Yes, India And Pakistan Could End The World As We Know It Through A Nuclear Exchange

A series of events starting with a major terrorist attack in the disputed Jammu and Kashmir region has pushed India and Pakistan, and their nuclear arsenals, closer to all-out war with each other than they have been in decades. Though the two countries have significantly smaller nuclear stockpiles compared to the United States or Russia, even a limited nuclear exchange between them could lead to health and climatic issues on a global scale, a scenario known as Nuclear Winter, which would end life on the planet as we know it.

We at The War Zone have been following the developments in South Asia closely and you can read our wrap-ups of the past two days of fighting here and here. The precipitating event was an attack by the terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammed that involved a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device ramming into a bus carrying Indian soldiers in Jammu and Kashmir, killing 40 and wounding many more.

After a series of tit-for-tat air operations, both countries are on edge and have made threats to further escalate the situation. Pakistan has warned India directly about further attacks and implied that the situation could lead to a nuclear confrontation.

“As you all know, Pakistani government has called a meeting of National Command Authority tomorrow,” Major General Asif Ghafoor, a spokesperson for the Pakistani military, said on Feb. 26, 2019 after the initial Indian strikes on Pakistan. “I hope you know what that means.”

Pakistan’s National Command Authority is a top-level joint strategic command that most notably oversees the country’s nuclear stockpile. India has its own Nuclear Command Authority and dedicated Strategic Forces Command that fulfills the same general role in making decisions regarding the employment of its nuclear weapons. In both countries, the final decision to initiate a nuclear strike rests with civilian authorities. 

What’s in these arsenals?

Though the exact numbers are not publicly available, Pakistan reportedly has between 140 and 150 total warheads, all of which are fission types, or atomic bombs, rather than fusion or thermonuclear devices, more commonly known as hydrogen bombs. Pakistan presently has a mix of nuclear-capable medium-range ballistic missiles.

The longest range models in Pakistani service are the Ghauri-II and Shaheen-III. These have maximum estimated ranges of around 1,500 and 1,700 miles respectively. This allows Pakistan to reasonably target anything within India.

Pakistan also has nuclear-tipped Nasr short-range ballistic missiles and Babur ground-launched cruise missiles. It’s combat jets can carry Ra’ad air-launched cruise missiles and nuclear gravity bombs, too. The Pakistani Navy is on its way toward getting a nuclear-armed submarine-launched cruise missile capability, as well. This could give the country a very austere ‘second strike’ deterrent.

India is similarly secretive about the total size of its stockpile, but it reportedly consists of around 130 and 140 warheads, again all fission types. The Indian military has deployed nuclear-armed short-, medium, and intermediate-range ballistic missiles, which form the core of its present nuclear force. 

India’s ground-launched ballistic missiles primarily fall into two families, the Prithvi and the Agni. The former are short-range missiles, while the latter includes medium- and intermediate-range types. Agni-III has a range of more than 3,100 miles, easily putting all of Pakistan in range, even from well within Indian territory.

The still-in-development Agni-V and -VI are intercontinental ballistic missiles, which are intended to provide a more capable deterrent against China, another of India’s potential regional adversaries.

An Indian Agni-II Medium Range Ballistic Missile on its trailer-mounted erector-launcher., AP Photo/Gurinder Osan

India also has the nuclear-capable BrahMos cruise missile, which the country developed together with Russia. The Indians have deployed air-, sea-, and ground-launched versions of this weapon. The Indian Air Force’s combat jets can also carry nuclear gravity bombs.

An Indian launch vehicle for the ground-based version of the BrahMos cruise missile., Indian Ministry of Defense

Lastly, India has Dhanush ship-launched short-range ballistic missiles available, as well as a single nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine, forming a limited naval nuclear capability. The Indian Navy eventually hopes to have four Arihant-class submarines, though the project has been beset by delays and technical difficulties. Still, this will provide the India with a robust second strike deterrent. 

A global threat

India and Pakistan’s nuclear arsenals are tiny compared to those of the United States and Russia, and these weapons are focused primarily on deterring each other, but that does not mean they’re purely regional threats. Unlike conventional weapons, nuclear weapons create lasting and far-reaching effects that scientists have posited could upend life on Earth if warring parties were to use them in sufficient numbers.

In 2012, Alan Robock, a distinguished professor in the Department of Environmental  Sciences and Associate Director of the Center for Environmental Prediction at Rutgers University, and Owen Brian Toon, a professor in the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences and a research associate at  the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, Boulder, argued that it might not take a large amount of nuclear weapons to create a scenario commonly known as “Nuclear Winter.” 

In general, this hypothesized event occurs when smoke and soot from nuclear explosions block significant amounts of sunlight from reaching the earth’s surface, leading to a precipitous drop in temperatures that results in mass crop failure and widespread famine.

Robcock and Toon summarized their findings, which were based in part on their previous work, in an article in the Bulletin of The Atomic Scientists, writing:

“Even a ‘small’ nuclear war between India and Pakistan, with each country detonating 50 Hiroshima-size atom bombs – only about 0.03 percent of the global nuclear arsenal’s explosive power – as airbursts in urban areas, could produce so much smoke that temperatures would fall below those of the Little Ice Age of the fourteenth to nineteenth centuries, shortening the growing season around the world and threatening the global food supply. Furthermore, there would be massive ozone depletion, allowing more ultraviolet radiation to reach Earth’s surface. Recent studies predict that agricultural production in parts of the United States and China would decline by about 20 percent for four years, and by 10 percent for a decade.

A graph from Robock and Toon’s 2012 paper showing changes in precipitation and temperature based on the amount of soot from generated from nuclear explosions., Bulletin of  The Atomic Scientists

The bomb the United States dropped on Hiroshima Japan, known as Little Boy, was an inefficient and essentially experimental design with a yield of around 15 kilotons. The reported results from Indian and Pakistani nuclear testing indicate that both countries can meet this threshold and both countries’ weapons programs have almost certainly matured in the decades since.

In previous studies, Robcock, working with others, postulated that temperature changes could begin within 10 days of a limited nuclear exchange and the effects from the detonations of 100 nuclear weapons in the 15-kiloton class would directly result in the deaths of at least 20 million people. The second order impacts would be even worse in the years that followed. 

An animated image showing the density and spread of soot following the detonations of 100 15-kiloton class nuclear weapons during a regional conflict between India and Pakistan based on the models Robcock, et al. first developed in 2007., Luke Oman

In 2014, Michael Mills and Julia Lee-Taylor, both then working at the federally-funded National Center for Atmospheric Research’s (NCAR) Earth System Laboratory, authored another paper with Robcock and Toon. This study concluded again that detonation of 100 15-kiloton yield bombs in a purely regional conflict would result in “multi-decadal global cooling” and “would put significant pressures on global food supplies and could trigger a global nuclear famine.”

 A map from Mills, Taylor, Robcock, and Toon’s 2014 paper showing the average change in global temperatures for June-August and December-February over a two to six year period following a regional nuclear war involving the detonation of 100 15-kiloton nuclear weapons., NCAR

It is important to note that critics have questioned whether the Nuclear Winter concept relies on too many assumptions and would ever actually occur. At the center of many of these rebuttals are debates about whether the nuclear explosions would truly create the amount of smoke and soot necessary for major climate change, as well as the specific conditions for those particles to remain in the atmosphere for a prolonged period of time. 

The studies here do indicate significant impacts based on a relatively limited number of nuclear detonations of smaller yield devices, though. But even if the impacts are less pronounced than projected in this particular scenario, they could be far more severe if India and Pakistan were to use a larger number weapons and/or ones of higher yields, which both belligerents readily have. 

In addition, Nuclear Winter is just one of the potential things that might happen following a nuclear exchange between the longtime foes. A detonation of dozens of nuclear weapons, even small ones, would throw hazardous nuclear fallout

into the air that, depending on the weather pattern, could carry that material far and wide, causing both near- and short-term health impacts. The various ground zeroes themselves would be irritated and potentially hazardous for many years to come.

Depending on where the detonations occur, a nuclear exchange could potentially cut people off from critical water and food supplies, putting increased and potentially unsustainable strains on uncontaminated areas.  After the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, situated in Ukraine, melted down and exploded in 1986, authorities established a 1,000 square mile restricted access “exclusion zone” that remains in place today. 

A map showing the recorded spread of radiation in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster., CIA

There would also be a major danger of second-order “spillover” effects, as individuals fled affected areas, putting economic and political strains on neighboring regions. This could inflame existing tensions not directly related to the inter-state conflict between India or Pakistan or lead to all new and potentially violent competition for what might already be limited resources. India has already threatened to weaponize water access in its latest spat with the Pakistanis.

Any serious impacts on food and water supplies, or other economic upheavals as a direct or indirect result of the conflict, would have cascading impact across South Asia and beyond, as well. The very threat of a potential India-Pakistan war of any kind already caused some negative reactions in regional financial markets. Those markets would certainly collapse after an unprecedented nuclear exchange actually occurred, and that is before the long-term physical impacts of such an event would even manifest themselves. 

Overall, we are talking about a sudden and dramatic geopolitical, financial, and environmental shift that would change our reality in a matter of hours. Even then, the darkness, both figuratively and literally, that could propagate over the weeks, months, and years would be far more damaging. 

How great is the risk?

So far, India and Pakistan have not made any clear indications that the fighting is close to crossing their nuclear thresholds. Pakistan’s warnings about the risks of escalation seem more calculated to try and prompt India to back down.

India itself has a so-called “no first use” policy, which means it has publicly pledged to use its nuclear weapons only in retaliation to a nuclear strike. However, experts have increasingly called into question whether this is truly the case and whether India might be developing delivery systems more suited to a first strike should there be a need to shift policies.

Pakistan, however, does not have a no first use policy and has insisted on its right to employ nuclear weapons to defend itself even in the face of purely conventional threat. Pakistani officials have, in the past, specifically cited this policy as way of deterring India, which has a much larger and in some cases more advanced conventional force, and preventing larger wars.

The concern, then, is that this policy appears to have failed, at least to some degree, with India’s strike on undisputed Pakistani territory on Feb. 26, 2019. India, however, did not target Pakistani forces in that instance and exchanges between the two countries have been limited, at least so far, to the disputed Jammu and Kashmir region, where violent skirmishes occur semi-regularly without precipitating a larger confrontation.

We can only hope that the two countries will find a diplomatic solution to this latest conflict and avoid any further escalation. If things were to spiral out of control and lead to the use of nuclear weapons, it would be something that would threaten all of humanity.

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