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Nuclear Conflict Between India and Pakistan: Thinking the Unthinkable

(June 19, 2002) The world can stand back and breath for the time being. Once again the brink of nuclear war between India and Pakistan over Kashmir has been averted. Looking at the recent history of India and Pakistan, one observes that war is nothing new. India and Pakistan fought in 1948, 1965, 1971, and 1999. What is new is that both nations are fully prepared for nuclear war. And should those countries recklessly engage in nuclear war a Pentagon study concludes that the resulting deaths could number 12 million.

In an interview with one of India's major newspapers, Atai Bihari Vajpayee said that had Pakistan made a nuclear attack, "India was also ready for a nuclear war, but there was also the belief that the neighbor would not indulge in such madness."

And Pakistan's leaders have made it clear they are prepared to use nuclear weapons first in any conflict. They certainly hope this threat will prevent war, and should conventional war break out they fear being overwhelmed by India's conventional military superiority.

What is evident is that the scenario of nuclear war between India and Pakistan has made South Asia one of the post-Cold War's most dangerous nuclear flash points.

The horror of nuclear war. Nuclear destruction

It is difficult to determine the actual size and composition of India's and Pakistan's nuclear arsenals, but it is believed that India has about 30 to 35 nuclear warheads, slightly fewer than Pakistan, which may have as many as 48. They also have the missile systems to deliver their rather sophisticated nuclear weapons.

India and Pakistan are reported to have fission weapons, similar to the early weapons developed by the United States in the late 1940s and early 1950s. It is estimated that their explosive yields are 5 to 25 kilotons (1 kiloton is equivalent to 1,000 tons of TNT).

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) calculated the consequences of a South Asian nuclear war. In the first scenario they estimate what would happen if bombs exploded over 10 large South Asian cities as air bursts: five in India and five in Pakistan. (The results were published in "The Risks and Consequences of Nuclear War in South Asia," by NRDC physicist Matthew McKinzie and Princeton scientists Zia Mian, A. H. Nayyar and M. V. Ramana, a chapter in Smitu Kothari and Zia Mian (editors), "Out of the Nuclear Shadow" (Dehli: Lokayan and Rainbow Publishers, 2001).)

Estimated nuclear casualties for attacks on 10 large Indian and Pakistani cities
City Name Total Population Within 5 Kilometers of Ground Zero Number of Persons Killed Number of Persons Severely Injured Number of Persons Slightly Injured
Bangalore 3,077,937 314,978 175,136 411,336
Bombay 3,143,284 477,713 228,648 476,633
Calcutta 3,520,344 357,202 198,218 466,336
Madras 3,252,628 364,291 196,226 448,948
New Delhi 1,638,744 176,518 94,231 217,853
Total India 14,632,937 1,690,702 892,459 2,021,106
Faisalabad 2,376,478 336,239 174,351 373,967
Islamabad 798,583 154,067 66,744 129,935
Karachi 1,962,458 239,643 126,810 283,290
Lahore 2,682,092 258,139 149,649 354,095
Rawalpindi 1,589,828 183,791 96,846 220,585
Total Pakistan 9,409,439 1,171,879 614,400 1,361,872
India and Pakistan
Total 24,042,376 2,862,581 1,506,859 3,382,978

NRDC also calculated the consequences of a much more severe nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan. This scenario calculated the consequences of 24 nuclear explosions detonated on the ground. They calculated the fallout patterns and casualties for a hypothetical nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan in which each country targeted major cities. They chose target cities throughout Pakistan and in northwestern India to take into account the limited range of Pakistani missiles or aircraft. The target cities, listed in the table below, include the capitals of Islamabad and New Dehli, and large cities, such as Karachi and Bombay. In this scenario, we assumed that a dozen, 25-kiloton warheads would be detonated as ground bursts in Pakistan and another dozen in India, producing substantial fallout.

The devastation that would result from fallout would exceed that of blast and fire. NRDC's second scenario would produce far more horrific results than the first scenario because there would be more weapons, higher yields, and extensive fallout. In some large cities, the study assumed more than one bomb would be used.

15 Indian and Pakistani cities attacked with 24 nuclear warheads
Country City City Population Number of
Attacking Bombs
Pakistan Islamabad (national capital) 100-250 thousand 1
Pakistan Karachi (provincial capital) > 5 million 3
Pakistan Lahore (provincial capital) 1-5 million 2
Pakistan Peshawar (provincial capital) 0.5-1 million 1
Pakistan Quetta (provincial capital) 250-500 thousand 1
Pakistan Faisalabad 1-5 million 2
Pakistan Hyderabad 0.5-1 million 1
Pakistan Rawalpindi 0.5-1 million 1
India New Dehli (national capital) 250-500 thousand 1
India Bombay (provincial capital) > 5 million 3
India Delhi (provincial capital) > 5 million 3
India Jaipur (provincial capital) 1-5 million 2
India Bhopal (provincial capital) 1-5 million 1
India Ahmadabad 1-5 million 1
India Pune 1-5 million 1

NRDC calculated that 22.1 million people in India and Pakistan would be exposed to lethal radiation doses of 600 rem or more in the first two days after the attack. Another 8 million people would receive a radiation dose of 100 to 600 rem, causing severe radiation sickness and potentially death, especially for the very young, old or infirm. NRDC calculated that as many as 30 million people would be threatened by the fallout from the attack, roughly divided between the two countries.

Besides fallout, blast and fire would cause substantial destruction within roughly a mile-and-a-half of the bomb craters. NRDC estimated that 8.1 million people live within this radius of destruction.

Most Indians (99 percent of the population) and Pakistanis (93 percent of the population) would survive the second scenario. Their respective military forces would be still be intact to continue and even escalate the conflict.

Such estimates do not take into account the destruction of medical centers, the damage to chemical industries resulting in toxic spills of extremely hazardous chemicals similar to the Union Carbide incident in Bhopal, or either intentional or unintentional damage to the nuclear reactor at Trombay. Casualities could be multiplied by huge numbers. And neighboring countries would not be spared for radiation knows no limits.

In the Autumn, 1993 issue of International Review we wrote, "Nuclear arms impoverish India and Pakistan. Heavily burdened by the twin weights of floundering economies and massive foreign indebtedness, they are hampered still further by the enormous costs of the reputed nuclear arsenals they maintain to support their continuing nuclear rivalry." The people and nations of the world must strongly pressure both India and Pakistan to work for economic and human development rather than the further creation of nuclear arsenals. Or, as International Review summarized in 1992, "The Kashmir dispute or some other issue could erupt in poisonous mushroom clouds."

Harry Hayes

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