Indo-Pak Nuclear Exchange?

WHILE Indo-Pak tensions reached an apparent zenith last week, with over a million troops facing each other eyeball to eyeball, mortar and artillery fire across the LOC and international border at their fierciest for years, prime minister Vajpayee declaring to troops on the border that a “decisive battle” was imminent, and Pakistan firing off a series of nuclear-capable missiles of different ranges, the US defence department released a likely casualty scenario it had drawn up in the event of a nuclear weapons exchange between Pakistan and India. Around 10-12 million people dead was the “estimate”, with several million more dying in the days and years ahead. Hospitals, health and other emergency services not only in the two neighbouring countries or even in South Asia but as far away as the Middle East and East Asia would be overwhelmed by the enormous disaster whose effects would, therefore, be felt far beyond the immediate theatre of war.

The basis of this “estimate” was not clear but some back-of-the-envelope calculations could easily be estimated. Pakistan is estimated to possess about 20 odd nuclear bombs of yield comparable to the bomb dropped by the US on Hiroshima, and India is estimated to have about double this arsenal with bombs of 2 to 3 times this yield. Let us assume that 10 nuclear bombs of roughly equal size, equivalent to the Hiroshima bomb, are used by either side. The death toll in Hiroshima was around 200,000 but, given the population density of modern Indian and Pakistani cities such as Delhi, Lahore, Karachi, Mumbai — all of which are perceived to be likely targets — the death toll in each case could easily be closer to 500,000-600,000. With 20 bombs each causing this many deaths, one arrives at 10-12 million dead, more or less the US defence department’s figures.

But this article is not about this estimate, and how right or wrong it is. Or whether 1 million more or less would die in Pakistan or India. How many would die from the first blast, then from the fireball and then from radioactivity. Or about how many hospital beds India or Pakistan have, or how Emergency services would cope. Does all this detail really matter? Is it not enough to know, and fully comprehend, that a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan would wreak horrible, unimaginable destruction? Whole cities would be decimated, entire populations either killed outright or left awaiting a horrible death in a wasteland. Lahore is so close to India and Amritsar so close to Pakistan, that nuclear weapons exploded over these cities would cause damage even within the countries that launched them. Flying time of missiles from any launch pad in Pakistan to any nearby target such as Delhi or Mumbai is about 8 minutes, leaving absolutely no time for any precautionary or protective measures, even for high security personages and VVIPs. In short, nuclear exchanges between India and Pakistan would be cataclysmic, too terrible even to think about.

Yet, it was on too many people’s minds. The unimaginable was being thought of and talked about. In Pakistan, in India, and around the world. These estimates of possible deaths not only brought home the sheer horror of nuclear war but also, whatever the US intentions were in releasing them, reflected on several other dimensions of the contemporary strategic reality and conveyed several other nuanced messages.


Perhaps the US really intended to scare both India and Pakistan, to bring their own rhetoric face to face with reality, to remind both sides of the potential for and dangers of a conventional war, so easily spoken about and bandied as a threat especially by India as an answer to Pakistan’s “undeclared war” of cross-border terrorism. India’s “coercive diplomacy”, with full troop deployment on the borders in battle-ready formation, was acquiring a reality and momentum of its own, seemingly heading inexorably towards war.

The more international pressure was mounted on Pakistan to show decisive action to prevent cross-border incursions, the more president Musharraf and the military establishment in Pakistan felt it necessary to display their own military defiance and engage in some “coercive diplomacy” of their own. Nuclear capable missiles were “tested”, actually simply fired off in a blatant display and to convey a very real threat. Responsible ministers in Gen. Musharraf’s cabinet and Pakistan’s Ambassador to the UN openly spoke of possible use of nuclear weapons by Pakistan, the former in the eventuality of Pakistan’s integrity being seriously threatened in a conventional war, and the latter of a first strike by Pakistan as a means of overcoming India’s relative superiority in conventional weaponry. While India has a declared no-first-use policy, some high-ranking government officials and BJP leaders spoke of retaliatory nuclear strikes some even saying the nation should be prepared for mutual destruction!.

All this, including the US casualty estimates, drew the pointed attention of Europe, Russia, China, Japan and other Asian countries. Suddenly, wherever they went or whenever some foreign dignitary visited the Indian or Pakistani capitals, the leadership of both countries were pressed hard on this issue. George Fernandes, at the Asian Security Conference where India but not Pakistan was an invitee, not only denied that India would ever use nuclear weapons but also asserted that “neither India nor Pakistan would ever think” of using nuclear weapons and that if the US, Russia, China could handle their nuclear weapons responsibly so could India and Pakistan. Gen. Musharraf must have drawn considerable comfort from this ringing endorsement from Fernandes! On his part, Gen. Musharraf stated categorically that “anybody must be mad to even think of using nuclear weapons” conveniently forgetting that such lunacy appeared rampant in his cabinet and other leading establishment bodies. These nice-sounding statements meant to dampen the rising panic in international circles made the leadership of both countries look sheepish and prompted an obvious question, if the use of nuclear weapons was as unthinkable as was being made out, then why did both countries make them and why did they both feverishly develop or acquire the means of delivering them?

Clearly, the scare-mongering by the US was working. But, it must be appreciated, it was also working somewhat more against Indian interests. The latest US travel advisory has also led to an exodus of tourists, embassy and UN staff from India, again putting India on par with Pakistan which was already being evacuated due to poor security environment. Even as world opinion was tilting towards recognising that the paramount issue was cross-border terrorism from Pakistan which must be stopped and must be seen to be stopping, the renewed focus on a possible nuclear war between India and Pakistan put the onus on both countries equally, simply to de-escalate. In this sense, Gen. Musharraf’s own “coercive diplomacy” was also working by foregrounding the nuclear issue and thus pushing cross-border terrorism away from centre stage.

In a conventional war, India’s superior military strength and depth of infrastructure and other defence-related capability would not show results in the short-term in which Pakistan would be able to assert broad parity. In the long run, when India could have an advantage and posed a threat to Pakistan, the nuclear issue would inevitably come into the picture. Given the stated or unstated nuclear threat, India’s troops massed on the border and in combat readiness for over five months amount only to a gigantic bluff and serves to exert pressure more on the US and other global players to get involved than directly on Pakistan. And soon, it will exert pressure on India even more than on anyone else.


Concerns have been expressed in various world capitals that the Indian political leadership appeared not to have adequately factored-in the nuclear threat into its strategic calculus. To many in India, this comes as no surprise. The Pokhran-II tests with which India went overtly nuclear and prompted Pakistan to do the same was, apart from all other considerations, a strategic blunder. The decision to go overtly nuclear was prompted by the BJP-sangh parivar’s militaristic ideology and its obsession with Pakistan, but was projected as a major step towards becoming a world power. By forcing Pakistan to also come out of the closet, however, it only brought about a stand-off between the two countries, neutralised the conventional military superiority of India and, in the context of rising Indo-Pak tensions, brought the US irrevocably into the South Asian security ring. As recent events have underlined, the nuclear genie has been let out of the bottle in South Asia and no amount of sweet-talking will get it back in.

It must be said, however, that commentaries in diplomatic and security circles, as well as in the press, in US and Europe on the nuclear issue involving India and Pakistan reveal the same old western superiority and exclusiveness which characterise their positions on nuclear proliferation. Nuclear weapons, India and Pakistan were told, are dangerous things and best avoided, not answering the question as to why, for instance, the US, Britain and France felt it appropriate to have them. What is seen as good for them is seen as bad for others. Commentators in the US and Europe were pouring scorn on India and Pakistan for even thinking of war, perhaps even a nuclear one, when poverty and underdevelopment haunted both countries. Common sense and responsibility, it would seem, should have prevailed upon both countries to turn their attentions to these essential problems. History has never shown that wars are sensible activities engaged in by mature developed countries which, having overcome basic societal problems, can now indulge in battle! Can possession of nuclear weapons be justified as the exercise of a privilege earned by developed countries? Should not nuclear weaponisation be seen as senseless in itself, regardless of who owns it or how “responsible” that country thinks it is. After all, it was with full “responsibility” that the US dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Senior US officials also lectured Pakistan that they were wrong in stressing their policy of the right to a first-strike especially in view of India’s no-first- use policy. Pakistan had adopted a possible first-strike doctrine on the grounds that a first strike was their only defence against India’s conventional military superiority, although whether India actually possesses such disproportionate strength is a matter of considerable doubt. On the other hand the US, the only other nuclear weapons state in the world with a doctrine including a first-strike, justifies the doctrine on the grounds of its strength! The latest US strategic review reiterates this doctrine with the assertion that there is little point in possessing such weapons and capability if they cannot be used for a pre-emptive strike rather than wait for someone else to strike first!

All this once again brings to the fore the central issues with respect to nuclear weapons in South Asia and in the world as a whole. No global non-proliferation policy will work unless all nuclear weapons are eliminated, since arguments in favour of any one country possessing nuclear weapons would also apply to any other which would also look to its deterrence value. In India and Pakistan, certainly the former, by going overtly nuclear, have diminished rather than enhanced their security. Further, by its militaristic policy of “coercive diplomacy” against the background of a nuclearised India and Pakistan, the BJP-led government has brought the US inextricably into the Indo-Pakistan equation and the Kashmir issue. The US and Britain have joined India in asserting that a verifiable cessation of cross-border incursions from Pakistan is required and have also volunteered to verify it by posting military observors along the LoC, the UK having even worked out the logistical requirements for the same amounting to some 500 helicopters! The BJP-led government wants only to tackle Pakistan in trying to solve the Kashmir problem, but refuses to meaningfully engage the alienated Kashmiri, and has only succeeded in inviting the US, which is already ensconced in Afghanistan and Pakistan, to move in to India as well. “Coercive diplomacy” has meant “Yankee come Home”.