Why Pakistan might turn to nukes
A regional showdown between India and Pakistan has riveted world attention for weeks because of the risk that the conflict could go nuclear.
NEW DELHI AND WASHINGTON
Officially, at least, both India and Pakistan say that chances of their current tensions escalating into a possible nuclear war are "unthinkable," "unlikely," and in the words of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, "insanity."Skip to next paragraph
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Yet wars seldom follow a neat plan. Military analysts say there are several conventional-warfare scenarios that could lead to a South Asia nuclear war:
India initiates a naval blockade of Karachi, cutting Pakistan off from the rest of the world. Pakistan feels its very survival is at stake, and launches nuclear missiles at India to retaliate.
India launches airstrikes that destroy the Karakoram Highway, which links Pakistan to its close ally, China. Pakistan launches nuclear missiles to retaliate.
Pakistani militants attack an Indian Army installation in Kashmir during the visit of a US official, such as Richard Armitage or Donald Rumsfeld. India responds with overwhelming force, launching a massive air and land assault on the Pakistani city of Lahore. Pakistan launches nuclear weapons to retaliate.
"It is very easy to envision scenarios under which this conflict does go nuclear, but they begin at the same premise: that there is a major ground war, and Pakistan is losing," says William Lind, a military analyst at the conservative Free Congress Foundation in Washington. The big question, and the essential "firebreak," he says, is not whether either country uses nuclear weapons or not, but the possibility of "using nuclear weapons symbolically versus massive use to flatten cities."
Pakistan could decide to use nuclear weapons against symbolic targets such as military installations or landmarks inside India if it is pushed up against a wall, he says. Or Pakistan could detonate a bomb over the ocean or the Indian desert to signal that it could do more.
Symbolic use would not entail the millions of casualties estimated, and would fall far short of even the US attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but would still gain international reprobation nonetheless.
In these uncertain times, the one certain fact is that Indian military capability dwarfs that of Pakistan.
Up to 700,000 Indian Army and paramilitary forces are lined up along the Indo-Pakistani border and along the 450- mile cease-fire line in the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir, which both India and Pakistan claim. To meet this challenge, Pakistan has sent perhaps 300,000 of its own troops, and has repositioned troops from anti-Al Qaeda operations along the western border with Afghanistan to help repel any Indian invasion in Kashmir.
India's nuclear capability is also thought to be superior.
According to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Pakistan has from 12 to 18 nuclear warheads, each with 20 kilotons of power, similar in strength to the bomb the US dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. (Other estimates put Pakistan's capability as high as 30 warheads.)
India, by contrast, has an estimated 70 to 120 nuclear warheads of 20 to 30 kilotons in strength. It also claims to have tested a much more powerful hydrogen bomb in recent years, but its own tests show that India has not managed to harness the full explosive yield of this bomb.
To deliver these weapons, both Pakistan and India have tested ballistic missiles, and jet-aircraft delivery systems with tactical missiles that range up to 175 miles, and long-range missiles reaching up to 900 miles.
There is one further danger to consider.
Unlike the US and the former Soviet Union, India and Pakistan are neighbors, so there is precious little time five minutes to call back or shoot down any plane or missile carrying nuclear weapons.
"Neither side wants this to come to a nuclear war, but they have spent so much time discounting the chance of it happening that there is little preparation for the scenario where a mistake is made that triggers the other side, or moves in a conventional battle are misread," says David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, which promotes nonproliferation of nuclear weapons. "The problem is that in such scenarios there is very little time" to rectify missteps.