Dhaka Courier

Indo-Pakistan Nuclear Deterrence: Consequences of A Breakdown


‘Chest-thumping’, as a mark of patriotism can leave one with a satisfying ‘feel-good’ experience. In recent times we have seen a lot of it on either side of the India-Pakistan border, in total disregard of the consequences a serious conflict. The jingoists seem to fall over themselves in the advocacy of one, without much thought to what it might entail. This essay is an effort to inculcate a sobering influence, with a discussion of the horrendous consequences of an all-out war. Such an event could be the result of a ‘crisis-slide’, the beginnings of which are already perceptible.

In today’s international system, the formal institutions mandated to preserve peace are weakening. The big powers appear to be according maximum priority to their own perceived national interests in preference to commitment towards the maintenance of global order. The result is on the global matrix it might be ‘every man for himself and God for us all’. This enhances the responsibility of the regional powers towards their own peoples,and their region. India and Pakistan are such pre-eminent regional actors. An all-out war between them will not only have the gravest consequences for themselves and the region, but also for the world.

In conventional terms, India’s armed forces are larger, better equipped and more powerful than Pakistan’s. But the mathematical ‘Nash equilibrium’ in game theory comes into play when unconventional nuclear capabilities are compared. According to the Stockholm International research Institute (SIPRI), Pakistan possesses 140 to 150 nuclear warheads, and India, 130 to 140.While India needs to factor in China, and therefore focus more on long range missiles to carry warheads, Pakistan is more content to concentrate on weapons of smaller yield and missiles of shorter range. At a stated level. India says it will not use a nuclear weapon first; in other words, it espouses the ‘no first use ‘doctrine. But the militarily weaker Pakistan, on the other hand, eschews this principle and depends on its nuclear capabilities to deter India’s power. Hence Grace Liu of the James Martin Center for Non-proliferation Studies has concluded that ‘if there is to be a first use, it would be by Pakistan’.

Time was when Pakistan’s preferred option was said to be ‘minimal credible deterrence’. That would involve the use of nuclear weapons as a last resort. But policies, theories and doctrines can very often be a function of technology. Pakistan’s felt needs led it to emphasize production of ‘tactical nuclear weapons’ or TNWs. It means smaller yield, more precise warheads, designed to be fitted onto short-range delivery-vehicles, or even as artillery shells, in ‘battlefield’ or ‘theatre’ situations. These are meant to be used mostly against an invading army (or what in strategic literature known as ‘counterforce targets’), as opposed to the larger, greater damage inflicting, munitions, aimed at cities (also known as ‘counter-value’ targets). The danger is, because the smaller weapons are more precise and likely to cause less collateral damage, the propensity for their use is greater. This means they tend to lower the nuclear thresh-hold. Pakistan claims TNWs are designed against India’s so-called ‘Cold Start strategy’. It involves quick occupation of a chunk of Pakistani territory, to be used as a launching pad for further penetration into that country. India denies such a strategy exists. Nonetheless, Pakistan’s concept of ‘minimum credible deterrence’ has morphed into ‘full-spectrum deterrence’. It implies the use of nuclear weapons both for ‘tactical ‘(short-distance) to ‘strategic’ (long-distance) targets.

These ideas are reminiscent of a United States strategy mooted during the cold war, known as the ‘Schlesinger doctrine’. It was enunciated by Defence Secretary James Schlesinger in 1974. It involved a targeting policy, graduating from harder (military) to softer (civilian installations) targets, leading to ‘nuclear war-fighting’ that could be ‘limited’, till one side (for Schlesinger,of course , the Soviets) capitulated. This plan was an alternative to the “Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP) that tantamounted to hitting a large number of targets simultaneously. But the great drawback of this ‘limited’ or ‘escalatory ‘war was that the adversary may not play ball, and engage in a full -blown retaliation to any kind of nuclear attack, however small or limited. With regard to India and Pakistan, there have been some talk of the possibilities of a ‘limited nuclear war-fighting’. But in this case too, it may be neither fish, flesh fowl, nor good red herring. Because the protagonists almost surely refuse to play by the other’s rules, or expectations. In other words, the response to a tactical strike may involve a far larger strategic ordnance.

So, if the conflict between these two rivals transforms into an all-out, possibly nuclear war, what would be the consequences? Even if fifty bombs of 15 kiloton- yield are exchanged out of their armouries of roughly 260 to 280 warheads -the same yield of the uranium atom bomb ‘Little Boy’   dropped on Hiroshima by the Americans in 1945- the results would be too horrendous to contemplate. ‘Little Boy’ killed 100,000 Japanese immediately, and destroyed 69% of the city’s buildings. South Asia has cities such as Mumbai , Karachi , Chennai and Kolkata, far more densely populated . There are many others besides. A 2014 Study has come up with unsurprising conclusion that resultant ‘firebomb’ and ‘nuclear radiation’ could kill 27 million people in India, and 18 million in Pakistan. The collapse of health-care, transport, sanitation, water-supply, infrastructures, trade and manufacturing would impact negatively on many more. As a fall-out 5 , million tons of sooty particles would penetrate the stratosphere, causing temperatures to drop alarmingly across even  as far as North America and Europe. The world as we know it would not be the same, and would change for far worse.

Of course, none of this need happen. But if policy-makers continue to think and act rationally. But the sad and dangerous reality is that it also could. That is, if the same individuals behave otherwise. All this boils down to human motivations, decisions and actions. There will be no winners but only losers in a war of this magnitude. Any conflict has potentials for acquiring such proportions. Leadership on either side must devise alternative methods to resolve differences. Battles should and must only be fought in the fields of diplomacy. As a student of strategy, I was exposed to the thinking of some of the world’s brightest minds at an institution that was one of those that pioneered studies, the Australian National University. One of them was the great Coral Bell of the Anglo-Saxon School of International relations. She had warned in her famous tome, Conventions of Crisis Management, as early as in 1972: “The propensity to conflict must be accepted as a continuing fact of human life even though among nations, the technical means of pursuing conflicts are now so monstrously efficient as to threaten the end of human life itself”. The warning is just as valid today , as it was when it was  penned , indeed even more so!

  • Indo-Pakistan Nuclear Deterrence: Consequences of A Breakdown
  • Issue 7
  • Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury
  • Vol 36
  • DhakaCourier

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