Are nukes over-rated in Indo-Pak equation?

In the backdrop of Pathankot attack, it becomes important to think about Pakistan’s nuclear program because Pak’s nuclear bluff stops India from taking any concrete actions against it. Nukes have pretty little tactical benefit apart from killing civilians, which can also be contained once nuclear threat is not a surprise. The pertinent question in Indo-Pak equation is to find out how big is Pak’s nuclear threat or it is just a bluff under which Pak military can avoid overt Indian response?

In the first part of this article, we will summarize how devastating effects of nuclear weapons are exaggerated in the regular media. While small scale nuclear detonation will definitely annihilate the local population but wars are destructive in general and nuclear detonation should be seen in this context. In the second part, we will specifically talk about the nuclear program of Pakistan and show that Pak neither has the requisite delivery vehicles nor enough warheads to cause enough destruction and change the tide of the war.

The first and foremost important point to consider is that the nuclear bomb can neither deliver nor guarantee victory/stalemate in any war and specifically Indo-Pak war. Just like in a battle, not all fired bullets deliver the head of the enemy, similarly a nuclear strike will achieve very few of its intended target goals. One of the biggest misconception is related to the destructive power of modern bombs as compared to old and smaller bombs used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I will quote William H. Hessler to put this point succinctly:

“A more powerful bomb is now in production. It will release more energy and therefore work destruction over a larger area. But the area does not increase in proportion to the augmented power of the bomb. In military terms, which are not the same as scientific terms, the more powerful the bomb, the less efficient it is. For most military purposes ten bombs, each with one tenth of the power of the Nagasaki bomb, would be more effective than was the one Nagasaki bomb. This would be true even if the ten smaller bombs were dropped in a random pattern, and whether the target were a single large installation or a considerable area of general strategic importance.

Impact of Pak's 45Kt warhead in Delhi
Impact of Pak’s 45Kt warhead in Delhi

So a more powerful bomb will be more destructive but destruction will not increase linearly i.e. if a 30 kT bomb destorys everything with 5 miles, a 300 kT warhead will not destroy 50 miles but much less. You can use this website to calculate the area destroyed by a bomb of a given yield. The below picture shows the impact of largest Pakistani warhead if detonated in New Delhi. No doubt, Delhi has a high population density and this will bring high civilian deaths in case Pak targets Delhi. But we need to consider three very important points that would decrease civilians deaths in case of nuclear exchange:

1) Pak would try to hit strategic military locations

Pak cannot expect to stop the war just by nuking Indian cities. It will in fact bring massive nuclear retaliation from India and nuclear escalation. In this MAD scenario, Pak can only hope to achieve some stalemate by targeting strategic military locations. This is the reason that Pak came up with the fancy name of tactical battlefield weapons to directly target advancing Indian Army. While this might help achieve some military objectives, but this reduces the number of warheads that Pak can launch towards high density Indian cities.

2) Not all nuclear launches will be a surprise and civilians can migrate to less dense areas or hide in deep tunnels

One of the other reasons that lead to high civilian casualty is the simple arithmetic calculations used to extrapolate destruction from such bombs. Since, Tokyo was four times more densely populated than Hiroshima, it would have resulted in four times the number of deaths if the bomb was dropped in Tokyo. But this does not take into account that people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were caught unaware while in Tokyo due to frequent bombing raids, people were well prepared and could hide in case of such raids. The simple point is that if nuclear weapons lose their surprise value, it gives enough time for civilians and local govt. to move people out of high density areas or hide in underground tunnels, where they can easily avoid the wrath of nuclear strike. This would be another big factor which will reduce the number of casualties. The ill-effects of nuclear radiation will still be around for some time, but after a period of 72 hours people can move around and perform their jobs in the destroyed area. A single nuke in a city does not cause the end of civilization as one can see if they visit Hiroshima or Nagasaki today.

3) India will retaliate and stop many of these weapons from launching and reaching India

This is the third most important aspect of a nuclear exchange that the enemy is not only able to launch all its bombs but also land them in your country. India does not have a fully developed BMD shield, but that does not mean we cannot intercept incoming Pak missiles or fighter jets. Also, a massive retaliation from India can completely cripple Pak’s delivery capability. On top of that, Pak has not yet achieved complete nuclear triad and so they do not have any submarines lurking in Indian Ocean to take down Indian cities once Pak is completely annihilated.

The term MAD(Mutual Assured Destruction) was coined in reference to the rivalry between US and USSR when both had more than 5000 nuclear warheads and perfect delivery vehicles. This is not the case in Indo-Pak rivalry as the number of warheads with Pak are around 120 according to current estimates. So, we won’t face MAD in Indo-Pak war but annihilation of Pak if it resorts to nuclear exchange. Even in the worst case scenario, only a few Pak nukes will be able to breach Indian defence. And this can be dealt with by building proper shelters and life-support facilities for our citizens. But to counter this, we need to be aware of the exaggeration of devastation associated with any nuclear exchange. A very good article debunks many of these points here and busts many of the current myths about nuclear weapons.

Now, we can move to the next important part of this article and give details about Pak’s nuclear program. Pak’s nuclear arsenal is estimated to be 30-100 nukes but the real number is unknown. Although some recent estimates put it as high as 120+ warheads. Pak uses yellowcake centrifuge method which takes around 3-5 years for building a 30 kiloton warhead. Since it has negligible to insignificant fissile material reserves a sustained nuclear exchange is unlikely in case of war. Also, the warhead size is about 5-20 kilotons while Pak claims 30 kilotons capacity. Pakistan’s nuclear program is almost totally dependent on China and others for fuel and accessories (like centrifuges), which again hampers its capability to build a huge arsenal. All these factors limit Pak from both developing bigger warheads or a big arsenal.

Unlike India, Pak has a first use policy when forced into a conventional war. Given Pak will always lose a conventional war with India, this brings us now to the second important component of Pak’s nuclear program- delivery vehicles. Pak has two main delivery systems- missiles or dropping the bombs from F-16s. The main delivery system  is Tapedong scud type missile from North Korean cruise missiles and Nasr. But Pak does not have proven miniaturization of nuclear warheads to allow it to mate warheads on the small cruise missiles. Also, short range of missiles like Nasr restrict their use apart from being used as tactical battlefield nukes. Along with AWACS, Sukhoi radar and satellite intelligence, India will be able to neutralize most of the incoming missiles and F-16s before they enter India. Also, currently Pak has not achieved nuclear triad which means they cannot fire nukes from a sub-marine after getting defeated and nuked by India in retaliation.

Looking forward into future, two things are going to happen:

1) Pak’s arsenal will grow and with help from China, it will acquire more Plutonium
2) Delivery mechanism will improve and Pak will try to achieve nuclear triad

Point 1) does not matter as long as they do not have delivery system and India has a well functioning BMD and air-superiority fighters. To counter 2) we will have to invest more in developing state of the art BMD. But the threat will not be completely eliminated as Pak would develop a bigger arsenal and pose a bigger security risk. Based on these, it is better to de-nuclearize Pak now rather than wait for an opportune moment in the future. India missed a perfect opportunity to escalate the war in Kargil and call out Pak’s nuclear bluff as it would have exposed Pak’s low arsenal as well as deficient delivery mechanism and possibly killed the program in its infancy. With Chinese support to Pak growing each day, the bluff will turn into real nightmare at some point in the future unless India adopts a course correcting measure now i.e. use the next terrorist attack as a pretext for overt war on Pak and use it to denuclearize it.