April 5, 2018

IntelBrief: India, Pakistan, and Nuclear War

India's supersonic Brahmos cruise missiles pass during a full dress rehearsal of a Republic Day parade in New Delhi, India  (AP Photo/Ajit Kumar).
  • Next month will be 20 years since both India and Pakistan announced they had nuclear weapons.
  • Tensions have remained high between the two nuclear powers, and now each is enhancing its arsenal.
  • China recently sold Pakistan advanced tracking for multiple warheads and both India and Pakistan are putting nuclear weapons on their submarines.
  • Both sides believe in the deterrence of mutually assured destruction, but the persistent low-level border conflict carries an enormous risk of unintended catastrophe.


.Most threats are overstated in terms of global reach. Yet the risk and the global consequences of another war between India and Pakistan—who have fought several full-on wars since 1947 and endured endless border tensions and small conflicts—is difficult to overstate. Both countries distrust and see the other as its primary foe. And, alarmingly, both countries are enhancing their respective nuclear capabilities while the underlying tensions remain unacceptably high.

China has long been a supporter of Pakistan and, with U.S.-Pakistan relations at a low point, is stepping up its influence with Islamabad. In March 2018, China announced it had sold a ‘highly sophisticated large-scale optical tracking and measurement system’ to Pakistan. Such a system is crucial in advanced multi-warhead missile testing and would also be important in building an anti-ballistic missile defense system. In 2017, India announced it had successfully tested such a missile defense system, a development that created a perceived imbalance of power in favor of New Delhi. This led Pakistan to develop missiles with MIRV capability (multiple independent reentry vehicles) intended to overwhelm missile defense with sheer numbers of targets and warheads.

The nuclear arms race between the two bitter rivals extends also to the sea, as reported in an April 2 article by Vox. The article, entitled ‘India and Pakistan are quietly making nuclear war more likely,’ looks at how both countries are arming their respective submarine fleets with nuclear warheads. By design, such stealthy platforms create permanent uncertainty as to an opponent’s launch readiness and the ability to respond after an initial attack, with the effect of keeping one always on a hair-trigger state-of-readiness. The U.S. and the former USSR (and now Russia) have done this for decades. Yet neither the U.S. nor its Russian counterpart shared a border and the constant and immediate sources of friction that exist between New Delhi and Islamabad. Primary among these tensions is Kashmir and the contested Line of Control. Pakistan, according to the Vox article, intends to put nuclear weapons on three of its five diesel-electric submarines and buy eight more subs from China that are also capable of carrying such weapons.

In this way, Pakistan is attempting to catch up to India, which launched its first nuclear-powered, nuclear-armed submarine in August 2016, with a second now in sea trials. Whether nuclear-powered or not, Indian and Pakistani nuclear-armed submarines are a nightmare scenario for the Indian Ocean, given the risk of human error, miscalculation over the other’s intentions, and, in the case of Pakistan, of terrorists seizing control of such a vessel. This is not wild speculation; there have been numerous attempts by ‘rogue’ Pakistani military elements to take over bases or ships in the last decade. The best-case scenario—in which both countries see the impossibility of ‘winning’ a war with the other and seek a negotiated resolution to long-standing and deep issues—is also the most unlikely scenario. It is more likely that both countries will continue to expand their arsenals while doing little to resolve the issues that have kept them on a war footing for so long.


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