The nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan is intensifying, and with it, the possibility of a nuclear war. Both nuclear-armed states are developing new weaponry and considering more aggressive doctrines. India is testing its first nuclear-powered submarine to carry nuclear-armed missiles while Pakistan has expanded its short-range missile capability. In this environment, a small incident could lead inexorably to an all-out nuclear conflagration resulting in catastrophic destruction. Millions of human casualties, along with a global “nuclear winter,” would lead to unprecedented suffering and death.1
While the possibility of nuclear war in South Asia has alarmed the international community, public opinion in both India and Pakistan is more sanguine. Nationalist support for nuclear-weapons programs is strong in both countries as these weapons are considered symbols of national glory, power, and achievement. Better public understanding of the consequences of a nuclear attack might help de-link nuclear weapons from notions of national pride and consequently reduce the pressure on policymakers to exercise the nuclear option in a deep crisis between the two rivals. This essay proposes convening a joint, binational study by Indian and Pakistani experts on the impact of nuclear war in South Asia. The findings of this study should be published in newspapers, high school textbooks, and military journals in both states. This would enhance public understanding of the horrific consequences of nuclear detonations.
Nuclear Threats and Public Opinion
During crises between India and Pakistan, policymakers have repeatedly made unvarnished or thinly veiled nuclear threats. In response to the Indian Army’s “surgical strike” across the Line of Control in Kashmir in September 2016, Pakistan’s Defense Minister – and now Foreign Minister – Khawaja Asif said, “[the] Pakistan army is fully prepared to answer any misadventure of India. We have not made atomic device to display in a showcase. If such a situation arises we will use it and eliminate India.” Subramanian Swamy, a member of the upper house of India’s parliament for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, made a similar statement days before, saying that “if 100 million Indians died in a Pakistani nuclear attack, India’s retaliation would wipe out Pakistan.”
Previous crises have also demonstrated the apparent fearlessness of leaders in issuing nuclear threats. During the Twin Peaks Crisis (2001-2002), Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf stated that nuclear weapons could be used “if Pakistan is threatened with extinction, [for] then the pressure of our countrymen would be so big that this option, too, would have to be considered.”2 During the same crisis, Pakistani Lieutenant General Javed Ashraf Qazi, the former chief of Inter-Services Intelligence, said “if Pakistan is being destroyed through conventional means, we will destroy them by using the nuclear option. If I am going down the ditch, I will also take my enemy with me.” In 2003, Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes stated that “the Pakistani leadership should not get into the idea of committing suicide because we can take a bomb or two more,” while Pakistan would be wiped out in the event of a nuclear conflict with India.
With each crisis, there is potential for nuclear brinksmanship and diminished political restraint. There is no guarantee that a joint study of the effects of nuclear weapons will stop incendiary statements in a crisis, but a joint assessment would reveal the speakers’ incomprehension of the destructive potential of nuclear weapons and the irresponsibility of making provocative declarations in a nuclearized environment.In India and Pakistan, there is a low level of public awareness of nuclear dangers, and one finds a blasé indifference to the horrific consequences of their use.
Informed and organized public opinion is essential to constraining the use of nuclear weapons and keeping policymakers in check. In India and Pakistan, there is a low level of public awareness of nuclear dangers, and one finds a blasé indifference to the horrific consequences of their use.3 During the Twin Peaks Crisis, the BBC reported a great deal of ignorance among the Pakistani and Indian publics about “what a nuclear war means.” Even educated people with access to technology, as seen on Indian social media platforms following the 2016 Uri attack, do not have a good understanding of basic nuclear realities and offer worrying levels of support for nuclear use. It seems likely that those supporting nuclear use lack an understanding of the consequences of nuclear exchanges.
The Impact of a Nuclear War
To understand the effects of nuclear weapons, one must refer to the experiences of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. By today’s standards the Hiroshima bomb was a relatively small weapon, at 20 kilotons of explosive power, that killed 140,000 people and destroyed more than 10 square kilometers of the city. The survivors of Hiroshima also had or have increased incidence of leukemia, various kinds of cancer, premature death, visual impairment, and lung and degenerative diseases.
This history, combined with evidence from computer models, illustrates that even limited nuclear exchanges between India and Pakistan could bring utter catastrophe. Besides widespread destruction and devastating health effects, water and food would be scarce, housing and shelter would be unavailable for hundreds of thousands, and transportation and communication would break down completely.
Existing governmental and nongovernmental assessments of a South Asian nuclear exchange vary depending on the targets struck, the bomb yield, the weather, and the bombs’ burst altitudes. In 2002, an intelligence assessment by the U.S. Department of Defense predicted that a full-scale nuclear exchange of “a couple of dozen” Pakistani and “several dozen” Indian Hiroshima-sized bombs would result in 12 million deaths and up to 7 million injured. The long-term consequences would require a vast amount of foreign assistance to deal with “radioactive contamination, famine, and disease.” A 2007 study from several American universities found that if India and Pakistan fought a war detonating 100 Hiroshima-sized nuclear weapons, more than 21 million people would be killed directly and more than half of the ozone layer would be destroyed.
Another nongovernmental study calculated that, as a result of the higher urban densities in South Asian cities today, 10 Hiroshima-sized explosions over 10 major cities in India and Pakistan would kill as many as three to four times more people per bomb than in Japan in 1945.4 It is estimated that 3 million people would be killed immediately.5 Another 1.5 million people would be severely injured because of radiation sickness, and as many as 30 million people would be threatened by the fallout from the attack.6 Alex Wellerstein, a nuclear historian at the Stevens Institute of Technology, developed a free, online program for modeling the impact of nuclear detonations. The model shows that an Indian nuclear weapon with a 60-kiloton-yield striking Karachi would result in approximately 449,000 fatalities and 794,000 injured; similarly, a 45-kiloton bomb striking Mumbai would result in approximately 403,000 deaths and 573,000 injuries.
The consequences of a South Asian nuclear exchange would not be limited to the subcontinent. Indeed, such an exchange would have far-reaching and devastating global consequences. The absorption of sunlight by the smoke and soot resulting from a nuclear exchange would trigger global cooling that could persist for more than 25 years. Average surface temperatures would fall to their coldest in the last 1,000 years. The combination of prolonged cooling and ozone loss could devastate food supplies around the world. Another study concludes that “it is conceivable that the global pressures on food supplies from a regional nuclear conflict could, directly or via ensuing panic, significantly degrade global food security or even produce a global nuclear famine.”
This essay proposes commissioning a joint study to assess the impacts of nuclear attacks on India and Pakistan in order to increase public understanding of the ramifications of nuclear war. While the assessments above provide some indication of the ramifications of a nuclear exchange, a binational, nonpartisan commission would carry greater weight among the Indian and Pakistani publics than would governmental and academic studies originating outside of South Asia. Both governments would agree to undertake a joint scientific assessment of the physical, biological, social, and environmental impacts of a nuclear exchange made by the other on city centers in both countries. This joint committee, composed of scientific experts from both countries, would conduct an independent study on the impact of nuclear attacks by estimating the number of detonations and their yields.
The studies mentioned in the previous section assumed different numbers of nuclear detonations and resulting consequences. As such, an important task of the joint committee would be to establish a baseline regarding the number of detonations, yields, and consequences. The purview of the committee would include assessments of immediate death tolls, injuries, temperature changes, food contamination, epidemics from radionuclides, shortening of growing seasons, and long-term health effects. The committee would also assess the effects of such an exchange on neighboring countries as well as global repercussions. The committee would meet annually to update the findings by taking into account any significant development in Indian or Pakistani nuclear strategy or development.
Once the study is completed within an agreed-upon time frame, both countries would jointly release the findings of the committee to their respective publics. Both states would include summaries of the findings in high school textbooks, ensuring that a large portion of the literate youth population (70.3 percent in Pakistan and 81.4 percent in India) would have access to a fuller understanding of the effects of a nuclear war.
The distribution of this shared knowledge would aid advocates of nuclear restraint in promoting policies that reduce nuclear danger in the region. A joint India-Pakistan assessment would clarify that a nuclear exchange in South Asia would fulfill former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s conclusion that “the survivors will envy the dead.”
Benefits and Challenges
It is in the collective interest of India and Pakistan to commission this joint study because well-informed public opinion can be a great force for peace.7 It is the responsibility of both states to provide the public with the necessary information to help them in making informed judgments on nuclear issues. Informed judgments rest on an understanding of the devastating consequences of the use of nuclear weapons.
This initiative would have seven benefits for India and Pakistan. First, it would demonstrate that both powers are responsible nuclear states and understand the significance of informed public opinion on nuclear deterrence. Second, it would lessen international concerns that nuclear nationalism in both countries increases the chances of a nuclear war. Third, informed public opinion would act as a restraint on public demands that leaders exercise the nuclear option. Fourth, given that a nuclear war would have a devastating impact on neighboring countries, this initiative could also serve as a regional confidence-building measure by inviting experts from China, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka to the joint commission’s annual meeting.
Fifth, in enhancing India’s and Pakistan’s image as responsible nuclear-armed states, the joint study could improve both countries’ prospects for membership into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). India’s involvement in the joint commission might not soften China’s position regarding India’s proposed membership into the NSG, but it could ease the opposition of other states. For Pakistan, the joint commission would improve Islamabad’s checkered history of nuclear proliferation. Sixth, this initiative could aid in stabilizing deterrence as Pakistan seeks to be viewed as a responsible nuclear power. Namely, the joint commission could restrain New Delhi from pursuing the Cold Start doctrine and its massive-retaliation nuclear posture. Seventh, this initiative would provide a socialization opportunity for nuclear experts, encouraging a better understanding of each other’s viewpoints that could prove to be a de-escalatory tool during a crisis. As such, this initiative could create a pool of like-minded individuals – supportive of cooperative security – spanning national borders.As such, this initiative could create a pool of like-minded individuals – supportive of cooperative security – spanning national borders.
However, this proposal will likely face opposition from several corners in both countries. The nuclear establishment in both countries might oppose any initiative that diminishes the perceived value of nuclear weapons. Likewise, national security has been increasingly invoked by leaders in both states to justify secrecy on practically all aspects of their respective nuclear programs. The secrecy of the nuclear establishment and their power to operate without any forum where they can be held accountable has resulted in a stunted debate. Bureaucratic interests in both states would resist this initiative that might curb such secrecy and initiate a greater level of debate on this issue.
Another challenge could be how to handle access to potentially classified information in assessing the impact of a nuclear war. The joint commission would rely on the hypothetical number of detonations and their yields. It would assume different locations for detonations and would rely on open-source information for the numbers of appropriate delivery systems.
The debate in India and Pakistan regarding the catastrophic consequences of a nuclear exchange has been remarkably marginalized. Anti-nuclear activists have attempted to raise public awareness, but the effectiveness of such efforts remains restricted as a result of low literacy rates and nationalist sentiment favoring nuclear-weapons programs. Greater understanding of the costs of a nuclear attack could restrain public pressure on political leaders to threaten or exercise the nuclear option and could discourage leaders from pursuing provocative and irresponsible nuclear postures.
A nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan would have severe and long-term consequences for human health, the environment, and regional and global stability. The possibility of millions of deaths, the radiation fallout, and environmental repercussions would dwarf any other global problem in the event of a nuclear exchange. Public opinion is an important force in determining whether or not nuclear war will be averted. By undertaking the proposed joint assessment of the physical, biological, social, and environmental effects of a nuclear war, New Delhi and Islamabad would demonstrate their commitment to practicing responsible nuclear stewardship. This would enhance their political standing in the international community. It also would highlight the commitment of both states to avoid nuclear catastrophe and promote regional peace and stability. The joint commission could also set a precedent for other nuclear-power states to follow in order to encourage a comprehensive public understanding of nuclear issues. The rise in public concern over the risk of nuclear war and the need for arms control would thus decelerate the intensified nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan.
Editor’s Note: This essay is part of a new Stimson Center book, Off Ramps from Confrontation in Southern Asia, and has been republished with permission. The book features pragmatic, novel approaches from rising talent and veteran analysts to reduce tensions resulting out of nuclear competition among India, Pakistan, and China. The full book is available for download here.
Image 1: Muhammad Rizwan/AP via Stimson
Image 2: Ramesh Lalwani via Flickr