Hiroshima Day: Imagining a South Asian nuclear apocalypse triggered by India and Pakistan
India and Pakistan are just part of a larger — fraught — landscape. Every nation-state to acquire nuclear weapons after the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council is in Asia
"The time has come again for India's Bheema to tear open the breasts of these infidels," an editorial declaimed, as war raged on the Kargil heights "and purify the soiled tresses of Draupadi with blood. Pakistan will not listen just like that. We have a centuries-old debt to settle with this mindset. It is the same demon that has been throwing a challenge at Durga since the time of Mohammad Bin Qasim. Arise Atal Bihari! Who knows if fate has destined you to be the author of the final chapter of this long story? For what have we manufactured bombs? For what have we exercised the nuclear option?"
A little over two years later, jihadists fought their way into India’s Parliament, seeking to annihilate the country's political leadership. As then-prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee ordered what would turn into the largest mobilisation of military forces since the Second World War, it's likely he had the exhortation delivered by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh's journal, Panchjanya, on his mind.
In the event, Vajpayee held back from war. So too did former prime minister Manmohan Singh after 26 November, 2008. Prime Minister Narendra Modi struck across the Line of Control in 2019— but, his message sent, did not escalate further when Pakistan Air Force jets struck back across the Line of Control, targeting an Indian Army base in Rajouri.
Today, as the as the world marks Hiroshima Day, Indians and Pakistanis inhabit countries where public discourse around nuclear weapons — and war — has become ever more casual. For the publics, it's important to know the story of what would have happened if those prime ministers had chosen otherwise.
From 2003, small groups of Indians and Pakistanis — former military and civilian officials intimately familiar with the nuclear arsenals and command systems, as well as independent experts and theorists — began to meet behind closed doors, to discuss what nuclear war in South Asia might look like. In hotel rooms and conference centres spanning the globe, from Monterrey to Bangkok, the groups carefully gamed the circumstances that would provoke war, the courses the fighting could take, and the circumstances that would lead the adversaries to use nuclear weapons.
Learning from the war of 1999 and the crisis of 2001-2002, New Delhi had begun considering new concepts of limited war, intended to punish Pakistani support for terrorism through military force — but at intensities it believed would not provoke nuclear war.
Islamabad, in turn, began investing in tactical nuclear weapons — small warheads, with explosive yields up to five kilotons of trinitrotoluene. Generals in Pakistan believe their use on Pakistani soil would defeat India's superior conventional forces without inviting full-blown nuclear retaliation with large strategic nuclear weapons, the kinds designed to target infrastructure and population centres.
The exercises, with few exceptions, showed both sides were probably engaging in wishful thinking. The results of one exercise, published in 2013, emphatically predicted "a limited war in South Asia will escalate rapidly into a full war with a high potential for nuclear exchange".
Among the most sophisticated exercises was published last year by scholar Owen Toon and others. Following a major terrorist attack, the authors had India stage a successful armoured offensive deep into Pakistan. Flailing in the face of superior conventional force, Pakistan’s army used 10 five kiloton tactical weapons. That didn’t halt the progress of the dispersed Indian armoured formations, though — deployed in anticipation of such an attack — forcing them to unleash another 15 tactical weapons the next day.
New Delhi, in response, targeted the Pakistani garrison at Bahawalpur with two strategic nuclear weapons, and dropped another 18 strategic weapons on airfields and known nuclear-weapons facilities. Faced with the prospect of India's strategic strikes could end up costing it its nuclear arsenal altogether, Pakistan struck against military bases and storage facilities in 30 Indian cities, using weapons with a yield of between 15 and 100 kilotons. New Delhi responded with 10 similar strikes.
The fourth day of the war saw an escalation to unrestrained nuclear warfare: Pakistan's urban areas were hit with 100 nuclear warheads, and India's urban areas with 150.
In the most optimistic scenarios, Toon and his co-authors calculated, the exchange resulted in tens of millions of fatalities. In the worst, they ran up to the hundreds of millions.
Firstpost's simulation of nuclear strikes on the nine biggest cities in India and Pakistan, created using expert Alex Wellerstein’s NukeMap tool, involves just ten 40 kiloton warheads each — the largest yield from the weapons both countries tested in 1998. Yet, it resulted in over six million dead.
Because of its larger urban population, simulations suggest, India would suffer considerably more loss of life and damage — but as a percentage of urban population and assets, Pakistan would lose more. This isn't counting long-term, but hard-to-model, consequences, like radiation-related illnesses; poisoned soil, water and air; even global-level climate impacts.
Even Firstpost's unrealistically small nuclear war, created only to give a sense of what a nuclear weapon landing on readers' cities might look like, makes this conclusion inescapable: A small nuclear exchange would ensure both countries ceased to exist as viable nation-states.
Nuclear weapons, publics in both India and Pakistan haven't been taught to understand, are different from all other kinds of weapons: Their use makes the very concepts of victory or defeat irrelevant. This is precisely why nuclear weapons deter adversaries from considering going to war in the first place. Yet, nuclear arsenals are growing. India and Pakistan are both estimated to have 140 to 150 warheads, with yields ranging from just five kilotons all the way up to 100 kilotons. Experts assess that both will have around 250 warheads each by the middle of the decade.
The logic beyond the growth of Asia's nuclear arsenals isn't hard to understand. New Delhi needs more warheads to guarantee its arsenal will survive a first strike by China — whose far-larger stockpile is designed to deter the United States — and still deliver assured annihilation. India, thus, is investing in missiles it can launch from its new nuclear submarines, which can lurk, undetected, on the seabed, almost indefinitely.
Faced with the growth of India's nuclear arsenal, though, Pakistan feels pressure to expand its own, a competition fuelled by the asymmetry in the sheer physical sizes of the two countries.
Islamabad has reason, moreover, to be concerned by New Delhi’s pursuit of missile-defence. India’s purchase of the Russian-made S-400 air-defence system will give it to defend strategic theatres like Mumbai or New Delhi — or an armoured strike corps — against short-range and intermediate-range ballistic missiles. There is no such thing, outside of Star Wars, as a shield against ballistic missiles, but the S-400 will act like a sieve — destroying, at least, a percentage of incoming warheads.
India is simultaneously working on its own ballistic missile defence system with the Prithvi Air Defence missile and the Advanced Air Defence coupled with the Swordfish radar, which some in government hope will become operational some time in the next decade.
Even the best missile-defence systems, though can be overwhelmed by sheer numbers of incoming warheads—one key reason for Islamabad to grow its arsenal. Interceptors can’t, for example, distinguish between missiles carrying real warheads and dummies. In one study, experts George Lewis and Theodore Postol showed even Iranian and North Korean ballistic missiles can defeat the United States' Standard Missile 3 and Ground-Based Midcourse Defence interceptors using simple techniques.
The United States' Government Accountability Office, in one damning study, concluded that just nine percent of Scud warheads launched during the Iraq War had been engaged and destroyed. Even Israel's much-advertised Iron Dome, recent studies have suggested, intercepted just 32 percent of threatening rockets in the 2012 Gaza crisis preventing — at most — two deaths, 110 injuries and $7 million in damage.
Islamabad is also working to defeat India's anti-ballistic missile systems by engineering multiple independently-targetable re-entry vehicles, or MIRVs, which release several warheads from a single missile. This obviously increases the number of interceptors needed for each offensive missile, making missile defence ever-more cost-ineffective.
Imagining the apocalypse has proved the key to avoiding one: As the scholar Kenneth Waltz famous argued, when it comes to nuclear weapons, "more may be better". The capacity of nuclear weapons to cause annihilation, he wrote, "lessen the intensity as well as the frequency of war among their possessors. For fear of escalation, nuclear states do not want to fight long or hard over important interests — indeed, they do not want to fight at all. Minor nuclear States have even better reasons than major ones to accommodate one another peacefully and to avoid any fighting".
Through the Cold War, the fearful symmetry imposed by nuclear weapons ensured that, while the United States and Soviet Union warred through proxies, neither directly confronted the other. Indeed, the world has, since 1945, lived through a great historical anomaly, a span of decades with no general war among great powers.
From the fact that nuclear weapons kept the peace, however, we cannot be certain that they will always do so. Nuclear deterrence works well, but only until it doesn’t. The exercises conducted by Indians and Pakistanis from 2003 showed that misjudgments about an adversary’s intentions, miscalculations of the outcomes of one’s own actions, and the inherent uncertainties of war, often spiralled into uncontrolled escalation.
In 1999, 2001-2002, 2008 and 2019, political leaderships stepped back from the edge, but that in itself is no guarantee they will always be able to do so.
The history of the Cold War, moreover, we know the world more than once almost embraced the apocalypse through accidents. In 1962, the crew of the Soviet nuclear submarine B59 considered the use of nuclear weapons when forced to surface by an unsuspecting United States Navy destroyer; the world owes its existence to its second-in-command Vasili Arkhipov, who insisted on seeking orders from Moscow. From 1979 to 1983, both NATO and Soviet computer systems falsely reported nuclear-missile launches by the other side — risking triggering a response.
India and Pakistan are just part of a larger — fraught — landscape. Every nation-state to acquire nuclear weapons after the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council is in Asia. Like Europe on the eve of the First World War, the region is in the midst of profound transformation. Nationalism, economic change and geopolitical contestation are reordering the relationships of power between nation-states across the region. Incalculable risks lie ahead.
Apocalypse need not be our shared destiny—but only if we beware that it, only too easily, could be.
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