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Pak-India nuclear war — avoided

Updated August 12, 2017

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.

The Indian pilot’s mistake could have activated Pakistan’s war plans and triggered its nuclear assets.

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.

The writer teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, August 12th, 2017