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The risk of nuclear war between India and Pakistan: it’s been a close call

South Asia’s nuclear-armed neighbors pull back from the abyss…barely

India and Pakistan have created the most perilous place on Earth. Salon DILIP HIRO, APRIL 7, 2019 This piece originally appeared on TomDispatch.

It’s still the most dangerous border on Earth. Yet compared to the recent tweets of President Donald Trump, it remains a marginal news story.  That doesn’t for a moment diminish the chance that the globe’s first (and possibly ultimate) nuclear conflagration could break out along that 480-mile border known as the Line of Control (and, given the history that surrounds it, that phrase should indeed be capitalized). The casus belli would undoubtedly be the more than seven-decades-old clash between India and Pakistan over the contested territory of Kashmir. Like a volcano, this unresolved dispute rumbles periodically — as it did only weeks ago — threatening to spew its white-hot lava to devastating effect not just in the region but potentially globally as well.

The trigger for renewed rumbling is always a sensational terrorist attack by a Pakistani militant group on an Indian target. That propels the India’s leadership to a moral high ground. From there, bitter condemnations of Pakistan are coupled with the promise of airstrikes on the training camps of the culprit terrorist organizations operating from the Pakistan-controlled part of Kashmir.  As a result, the already simmering relations between the two nuclear-armed neighbors are quickly raised to a boiling point. This, in turn, prompts the United States to intervene and pressure Pakistan to shut down those violent jihadist groups. To placate Washington, the Pakistani government goes through the ritual of issuing banning orders on those groups, but in practice, any change is minimal.

And in the background always lurks the possibility that a war between the two neighbors could lead to a devastating nuclear exchange.  Which means that it’s time to examine how and why, by arraying hundreds of thousands of troops along that Line of Control, India and Pakistan have created the most perilous place on Earth.

How It All Began

The Kashmir dispute began with the birth of the kicking twins — Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan — as independent countries.  They emerged from the belly of the dying British Raj in August 1947……….(This excellent article now describes the history of the troubled relations, and antipathy between the two States)

Those Nuclear Arsenals

Pakistan’s arsenal now includes tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) with “low” explosive power for battlefield use. In 2011, it tested its first one successfully. Since then, according to Professor Rajesh Rajagopalan, author of Nuclear South Asia: Keywords and Concepts, Pakistan is believed to have assembled four or five of these annually. They are to be fired from the Nasr, a short-range missile. Two successful tests of it were conducted this JanuaryIslamabad began producing and deploying TNWs after India adopted a “Cold Start” military contingency plan to punish unacceptable Pakistani provocations like mass-casualty terror strikes.  After repeated denials, in early 2017, India’s army chief finally acknowledged the existence of the plan, involving the creation of eight division-size integrated battle groups (IBGs).  Each is to consist of infantry, artillery, armor, and air support and is to be able to operate independently on the battlefield. In response to major terrorist attacks from Pakistan or by Pakistani-based groups, the IBGs are to rapidly penetrate that country at unexpected locations and advance up to 30 miles beyond the border, disrupting command-and-control networks while trying to avoid locations likely to trigger nuclear retaliation. In other words, the goal is to be able to launch an overwhelming conventional strike swiftly but in a limited fashion in order to ward off a Pakistani nuclear response.  Overall, India’s contingency plan assumes unrealistically that, in the heat of the battle, leaders on both sides will remain calm and rational.

Responding to Islamabad’s production of theater nuclear weapons, New Delhi initiated a super-secret nuclear program revealed only in December 2015, thanks to an investigation by the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity.  A top-secret, government-run, $100 million rare materials plant near the city of Mysore in southern Indianow houses a nuclear enrichment complex that has been operating since 2012.  It feeds the country’s nuclear weapons program and, far more ominously, has laid the foundation for an ambitious Indian hydrogen bomb project.

To consternation in world capitals, it was also revealed that this plant has a larger twin 160 miles north of Mysore in southern India that goes by the innocuous name of the Aeronautical Test Range. Conceived in March 2007 by the defense ministry, its construction started in 2012 on nearly 13 square miles of land. It is to become the subcontinent’s largest military-run complex of nuclear centrifuges, atomic-research laboratories, and weapons- and aircraft-testing facilities after its completion in 2020. Among the project’s aims is to expand the government’s nuclear research, to produce fuel for the country’s nuclear reactors, and to help power its fleet of new nuclear submarines. This nuclear city is to be protected by a ring of military garrisons, turning the site into a virtual military facility, which also means that it will not be open to inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency.  Its overarching aim is to give the country an extra stockpile of enriched uranium fuel that could be used to create hydrogen bombs and so further enhance the power of India’s already devastating nuclear arsenal.

Both of these projects are directed by the office of the prime minister.  India’s Atomic Energy Act and its Official Secrets Act have placed everything linked to the country’s nuclear program under wraps. In the past, those who tried to find out more about these activities were bludgeoned into silence.

According to Gary Samore, an Obama-era White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction, “India intends to build thermonuclear weapons as part of its strategic deterrent against China. It is unclear when India will realize this goal of a larger and more powerful arsenal, but they will.” Once manufactured, however, nothing would block India from deploying them against Pakistan. “India is now developing very big bombs, hydrogen bombs that are city-busters,” commented Pakistani nuclear physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy. “It is not interested in [producing] nuclear weapons for use on the battlefield; it is developing nuclear weapons for eliminating population centers.”

In other words, while India has long been in a nuclear arms race with Pakistan, it is no longer sticking to the same race course.  In late March, Modi announced that India recently launched a rocket successfully shooting downone of its satellites. This creates the possibility that, in a future nuclear war with Pakistan, it could preemptively “blind” the Pakistanis by destroying their space-based communication and surveillance satellites.  A race of another kind could be in the offing.

The central motive that drove Pakistan to develop its nuclear arsenal, however, remains unchanged. It was the only way Islamabad could deter New Delhi from defeating it in a war waged with conventional weapons. India’s 2.14 million-strong military, equipped with 5,967 artillery pieces, 4,500 tanks, and 2,216 aircraft, is significantly larger and better armed than Pakistan’s 1.55 million soldiers, 3,745 artillery, 2,700 tanks, and 1,143 aircraft. In addition, New Delhi’s annual defense budget of $55.9 billion is more than five times Islamabad’s $10.8 billion.

Little wonder that, in his February 28th televised address, while announcing the Indian pilot’s release, Prime Minister Khan suggested that the two sides “should sit down and resolve our problems through dialogue.” He claimed that his own political party, Pakistan Tahreek-e-Insaf (the Pakistan Movement for Justice), and the country’s powerful military were “all on one page” in wishing to mend fences with India.

Pakistan’s Belated Suppression of Violent Jihadists………..

Now, the international community can only hope that the carnage and chaos of February was the last in a tragic series of encounters between nuclear neighbors that could otherwise lead South Asia to devastation and the world to nuclear winter.

DILIP HIRO

Dilip Hiro, a TomDispatch regular, is the author, among many other works, of After Empire: The Birth of a Multipolar World. (Nation Books), His 36th and latest book is The Age of Aspiration: Power, Wealth, and Conflict in Globalizing India (The New Press). https://www.salon.com/2019/04/07/south-asias-nuclear-armed-neighbors-pull-back-from-the-abyss-barely_partner/

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April 8, 2019 - Posted by | India, Pakistan, politics international, weapons and war

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