Last month, when much of the world was distracted by the US-North Korea summit in Hanoi, one of the most dangerous crises in the post-cold-war era quietly unfolded.
When Indian warplanes conducted air strikes against a terrorist training camp in Pakistan on February 26, it marked the first time in history that a nuclear-weapons state has conducted air strikes against another.
The stand-off quickly spiralled out of control. Pakistan responded to India’s air-assault with heavy artillery strikes and air strikes of its own. Both sides lost aircraft, with Pakistan claiming to have shot down two Indian jets and captured one of the pilots, while India claimed to have downed a Pakistani jet. Fortunately, the capture of the Indian pilot proved to be a positive turn in the crisis, which allowed Pakistan to leverage his release as a “peace gesture” that helped defuse tensions.It could have been much worse.
India and Pakistan possess two of the fastest-growing nuclear arsenals in the world. According to Hans Kristensen, of the Federation of American Scientists, India possesses roughly 140 nuclear weapons while Pakistan has around 150. Particularly alarming is Pakistan’s growing inventory of low-yield, tactical nuclear weapons. According to Kristensen, these weapons are part of an effort “to create a full-spectrum deterrent that is designed not only to respond to nuclear attacks, but also to counter an Indian conventional incursion onto Pakistani territory”.
This strategy is driven by the misplaced notion that the use of tactical nuclear weapons early in a conflict will shock an adversary into submission, rather than pursue an already disastrous confrontation. History, however, teaches us otherwise.
During the cold war, the United States stockpiled thousands of tactical nuclear weapons, including bazookas, landmines and artillery shells, as a counter to Soviet conventional superiority in Europe. The plan was simple. If an army of Soviet tanks rolled through the Fulda Gap, the United States would stop them with an assortment of these tiny, but deadly, nuclear weapons.
This strategy was unironically referred to as the “Madman Theory”, and in 1983, the US decided to put it to the test with the war game Proud Prophet. Reminiscent of Pakistan’s current policy of rebutting a conventional incursion by India, this scenario saw Nato launch limited nuclear strikes against Soviet targets in response to a conventional provocation. But instead of backing down, the Soviet team doubled down.
“The Soviet Union team interpreted the nuclear strikes as an attack on their nation, their way of life and their honour. So they responded with an enormous nuclear salvo at the United States,” writes Defence Department adviser and nuclear historian Paul Bracken. “The United States retaliated in kind. The result was a catastrophe that made all the wars of the past 500 years pale in comparison … a half-billion human beings were killed in the initial exchanges and at least that many more would have died from radiation and starvation.
“Nato was gone. So was a good part of Europe, the United States and the Soviet Union. Major parts of the Northern Hemisphere would be uninhabitable for decades.”
The lessons of this war game applies to the Indian subcontinent as well. Recent studies have estimated that regional nuclear war, such as one between India and Pakistan, could lead to the deaths of some 2 billion people worldwide.
To prevent this nightmare from becoming a reality, the international community must condemn further acts of violence and build space for the conflict to be mediated, before the situation escalates further out of hand. In 1999, 2002 and 2008, the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations worked tirelessly to mediate conflicts between India and Pakistan to ensure they didn’t spiral out of control. In this case, short of a few statements urging both sides to de-escalate the situation, the US was painfully slow to respond.
Although tensions between the nuclear arch-rivals have largely been defused, the underlying conditions that lead to the confrontation remain the same. It is only a matter of time before the next crisis in South Asia erupts.
Before that happens, it is in the interest of all parties to ensure that the proper tools are in place to minimise the risks to humanity. Increased government-to-government dialogue between India and Pakistan would be a welcome development that would reduce the risks of miscommunication and enhance crisis stability. In the long run, both parties should reduce their reliance on tactical nuclear weapons that inherently increase the risk of nuclear war.
During last month’s stand-off, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan asked India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi: “Given the weapons capability on both sides, can we afford a miscalculation?” The answer is no.