Of the numerous areas of global tension, arguably the most perilous is that between India and Pakistan. And recent events in Kashmir have made the situation even more dangerous. The reason is straightforward: India and Pakistan are in a long-running and incendiary dispute, they are both nuclear powers, and crossing a confrontational threshold could ignite a nuclear war between them. Indeed, arms control investigators have long identified the subcontinent as one of the world’s likeliest nuclear flashpoints.
India and Pakistan share a long and complicated history, and they have been in conflict over the disputed territory of Kashmir since 1947. The Himalayan region is one of the most militarised regions on Earth—former US president Bill Clinton has called Kashmir “the most dangerous place in the world”.
Under the partition plan provided by the Indian Independence Act of 1947, Kashmir with its Muslim majority was free to accede to either India or Pakistan. But the local ruler, Hari Singh, decided against giving the population a choice, leaving the region in a geopolitical limbo and with a disputed border. A two-year war erupted between India and Pakistan in 1947 and another broke out in 1965. In 1999, the Kargil crisis, when the two countries again came to blows, may have been the closest the world has come to nuclear war since the end of World War II.
Diplomatic interventions have previously helped to defuse the military tensions, but an enduring peace has remained elusive. Both sides have dug in along the disputed border and military skirmishes are commonplace.
It has long been argued in international security circles that having nuclear weapons deters countries from using them in warfare. Indeed, in the post-World War II era, no state has used them—despite there still being around 15,000 nuclear weapons in the world. But horizontal nuclear proliferation has made the world a dangerous place; the more countries that have them, the more likely they are to be used at some stage.
And while the presence of nuclear weapons may forestall a nuclear exchange, they don’t discourage nuclear states from using conventional military power against one another. And, as conventional conflicts can quickly escalate, the possibility of a nuclear exchange remains a real, if remote, possibility.
So what are the chances of India and Pakistan (which both have between 130 and 150 warheads) engaging in a nuclear war?
The most recent escalation is just another example of the ongoing tensions between these nuclear neighbours. It was triggered by a Kashmiri militant suicide bombing of an Indian paramilitary convoy in mid February. In that attack, more than 40 people were killed, mostly Indian military personnel—and Jaish-e-Mohammed, an Islamist terrorist group situated in Pakistan, claimed responsibility for the attack.
Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, currently caught up in election fever, warned of a “crushing response”, and launched air strikes on targets in the Pakistan-controlled Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. It was not long before both sides were exchanging artillery fire across the line of control and the conflict quickly escalated.
Meanwhile, in a national televised speech, Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, stated that any further escalation between the nations would be beyond the leaders’ control, warning:
With the weapons you have and the weapons we have, can we afford miscalculation? Shouldn’t we think that if this escalates, what will it lead to?
The ball is now in India’s court. Modi has the choice of escalating the conflict by deploying more jets into Pakistani territory, which could lead to a flurry of “tit-for-tat” retaliations. So what could be next?
Since 1974, when India stunned the world with its unexpected atomic trial of the “Smiling Buddha” weapon, South Asia has been viewed as a global nuclear problem. Nevertheless, to date, India, like China, has maintained a “No First Use” doctrine. This advocates that India will only use its nuclear weapons in response to a nuclear attack. The policy was proclaimed in 1999, a year after Pakistan effectively exploded five of its own nuclear weapons. But Pakistan has so far refused to issue any clear doctrine governing its own use of nuclear weapons.
The combined arsenals of Pakistan and India are small compared to those of the US, Russia or China. Nevertheless, they are more powerful than those dropped on Japan in 1945 and could unleash staggering destruction if deployed on civilian targets. Indeed, even a constrained exchange of warheads between the two nations would, in a split second, be among the most calamitous ever, notwithstanding the risk of the radioactive aftermath and the long-term impact on the environment.
India’s nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine, INS Arihant, became operational in 2018, giving the country a “nuclear triad”—the ability to launch nuclear strikes by land, air and sea. Its other ground-based ballistic missile, the Agni III, has a range of approximately 3,000km.
While Pakistan has a slightly larger nuclear arsenal—estimated to be 140-150 warheads in 2017—it is less capable of delivering them to targets. Although Pakistan is developing new ballistic missiles, its current ballistic missile range is 2,000km and the country has no nuclear-armed submarines. Either way, it currently would take less than four minutes for a nuclear missile launched from Pakistan to reach India, and vice versa.
The worst case scenario is that, either through mishap or error, what began with a terrorist attack grows into a nuclear exchange aimed at one another’s civilian populations. Technological advances might also exacerbate the already incendiary situation. India’s arsenal now includes the BrahMos, a cruise missile developed jointly with Russia, which can be fired from land, sea or air and used as a counterforce weapon. Counterforce doctrine, in nuclear strategy, means the targeting of an opponent’s military infrastructure with a nuclear strike.
Discontent in the Kashmir valley could also intensify and lead to further crises. No Indian government has thus far shown the political will to solve the Kashmir crisis, to demilitarise it, or to apply the diplomatic deftness needed to negotiate a solution with Pakistan. Nor has Modi been able to control and prevent hardline Hindus from forming vigilante squads in the region and threatening and killing those they think are defiling their religious convictions. And so, on a day-to-day basis, ordinary people continue to suffer.
In the past, during episodes of global tension, the US has taken the lead in crisis management. But it seems unlikely that Islamabad or New Delhi would now turn to the Trump administration for assistance in deescalating the conflict. Indeed, leaders from both countries must also consider the reaction of Asia’s third nuclear power, China, which has always been the primary focus of India’s nuclear program.
For now, India and Pakistan are showing some vital restraint. But they must also work towards a long-term fix. The last thing either government, or the world, needs is a mushroom cloud.