Don't Fear an India-Pakistan Nuclear War

The potential for nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan seems to have cooled off in the past few days following shuttle diplomacy by Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, but a review of the region's history and an analysis of the nuclear forces of both countries leads to the conclusion that the danger remains high.

Why have these two neighboring states in South Asia come to the edge of a nuclear war?

It is difficult for Westerners to comprehend everyday conditions as they exist in the Indian subcontinent. Nearly the entire region fell under British rule during the 19th century. Finally, in 1947, Great Britain gave up is role in the region, resulting in the creation of two sovereign nations: India and Pakistan. India consisted of nearly the entire subcontinent, except for an area to the northwest about twice the size of California and another section to the east about the size of Iowa that surrounds the Ganges/Jamuna river delta, which - taken together - formed Pakistan. Then in 1971, East Pakistan broke away from its distant sister to form the independent nation of Bangladesh.

The obvious question is why would this region break into three separate nations?

The answer is, of course, complicated and open to many interpretations.

Bangladesh has very limited natural resources consisting of natural gas, some arable land, timber and coal. But one-third of the nation floods each year. Consequentially, it is one of the poorest nations on Earth.

Pakistan is somewhat better off with land, extensive natural gas reserves, limited petroleum, some poor quality coal, iron ore, copper, salt and limestone.

India, on the other hand, is rich with natural resources, having the fourth-largest coal reserves in the world, iron ore, manganese, mica, bauxite, titanium ore, chromite, natural gas, diamonds, petroleum, limestone and lots of arable land.

So why did they break up as they did? Why would the northwest region of this vast land decide to separate itself with its limited resources from the riches to the south? And in particular, why would the poverty-stricken eastern portion go first with Pakistan, and later strike out on its own?

What force in human society can overcome these disadvantages?

An examination of the religious preferences of these three regions suggests a compelling answer.

India consists of about 81 percent Hindu, 12 percent Muslim, 2 percent Christian, 2 percent Sikh, and about 3 percent Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and several others.

Pakistan is 97 percent Muslim (split about 3-to-1 Sunni to Shi'a), and only 3 percent Christian, Hindu and all the others.

Bangladesh is 83 percent Muslim, 16 percent Hindu, and only 1 percent everything else.

So it's all about religion - that's pretty evident.

When India set itself up as an independent nation, it opted for a secular government patterned closely to the British parliamentary format. Pakistan, on the other hand, set itself up as in Islamic Republic. While these forms appear similar on superficial examination, a closer look quickly reveals profound differences. You can find more information on how Islam integrates into government in my DefenseWatch magazine article on March 20, 2002, "Violence and Terror: Fundamental to All Islam."

Pakistan formed independently from India because nearly everyone who lived there was controlled by the Islamic hierarchy, and the Imams insisted on governance through Shari'ah - Islamic law. The larger non-Islamic minority in East Pakistan backed by the Indian Army eventually resulted in East Pakistan breaking off again, to form Bangladesh, which is governed as is India, by a completely secular government.

The disputed Indian region of Kashmir along the northern Pakistan border is a problem precisely because a sufficiently large percentage of Kashmiri Muslims insist on rule under Shari'ah, so that the legally established secular government is constantly at risk.

The problems between India and Pakistan would only be a sideshow on the world stage except that in 1974, India exploded a nuclear device, and by 1983 the United States was convinced that Pakistan had an active nuclear weapons program. In 1998 India exploded several devices within 100 miles of the Pakistan border, and the Pakistanis retaliated by exploding several nuclear devices of their own.

The poorly kept secret was out of the bag: First India and then Pakistan had definitely joined the world's Nuclear Club.

The question now is what will happen to the rest of us in the event of a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan?

To answer this question, first we need to examine the delivery vehicles available to each side. India has had a nuclear capability for much longer than has Pakistan. Nevertheless, our best intelligence indicates that Pakistan has a smaller, more sophisticated nuclear device and a fully-capable ballistic missile delivery capability. In a nuclear exchange, India likely would deliver its nukes by plane. Because of this, India faces a tough tactical decision.

In such an exchange, if India were to wait for Pakistan to attack first, India's ability to retaliate effectively or even at all would be severely compromised. Following a preemptive strike against India, Pakistan would be on high alert for retaliatory Indian bombers, and would stand a good chance of knocking them out of the sky before they drop their lethal loads.

On the other hand, it is very difficult and extremely taxing for Pakistan to remain on the high alert necessary to detect and destroy incoming Indian bombers conducting a preemptive strike against Pakistan.

This probably is why Pakistan is so suspicious of any Indian assurance that it will not conduct a preemptive strike. For good reason, Pakistan sees any Indian attempt to relax the tension as a precursor to an Indian first strike. Within Pakistan, there would be strong pressure to strike first in order to eliminate this possibility.

What might be the consequences of such an exchange?

We have only one historical example against which we can measure potential damage from a nuclear strike. Both Hiroshima and Nagasaki were "paper cities," in the sense that a large portion of the residential areas consisted of flimsy traditional Japanese domestic dwellings constructed of light wood and paper.

The architectural infrastructure of likely target areas in both Pakistan and India are dramatically different. This opens our analysis to significant speculation, since brick-and-mortar structures can absorb a lot more blast energy than paper and wood, and offer dramatically increased protection against radiation.

Furthermore, modern nukes typically do not produce as much hard radiation as their ancestors, except for specifically designed "neutron" devices. These are designed to produce a high-level flood of initial high energy neutrons intended to kill living beings quickly and efficiently, while leaving as much infrastructure intact as possible.

Both India and Pakistan would gain the greatest benefit from neutron devices, because of the very large armies each can deploy on short notice. Intelligence estimates indicate, however, that only Pakistan is likely to have a neutron device, but the evidence is circumstantial, based primarily on the certain knowledge that Pakistan has received material assistance from China, and it is likely that China has such devices.

From intelligence estimates we know that Pakistan probably has 15 or so nuclear devices, based upon its ability to manufacture highly enriched uranium, which forms the basis of its nuclear program. They all may be sufficiently small to fit inside their ballistic missiles, and at least half may be neutron devices.

India may have as many as 50 nukes based upon its ability to produce weapons grade plutonium, employed by its design. These devices probably range from relatively unsophisticated devices manufactured in the 1970s to fairly complex systems of recent manufacture.

From these numbers one can assume that a total nuclear exchange might produce over 40 actual nuclear explosions, which assumes an Indian preemptive strike followed by full-scale retaliation by Pakistan, with 60-70 percent of the weapons actually exploding with a yield near their design parameters.

If one assumes that the Pakistani devices are primarily anti-personnel weapons, the overall projections regarding death and destruction are significantly less than the numbers typically tossed around by politicians and journalists ignorant of nuclear weapons effects. Instead of 20 million killed in the first two or three exchanges, it is much more likely that the number of those killed will range from the high hundreds of thousands to the low millions, depending on whether the Indian bombers make it through Pakistani defenses to Islamabad.

Because all the devices on both sides are relatively modern when compared with the bombs dropped on Japan, the global impact will be relatively small. Regional fallout will follow local wind patterns. Sensitive measuring devices will be able to pick up radioactive debris on a worldwide basis during the following months, but only because of the distinctive character of this fallout. The level will be well below normal background radiation from the sun and cosmic rays, and will pose absolutely no hazard to world populations.

While a nuclear exchange would be horrific to the soldiers and civilians caught in the cross-fire and would vastly complicate our ongoing war on terror, the one thing Americans, Europeans and most of the rest of the world don't have to worry about is radiation poisoning from such an exchange.

Obviously, we would lose Pakistan as an active partner in our ongoing Afghanistan operations, but other than a place from which to launch, it is arguable whether we are getting any other real value from our partnership anyway. Whatever complications we would experience in prosecuting our offensive against al Qaeda, they would experience in spades.

An international effort would certainly mount to assist survivors. We would clearly be part of that effort, and this would tend to distract us from the reason we are there in the first place. Since the probable outcome of a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan would be considerably smaller than current public perceptions, our level of involvement would also be significantly smaller. Ironically, if the Pakistanis rely on neutron devices, which really do very little damage to the surrounding countryside, the net effect may be far less hungry mouths impacting a food supply that will not be very much different than before the conflict.

Within two or three weeks following such an exchange, the world should come to realize that the situation really is not so catastrophic. The world stock markets should recover quickly, and most of the world probably will go back to business as usual.

Rather than trying to solve all these problems following a nuclear exchange, even though they may not be as horrific as some predict, I would rather see a continuing level of tension between Islamabad and New Delhi so that Pakistan does not feel compelled to strike India preemptively. If our diplomatic efforts can convince India to stand down, unload its bombers and present a believable stance that it will not launch first, then I suspect Pakistan will be far less likely to jump the gun.

In order to accomplish this, we need to convince India that Pakistan really will not strike first unless it believes a bomber led attack from India is imminent.

Our diplomatic efforts are all the more urgent given the likelihood that failure will result in the deaths of our negotiators as part of the initial nuclear exchange.

In the larger view, however, the world can relax. Even if these old enemies resort to the worst they have, regional stability should return relatively quickly, and the rest of us can continue doing whatever we do without fear of any significant physical after-effects from their quarrel.