Image: The fatalities (solid lines) and total casualties (dashed lines) in millions, immediately following nuclear attacks, versus the number of targets. Results for India (A) and Pakistan (B). Colours correspond to the yield assumed. Source: Science Advances. - Photo: 2019

India-Pak Nuclear War Would Kick Off Catastrophic Scenarios

By Abdus Sattar Ghazali *

FREMONT, California, USA (IDN) – Amid rising tension over Kashmir between the two nuclear neighbors, India and Pakistan, a new U.S. study examines how such an hypothetical future nuclear conflict would have consequences that could ripple across the globe. [Read also New Study Warns of Devastating Global Consequences of an India-Pakistan Nuclear War.]

A nuclear war between India and Pakistan could, over the span of less than a week, kill 50 to 125 million people that is more than the death toll during the six years of World War II, according to the research by Colorado University Boulder and Rutgers University.

The study published on October 2 said if India uses 100 strategic weapons to attack urban centers and Pakistan uses 150, fatalities could reach 50 to 125 million people, and nuclear-ignited fires could release 16 to 36 Tg of black carbon in smoke, depending on yield.

“The smoke will rise into the upper troposphere, be self-lofted into the stratosphere, and spread globally within weeks. Surface sunlight will decline by 20 to 35%, cooling the global surface by 2° to 5°C and reducing precipitation by 15 to 30%, with larger regional impacts. Recovery takes more than 10 years. Net primary productivity declines 15 to 30% on land and 5 to 15% in oceans threatening mass starvation and additional worldwide collateral fatalities,” the study added.

Rapidly expanding nuclear arsenals in Pakistan and India portend regional and global catastrophe, the study warned and added: Pakistan and India may have 400 to 500 nuclear weapons by 2025 with yields from tested 12- to 45-kt values to a few hundred kilotons.

The picture is grim. That level of warfare wouldn’t just kill millions of people locally, said CU Boulder’s Brian Toon, who led the research published in the journal Science Advances.

Here are excerpts of the U.S. study conducted by ten experts:

Neither Pakistan nor India is likely to initiate a nuclear conflict without substantial provocation. India has declared a policy of no first use of nuclear weapons, except in response to an attack with biological or chemical weapons.

Pakistan has declared that it would only use nuclear weapons if it could not stop an invasion by conventional means or if it were attacked by nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, the two countries have had four conventional wars (1947, 1965, 1971, and 1999) and many skirmishes with substantial loss of life since the partition of British India in 1947. Therefore, the possibility of conventional war becoming nuclear is of concern.

Chinese factor

India has one of the largest conventional militaries in the world, with about 1.4 million active duty personnel. India has not deployed tactical nuclear weapons. Indian nuclear strategy requires that a significant number of high-yield bombs be held back in case China joins a war on the side of Pakistan. Because Pakistan is a small country with only about 60 cities with more than 100,000 people, India would not need all of its 250 weapons to destroy Pakistan’s cities.

We assume that India will keep 100 nuclear weapons in its arsenal to deter China from entering the war. Chinese involvement would greatly amplify the destruction discussed below. As China expands its presence in Pakistan as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which is an element of China’s broader “Belt and Road Initiative,” the odds of a Pakistani-Indian war spreading to China would appear to be increasing.

Urban targets

 Of India’s 150 weapons that can be used against Pakistan, we assume that about 15% will fail. In this case, failure is primarily due to the weapons not being delivered or failing to explode. Most urban targets in Pakistan are so large that precise targeting is not needed to hit them. Therefore, our scenario suggests 125 weapons actually exploding.

We further assume that there are 25 targets in Pakistan that are isolated military bases or industrial facilities located in regions with low populations and little combustible material. We do not include these in computing fatalities or environmental damage. Therefore, we assume that India has 100 strategic nuclear weapons to use on urban counter-value targets or military counterforce targets that are located within urban areas, such as military bases, industrial facilities, oil refineries, nuclear weapons facilities, and airports.

Pakistan also has one of the largest militaries in the world, with about half as many active duty personnel as India has. We assume that, in 2025, Pakistan will have 50 tactical weapons with yields of 5 kt to be used against an invading Indian army.

We assume that 20% of these will fail or be overrun by the Indian Army. Many of these tactical weapons might be used in sparsely populated areas with little flammable material. Accordingly, we only consider the remaining 200 strategic weapons when computing fatalities or smoke created from fires.

Of these 200 strategic weapons, we assume that 15% will fail to be delivered to the target but that the remaining 170 will be detonated over their targets. We further assume that 20 of these explosions will be over isolated military, nuclear, or industrial areas. The balance, 150 weapons, will thus be used against India’s urban counter-value targets and military counterforce targets located within urban areas.”

War scenarios simulation

A crisis simulation exercise in Sri Lanka during 2013 organized by the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School and involving retired senior military and civilian analysts from India and Pakistan found that “a limited war in South Asia will escalate rapidly into a full war with a high potential for nuclear exchange”. In our scenario, with the Indian government having been severely damaged, the Indian Army brings a number of tanks to the border and crosses into Pakistan and also crosses the Line of Control in Kashmir.

On day 1 of the nuclear conflict, Pakistan uses 10 tactical atomic bombs with 5-kt yield inside its own borders with low air bursts against the Indian tanks.

The conflict continues on day 2 when Pakistan uses another 15 tactical weapons with 5-kt yield on the battlefield, whereas India detonates two air bursts against the Pakistani garrison in Bahawalpur and deploys 18 other weapons to attack Pakistani airfields and nuclear weapons depots, partially degrading Pakistani retaliatory capabilities.

Nevertheless, on day 3, Pakistan responds with a barrage of nuclear ballistic and cruise missiles on garrisons, weapon depots, naval bases, and airfields in 30 locations in Indian cities (30 air bursts with 15- to 100-kt yield each) plus another 15 tactical bursts with 5-kt yield. India also uses 10 strategic weapons against Pakistani military bases on day 3. Because of panic, anger, miscommunication, and protocols, escalation cannot be stopped now.

On days 4 to 7, cities in India are hit with 120 strategic weapons, and those in Pakistan are struck with 70 air bursts with 15- to 100-kt yield. In total, Pakistan’s urban areas are hit with 100 nuclear weapons using airbursts, and India’s urban areas are hit with 150 nuclear weapons using airbursts. In addition, Pakistan has used 40 tactical nuclear weapons successfully and 20 strategic weapons successfully on targets not in urban areas, whereas India has used 25 strategic weapons successfully on targets not in urban areas.

Even one nuclear weapon explosion in a city can do a great deal of damage. For example, in the most densely populated urban area in Pakistan, a 15-kt airburst at the optimum height to maximize blast damage could kill about 700,000 people and injure another 300,000. With a 100-kt airburst over the same region, roughly 2 million fatalities and an additional 1.5 million nonfatal casualties could occur. Similar numbers would result for nuclear explosions over large Indian cities.

World War II casualties

During WWII, it is estimated that about 50 million people were killed, not considering those who died from disease and starvation over 6 years. Because of the dense populations of cities in Pakistan and India, even a war with 15-kt weapons could lead to fatalities approximately equal to those worldwide in WWII and a war with 100-kt weapons could directly kill about 2.5 times as many as died worldwide in WWII, and in this nuclear war, the fatalities could occur in a single week.

The world’s annual death rate from all causes is about 56 million people per year. Therefore, a war between India and Pakistan in our scenario with 15-kt weapons could kill the same number of people in a week as would die naturally worldwide in a year, effectively increasing the immediate global death rate by a factor of 50. A regional catastrophe would occur if India and Pakistan were to engage in a full-scale nuclear war with their expanding arsenals.

India would suffer two to three times more fatalities and casualties than Pakistan because, in our scenario, Pakistan uses more weapons than India and because India has a much larger population and more densely populated cities. However, as a percentage of the urban population, Pakistan’s losses would be about twice those of India. In general the fatalities and casualties increase rapidly even up to the 250th explosion due to the high population in India, whereas the rate of increase for Pakistan is much lower even for the 50th explosion.


India and Pakistan may be repeating the unfortunate example set by the United States and Russia during the “cold war” era: that is, building destructive nuclear forces far out of proportion to their role in deterrence…. Compounding the devastation brought upon their own countries, decisions by Indian and Pakistani military leaders and politicians to use nuclear weapons could severely affect every other nation on Earth.

* Abdus Sattar Ghazali is the Chief Editor of the Journal of America. email: asghazali2011@ [IDN-InDepthNews – 5 October 2019]

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Image: The fatalities (solid lines) and total casualties (dashed lines) in millions, immediately following nuclear attacks, versus the number of targets. Results for India (A) and Pakistan (B). Colours correspond to the yield assumed. Source: Science Advances.

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.

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