So, is there going to be a nuclear war between India and Pakistan? So far, the consensus seems to be that the probability ranges between very unlikely and extremely unlikely. However all these analyses have been working on the assumption that the leadership on both sides will be the same in six months as it is now. But how secure is Musharraf's position? If he were to be toppled by a radical Islamist faction, then I feel that a nuclear conflict becomes much more likely. There is a strong contingent of radical Islamofascists in the Pakistan intelligence organ, the ISI. Musharraf has been unable or unwilling to adequately purge this group, and they present probably the biggest threat to his remaining in power.
If a conflict between India and Pakistan does turn nuclear, what would the effects be? Horrific, of course. But it certainly wouldn't be Armageddon, at least outside the immediate zone that is. Precise figures for the countries' arsenals are hard to come by, but let's assume rough parity, with 50-75 weapons of Hiroshima-scale yield (15-50 kT), air and ballistic missile-deliverable.
Broadly speaking, nuclear warfighting strategy falls into two modes of operation, counterforce and countervalue. Counterforce strikes are designed to destroy your opponent's ability to strike you, by destroying his weapons before they can be used. Countervalue strikes are designed to destroy the real heart of an enemy nation, by targeting population centres and infrastructure. Which mode is used depends on a number of factors, but the most important are two-fold: the yield of your weapons, and the accuracy with which you can target them.
Countervalue strikes do not have to be particularly precisely targeted. If the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima had detonated a couple of miles from where it did, the results would have been much the same. Yield is more complex. Obviously, the bigger the yield the larger the area over which a certain range of effects is observed. However, the destructive effects of a nuclear weapon do not go up linearly with yield. The effect of 10 100kT bombs, targeted correctly, is greater than that of a single 1 MT bomb.
Counterforce weapons are much harder to obtain. Typically, your opponent's forces will be point targets, hardened against just such a strike. Here is where the playoff between yield and targeting really comes into play. Targeting capability is measured in terms of Circular Error Probable (CEP). CEP is the radius of the circle around the intended aim point into which 50% of weapons will land. Against a point target, reducing CEP is directly equivalent to increasing yield, but in a very non-linear fashion. A small reduction in CEP translates to a large increase in yield.
The problem that both sides face is that their arsenals are not very effective for either counterforce or countervalue roles. Although CEP is very important for counterforce, very high yield is also desirable. The warhead on an SS-18 Mod 3, specifically designed to target the US Minuteman force, had a warhead with a yield of 18-25 MT and a CEP of about 1000m (source). Trident D-5 SLBMs, owned by both the Royal Navy and USN, have multiple warheads in the 100-120 kT range with a CEP of 120m (source).
Neither India nor Pakistan have the delivery mechanisms to turn their arsenals into an effective counterforce system. They almost by default are reduced to using their weapons in a countervalue strike. This would thus mean multiple warheads against the five or six largest cities in each country. One 20 kT warhead is insufficient to destroy a modern city. The large scale destruction at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was primarily due to the construction methods used. Even so, prompt fatalities would be in the hundreds of thousands to millions, and deaths afterwards due to dislocation of the economies and mass movement of refugees fleeing the cities would almost certainly be as high. In other words, a humanitarian catastrophe of huge proportions.
Would a nuclear war between India and Pakistan have any effects on, say, the USA? No. Prompt fallout from an airburst is very limited, and the long term fallout from such a limited exchange would be negligible. The political effects would be incalculable, however. I have long believed that it is in the best interests of the US to engage India as strongly as possible as a strategic partner. Now that relations with the Russians are so cordial, it is high time that India is brought onboard as a second buffer to Chinese expansionism. This might mean looking the other way were India to re-absorb Pakistan. Conversely, mediating in the dispute might be a good way to force access to the 'tribal areas' of North Pakistan, and achieve the rout of the remnants of al Qaida there.
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