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10 June 2002

Thinking the unthinkable

Can we imagine a nuclear war? The novelist Philip Kerr returns to an invented scenario that now seem

By Philip Kerr

Seven years ago, I wrote a thriller called Esau, about a hunt for the Himalayan yeti set against the background of an imminent nuclear war between India and Pakistan. In the original manuscript, a nuclear exchange takes place; but in the final version – my editor having persuaded me to remove the pages dealing with the nuclear war – good sense prevails and a war is avoided. In view of the current crisis, I dug out the original manuscript. Reading it again, I rather wish I had not agreed to the excision, given the apparent failure of both sides to imagine the consequences of using nuclear weapons. Sometimes it is a good thing to think the unthinkable. Anyway, this is what I imagined might happen:

”Even before the cooling-off period brokered by the American Secretary of State, both governments had brought all their strategic and tactical forces to a state of maximum readiness. Given the vulnerability of centralised command-and-control systems, each side had disseminated its code word to its own commander in the field so that he might employ nuclear missiles at his discretion, provided the commander was unable to receive direct orders from his head of state. It was this essentially irresolvable dilemma of control that now brought the Indian subcontinent to the edge of the nuclear abyss.

The new crisis began simply enough, with a not uncommon event in Islamabad – a power cut caused by a gang of negligent workmen. The sudden return of the electricity supply caused a power surge in the computers controlling the Islamabad telephone exchange, rendering the city’s communications useless for several hours.

During this same period, potential safeguards reached a critical point and broke down when the Indian navy fired an unarmed practice missile, an SS-N8, from one of the Charlie 1-class submarines that was continuing a blockade of Karachi from the Bay of Bengal. The missile had been aimed at a practice site in the Great Indian Desert. But soon after launch, the missile veered sharply to the north and could not be destroyed by the submarine’s safety officer. It eventually hit an empty factory building on the outskirts of Karachi, several hundred kilometres off course, killing two men. Immediately, the Khairpur regional governor put out a statement to the effect that a missile had hit Karachi, but that it had failed to go off. Unable to find further clarification from Islamabad because of the problems at the local telephone exchange, the commander in the field, General Mohammed Ali Ishaq Khan, assumed that a nuclear missile had also been launched against the capital city and had annihilated it. After a short hesitation, he ordered the launch of Pakistan’s own M9 surface-to-surface ballistic missiles. Twelve missiles, each carrying a crude 20-kiloton uranium device, twice as powerful as the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, were fired. With an effective range of just 600km, only a few Indian cities could be targeted: Ludhiana, Jodhpur, Ajmer, Jaipur, Agra, Ahmadabad, Delhi, New Delhi, Faridabad, Ghaziabad and Moradabad. By the time three squadrons of Pakistani Air Force F-16s were flying to their targets of Bombay, Pune, Indore, Surat, Bhopal, Ujjain and Nashik, more than four million Indians were already dead.

Few of the F-16s reached their targets, shot down by air-to-air missiles, and none found a home to which it could return. Minutes after the M9s had struck, India launched a third of a nuclear arsenal that outnumbered Pakistan’s by ten to one.

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For the more powerful Indian ICBMs, armed with 20-kiloton plutonium devices, there were fewer targets to choose from: Karachi, Hyderabad, Bahawalpur, Multan, Faisalabad, Lahore, Rawalpindi, Islamabad and Peshawar. Some cities were hit by as many as 15 missiles and there was little need for India to follow up with its long-range nuclear bombers. Ten minutes after the retaliatory launch, more than 40 million Pakistanis were dead and the country had, in effect, ceased to exist.

This subcontinental holocaust used less than 0.1 per cent of the world’s strategic arsenals, killing 46 million people outright and, as the weeks passed into months, many tens of millions more. But it was still a small nuclear war – what the experts called ‘a nominal case scenario’. A little over 200 nuclear devices had detonated, roughly equal to 400 Hiroshimas.

India had won the war, but quickly lost the peace as international reaction to the tragedy that had befallen the subcontinent gave way to environmental concern. Obscuring smoke in the troposphere, dust in the stratosphere, the fallout of radio-active debris and the partial destruction of the ozone layer all threatened to affect northern hemispheric climate. Throughout the Middle East, the daytime light levels fell to less than 30 per cent of normal – comparable to thick cloud cover – and temperatures declined. In Pakistan, for more than a week after the holocaust, it was too dark to see very much, even at midday. Meanwhile, weather systems transported fine dust particles to other, more distant locales and the world began to contemplate the biological impact of the war on the global environment.”

A study by a number of scientists demonstrated that prolonged low temperatures would follow even a small nuclear war. A 1 per cent cooling of the world’s temperature would nearly eliminate wheat now growing in Canada. It may be tempting for the rest of the world to let the Indians and the Pakistanis “get on with it”, but is it not perhaps time, given the environmental consequences of a “nominal” nuclear war, that the western democracies ceased to be quite so sanguine about what is happening in Kashmir?

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