It will begin as a flash of light so bright that, as described in the Mahabharata 3,500 years ago, it will resemble "a thousand suns". Anyone looking at the explosion within a 50-km radius would turn blind. People at ground zero, most likely Delhi's golden mile that includes the Rashtrapati Bhavan, South and North Blocks and Connaught Place, would be incinerated. In the first second of an atomic blast, temperatures at the strike zone would reach close to a million degrees or equivalent to that in the sun.
That is just the beginning. In the next few seconds, a blast wave so intense that hurricane winds look mild in comparison, will rapidly radiate in an ever-expanding circle. It will crush buildings, uproot trees and decimate all life forms within a radius of 10 km. In its wake would rage a firestorm. Giant steel girders that hold most of the high-rise structures would melt like butter and sand would become so hot that it would explode like popcorn. People on the periphery of the blast would have severe second-degree burns.
As the blast reduces in intensity, the air will rush back to the vortex throwing up a huge mushroom cloud of debris and smoke apart from a cloud of radioactive material. As the fallout drifts, it could give a lethal dose of radiation to people living within 100 km of the blast. In the first hour of the blast, close to 2,00,000 people may perish. In the months to follow, another lakh would be afflicted with debilitating forms of cancer. Delhi would become a vast graveyard.
India, a senior official warned, will respond to such an attack with a "massive nuclear force that will ensure that Pakistan as we know it now does not exist". A recent estimate by the US Defence Department puts the number of dead in a nuclear conflict between the two countries at as high as 12 million people with an equal number seriously injured. All the four wars that India and Pakistan fought so far resulted in only around 12,000 deaths.
Unthinkable as the preceding scenario is, the possibility of a subcontinental nuclear conflagration loomed large last week with Pakistan irresponsibly brandishing its atomic weapons capability. As a powerful signal that his country was seriously contemplating the use of such weapons, Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf ordered the test-firing of a flurry of ballistic missiles that are capable of carrying nuclear weapons.
These included the pencil-shaped Ghauri that has a range of 1,500 km, bringing most major Indian cities within its striking range. The missile tests were possibly conducted to also check if all systems in the warhead were working fine. In his speech, Musharraf also warned of unleashing "firestorms" if India attacked Pakistan. India wasn't impressed by the General's bravado. K. Santhanam, director, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, Delhi, described it as, "I-have-hair-on-my-chest demonstration that is aimed at Musharraf's domestic constituency apart from raising the nuclear flashpoint vision for the international community."
However, with Musharraf sounding belligerent in his speech to the nation on May 27-which India's External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh termed as "dangerous and disappointing"-the fear heightened. The reading among experts is that by raising the nuclear stakes, the General is warning India, which has amassed a million troops on the border, against contemplating even a "bloody nose" kind of offensive. A desperate Musharraf also appears to be pushing for international intervention. As a senior US Administration official says: "Nothing galvanises us or grabs attention as a nuclear threat in a crisis situation."
Whether the threat was real lay in India's offensive plans and its understanding of what Pakistan's threshold to go nuclear is. In conventional wisdom, a nuclear nation would contemplate using the "Brahmastra" only if its existence as a nation is threatened or when it fears that another nation will inflict "unacceptable damage" to its property and people or as a retaliation against a nuclear strike. In a recent interview, Lt-General (retd) Javed Ashraf Qazi, a senior minister in Musharraf's cabinet and former director-general of the ISI, emphasised that, "If it ever comes to annihilation of Pakistan then what is this damned nuclear option for? We will use it against India. As the saying goes, if I am going down the ditch I might as well take the enemy with me."
While Qazi's statement meant that Pakistan will go nuclear only as the last resort, experts remain unsure of the General's intentions. The problem is that while India may signal that it only wants a border conflict limited to Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (PoK), Musharraf may have his own ideas on how to conduct a war. He may decide to open other fronts on the plains if he feels that Pakistan needs to recover ground lost in the mountains. That could rapidly escalate into a full-fledged war with all the destabilising potential of going nuclear. As Anthony H. Cordesman, professor at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C., warns, "All the nuclear doctrines and postures can be meaningless in the subcontinent as the process of escalation is not logical and anything could trigger a nuclear response."
The frightening reality is that it will take just 15 minutes for the Ghauri to strike Delhi or Mumbai from a launch site anywhere in Pakistan. Once fired it cannot be recalled. Nor does India have the capability of striking it down. India's Agni missile takes around the same time to travel much greater distances and can hit any target in Pakistan. It too is virtually unassailable once launched. That gives no room for mistakes.
During the Cold War, the US and the former Soviet Union invested enormous sums of money in sophisticated command and control systems to monitor each other's nuclear weapons and prevent any accidental triggering. Known as Permissive Action Links, these were complex computer chip-based safety devices that prevented an assembled nuclear weapon from being armed unless all pre-programmed requirements were satisfied. It included the final launch permission received from the proper authority, possibly received directly by the weapon through radio contact from the political bosses.
Both India and Pakistan are new to the game. "It is a virtual certainty that the first generation of the Indian and Pakistani weapons do not possess adequate safeguards," says Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy, an eminent Pakistani nuclear physicist who has been one of the most vocal critics of his country's nuclear weapons programme. In Pakistan, nobody outside the military establishment really knows about the command-and-control structures.
Most government officials in Islamabad contacted tend to confuse the articulation of a line of com-mand-which certainly does exist- for a complete system of checks and balances. As far as the line of command goes, obviously General Musharraf as military chief and the supreme commander of the armed forces (as President) would be the final decision-maker. There is also a National Security Council, which comprises the President, all the military chiefs, the prime minister (none yet), the defence minister and the governors of the provinces. It is unclear, however, whether the council's decisions are predicated on consensus or not, which could be the difference between restraint and a devastating mistake.
India has not made its chain of command public although there has been talk of bringing its nuclear defence forces under a proposed chief of defence staff. Unlike Pakistan, it is fully under civilian charge with the prime minister controlling its use. To avoid accidental use, there is a division of labour between the Atomic Energy Commission, which is responsible for the nuclear core, the Defence Research and Development Organisation, which is entrusted with "mating" the core to the warhead, and the Indian Army, which has taken operational control of the Agni and Prithvi missiles and will launch them on the targets decided.
A senior official describes India's nuclear command and control system as "austere and secure". Depending on the level of military alert, various steps would be taken to reach a launch readiness posture of three hours if the order is given. And the instructions to move the core and combine it with the warhead will come directly from the prime minister through a system of dual codes. Says Santhanam: "India is fully prepared for an attack and is ready to undertake a severe retaliation. Pakistan should think not just twice but 22 times before taking war to the nuclear plane."
India's hope that the US can immobilise Pakistan's nuclear weapons when faced with a crunch are misplaced. Senior US officials say that Pakistan's programme is "so opaque that we could never be sure we have knocked out its capability". In nuclear parlance, targets are divided into the counter force, which are essentially an enemy's military targets, and the counter value, ones that involve striking the nation's population centres.
Pakistan has around 25 to 50 nuclear bombs. Even if one of them is used, it can cause havoc. There has been talk of Pakistan going in for a tactical military strike by using a nuclear weapon to stun Indian troops at the Akhnoor sector in Jammu commonly known as the chicken's neck and cutting off the Valley from the rest of the country. But as Amitabh Mattoo, professor at JNU's School for International Studies, points out, "India has no scope for flexible response. It will not restrict its strike to just Pakistan's military targets but will most likely go for a massive retaliation."
Which means that if it ever goes nuclear, Pakistan will most likely opt for simultaneous hits on key population centres like Delhi or Mumbai and a military target. An Indian nuclear expert does not rule out the possibility of Pakistan striking both at Delhi (to wipe out India's political elite) and Mumbai (the commercial hub). If that happens, an estimated two million Indians would perish in minutes. As Mattoo says, "Such a massive strike rests on Pakistan's hope that it would leave India shell-shocked and, given its levels of efficiency, cripple its capability to strike back. There is also the prayer that the international community would take charge and prevent an Indian retaliation."
India, which has between 75 to 100 nuclear weapons, is likely to hit back with massive force. All Pakistani cities-Karachi, Hyderabad, Lahore, Islamabad and Rawalpindi-are likely to be targets of either guided missiles or Mirage 2000 aircraft.
In Princeton University, physicist M.V. Ramana and his colleagues at the Programme for Science and Global Security, estimated that close to three million people in both countries would die in such an attack. Another 1.5 million people would be severely injured. A more recent study the US Defence Department quoted by the New York Times puts the figure at four times the number-12 million.
Most of these calculations are based on studies of the impact of the nuclear strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The US dropped a 15-kiloton nuclear warhead on Hiroshima and a 21-kiloton device on Nagasaki. The blast killed half of Hiroshima's 3,70,000 residents. In Nagasaki, a fourth of the people died. In all, 3,00,000 people died and an equal number suffered serious injuries. There was no way Japan's civil administration could cope with such a disaster.
Nor will India and Pakistan civil defence systems be able to handle the catastrophe that will befall the subcontinent if a nuclear conflict breaks out. Last week, the Maharashtra Government summoned an emergency meeting of top bureaucrats, police officers, armed personnel and nuclear scientists to discuss security measures in a war. The Government decided to start registering volunteers in case of emergency public rescue operations and also to appoint 600 wardens to lead them. Subways, underground shopping malls, parking lots and godowns will be converted into anti-radiation zones in case of a war. A war guide is under preparation and is to be distributed to concerned agencies and public offices. Says Deputy Chief Minister Chhagan Bhujbal, "It's a delicate situation where we have to make the public aware without creating panic."
Delhi too has been gearing up for a war. "We have 2,500 extra beds ready to be stationed at various hospitals and in make-shift outdoor hospitals if the need arises. Mobile X-ray units, ultrasound units and operation-theatre equipment are being brought in. Also, Delhi hospitals have been told to stock extra medicines for emergency purposes for up to six months," says A.K. Walia, Delhi's health minister.
Doctors in both cities are also being trained to handle nuclear and chemical biological warfare ailments. But Princeton's Ramana points out that hospitals and doctors located in these cities will also be wiped out in such a strike. Medical help would probably have to be rushed in from other states. In Pakistan, the situation is no better. There is a civil defence structure for conventional warfare and emergencies-shelters, posts, agencies and sirens-but definitely none to cope with nuclear warfare.
Even what exists is in a pretty ramshackle shape, as is evident from the response to attacks like the suicide bombing in Karachi last month. There is very little information available about the consequences of a nuclear conflagration and neither the public nor civil agencies and hospitals are equipped to cope with the massive death and destruction that will accompany it.
The Mahabharata talks of "a gigantic messenger of death which reduced to ashes the entire race". Eons later, never has the threat of obliteration seemed so real to the people of the subcontinent.
—with Hasan Zaidi in Karachi and bureau reports