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A Global Nuclear Winter Thinking the Unthinkable

A Global Nuclear Winter Thinking the Unthinkable

The US National Intelligence Council recently released its quadrennial report titled “Global Trends: Paradox of Progress” wherein it predicted a nuclear war between India and Pakistan in 2028. The report pointed out that “India will be the world’s fastest growing economy during the next five years” and that “Pakistan will feel compelled to address India’s economic and conventional military capabilities through asymmetric means. Pakistan will seek to enhance its nuclear deterrent against India by expanding its nuclear arsenal and delivery means, including pursuing “battlefield nuclear weapons” and sea-based options.”

Of the multiple international crises bubbling away in the world’s various trouble spots, the most dangerous, perhaps, is the antagonism between India and Pakistan as the rising tensions could cross the threshold to become a full-fledged nuclear war. Unlike the conventional wars, which can kill large numbers of soldiers and civilians on both sides but leave others largely untouched, if India and Pakistan fought a nuclear war using only a fraction of their estimated 230 nuclear warheads, it could leave up to 2 billion people dead around the world through direct casualties, blast, heat, radiation and nuclear winter effects on global crop production and food distribution networks.

Assessing the Costs

Since the costs of a nuclear war would be catastrophic, it is inconceivable that either government would pursue a deliberate strategy of courting a direct military confrontation. Yet arms control analysts have long identified the subcontinent as among the likeliest of global nuclear flashpoints.

Pakistan and India have enough explosive power to not only kill more than 20 million of their own people, but also to devastate the world’s ozone layer and throw the Northern Hemisphere into a nuclear winter — with a catastrophic impact on agriculture worldwide. Various studies suggest that if India and Pakistan fought a war detonating 100 nuclear warheads (around half of their combined arsenal), each equivalent to a 15-kiloton Hiroshima bomb, more than 21 million people will be directly killed, about half the world’s protective ozone layer would be destroyed, and a “nuclear winter” would cripple the monsoons and agriculture worldwide.

A BJP member of the upper house of Indian parliament, Subramanian Swamy, recently threatened Pakistan buy saying that if 100 million Indians died in a Pakistani nuclear attack, India’s retaliation would wipe out Pakistan. But, the real costs would be much higher and not just in India and Pakistan, where the first 21 million people – half the death toll of World War II – would perish within the first week from blast effects, burns and acute radiation, according to the 2007 study by researchers from Rutgers University, University of Colorado-Boulder and University of California, Los Angeles, all in the USA.

Another two billion people worldwide would face risks of severe starvation due to the climatic effects of the use of nuclear weapons in the subcontinent, according to a 2013 assessment by the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, a global federation of physicians.

Avenues to peace

The constant source of tensions between Pakistan and India is the lingering Kashmir dispute that has remained unresolved even after nearly seven decades of the partition of India. It won’t be an exaggeration that right now the troubled land is the single most dangerous spot on the globe as both countries have already fought three wars over it and came within a hair’s breadth of a nuclear exchange in 1999.

Besides Kashmir, some other factors do also ominously suggest that these crises will become more and more dangerous. Pakistan and India continue to grow their nuclear arsenals at a fast pace. India has also actively worked to create limited war options against Pakistan under the nuclear overhang. New Delhi believes there is room to use force against Pakistan without breaching nuclear red lines. But Pakistan now possesses tactical nuclear weapons that could be used as battlefield weapons against Indian conventional forces. Pakistan’s nuclear threshold has always been ambiguous, and the danger of India crossing it cannot be ruled out.

Amidst this precarious situation, there are still hopes that the state of affairs can be improved if sanity prevails on both sides. First of all, to hit the bull’s eye, the Kashmir issue must be resolved. A good start would be to suspend the Special Powers Act and send the Indian Army back to the barracks. The current situation cannot continue. Indian rule in Kashmir has been singularly brutal. Between 50,000 and 80,000 people have died over the past six decades, and thousands of others have been “disappeared” by security forces.  Kashmir has almost 12 million people, and no army or security force — even one as large as India’s — can maintain a permanent occupation if the residents don’t want it. Instead of resorting to force, India should ratchet down its security forces and negotiate with Pakistan and the Kashmiri leadership for an interim increase in local autonomy.

But in the long run, the Kashmiris should have their referendum — and both India and Pakistan must accept the results.

The second dangerous development is India’s “Cold Start” doctrine under which India would send its troops across the border to a depth of 30 kilometres in the advent of a terrorist attack. Since the Indian army is more than twice the size of Pakistan’s, there would be little that Pakistanis could do to stop such an invasion other than using battlefield nukes. India would then be faced with either accepting defeat or responding.

India doesn’t currently have any tactical nukes, only high-yield strategic weapons — many aimed at China — whose primary value is to destroy cities. Hence a decision by a Pakistani commander to use a tactical warhead would almost surely lead to a strategic response by India, setting off a full-scale nuclear exchange and the nightmare that would follow in its wake.

Hence, India must shun its cold start doctrine and find ways to improve relations with Pakistan in order to make the lives of nearly 1.5 billion people of this region better and more prosperous. Both countries should join hands to launch a war against poverty and backwardness, they are mired in. 

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India’s “Cold Start” Doctrine

Cold Start is the name given to a limited-war strategy designed to seize Pakistani territory swiftly without, in theory, risking a nuclear conflict. It has its roots in an attack on India’s parliament in 2001, which was carried out by terrorist groups allegedly used as proxies by Pakistan. Cold Start is an attempt to have nimbler, integrated units stationed closer to the border that would allow India to inflict harm to Pakistan before international powers demanded a ceasefire. Indians believe that it would also deny Pakistan a justification for triggering a nuclear strike.

Although India has refused to own up to the existence of the “Cold Start” military doctrine since it was first publicly discussed in 2004, Bipin Rawat, India’s new army chief, recently acknowledged its existence.

By acknowledging the doctrine, which would demand a more potent retaliation than these commando operations, the army seems keen to signal that it has a range of strategic options, introducing an element of unpredictability in its response. Political leaders may have also come closer to embracing it. The government of Narendra Modi has shown keen interest in national security matters, moving India into the world’s top five defence-spenders, addressing servicemen’s grievances and mulling a wholesale revamp of the armed forces’ structure.

Whether the strategy will prove effective remains to be seen. By pursuing Cold Start, the Indian army may have reaped “the worst of both worlds”, says Walter Ladwig, a scholar at King’s College London.

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