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Things will never be the same again

If a nuclear war were to break out between India and Pakistan, this could be what might happen — a total of 2.9 million people dead, a flood of refugees, devastated cities, contaminated water systems, leukaemia and other malignancies .... A reality check by MATTHEW MCKINZIE, ZIA MIAN, M.V. RAMANA and A.H. NAYYAR.

THERE is a history of war in South Asia. India and Pakistan fought in 1948, 1965, 1971 and in 1999. There is good evidence that in no case was there the expectation of a war on the scale and of the kind that ensued. Rather war followed misadventure, driven by profound errors of policy, political and military judgment, and public sentiment. Nuclear weapons do nothing to lessen such possibilities and make a nuclear war, a real and frightening possibility.


Reckoning with the nuclear factor

When it comes to picking targets for nuclear weapons there are really only two options. One is to indiscriminately destroy cities in the hope of either forcing an end to hostilities or eliciting unconditional surrender. The second is to try to use nuclear weapons to destroy military command structures and war fighting capabilities. In the event of a war between India and Pakistan, the latter cannot hope to prevail in a drawn out war and its leaders have made clear they intend to follow the first option. Should India seek to try the second option and attack only military targets, the results may not be that different from deliberately using nuclear weapons against cities. This is because nearly all of Pakistan's significant military centres are either in or located close to cities. For instance, Karachi, Hyderabad, Bahawalpur, Multan, Lahore, Gujranwala, Rawalpindi, Peshawar and Quetta are all army corps headquarters. Islamabad has the air force and naval headquarters. These are obvious targets. Nuclear weapons cause destruction over such large distances that even if nuclear weapons were targeted specifically at military installations the cities would not escape.

Early warning

The destructive power of nuclear weapons means the nuclear superpowers live in perpetual fear of a surprise attack. These fears are worsened by the deployment of ballistic missiles, which reduce the time it would take to mount a nuclear attack. During the Cold War, the superpowers addressed their fears by building complex early warning systems that would let each of them know they were about to be attacked and give them time to launch their nuclear weapons before they were destroyed. These systems also sought to limit the possibility of a war starting by accident or miscalculation by creating time during which policy makers and military planners could make decisions using real information about what was actually happening rather than responding simply on the basis of fear about what might happen.

The United States and the Soviet Union, now Russia, relied on satellites and early warning radar systems to give them information within about one and a half minutes of the possible launch of a missile. They took about two and a half minutes to work out of what was happening from this information. Advisors could be called and a threat determined a few minutes after this. In other words within about six or seven minutes, it was possible to decide if a nuclear attack may have started. Since the missiles would have taken about 25 minutes to travel from the U.S. to the Soviet Union or in the other direction, there was still time for a final confirmation that the missiles were real. There was even time left to find out if there had been an accidental launch of the missiles, and to decide what to do.

The failures of early warning

The U.S. has invested enormous financial and technical resources in setting up its early warning system. It has tried hard but without success to make it fool-proof. There is no real history of all the failures. It is known, however, that between 1977 and 1984 there were over 20,000 false alarms of a missile attack on the U.S.. Over 1,000 of these were considered serious enough for bombers and missiles to be placed on alert.

Some of these incidents give terrifying insights into how easily even the most carefully designed and technologically advanced warning systems can go wrong. Two instances, one each from the U.S. and Russia, will suffice.

In November 1979, the U.S. missile warning system showed that a massive attack had suddenly been launched. A nuclear alert was declared. There was no attack. There were no missiles. The warning was due to a computer that had been used to test the warning system to see how it would behave if there was an attack. Somebody had forgotten to turn off the computer after the exercise.

On January 25, 1995, a Norwegian rocket was launched to take scientific measurements. The Norwegian Government told the Russian Government in advance that this would happen. Nevertheless, when the rocket was picked up by Russian radar it was treated as a possible missile attack. It seems a warning was sent to the Russian defence minister's headquarters, the Russian military leadership, and to the commanders of Russian missiles that an attack may be underway. A message was then sent to Boris Yeltsin, the then Russian President, and an emergency conference called with nuclear commanders over the telephone. Yeltsin has confirmed that such an emergency conference did take place.

South Asia

Even if India and Pakistan had the technology for early warning, and even if it worked reliably, they could not use it against each other; geography has made sure of that. Instead of the 25 minutes or so warning time that the U.S. and the Soviet Union had, it would take an Indian "Prithvi" missile somewhere between three and five minutes to reach almost anywhere in Pakistan. It would take Pakistan's "Ghauri" missile about five minutes to reach Delhi. An early warning system could give a warning of what has happened, advisors could be called, and then time would run out. There would be no time to decide whether the warning was real, or a mistake. The decision on how to respond, including possible nuclear retaliation, would have to be made regardless.

The effects of nuclear weapons

Approximately 5,000 kilometres east of New Delhi and 55 years ago, two nuclear weapons were used by the U.S. to kill over 1,90,000 people in Japan. Agonising deaths took place for approximately a month after the explosions — indeed deaths continued for weeks after Japan surrendered. The impact on that country and the world from these atomic bombings has been enormous, and continues to the present. Can one predict the effects of the use of nuclear weapons against cities in India or Pakistan today? In some ways "yes" and in many important ways "no".

The nuclear weapon used by the U.S. to attack Hiroshima had a yield equivalent to 15,000 tons of TNT and was detonated at 580 metres above the surface of the earth. This yield is comparable to the yields of the nuclear weapons that India and Pakistan claimed they tested in May 1998. The consequences of an explosion for any large, densely populated, South Asian city would be roughly the same.

The effects of nuclear war

It is hard to imagine that if a dreadful event were ever to take place as the result of a nuclear attack by one country, there would be no response from the other side. Both Pakistan and India have sufficient nuclear weapons and the missiles and aircraft to destroy several, perhaps many, of the other's cities.

To illustrate the terrible consequences of a large scale nuclear war in South Asia, we estimate the numbers of deaths and injuries from nuclear attacks on 10 major Indian and Pakistan cities. To arrive at consistent estimates for all of these cities we use a different, simpler, methodology than was used earlier by one of us for another detailed case study that has been done of the consequences of a nuclear attack on Mumbai (Bombing Bombay? Effects of Nuclear Weapons and a Case Study of a Hypothetical Explosion, M.V. Ramana, IPPNW Global Health Watch, Report No. 3, Cambridge, U.S., 1999). We transpose here onto each city the characteristics and consequences of the August 6, 1945 Hiroshima bombing with its mass fires, radiation sicknesses, severe burns, deaths in buildings collapsed by the shock wave, hurricane-force winds propelling missiles through the air, and blindness (Figure I — below — plots the zones of death and injury experienced at Hiroshima. Reference: Hiroshima Shiyakusho, Hiroshima, 1971, Vol.1.)

The historical data from Hiroshima on the fraction of the population killed and injured in concentric 500m wide rings out to a distance of five kilometres from the explosions is applied to a database that gives population distribution information for each of 10 cities in South Asia. The "LandScan" world population database was used for these calculations.

It uses the best available census information and assigns them to grid cells of roughly one kilometre by one kilometre size by creating a probability distribution based on factors such as proximity to roads, environmental characteristics such as climate and terrain slope, and night-time lights as seen by satellites.

Table 1 (below left) shows (to the nearest thousand) the numbers of dead, severely injured and slightly injured persons after a nuclear attack on each of 10 large South Asian cities. A total of 2.9 million deaths is predicted for these cities in India and Pakistan with an additional 1.5 million severely injured.

It should be appreciated that this exercise of predicting the casualties from nuclear attacks on cities in India and Pakistan based on the historical record at Hiroshima just scratches the surface of what would play out if nuclear weapons were used. There is also the loss of key social and physical networks that make daily life possible: families and neighbourhoods would be devastated, factories, shops, electricity and water systems demolished, hospitals and schools, and other government offices destroyed. The flood of refugees would carry the physical effects far beyond the cities.

Many more people will die from long term effects, especially radiation-related causes, than from an immediate nuclear explosion. Studies involving survivors of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki reveal that the mortality rates for all diseases, leukaemia, and malignancies other than leukaemia, are all significantly higher than among people not exposed to radiation. Increases in the cancer rates of survivors of an atomic bombing of a South Asian city may be comparable to, if not greater than, those among Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors.


Table1:

The ultimate impact on both societies would extend well beyond the bombed areas in highly unpredictable ways. Nuclear attacks would provoke profound and enduring responses from citizens of India and Pakistan and of the world. Nothing would ever be the same again.

Adapted from Out of the Nuclear Shadow, Smitu Kothari and Zia Mian, eds., Lokayan, Rainbow Press, and Zed Books, 2001.

Matthew McKinzie is with the Natural Resources Defense Council, Washington D.C.; Zia Mian and M.V. Ramana are with the Program for Science and Global Security, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, and A.H. Nayyar is with the Department of Physics, Quaid-I-Azam University, Islamabad.

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