India-Pakistan nuclear war; 15 January 2014

India-Pakistan nuclear war; 15 January 2014

When I worked in intelligence in the 1980s, one major matter that analysts wanted to qualify was how far India had advanced its military nuclear program since its ‘peaceful nuclear test’ in 1974. We also were trying to determine what nuclear capabilities Pakistan had developed in response to India’s. There was much research, informed analysis and some sheer guess-timating. Most analysts believed that both nations were actively developing credible nuclear capabilities for their respective military forces’ use.

In May 1998, India and Pakistan ended the mystery for analysts when they both conducted nuclear tests. These confirmed unequivocally that both nations had significant nuclear capabilities. Since then, analysts have speculated about how many nuclear weapons each nation has, where and how various nuclear components are stored, and the weapons’ state of readiness. Current best guesses are that India has 90-100 nuclear weapons; Pakistan has 100-120. Pakistan’s numerical superiority reflects its military’s attempt to reduce its conventional inferiority in relation to India by having a larger nuclear-weapon capability. This, presumably, make these Pakistanis feel more secure.

For some time, both nations also have been developing missiles to enable them to better deliver their nuclear weapons. Initially, aircraft were to be used. Now, India and Pakistan have ballistic missiles that enable their ‘nukes’ to be delivered further, more accurately and without aircrew. Consequently, all parts of each nation now are vulnerable to nuclear attack. Additionally, India is developing a capability to deliver nuclear weapons from submarines, a significant force multiplier that Pakistan will find difficult, and costly, to counter. This development reflects India’s stronger economy, plus its need to counter China, which started acquiring nuclear weapons from 1964 after its first atomic test. China developed such weapons as it felt threatened by the Soviet Union or by the United States. But China’s atomic test inspired India, which now apparently has also developed a ‘second strike’ nuclear capability to deter China from ever attacking India first. India’s nuclear developments, in turn, inspired Pakistan. Thus developed the China-India-Pakistan nuclear triangle in which two of the three sides are unequally balanced against India.

For some people, the term ‘nuclear weapon’ seemingly is benign. They argue that nuclear weapons have brought peace to the world as no nuclear-armed nations have yet directly fought a war against each other. (There have been indirect wars using proxies, such as the Soviet Union’s use of Vietcong against US forces in Vietnam and the US’s use of mujahideen against Soviet forces in Afghanistan.) This argument is dangerous and fallacious. It is dangerous because it will only take one limited nuclear war to inflict enormous damage on both belligerents and their citizens, plus on the rest of the world. It is fallacious as India and Pakistan engaged in a limited war in the Kargil area of Jammu and Kashmir in 1999, one year after both nations’ major nuclear tests confirmed their nuclear intentions. However, this war did not look like going nuclear, partly because of significant world pressure and partly because Islamabad (fallaciously) claimed that local ‘militants’ only were fighting Indian forces. Because of their irregular nature, such militants would not possess nuclear weapons.

People who consider nuclear weapons to be benign should remember that these are considered to be ‘weapons of mass destruction’. I sometimes wonder if Indians and Pakistanis—and, indeed, other world citizens—realise this. Many seem to unequivocally support their respective nation’s nuclear and ballistic programs, and their strategic doctrines for use of these serious ‘killers’. Nevertheless, should India and Pakistan ever fight a limited nuclear war, there will be some major, and ongoing, ‘mass’ destruction. Millions of subcontinentals directly will be killed. Even more millions will be directly and indirectly irradiated, burnt, injured, and made homeless and destitute. Irradiated agricultural lands will become unproductive; polluted water will be unfit for agriculture or human consumption; infrastructure will be destroyed. All survivors will suffer other depravations, including a severe lack of medical assistance, food shortages, little or no physical and administrative help, and lawlessness as desperate people seek to survive. Even worse, one nuclear exchange may lead to another, and another.

The ramifications of a nuclear war between India and Pakistan are horrific to contemplate. Equally, such a nuclear ‘winter’ confronts all nuclear-armed nations that may go to war. Currently, ten nations have, or possibly have, military nuclear capabilities: China; France; India; Iran; Israel; North Korea; Pakistan; Russia; United Kingdom; United States. According to the Nuclear Threat Initiative (Nuclear Materials Security Index: Building a Framework for Assurance, Accountability, and Action, Second Edition, January 2014,, 15 states also have one kilogram or more of ‘weapons-usable nuclear materials’ with which to create a nuclear weapon: Australia; Argentina; Belarus; Belgium; Canada; Germany; Italy; Japan; Kazakhstan; Netherlands; Norway; Poland; South Africa; Switzerland; Uzbekistan. The world is awash in nuclear weapons. A massive ‘over-kill’ capability exists.

However, the difference between India and Pakistan and most other nations having nuclear weapons is that, generally, the latter lack significant ‘flashpoints’ that could ‘spark’ a war that may go nuclear. Potential India-Pakistan flashpoints include: another serious terrorist incident in India that Indians feel Pakistan is responsible for; serious and destabilising internal insurgent activities perceived to be sponsored by the ‘other’ nation (i.e. the ‘foreign hand’); military incidents across the Line of Control that escalate and get out of hand; military maneuvers that get of control a la India’s ‘Operation Brasstacks’ in 1986; and, severe Pakistani disgruntlement that India is not releasing water to downstream Pakistan. A few years ago, General Musharraf stated that such a water scenario ‘would cross the nuclear threshold’. That is, Pakistan would use a nuclear weapon against India to ensure Pakistan’s water supplies. Musharraf also said that, in the event of war with India, Pakistan would use nuclear weapons to defend itself if its ‘back was against the wall’.

Such scenarios offer India and Pakistan significant reasons to try to improve, and ultimately normalise, their vexed relationship.

Christopher Snedden
15 January 2014


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