The most likely apocalypse in our future: An Indian-Pakistani nuclear exchange | The Best Defense


U.S. fears of terrorists acquiring a nuclear weapon from Pakistan, while valid, overlook the greater threat of a nuclear conflict with India. The fuse to ignite a war has been lit before — at Kargil in 1999, after the attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001, and most recently, after the Mumbai attacks in 2008 — but a nuclear exchange has been prevented each time. With each of these incidents, though, the fuse has been cut shorter.

The greatest risk for nuclear war in our time is the scenario in which a Pakistan-based terror group with ties to Inter-Services Intelligence launches another attack on India (“another Mumbai” is the catchphrase, but it won’t necessarily have to be of that scale or spectacle and is widely considered a matter of when, not if) and this touches off a sequence of escalation that results in a nuclear strike and response. It’s nearly happened before. Aparna Pande, a fellow at the Hudson Institute, described the strong pro-nuclear strike faction in Indian politics after the Mumbai attacks in 2008 and the common sentiment of, “if Pakistan can cross the border and hit us, why can’t we hit back?” The answer is: because it’s a short fuse. That simple fact, and the peril it implies, has been enough in the past, but it might not be good enough next time.

This is a global problem. “The impact on the United States is potentially larger than people realize,” said Matthew Bunn, co-principal investigator for the Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard University. He described studies in which nuclear war was simulated using atmospheric models developed for climate change research, “and if cities are actually burned it can cause enough soot to go up into the upper atmosphere that will stay for a long time, to seriously interfere with global agriculture.” The resultant nuclear autumn could cause famine, and not just in South Asia. 

The bad news is that Pakistan’s nuclear program is expanding — it’s set to become the fourth largest nuclear power, it is developing smaller, more mobile bombs, and it is building more nuclear reactors to churn out bulk supplies of weapons-grade uranium. The good news, though, is that (as far as we can tell) Pakistan has an effective security program in place. The bombs are under the purview of the military, the most stable and competent institution in the country. They are kept disassembled with the components kept in separate buildings, at secret facilities that both India and the United States would be hard-pressed to find. The sites are guarded by thousands of troops being watched by a meticulous internal affairs bureau to screen out extremists. It might be sufficient if Pakistan were not one of the most threatening and most threatened countries in the world.


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