National and International Issues

Nuclear War in South Asia: A Zero-Sum Game

South Asia has entered the most dangerous decade of its time. The likelihood of a nuclear war between India and Pakistan has become real in case of any misadventure carried out by India. Since 2014, when Narendra Modi came into power in India, the relationship between Pakistan and India has been at an all time low. A series of actions carried by India have worsened the regional peace and stability. On August 05, 2019 India abrogated the articles 370 and 35A of its constitution which were the instrument of special status of Indian-Occupied Jammu and Kashmir (IOJ&K). As a result, Pakistan has responded very seriously and took this matter to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). As this issue prolongs, it may escalate to any minor or major crisis. India may carry out a “false-flag operation” in Kashmir to attempt to validate military action against Pakistan. This may lead to a full-scale war, of course, a nuclear war. 
After every single terrorist incident in India whether it is carried out by local terrorists or separatist organizations, India’s civil and political elite puts the blame on Pakistan. These tensions further lead to an uncertain and treacherous environment for both states which ultimately affects the peace of the South Asian region as a whole. It is a bitter reality that any type of military adventure, carried out by India such as surgical strike or limited war, would lead to a full-scale war and that would ultimately lead to a nuclear war.
India’s old ambition to gain regional control has created a sense of uncertainty and doubts amongst its neighbouring states. Under the premiership of Modi, there are numerous changes in the Indian domestic, regional and international policies.  Modi’s government is deliberately taking such steps which are creating a sense of insecurity among the neighbouring states. He is deliberately promoting violence against non-Hindu communities and also following the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) ideology to establish Hindu Raj in the entire country. India’s political leadership has always shown less concern over violence against its minorities. The same mentality was implemented during the 2019 elections which helped Modi win with a simple majority. A major chunk of Indian voters was based upon RSS slogans and hate against minorities. Irresponsible statements by BJP’s ministers and senior military leadership have also shown frustration in Indian society. More importantly, their anxiety over nuclear “No First Use” (NFU) or “First Use” (FU) policy has reflected in the frustration and insecurity of Indian policymakers on its strategic competence and capabilities vis-à-vis Pakistan. However, NFU remains the most contentious component of India’s nuclear doctrine. During the 2014 election campaign, BJP indicated that it will revise its nuclear doctrine.
Irrational behaviour of BJP leadership and senior military officials has also created an environment of imbalance and fear in the region. Modi’s statements like “qatal ki raat” [the night of slaughter] after Pakistan captured the Indian pilot after Pulwama incident, or recently, its Defence Minister Rajnath Singh publicly stated that Indian will “divide Pakistan into several parts”. Furthermore, Indian Army Chief, General Manoj Mukund asserted that he can launch a military operation in Azad Kashmir.
India’s warmongering demeanour is evident from its military development. India is rapidly developing its nuclear force, missile and aircraft technologies. It has already acquired nuclear triad and is now modifying and upgrading its delivery systems. India has test-fired a long-range intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and increasing short-and medium-range ballistic missiles systems. Additionally, India has also finalized its deal with Russia to acquire S-400 missile defense system, and is also in the process to develop hypersonic missile. There are major developments in its military related technology. The most important challenge is the doctrinal transformation which is taking place in India. In 2004, India came up with its Cold Start Doctrine (CSD) or proactive strategy. To deter and counter India’s CSD, Pakistan shifted its nuclear posture from strategic to full spectrum deterrence and introduced tactical nuclear weapons (TNW), Nasr (Hatf-IX). Now India is coming up with Land Warfare Doctrine (LWD) of 2018, which has lowered down India’s force posture, aiming for 5 to 10 thousand troops to carry out quick and swift operations in multiple areas in Pakistan. The second challenge is the force modernisation which is rapidly taking place in India, such as adding many offensive capabilities like S-400 BMD system, Barak-8, modern artillery, equipping its land forces with modern tanks such as third-generation Russian T-90 MBT — the T-90S Bhishma and T-90SM (other designations T-90AM or T-90MS), and AH-64E Apache Attack Helicopter. Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) is also adding up designated satellites for its army, navy and airforce such as GSAT-7 for Navy, GSAT-5 for army and GSAT-7A for Air force. Furthermore, Israeli-made unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are also being implemented for surgical strikes. All these efforts are undermining the strategic stability in South Asia. The question arises, how can Pakistan counter Indian aggression? Does Pakistan have enough military strength to counter massive Indian modern forces or would it struggle for better or equal advanced defense system? Pakistan is already in the process of acquiring multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRV). Pakistan is enhancing and modernising its conventional forces, however, its economy does not allow it to match the Indian arms race. Pakistan can also think of alternate options to dodge Indian BMD system. Pakistan’s intentions to develop the smallest or tiny nuclear weapons is the obvious solution to counter Indian modern forces. Although, India has always claimed to have these major security developments against China, they remain focused on its traditional rival i.e., Pakistan.
There are no definitive figures of nuclear weapons of Pakistan and India publicly available, with both states keeping such information under strict control. However, according to SIPRIs estimation, Pakistan and India have 150-160 and 130-140 nuclear weapons respectively.1  Half of them are enough for “total destruction” of Pakistan and India’s major cities. India has more than 1000 million population and Pakistan has around 200 million population. According to estimates, each nuclear weapon is equivalent to a 15-kiloton Hiroshima bomb and as a result more than 21 million people could be directly killed.2  The whole of South Asia would face the serious aftermath of a nuclear war. Additionally, about half the world’s protective ozone layer would be destroyed, and a “nuclear winter” would cripple the monsoons and agriculture worldwide.3  However, nuclear war, even at a limited scale, would have dangerous consequences. According to the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and Physicians for Social Responsibility even a limited nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan would destroy crop yields, damage the atmosphere and throw global food markets into chaos.4 
Pakistan and India are still in developing stages, and do not have enough capacities and mechanisms to handle the disasters of a nuclear war at very large scales. How would the states which could hardly deal with the monsoon floods face the consequences of nuclear winter?
India under the Modi regime has adopted very stringent policies towards Pakistan. Any misadventure can escalate to a full-scale war which will end up with the use of nuclear weapons. Kashmir is the bone of contention between these two states and without peaceful resolution of Kashmir, peace and stability in the region is impossible. War between India and Pakistan will have long-lasting implications not only for the region but also for the entire world. Millions of population could die in a nuclear war between Pakistan and India. Prime Minister Imran Khan’s offer to solve Kashmir and other outstanding disputes will bring development and stability in the region. Modi’s aggressive policies towards Pakistan can create further problems and challenges in the region. The world community must intervene and play a significant role in addressing the issue of Kashmir to avoid such disastrous outcomes.  

The writer is a visiting research fellow in War Studies Department at King’s College London, and postdoctoral fellow at the School of Politics & IR, University of Leicester, UK.
E-mail: [email protected]
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1. SIPRI Yearbook 2019, June17, 2019,, Accessed on August 23, 2019.
2. Abheet Singh Sethi, "The Global Cost of a Nuclear War between India and Pakistan," September 29, 2016,, Accessed on October 04, 2018.
3. Ibid.
4. Palash Ghosh, "India-Pakistan Nuclear War Would Kill 2 Billion People, End Civilization: Report," International Business Times, October 12, 2013,, Accessed on October 03, 2018.

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