Indo-Pak Nukes: A Modest Proposal

27 January 2003

Indo-Pak Nukes: A Modest Proposal

By Gwynne Dyer

It started with Pakistan’s ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, saying in early January that he had threatened nuclear war against India during last summer’s tense confrontation, when more than a million soldiers were mobilised along the common border. India’s defence minister, George Fernandes, replied that if Pakistan ever carried out its threat, “There will be no Pakistan left when we have responded.” Then on 8 January the Pakistani armed forces took delivery of their first operational Ghauri medium-range missile. The next day India carried out the first of six scheduled test flights of its comparable Agni missile, and the subcontinent was away to the races again.

By19 January, George Fernandes was in Moscow signing a $2.9 billion agreement to lease four long-range Tu-22 bombers and two Akula-class nuclear submarines from the Russians. Russian defence minister Sergei Ivanov even threw in an ageing aircraft carrier, the ‘Admiral Gorshkov’, for free, provided that India paid around $500 million to refit it. Most important of all, the two countries agreed to pump more money into a joint programme to develop a long-range, supersonic cruise missile, the BrahMos.

Accusations flew back and forth between the two neighbours, who have fought three wars in the past half-century, and on 22 January India expelled four Pakistani diplomats from New Delhi. Pakistan did a tit-for-tat expulsion of four Indian diplomats the following day. Western news media virtually ignored the story in favour of an obsessive focus on Iraq, but this is about a potential nuclear war involving almost a quarter of the human race.

To be fair, the Indians and Pakistanis are being no stupider about nuclear weapons than the Americans and Russians were fifty years ago, when they were at the same stage in the evolution of their potentially lethal nuclear relationship. On the other hand, they aren’t being any smarter about it either — and they need to be a lot smarter, for India and Pakistan are far likelier to topple over the edge into a nuclear war than the United States and the Soviet Union ever were.

The Americans and the Russians had never fought a war against each other, they had no territorial disputes, and they didn’t even have a common land border. Several times they came close to a nuclear war anyway — the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 was the most frightening — but there was never the depth of mutual fear and loathing that are built into the Indo-Pak relationship. So these are countries that have to be ultra-cautious about their nuclear strategies if they want to have a future.

How careful do they need to be? Not talking loosely about exterminating the other side would certainly help, but it is basically a technological question. At the moment India and Pakistan, like America and Russia in the 1950s, are in ‘launch on warning’ mode in their nuclear relationship. They have no choice at this point, but ‘launch on warning’ is a suicide pact with a high probability of success.

The problem in the early stages of any nuclear confrontation is that each side has relatively few nuclear weapons — an estimated 60-150 for India and 20-60 for Pakistan at the moment — and highly vulnerable delivery vehicles that could be destroyed on the ground in a surprise attack. So the temptation is always there for either side to try a surprise attack that would eliminate all the other side’s nuclear capabilities.

How does a prudent commander deal with this horrifying possibility that the other side might just do a nuclear ‘Pearl Harbour’ on him? By ordering his subordinates to launch their nuclear weapons at the other side at once if they spot an incoming attack, before any of the enemy’s missiles land: ‘launch on warning’. The only problem with this policy is that if your radar operators are wrong — and they sometimes are — then it’s too late. You can’t call your missiles back, and you’ve started a nuclear war by accident.

It would have been far better for India and Pakistan never to have started down this road, but their best route to safety now lies in moving on as fast as possible to a ‘secure second-strike’ capability. At least some of their nuclear weapons need to be invulnerable to a surprise attack, so that their commanders can get out of this insane ‘launch on warning’ posture. The best way of doing that, as all the older nuclear-weapons powers have long recognised, is by sending some of your nukes out to sea in submarines. If the enemy can’t find them, he can’t destroy them.

This is the real meaning of India’s recent arms deal with Russia: the Akula-class submarines, married to the nuclear-capable BrahMos cruise missile, will allow India to end its ‘launch on warning’ policy. The great irony, however, is that this will only make Pakistan safe from an Indian attack launched in error. India will not be safe until Pakistan can move away from ‘launch on warning’ too.

So here is a modest proposal. India should buy two more Akula submarines from the Russians, together with some state-of-the-art cruise missiles — and give them to Pakistan, no strings attached. If India won’t do it, the rest of us should take up a collection and do it on India’s behalf. I know it sounds crazy, but everything about nuclear ‘strategy’ is crazy. The proposal, nevertheless, is serious.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 5. (“Accusations…race”;and “The Americans…future”)