Following India’s revocation of the special status for Kashmir, there was a lot of brouhaha over the risk of a nuclear war between India and Pakistan. While neither country sees eye to eye over a lot of issues and have engaged in several armed conflicts in the past, the risk of a nuclear exchange between them remains very low at best. There are a number of factors which ensure that the two neighbors will not be coming to nuclear blows any time soon.
The first and most important factor being that both countries have democratic governments which are beholden to the people and there are numerous checks and balances in place to ensure that extreme decisions like that of one to use nuclear weapons will not be taken unilaterally and casually. Democratic governments generally tend to have a greater degree of accountability and responsibility.
Secondly, India follows a policy of “No First Use” when it comes to nuclear weapons which nullifies the possibility that India will be the one to initiate a nuclear strike. India is a responsible power and has exercised considerable restraint in past crisis situations, notable examples being – the non-escalation of the Kargil conflict and engaging in dialogue with Pakistan rather than a military response after the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. Therefore, it can be reasonably expected that a nuclear strike will not come from the Indian side, unless of course it is attacked first with a nuclear weapon.
Third, both India and Pakistan possessing nuclear warheads reinforces the theory of Mutually Assured Destruction and ensures that there will be no winners in a nuclear war. Thus, there is no tangible incentive for either country to risk a nuclear conflict. The primary goal of any entity is to ensure its well-being and survival and India and Pakistan being rational actors will not whimsically risk their very survival over issues that can be dealt with in much simpler terms. It is also not in the interest of the international community to risk massive destabilization in the South Asian region.
With a population of nearly 2 billion people, South Asia is one of the most densely populated regions of the planet and almost all of these people will be adversely affected by nuclear war between India and Pakistan, both through direct impact of the weapons and the subsequent spread of nuclear fallout. The ramifications of nuclear war will not be limited to just India and Pakistan but will acquire global dimensions and have global impacts as well. And in today’s interconnected and interdependent world such a situation cannot and will not be allowed to come to pass. In the past, almost every conflict and escalation of tensions between India and Pakistan have seen offers from the international community for mediation and de-escalation. These offers are not likely to stop in case of future incidents as the importance of peace in South Asia cannot be understated.
Despite making veiled threats about using nuclear weapons in case of increasing tensions, the Pakistani leadership will not act upon it simply because that would be a suicidal move. There can be no doubt that India’s response, when it comes, will be massive and punitive. India also possesses a nuclear triad capability, and this means that a first strike will not be able to nullify India’s retaliatory capability. So, it is safe to expect that any nuclear saber-rattling will remain limited to that only and not go beyond threats.
But there are a number of risk factors to consider as well. Pakistan is believed to possess tactical nuclear weapons which are meant for battlefield use. Thus, a large-scale war between India and Pakistan sees a greater chance of tactical nuclear weapons being deployed. But such a situation is unlikely to come about as it is in neither country’s interest to engage in such a large-scale conflict as it is simply not feasible, and the resources required would put unmanageable strains on the economies of both India and Pakistan. As it is, the economy in Pakistan is tottering and engaging in a war will push it over the edge – simply put, Pakistan cannot afford war.
One more factor to consider, even though it is a distant possibility, is that if the governmental system of either country collapses and there is a complete breakdown of law and order. Then there are higher chances of nuclear weapons falling into the wrong hands who would have no qualms about using them. But the launching of nuclear weapons is a complex process and both India and Pakistan, reportedly keep their nuclear weapons in a de-mated state, that is to say, the warheads are stored separate from the launchers. This reduces the aforementioned risk somewhat and it is very likely that should there be such an eventuality where there is a collapse of the government of a nuclear armed country, the international community will step in immediately to stop nuclear weapons and weapon materials from getting misplaced. A similar example exists if one were to look at the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the collapse of which created widespread fears about the safety of the tens of thousands of nuclear weapons possessed by the country. But timely and proper action and cooperation between the United States and the new Russian government, both of whom were ideological enemies for so many decades, allayed those fears and allowed for all those weapons to be secured in a safe manner.
So, considering all these factors, one can rest assured that we do not need to worry about a nuclear apocalypse caused by India and Pakistan lobbing nuclear weapons at each other. Despite all the political rhetoric and scare-mongering, we will not be living in a nuclear winter any time soon.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics.
The author holds a Master’s degree in Geopolitics and International Relations from Manipal University, India. Currently, he is working as a CBRN analyst at Jane’s by IHS Markit.