FB   
 
Powered bysps
        Society for Policy Studies
 
 

 
Pak-India nuclear war — avoided
Posted:Aug 11, 2017
 
Print
Share
  
increase Font size decrease Font size
 
By Pervez Hoodbhoy
 
Pakistan and India celebrate their 70th anniversaries next week. Shall they be around for their 100th one too? It depends on how long their luck holds out, and if they can stop their mad rush to increase the chances of disaster.
 
What’s new? Two weeks ago, a terrifying report published in the Indian Express should have scared sensible people into asking hard questions. But no one paid much attention to it — jaded publics on both sides would rather tune in to the hottest political intrigue or celebrity gossip than waste time on something that didn’t actually happen.
 
Here’s what was reported: on June 24, 1999, at the height of the Kargil war, an Indian Air Force Jaguar flying close to the Line of Control locked its targeting laser onto a possible base set up by Pakistani infiltrators. The second Jaguar flying close behind was supposed to bomb this chosen target. In fact, the Indian pilot had unknowingly crossed a few miles into Pakistani territory and in his cross hairs was a forward base of the Pakistan Army at Gulteri.
 
An Indian air commodore, who was airborne at the same time, recognised that the first pilot had erred. It being a violation of combat rules to fly over the Pakistani side, he denied permission to fire. The bomb was subsequently retargeted to a point on the Indian side of the LoC.
 
The reported incident does not appear fabricated. First, it was revealed 18 years after the event and so there is no immediate gain. Second, the source was knowledgeable — he is retired Air Marshal Vinod Patney, who was then the head of India’s Western Command and directly responsible for air operations in the Kargil war. Third, it does not favour either country, and, in fact, points to a mistake on the Indian side.
 
Imagine for a moment that permission had been granted. The course of history would have totally changed because, unknown to the Indian pilots, at that very moment prime minister Nawaz Sharif and COAS Gen Pervez Musharraf were addressing troops amassed at Gulteri base. The laser-guided bomb, if released, would have eliminated Pakistan’s top leadership.
 
And then what? Would GHQ have waited for an explanation or accepted an apology for this horrible mistake? Or would Pakistan’s war plans have been triggered and nukes operationalised? This would take only a matter of minutes or hours.
 
Seeing Pakistani nuclear weapons being prepared, what would the Indians have done? Would the IAF have targeted Pakistan’s airbases and missile sites? Action and reaction. Fear fuelling misjudgement until nuclear blasts and fireballs destroy cities in both countries. Millions killed and more injured.
 
South Asia got hugely lucky that day. But as India rushes to put nuclear weapons on submarines — and Pakistan tries to follow suit — a whole new set of dangers has arisen. The chance of a missile being wrongly launched is greater for submarines than for aircraft or other land-based systems.
 
Here’s why. Submarines try to hide and adversaries try to find them. All submarines forces face this problem of antisubmarine warfare but, in the India-Pakistan case, an undersea competition is highly destabilising because Pakistan’s fleet is fairly vulnerable. Its three Agosta-90B type diesel electric submarines (eight Chinese ones are on order) are fairly noisy and trackable. Of the three, only one is actually likely to be on patrol at a given moment because the others would be refuelling or under repair. The submarine on patrol may in time be armed with nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.
 
While Indian capability to locate and destroy a diesel-powered submarine is unknown, this will improve with time. India already claims to have tracked the ocean trajectory of a Chinese nuclear submarine that recently docked in Karachi. Pakistan’s nervousness will drive it to build more nuclear-armed submarines, maybe even nuclear-propelled ones. Safety margins will shrink further.
 
To give an example: up to this point, Pakistan and India both claim that for safety reasons their nuclear warheads are kept in disassembled form with key parts kept at different physical locations. This builds in a time delay, making unauthorised use or an accident less likely. In a crisis the National Command Authority (or its Indian equivalent) would give the order to assemble a weapon. But with a submarine, all missiles must be fully ready for use before the ship leaves port.
 
There’s an added danger — communicating with a submarine prowling the ocean’s depth is hard since radio waves cannot travel long distances through saltwater. Typically, a deeply submerged vessel can only receive simple coded messages, not audio or video. Still worse: there can be only one-way communication — from vessel to base is impossible unless it surfaces and risks detection. Since a technical fault or enemy action can disrupt communications, the submarine commander has to be given the codes and authority to arm and launch nuclear missiles without seeking permission.
 
So here is a hypothetical question: suppose a Pakistani submarine is, or believes it is, under attack from some surface ship, another submarine, or aircraft. Given the impossibility of communicating with ground-based authorities, would the commander launch — or not launch — the submarine’s nuclear missiles? Of course, the attacker cannot know whether a normal sub is in its cross hairs or, instead, a nuclear-armed one.
 
This is not completely fictitious. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, a Soviet submarine found itself surrounded by American ships that began using underwater explosive depth charges to force it to surface. The Soviet submarine could not call Moscow for instructions without rising to the surface. The American ships did not know the Soviet submarine was armed with nuclear torpedoes.
 
Finding itself under attack, and believing that war had broken out, the submarine captain wanted to launch a nuclear torpedo to drive away the American ships by targeting a nearby American aircraft carrier. Other members of his crew did not agree. Eventually, the submarine decided to surface. Had the submarine captain had his way, a nuclear war could have started.
 
Will South Asia always stay lucky, as in Kargil? Don’t count on it.
 
 
 
 
 
Print
Share
  
increase Font size decrease Font size
 

Disclaimer: South Asia Monitor does not accept responsibility for the views or ideology expressed in any article, signed or unsigned, which appears on its site. What it does accept is responsibility for giving it a chance to appear and enter the public discourse.
Comments (Total Comments 0) Post Comments Post Comment
Review
 
 
 
 
spotlight image Relations between India and Morocco go back a millennium with the first recorded links dating to the 14th century, when the famous traveller and writer from Tangier, Ibn Batuta, travelled to India.
 
read-more
Stepping up action against terrorists attacking India, President Donald Trump's Administration has declared Hizb-ul Mujahideen (HM) a “global terrorist organisation” in an attempt to choke off financial and other support to it.
 
read-more
On 14 August 1947 Pakistan, consisting of East and West Pakistan, celebrated its independence. The 14th was chosen for the ceremony because Lord Mountbatten who came to Karachi as the Chief Guest had to later leave for Delhi where ot the midnight stroke India was to declare its independence.
 
read-more
The Doklam stand-off and a variety recent opinion pieces in magazines and newspapers draws attention to the poor state of defence policy preparedness and the lack of meaningful higher defence control in India. 
 
read-more
The two ideologically divergent ruling partners - the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) - in Jammu and Kashmir are headed for a showdown as the debate over the abrogation of Article 35A of the Constitution of India heats up.
 
read-more
At the root of the present Doklam crisis is China’s intrusion into Bhutanese territory for its road building projects. These connectivity projects are integral to President Xi Jinping’s dream project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). India and Bhutan were the only two countries that did not participate in the first forum
 
read-more
Come October, America’s crude war of revenge on Afghanistan will enter its seventeenth year.
 
read-more
A vast majority of countries want to eliminate the existential threat of nuclear catastrophe, and rightly so. But achieving a world free of nuclear weapons is easier said than done, and there is a risk that some attempts to do so could prove self-defeating.
 
read-more
It is a privilege to be invited to this most prestigious of law schools in the country, more so for someone not formally lettered in the discipline of law. I thank the Director and the faculty for this honour.
 
read-more
Column-image

As talk of war and violence -- all that Mahatma Gandhi stood against -- gains prominence across the world, a Gandhian scholar has urged that the teachings of the apostle of non-violence be taken to the classroom.

 
Column-image

Interview with Hudson Institute’s Aparna Pande, whose book From Chanakya to Modi: Evolution of India’s Foreign Policy, was released on June 17.

 
Column-image

This is the continuing amazing spiritual journey of a Muslim man from Kerala who plunged into Vedic religion after a chance encounter with a Hindu mystic under a jackfruit tree in the backyard of his house when he was just nine. It is a story w...

 
Column-image

History is told by the victors but in our modern age, even contemporary events get - or are given - a slant, where some contributors soon get eclipsed from the narrative or their images tarnished.

 
Column-image

Humans have long had a fear of malignant supernatural beings but there may be times when even the latter cannot compare with the sheer evil and destructiveness mortals may be capable of. But then seeking to enable the end of the world due to it...

 
Subscribe to our newsletter
Archive