. from my KLF 2013 collection


  1. Myself Major Samar Anand! After defusing a lot of bombs i realized that its no use to do that any more once i got Katrina at the end and finally i said to my self i will always have her JAB TAK HAI JAAN! JAB TAK HAI JAAN!


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