The Indian subcontinent—home to both India and Pakistan—remains arguably one of the most dangerous corners of the world, and continues to pose a deep threat to global stability and the current world order. The 1,800-mile border is the only place in the world where two hostile, nuclear-armed states face off every day. And the risk of nuclear conflict has only continued to rise in the past few years, to the point that it is now a very real possibility.
India and Pakistan have fought three wars since they gained independence in 1947, including one that ended in 1971 with Pakistan losing approximately half its territory (present-day Bangladesh). Today, the disputed Line of Control that divides the disputed Kashmir region remains a particularly tense flash point.
Both the Kargil crisis of 1999 and the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament by Pakistan-supported militants brought both nations once again to the brink of war. Yet, unlike earlier major wars, these two crises occurred after both India and Pakistan became nuclear-armed states. Quick and forceful diplomatic intervention played a pivotal role in preventing a larger conflict from erupting during each crisis.
These stakes are even higher, and more dangerous, today.
Since 2004, India has been developing a new military doctrine called Cold Start, a limited war option designed largely to deter Islamabad from sponsoring irregular attacks against New Delhi. It involves rapid conventional retaliation after any such attack, launching a number of quick armoured assaults into Pakistan and rapidly securing limited objectives that hypothetically remain below Pakistan’s nuclear threshold. In accordance with this doctrine, the Indian military is meant to mobilise half a million troops in less than 72 hours.
The problem is, unlike its neighbours India and China, Pakistan has not renounced the first use of nuclear weapons. Instead, Pakistani leaders have stated that they may have to use nuclear weapons first in order to defend against a conventional attack from India. Therefore, both to counter Cold Start and help to offset India’s growing conventional superiority, Pakistan has accelerated its nuclear weapons programme—and begun to field short-range, low yield tactical nuclear weapons. Some observers now judge this nuclear programme to be the fastest growing in the world. Pakistan will reportedly have enough fissile material by 2020 to build more than 200 nuclear warheads—more than the UK plans to have by that time.
It is not simply the pace of the build-up that should cause concern. Pakistan’s arsenal of short-range tactical nuclear weapons is a game changer in other ways. Pakistan clearly intends to use these weapons—on its own soil if necessary—to counter Cold Start’s plan for sudden Indian armoured thrusts into Pakistan. The introduction of these weapons has altered the long-standing geometry between the two nuclear powers and increases the risk of escalation to a nuclear exchange in a crisis.
Beyond the risks of runaway nuclear escalation, Pakistan’s growing tactical nuclear weapons programme also brings a wide array of other destabilising characteristics to this already unstable mix: the necessity to position these short-range weapons close to the border with India, making them more vulnerable to interdiction; the need to move and disperse these weapons during a crisis, thereby signalling a nuclear threat; and the prospects of local commanders being given decentralised control of the weapons—a “use it or lose it” danger if facing an Indian armoured offensive. Furthermore, large numbers of small nuclear weapons scattered at different locations increase the risk that some will fall into the hands of violent extremists. A terrorist group gaining control of a nuclear weapon remains one of the most frightening potential spin-offs of the current arms race.
Perhaps the most dangerous scenario that could lead to catastrophe is a replay of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks. In November 2008, 10 terrorists launched attacks that left 166 people dead before the last of the attackers were finally killed by Indian security forces almost 60 hours after the attacks began. By that time, there was strong evidence that the attackers were Pakistani and belonged to a Pakistan-supported militant group. Indian public outrage and humiliation were overwhelming. Only through the combination of diplomatic pressure from the US and immense restraint exerted by then-Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh was an Indian retaliatory strike averted.
The chances of such Indian government restraint in a similarly deadly future scenario are unlikely. Experts such as Stephen Cohen of the Brookings Institution and former US ambassador to India Robert Blackwill agree that if there were another Mumbai, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi would not step back from using military force in response, unlike his predecessors. Indian public opinion would demand retaliation, especially after the unpopular degree of restraint exercised by the Singh government after the Mumbai attacks. But there remains no meaningful senior-level dialogue between the two states—last August’s planned meeting between the two national security advisers was cancelled after disagreements about Kashmiri separatists.
There may be little the US or the world can do to forestall this conflict still looming just over the horizon. Nevertheless, the tremendous dangers of this situation require US policymakers to devote more time and energy in trying to do so, and some small steps may help. The US should work hard to catalyse confidence-building measures between the two sides, seeking to open more peacetime channels to create dialogue and potential conflict mediation options for the future. Neither nation’s military currently has any direct communications. Quiet, off-the-record meetings between senior military leaders would help lessen tensions and establish some degree of mutual dialogue and understanding before a crisis erupts. The US should also sponsor unofficial tabletop exercises involving representatives of each side to explore how escalation in a nuclear conflict could unfold.
The US should also reach out to current (and former) civil and military decision-makers on both sides to develop and grow bilateral relationships that could prove vital in the next crisis. And the US should continue to encourage Pakistan to slow its fielding of tactical nuclear weapons, and keep them under tight central control well away from vulnerable forward-deployed positions. The lack of any tangible results from the US government’s recent outreach to Pakistan on this topic should only encourage renewed efforts.
A nuclear war between India and Pakistan would dramatically alter the world as we know it. The damage from fallout and blast, the deaths of potentially millions, and the environmental devastation of even a few weapons detonations would suddenly dwarf any other global problem. There is no shortage of conflicts and crises around the world demanding the attention of policymakers in Washington and other capitals. But the stakes of a war between two of the world’s most hostile nuclear powers deserves attention before the next inevitable flare-up.