With the upcoming expiration of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty between the U.S. and Russia in 2021, there will no longer be a non-proliferation agreement between the two countries. Rising tensions between Russia and the U.S. has reignited some of the fear of impending nuclear destruction. However, experts argue that at present, the greatest threat of nuclear war comes from India and Pakistan. The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is an international agreement that prevents the spread of nuclear weapons and strives to ensure complete global disarmament. Neither India nor Pakistan are signatories of the NPT. Since the end of the Cold War, the threat of nuclear war has been thwarted successfully, with a reduction in nuclear weapons from about 70,000 in 1986 to 14,000 today.
The Risk of Escalation
In 2019, the Indian government revoked Indian-administered Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status. This move was followed by a complete lockdown of the region. During his speech at the 74th session of the United Nations General Meeting, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan claimed that “nuclear war is not a threat, it’s a fair worry.” He warned that the lockdown in Kashmir will foster anger and radicalization within the region, resulting in terrorist attacks and miscalculations that will bring the two countries face to face. This is underscored by long-standing disputes at the Line of Control. More recently, Khan announced that he plans to give provisional status to Gilgir-Baltistan, a region that includes contested parts of Jammu and Kashmir. While the risk of tensions escalating to the point of a full-fledged nuclear war is very slim, it should not be completely dismissed.
Some analysts argue that the acquisition of nuclear weapons has actually decreased tensions and deterred India and Pakistan from going to war for the fourth time. While the threat of mutually-assured destruction (MAD) has prevented escalation into nuclear war, this state of deterrence is not unshakeable. For India, recent developments in the geopolitics of the region mean that it has to be wary of both China and Pakistan. Reports show that India has been improving its deterrent force projects to enhance its power to balance the rise of China in the Indian Ocean region, and to increase its preemptive strike strategy against Pakistan. In turn, Pakistan is forced to develop and modernize its own countermeasures to maintain deterrence. While India has a bigger army and more conventional weapons, Pakistan’s main strength lies in its nuclear arsenal. Thus, in the event of a conventional war, it is likely that Pakistan will be pressured into using nuclear weapons. This security dilemma in South Asia is escalating because of the fear, insecurity, uncertainty and hostility between the two countries.
After completing testing in 1998, India declared a “No First Use” policy, stopping it from initiating a nuclear launch against Pakistan. More recently, however, the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has promised to revisit the doctrine and possibly make changes to it. The disparity in India and Pakistan’s conventional military capabilities could force Pakistan, not bound by a “No First Use” policy, to resort to using nuclear weapons instead. India’s recent efforts to develop more nuclear submarines confirms that it would launch a retaliatory attack, leading to a “tit-for-tat” of nuclear attacks that would obliterate the largest cities in both countries.
What Would the Consequences be?
It is important to take what was learned from the dropping of the two bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and apply it to today’s world. In 1945, the estimated world population was 2.37 billion. Today, the estimated world population is around 7.6 billion. These numbers are important when we consider the number of deaths that can be caused by a nuclear explosion today in the world’s most densely populated cities. The stakes are higher than ever. A nuclear war between India and Pakistan involving 50 nuclear weapons with 15-kt yield would lead to an estimated 22 million deaths and 44 million total casualties. After the initial explosions, radioactive fallout will also negatively affect the health of people in the region for many more decades.
A recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences demonstrates the potential effects if both India and Pakistan deployed 50 Hiroshima-size (15 kt) bombs. The firestorms of the explosion would release about five million tons of soot toward the stratosphere. This in turn would create a “nuclear winter” by absorbing sunlight and lowering the earth’s temperature by about 1.8 degrees C (3.25 F) for at least five years. Scientists predict that this would result in food security issues all over the world. Predictably, South Asia and the surrounding areas will be the most hard hit, with food supplies dropping upwards of 20 percent in the following decades. According to the article, countries north of 30 degrees like Canada would suffer greatly because global cooling would further reduce their growing seasons. While it is true that the results of this study are not concrete, it is important to consider what kind of environmental effects a nuclear war could have.
Paths Towards Stability
The former chairman of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC), Samar Mubarakmand, reassures: “Both countries have long been reeling from poverty, illiteracy, and other health and economic issues. Wars or undue competition in arms races are not in the interest of the two nations.” Thus, both countries will need to move towards strengthening military and political diplomacy. MAD cannot be the only preventative security measure that India and Pakistan rely upon.
During the Cold War, U.S. and Soviet efforts to start dialogue and increase communication helped pave the path towards nuclear disarmament agreements. Similarly, India and Pakistan need to take steps and institute confidence building measures, especially at the Line of Control, to prevent a full nuclear war. Pakistan can also move towards further developing its conventional capabilities in order to strengthen stability while lessening its reliance on nuclear deterrence.