A new study ‘Nuclear Famine: Two Billion People at Risk?’ conducted by the Nobel Prize-winning International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War along with Physicians for Social Responsibility, says that even a ‘limited’ nuclear war using a 100 weapons would disrupt global climate and agricultural production so severely that the lives of more than two billion people would be at risk. This finding is based upon research by climate scientists assessing the impact of nuclear explosions on the earth’s atmosphere and ecosystems. The study used a hypothetical India-Pakistan war to prove its point.

An earlier study on the impact of ‘local nuclear war’, published in the Scientific American in the aftermath of the Mumbai 26/11 crisis, had likewise reflected on an India-Pakistan nuclear exchange. By its reckoning, besides the 20 million dead on the subcontinent, one billion people would perish in the famines triggered by dust clouds.

Earlier, in the period of Operation Parakram, the US Natural Resources Development Council had put the figure of dead from the direct affects in case of 24 nuclear bombs on ten subcontinental cities at three million, with half the number as seriously wounded, and casualties from fallout in both countries at 30 million.

It bears attention as to why three studies have alighted on South Asia for their modelling purposes. That both India and Pakistan have attended the second conference on humanitarian effects of nuclear war in Mexico this month, adds to worries since it suggests both governments are concerned of possible nuclear conflict and its consequences. This means that even if both states are satisfied that deterrence is in place, South Asia remains a nuclear flashpoint.

Given this, there is a case for keeping the nuclear dimension of the relationship, that otherwise tends to recede to the background in the times of ‘peace,’ defined as absence of crisis. It would not do to scramble in the onset of crisis with preventive and mitigatory measures. These need to be in place prior and are best emplaced in times of ‘peace’.

The two governments believe that doing ‘more for’ deterrence is enough. While Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is taken as expanding at the fastest rate in the world, India is proceeding with an equal pace if a step behind in numbers. India is ahead in the variegation of its arsenal, from developing missile defences to submarine launched nuclear IRBMs. The assumption behind these quantitative and qualitative nuclear developments is that such activity enhances nuclear deterrence by making it ‘credible’.

In India’s nuclear doctrine of ‘credible minimum deterrence’ not only does ‘credible’ precede ‘minimum’ but does so comprehensively. The reasoning is that minimum deterrence, based on existential deterrence or the deterrence induced by the mere presence of nuclear weapons, is not enough. Deterrence is taken as credible only when the nuclear adversary is assured of retaliation of an order that will cause him to stay his nuclear hand.

Currently, though Pakistan is ahead of India in numbers of warheads, India’s case is that it squares off against two opponents, Pakistan and China, acting in collusion, even in the nuclear field. It is therefore likely to build up to a second strike arsenal of larger proportions than Pakistan, even if the premium on numbers is superseded over time with the acquisition of the underwater leg of the triad. India has access to stockpiles of enough fission grade nuclear material to enable a nuclear ‘surge’ as and when needed.

Even so, gaining the ‘invulnerable’ second strike capability is not enough. A nuclear doctrine is required for communication of the implied threat of retaliation and the resolve to retaliate to the adversary. The ‘declaratory nuclear doctrine’ meant for deterrence is to stay the putative adversaries’ nuclear finger. However, in case the nuclear button does get pushed in fear or panic, ‘operational nuclear doctrine’, meant for breakdown of nuclear deterrence, must in the event kick in to guide nuclear strategy.

The doctrinal interaction is worth a pause. Pakistan has not foresworn nuclear first use. India, in turn, has promised ‘massive’ nuclear retaliation in such a case. This has forced Pakistan into vertical proliferation, in order to sustain such an attack and have a second strike capability in order not only in the event to counter strike, but also in first place to deter massive nuclear retaliation by India. Deterrence breakdown implies Pakistan will not be stopped from introducing nuclear weapons into a conflict and to begin with, taking India’s declaratory doctrine as kicking in, that this invites a massive strike by India. A Pakistani counter that would likely be a broken backed one would then go for India’s jugular, its megalopolises.

However, taking the case of India’s operational nuclear doctrine being different, it may not retaliate massively, but proportionately. In such a case, stopping the nuclear exchange at the lowest possible levels is necessary; else, as the reasoning behind India’s doctrine of massive nuclear retaliation has it, inexorable escalation could result. While there is a shared interest against this, no mechanisms, such as nuclear risk reduction centres, are in place to assure against this. Even so, the damage from local or limited nuclear war will be unsustainable for the planet.

In other words, the outcome, consistently warned against by successive studies, is virtually inevitable in case of nuclear use in the subcontinent. If the two states are not to destroy themselves and the world, they must either solve their disputes – that can provide the proverbial spark for the nuclear tinder – or get rid of nuclear weapons. Since the latter is unlikely in light of the former, and the former is unlikely any time soon, the third option is to build the mechanisms for cooperation in escalation control and de-escalation.

This implies that both states must go beyond desultory nuclear confidence building talks to discuss doctrinal interaction and its consequences at the round of periodic talks. The aim in these must be to ensure credible Nuclear Risk Reduction Measures such as a jointly manned nuclear risk reduction centre, perhaps located outside the region or in a third country within South Asia. Since the two states are unlikely to do this on their own, believing that doing so will indicate a concern with the state of health of their deterrent, the impulse for this will have to emerge from civil society, and as mentioned, in times of ‘peace’.

-the writer is an Assistant Professor at the Nelson Mandela Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution at the Jamia Millia Islamia

-by arrangement with

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