Armageddon: the India-Pakistan War of 2019 ~ Bill the Butcher
January 2019. The right-wing, Hindu nationalist led Indian government of Prime Minister Narendrabhai
Modi is in serious trouble. Steadily rising prices, widespread unemployment, and economic stagnation have seriously hurt the government’s image. The nation had yet to recover from the devastating drought of 2017, which had badly hit agriculture and brought millions to the brink of starvation. A series of corruption scandals in the top echelons of the prime minister’s own Bharatiya Janata Party have also badly tarnished Modi’s own image as a clean politician.
With elections due in May, the government is on the ropes. Sensing blood, the opposition parties – hitherto in disarray – have started to put together a ramshackle alliance. The political scene is in turmoil.
Meanwhile, internationally, the scene in South Asia has changed drastically. After the withdrawal of all American forces from Afghanistan in late 2017, with the last troops literally pulling out in the middle of the night without prior warning, the government in Kabul quickly imploded. The country fairly rapidly split into two, with a Taliban-dominated government taking over the southern, Pashtun-settled area. In the north, a Russian-aligned rump state clings on to the Hazara, Uzbek and Tajik majority zones, but for all practical purposes the main part of Afghanistan is again controlled by the Taliban.
The US, which until recently controlled the entire land mass between the Central Asian ‘stans and the Arabian Sea, has lost interest in the area completely following its withdrawal. The Great Depression of 2016-17 has hit it hard, and made it concentrate on more profitable sections of its global empire. For the moment, it’s a non-player in South Asia.
For Pakistan, the Taliban victory in Afghanistan has proved to be a mixed blessing. While the defence establishment still thinks that the Taliban Afghan state is an ally which provides strategic depth to Pakistan, the defeat of the US at the hands of the Afghan Taliban has encouraged the Pakistani Pashtuns to demand re-integration with their brethren in Afghanistan. The Pakistani Taliban has launched several offensives, and in mid-2018 briefly took over Peshawar before being driven back. Meanwhile, the long-standing Balochistan rebellion against the Islamabad government is still simmering, and several military bases have been attacked in recent months.
As far as the Indian intelligence agency, RAW, is concerned, the temptation to meddle and bleed Pakistan has proved irresistible. While it has been arming and funding the Balochi insurgents for many years, it has recently sent a limited number of weapons to the Pakistani Taliban as well, on their pledge that they would only attack Pakistani installations and not turn their guns on Indian interests. The Pakistani government has retaliated by stepping up support to the flagging Kashmir insurgency, and by training and funding the Islamic Mujahideen, Student’s Islamic Movement of India, and other domestic Muslim terror groups in India.
Politically, too, the Pakistani government of Nawaz Sharif, which only just retained power in a deeply controversial election, is in trouble. Pakistan’s economy, without the injection of American funds, is in even worse shape than India’s, and public frustration is growing.
Prominent young liberal opposition politician Arsalan Ghumman has called for a rolling series of protests to drive Sharif from power. Large demonstrations have taken place in the streets of Lahore and Karachi, and many of these have been targeted by gunmen and bombs; most Pakistanis, who believe Nawaz Sharif “stole” the last election, think that these attacks have been orchestrated by the government to crush dissent. Arsalan Ghumman and several of his supporters are arrested and spirited away to an unknown destination; all this does is provoke more demonstrations demanding his immediate release.
For both India and Pakistan, then, January 2019 is a time of steeply escalating internal tensions, with deeply unpopular governments looking for a way to survive.
9.30 a.m., 26 January: As India celebrates its Republic Day with a massive military parade marching through the centre of Delhi, a number of coordinated car bombs – thirteen in all – go off in Ahmedabad, Jaipur and Nagpur, killing at least 700 people and injuring well over 2000. The news of the bomb explosions reaches Prime Minister Modi (who also holds the Defence portfolio) as he is watching the parade in the company of President Lal Krishna Advani and the Chief Guest, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka. Modi immediately leaves the venue for his office, and calls a crisis committee meeting, attended by top government ministers and bureaucrats.
Meanwhile, the private TV channels interrupt the telecast of the parade for breaking-news footage of the blasts, including gory images of victims lying in pools of their own blood. By mid-morning, shrill-voiced commentators on the TV screens have begun openly blaming Pakistan for the bombs and demanding immediate retaliatory action, including bombing “terrorist training camps”. In the late afternoon, the first demonstrators are on the streets of Delhi, waving placards and assaulting any Muslims they can find. The police seem unwilling to hold them back.
At seven that evening, Modi makes a televised statement to the nation, appealing for calm, and claiming that the government will hold those responsible “accountable”. This fails to satisfy the demonstrators, who burn Modi in effigy alongside Nawaz Sharif. An abortive attempt is made to storm the Pakistan High Commission.
The Pakistani government, in the person of the foreign minister, issues a statement condemning the blasts and denying responsibility; it further offers a joint probe with India to investigate the bombings. Indian media immediately denounce the offer as “a thief offering to investigate his own burglary.” The Indian government ignores the offer completely.
At midnight, Modi, in his capacity as Defence Minister, holds a second meeting, this one attended by the military top brass as well as civilian officials. The Prime Minister says that some kind of military measures will have to be taken against Pakistan, in order to cool down public anger. In private, he and the Cabinet have already decided that a short war against Pakistan will not only satisfy the hawks but also regain public popularity and help win the coming election.
In order to lull Pakistani suspicions, the government decides not to break off diplomatic relations. The attack will be launched as soon as possible, to catch the Pakistanis by surprise.
The military position:
Ever since the military fiasco of 2001-2, when India had taken a full four weeks to mobilise forces after the terrorist attack on the Indian parliament, the Indian armed forces had decided on a so-called Cold Start doctrine. Though, officially, the Cold Start doctrine did not exist, it called for rapid mobilisation and concentration of strike forces at the border so as to be able to launch a short-duration invasion of Pakistan within 48 hours of receiving orders. The idea is to attack, hit the enemy hard and get out before any international intervention can be organised.
On paper, the Indians are overwhelmingly stronger than the Pakistanis, but this is rather diluted by the facts on the ground. While the common soldiers on both sides are well-trained and highly professional, the two armies are both completely dependent on their officers for leadership, and actively discourage initiative. Both sides have made efforts to modernise, but shortage of funds and jockeying for favour between the services means that neither has managed to do so with great success. Besides, India has a much larger land mass to protect, and a great part of its forces are permanently deployed against China. On the other hand, the Pakistani officer corps is tainted by politics and Islamicisation, while India’s is both apolitical in the junior ranks, and strictly secular.
In a short war, both sides will have virtual parity, and it will come down to tactics and innovation to decide who wins.
The military plan involves air strikes against training camps in the Pakistani occupied part of Kashmir, and also on the Pakistani air force’s bases to keep it off balance and unable to retaliate. Meanwhile, the army’s strike formations will launch armoured thrusts across the international border in Punjab and Rajasthan. The attack across the Rajasthan frontier, directed at Multan, will be a diversion, intended to distract the Pakistanis from the main assault, which will be across the Punjab border and against Lahore. The plans call for the capture of Lahore within 48 hours, followed by a speedy withdrawal. A suggestion for a secondary thrust against the twin cities of Rawalpindi and Islamabad is turned down as being too provocative and ambitious.
The plans make it clear that the entire war is to be concluded within six days, beyond which – according to the Indian army – the Pakistanis are liable to be tempted to use nuclear weapons. The navy, in the meantime, will launch attacks on the port of Karachi, using Harrier VTOL jets from the aircraft carrier Viraat. The second aircraft carrier, Vikramaditya, is at the moment in the port of Visakhapatnam, on the other side of the India, and will take too long to reach the war zone. The third carrier, Vikrant, is still fitting out at Cochin and months from being ready for combat.
On the government side, the advantage of a short war is that it is the only sort of military engagement which can be concluded with a minimum of economic pain. With each tank shell costing as much as a working-class family earns in a month, a longer conflict means economic disaster. Besides, a short war can be presented as a victory, and by the time the effects are noticed the elections will be over.
After swearing all present to the strictest of secrecy, the government issues the necessary orders.
The Pakistani preparation:
The Pakistani armed forces are far from unaware of the existence of Cold Start, and have gone into high alert as soon as they received news of the bomb blasts in India. Though the Pakistani armed forces are much smaller than the Indian, they have lesser territory to defend, and can concentrate faster owing to the lesser distance of Pakistani communications centres from the border; in addition, the Indian swift assault plan means that only a small, highly mobile part of the Indian armed forces will be used.
Also, the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, is much more efficient than the Indian. Before dawn on the 27th, it has already picked up news of the midnight meeting in Delhi. Although it doesn’t know what happened at the meeting, the Pakistani army high command decides to put its troops on combat alert, without waiting for permission from Nawaz Sharif.
By late afternoon on the 27th, ISI agents – some of them disguised as tea sellers and labourers in and around Indian cantonments – begin sending in coded messages that Indian strike corps have begun making preparations for immediate movement. As soon as darkness falls, long lines of tanks and armoured personnel carriers rattle down the highways towards the Pakistan border. Their plan is to be in position to attack before dawn on the 29th.
Quietly but with desperate speed, the Pakistani army command begins making its own preparations. As yet, the civilian Pakistani government is out of the loop. Only when the troop movements are too far advanced to be reversible, the generals decide, will Nawaz Sharif be informed.
The ISI also quickly evacuates the terrorist training camps in the Kashmir mountains. If the Indians strike the camps, they will be bombing little more than empty tents and abandoned firing ranges.
Meanwhile, the Pakistani military’s Nuclear Command Authority begins moving part of its atomic weaponry out of its fortified bases and integrating warheads with their delivery systems. The generals will not inform Nawaz Sharif of this at all.
Meanwhile, in India:
Since the plans to attack Pakistan are top secret, the government has kept insisting that it will punish those responsible. Public anger, stoked by private TV channels competing with each other for ratings, is boiling over. Large demonstrations have taken place in several cities across North and West India. Several violent incidents, targeting Muslims, have taken place. Curfew has been imposed in Delhi, Mumbai, and Ahmedabad, where the worst riots occurred.
On the evening of the 28th, Modi again goes on TV to declare that decisive action will soon be taken against “those responsible” for the bombings, and that he will make another statement in the morning. Though his comments are meant to assuage domestic anger, the Pakistanis decide that this is final proof that an Indian attack will be launched during the course of the night. Their own armoured corps move out of their bases and begin to deploy to meet the threat.
The Indian troop concentration has not gone completely according to plan. Some brigades equipped with the Arjun main battle tank have been unable to reach their jumping off points because the tanks are too heavy to use most bridges and too wide to fit railway flatbeds. Meanwhile, many of the aging T-72s have broken down in the Rajasthan desert, so that the armoured formations are seriously under-strength. The army’s commanders hold another meeting with Modi just after midnight, and suggest a day’s delay. However, the Russian ambassador has already sent in a message asking about Indian troop movements and warning about hasty actions, and it’s obvious that the preparations can’t be kept secret any longer. A day’s delay might be too late, Modi says, and orders the attack to go ahead as planned.
The name of the operation is decided at this meeting. It will be called Operation Badla – Operation Revenge.
At half past four in the morning of 29th January, Indian Air Force Mirage 2000, Rafale and Sukhoi 30 MKI aircraft take off from forward airbases and fly at treetop height over the frontier. By five, air raid sirens are going off in Islamabad and Lahore, while the flashes of bomb explosions light up the horizon and startled residents blink awake in the freezing cold. Pakistani anti-aircraft guns and surface to air missiles attempt to counter the Indian attack with only partial success; just four planes are brought down. However, the Indian attack fails to damage the PAF substantially, since the Pakistanis had moved their aircraft away to satellite airbases and underground shelters. A second wave of strikes, against the already evacuated terrorist training camps in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, achieves precisely nothing.
Just as the first Indian Air Force planes return from their strikes, Indian 155mm Bofors artillery guns and multi-barrelled rocket launchers open up a withering barrage on known Pakistani positions across the frontier. As lines of T-90 and T-72 tanks roll forward, the barrage lifts ahead of them, hitting roads and railway junctions in an effort to stop the Pakistanis either withdrawing or reinforcing their positions. By dawn, the first line of Pakistani defences have been overrun at relatively little cost, and columns of prisoners are being sent to the rear, to be photographed by hastily organised TV crews from pro-government channels. By the time Modi goes on TV at eight in the morning, the news has already gone out: the nation is at war, and to all appearances it is winning.
But the prisoners the Indians have taken are Rangers – border guards – not regular army, and the air strikes have caused far less damage than anticipated. By mid-morning, Pakistan’s J-10 and F-16 fighters are engaging Indian MiG-29s over Lahore and Kashmir. The armour has begun to get bogged down too. A huge dust storm reduces visibility to almost zero, causing hours of delay to the southern flank of the Indian assault, which is aimed across the desert at Multan. Meanwhile, the northern arm of the attack, against Lahore, runs into hastily laid minefields, which disable many of the tanks. Others are tied down by small but determined teams of anti-tank missile operators in camouflaged trenches in the middle of the minefields. Artillery has to be brought up to destroy these positions one by one before the mines can be cleared.
The plan goes awry:
By the evening of the 29th, it’s already evident that the Indian timetable has gone awry, and that Lahore can’t be captured on schedule – the armoured spearheads still have to break through the main lines of Pakistani defences east of the Icchogil Canal protecting the city. The capture of Lahore is essential to the rationale of Operation Badla, however, because having committed to the attack, India can’t withdraw at this point without handing Pakistan a propaganda victory. Nor will the frenzied crowds now dancing in the streets of Indian cities, who imagine that this will be a final war against Pakistan, be satisfied with anything less than a demonstrable victory.
At the same time, Pakistani defences are becoming increasingly effective, taking a steadily rising toll of Indian armour. Helicopter gunships race at head height over the battlefield, rocketing tanks, while heavy artillery barrages are tying down the infantry. Without reinforcement, the Indian strike corps will find it more and more difficult to reach their targets. The whole attack plan is in jeopardy.
The Pakistani High Command has accurately identified the Lahore attack as the real danger, and deployed its forces accordingly. The well-dug-in Pakistan Army regulars, supported by heavy artillery firing from positions east of Walton Cantonment, will prove extremely difficult to dislodge. Any Indian units which do manage to break through will find themselves threatened with encirclement by attacks from the flanks.
In an emergency meeting in Delhi, punctuated by the noise of firecrackers from celebrating crowds in the streets, the military chiefs and Modi decide that the original ultra-short duration war timetable will have to be extended, but only by a maximum of forty-eight hours. Urgent reinforcements will have to be sent to the Lahore front, with the strategy shifting from a rapid sword thrust to a battle of attrition meant to wear down the Pakistani forces. Meanwhile, the 1st Armoured Division, spearheading the thrust at Multan, is ordered to move forward at top speed, in order to force the Pakistanis to divert troops from the defence of Lahore.
The International Response:
At half past eleven in the evening of the 29th, Indian time, the UN Security Council meets in New York to discuss an urgent Pakistani plea calling for an immediate halt to the Indian invasion. China, which has had good relations with Modi as well as its old friend Islamabad, moves a resolution demanding India withdraw all forces and threatening military action. Although Russia expresses its “deep disappointment” with the Indian government, it vetoes the resolution, marking the first overt difference in opinion between the two allies in the UN on any substantive issue since 2012. France, which has major weapons sales contracts to both nations, also votes against it. Britain abstains, as does the United States. Nobody is sure of Indian intentions, and the meeting merely closes with a statement calling on both sides to exercise maximum restraint.
The Indian government is ecstatic, and declares a diplomatic victory. On the other hand, the Pakistani army, which has complete control over the military direction of the war, decides that there will be no help from abroad, at least in time to make a difference. It is on its own.
The Battle of Mirgarh:
The Indian First Armoured Division has been moving north-west since crossing the frontier, but has been delayed by severe dust storms during the day. With darkness, though, the wind has died down, and the division finally begins rolling across the desert, against only sporadic and largely ineffective resistance. The biggest problem faced by the division are with the Arjun tanks, which are too heavy to keep up in the soft sandy terrain, and with the older T-72s, which are still breaking down in considerable numbers. During the night, therefore, the division becomes strung out, but by mid-morning of the 30th January the first squadrons of T-90 tanks are approaching the town of Mirgarh.
Just after eleven in the morning, the lead Pakistani armoured units, armed with T-80 UD and Al Khalid tanks, counterattack from the south and north-east, trying to catch the Indians in a pincer. At the same time, PAF J-10 and F-16 aircraft race over the strung-out lines of Indian armour, hitting them with cluster bombs and armour-piercing missiles. Indian SU 30s and Mirage 2000s flying over the battlefield counterattack, and a confused dogfight develops, during the course of which an Indian Rafale flight attempting to strike the Pakistanis mistakenly bombs an Indian tank squadron instead. The two sides break off combat temporarily in the late afternoon, with Pakistani forces disengaging to the north-east while the Indians fall back a short distance to consolidate before renewing the advance. About forty tanks have been lost on both sides, along with between ten and fifteen aircraft.
The Indians resume their advance after dark, with a change of direction to the north. Unknown to them, the Pakistanis are returning along the same route, and the two sides meet head-on at about nine in the evening. In the darkness of the desert night, lit only by occasional flares, the two armoured forces begin a grinding battle of attrition. Units soon lose cohesion and become inextricably tangled, with tanks fighting at point-blank range and occasionally ramming each other like Soviet T-34s and German PzKw IVs on the Eastern Front in World War II. Both sides are completely unable to use either artillery or air support because of the darkness and the confusion.
When morning arrives, the battle is still in progress, but neither side is able to use its air power or artillery, because the entire battlefield is by now covered by a gigantic dust cloud from the tank treads. However, the superior numbers, training, and equipment of the Indian forces have finally begun to tell. Also, some of the Arjuns have just arrived, and by good fortune outflank and destroy a Pakistani reinforcement column driving up from the south-west. Throughout the day, the Indians manage to isolate and wipe out pockets of Pakistani armour, and succeed in blocking all attempts by the desperate enemy tankmen to either concentrate together or reinforce. When darkness falls on the 31st evening, the remaining Pakistani forces disengage and withdraw as best they can. They have managed to delay the Indian advance, but have lost almost two hundred tanks and armoured personnel carriers, and are hors de combat for the moment.
The Battle of Mirgarh is over, and has resulted in a decisive Indian victory. The way to the Sutlej River, beyond which lies Multan, is open.
The sinking of the Viraat:
The Indian Navy has sat out most of India’s conflicts with Pakistan, having participated only in a limited way in the 1971 war, when Seahawk jets from the carrier Vikrant bombed Chittagong and missile boats launched a seaborne assault on Karachi. In the context of a cold start war, the navy has no real role to play; but the government is determined to show that it is using all available means to fight Pakistan. So the navy’s ancient light aircraft carrier, the INS Viraat – which, as the HMS Hermes, had fought in the Falklands War in 1982 – slowly steams northwards across the Arabian Sea, and on the early evening of the 30th launches an air strike by eight Sea Harriers against Karachi harbour. The raid is a disaster; six of the eight Harriers are shot down, in return for limited damage to two corvettes and a couple of shore installations.
The Viraat has no chance to launch a second raid with its few remaining Harriers. The Pakistani Navy’s Agosta 90B class submarine PNS Hamza left Karachi on a routine training mission on 26th January; with the outbreak of war, it was ordered to patrol the approaches to the port to prevent a 1971-like Indian bombardment. Shortly before midnight, at the very moment that Indian and Pakistani tanks are crashing into each other in the desert sands south of Mirgarh, the Hamza’s passive sonar detects the noise of the engines of the Viraat and its escort of two frigates and a destroyer. The submarine shadows the ships for an hour, working up to attack position. At approximately ten minutes past one in the morning, it fires three SM 39 Exocet anti-ship missiles. All three strike the carrier at the waterline. Given its slow speed and inability to manoeuvre, they could scarcely have missed.
The Viraat is mortally wounded. On fire and taking on water, the ancient carrier slows to a stop. At four in the morning, the captain issues orders to abandon ship. Blazing fiercely and listing badly, the old vessel hangs on for several hours more. At just before eight in the morning, almost seven hours after being hit, it turns turtle and sinks, taking over two hundred of the crew with it down to the bottom of the Arabian Sea.
The Hamza has gone deep and stayed silent after firing the missiles. After evading several sticks of Indian depth charges, it heads north-west towards the Pakistan coast. Its part in the war is over.
In Delhi, the news of the Viraat’s sinking is delivered to the Prime Minister by the Navy Chief in person. Modi immediately orders that it be kept completely secret until the conclusion of the war, in order to maintain public morale. In real terms, the destruction of the doddering old carrier is of no importance anyway. The immediate effect of the sinking, however, is to remove the Indian Navy from further involvement in the hostilities. The war will henceforth be fought by the two other services.
The Hatf Option:
The Pakistani top brass, keenly aware of its relative military inferiority, has prepared several options to counter an Indian offensive. One option is to launch fidayeen strikes in Kashmir, using small teams of suicide attackers to infiltrate and attack army bases in order to tie troops down. However, since India hasn’t struck across the frontier in Kashmir, such strikes will be of no value. Another option is to fall back, abandon most territory east of the Indus river, and counterattack when Indian lines are overstretched. But this will be possible only in case of a longer war, with India planning to clear and hold territory; it’s useless in the case of a short-duration thrust meant to defeat and humiliate Pakistan and withdraw.
Nor can Pakistan take the risk of trying to absorb a defeat; it knows that this will disastrously weaken the state, and render it unable to resist the various rebellions, from the Balochis to the west to the Pashtuns in the north. If the army loses the battle, the country will collapse and disintegrate. Defeat, therefore, is not an option Pakistan can afford.
It then falls back to its third option – the Bomb.
As part of its arsenal meant to halt an Indian invasion, Pakistan has several mobile batteries of Hatf IX (Nasr) tactical nuclear missiles, with a sixty-kilometre range. These sub-kiloton missiles are battlefield nukes, meant to knock out armoured thrusts; Pakistani strategists think the risk involved in their use within Pakistan’s own territory is acceptable given the alternative.
Two of these batteries – each of four missiles – are ready at Multan Cantonment. By the afternoon of the 31st, by which time it’s clear that the battle of Mirgarh is lost, the two batteries are ordered to move to the south-east. In the early hours of the 1st February, the transporter-erector-launchers and their support vehicles are lying in wait for the Indian armour.
At around the same time, near Lahore, the Indian spearheads finally fight their way to the Icchogil Canal. Engineer outfits quickly span the waterway with bridges, but the offensive across the canal will have to wait until Pakistani forces still hanging on to the east of it are neutralised. The Pakistani army still has defensive positions determinedly holding on to the western bank, but once the Indian armoured brigades break loose from their bridgeheads, the fall of the city will be only a matter of time.
In a bunker somewhere near Rawalpindi, the exact position of which is known to the Pakistani army general staff alone, there is a meeting in which the orders are issued: the fall of Lahore can’t be delayed longer than two days at the most. The final battle is at hand.
The Hatf batteries will launch the first counter-blow. The Pakistani High Command hopes the Indians will get the message that Pakistan is willing to nuke its own territory if required, and withdraw, so that it will also be the last. In case India doesn’t, though, the Pakistanis prepare other options.
At about one in the morning of 1st February, the newly-reinforced Indian armour resumes its thrust northwards towards the Sutlej, the tanks rolling past wrecked and abandoned Pakistani vehicles. The soldiers are well aware that they have broken the enemy’s forces for the moment, and serious resistance is unlikely before they reach the river. Also, after the past two days’ constant fighting, the soldiers are exhausted; despite their own efforts, their energies are flagging and it’s impossible to maintain the same level of alertness as they had managed so far.
At exactly sixteen minutes after two in the morning, the first Hatf battery shoots off its four missiles, and drives away from its firing position as fast as possible to avoid retaliatory fire. Seconds later, the second battery follows suit.
The Indian soldiers, riding in their tanks and armoured personnel carriers with open hatches, savouring the cold night air, don’t have a chance. The warheads, being low-yield sub-kiloton devices, only produce brief flashes of searing light as they explode in the air over the lines of advancing Indian armour, not spectacular mushroom clouds; but they are more than enough. Most of the division is cremated in its tracks, the crew reduced to charred skeletons inside the white-hot hulls of their tanks.
The Indian response:
It has been a night of feverish activity in Delhi. The war is already in its fourth day, and it will have to be concluded, even according to the extended timetable, in three days more. While intense international pressure on the government is growing, it has so far successfully managed to withstand it. The fact that so far not a single Pakistani air raid or missile strike has taken place on Indian soil has also allowed the government to keep public opinion on its side. To be sure, the Pakistanis have been shelling Indian troops in Kashmir, especially in the Kargil sector, and have launched small-scale attacks on the Siachen glacier; but these are mere pinpricks, easily shrugged off. And though PAF planes have made short dashes across the border, they’ve invariably turned tail at the first sight of Indian aircraft.
To the people, therefore, India seems to be obviously winning; already, the TV channels are calling for Pakistan to be completely defeated and at least Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, if not Lahore as well, annexed.
Modi realises that he will have to play a delicate balancing act between what can be achieved and what the public now expects. At all costs, India can’t be seen to have lost the war – not only must Lahore be captured, but it must be made clear that India will withdraw at its own initiative, not in the face of a Pakistani counterattack. He is in the middle of a pre-dawn meeting with defence ministry officials and army generals on the plans for the next days when an urgent message arrives. The armoured thrust towards Multan has been destroyed by Pakistani nuclear missiles.
What exactly followed in the meeting isn’t known, since no records seem to be extant, and the participants are not available for questioning. But from Indian actions afterwards, and knowledge of Modi’s persona and the dilemma he’s faced with, one can make some inferences.
If India retreats in the face of the missile strikes, it will hand the Pakistanis a victory. Obviously, the advance on Multan can’t be resumed within the time left to India; and Lahore is still at least a day away from falling, after which it will take more time to wipe out remaining pockets of resistance. Besides, Indian military doctrine – repeated publicly and often – has been to nuke Pakistani population centres in response even to tactical nuclear use. India can’t back out of that without the government losing an unacceptable amount of face. Also, Modi’s own vengeful psychology won’t allow for withdrawal without first exacting retribution. There is, therefore, no way out for him but to order nuclear strikes against Pakistan.
It’s known that the director of the Indian spy agency, the Research and Analysis Wing, was ordered to join the meeting after the news of the Pakistani nuclear bombs. He will have been asked about the likelihood of Pakistan’s retaliating to an Indian nuclear strike with one of its own. RAW, though, is an agency of historically staggering incompetence, an agency which has repeatedly bent over backwards to please the political leadership while at the same time pursuing mindless initiatives of its own – as when it, most recently, began arming the Pakistani Taliban. The RAW Director will have said what everyone wants to hear – that the Pakistanis will not dare to strike back against an Indian nuclear attack.
The top military officials, whatever their personal feelings, will not have demurred either. Like all Indian generals, they owe their position to political reliability more than anything else, and are also conditioned to unquestioning obedience of the political leadership. The RAW statement will also have let them off the hook, since if things go wrong, it will be the spy agency’s fault, not theirs.
There’s one definite fact to go on – satellite images, taken the previous afternoon, don’t show Pakistani medium and long-range missiles readied for immediate firing. If the enemy does decide on a counter-strike, there should be enough time to detect it and prepare. Delhi is surrounded by batteries of anti-ballistic missiles anyway.
It only remains to choose the timing of the strike, and the target. It’s crucial to hit back as quickly as possible, before international pressure to desist grows so overwhelming that a nuclear strike becomes impossible. As for the target, it’s not realistic to mount an attack on a purely military objective, since the Pakistani forces are concentrated in a mass only before Lahore, too close to the Indians to hit at. Therefore, India will have to nuke a Pakistani city. There are three candidates – Karachi, Multan and Rawalpindi.
The reason Multan is chosen as a target is interesting. Rawalpindi, though the seat of the Pakistani army’s top leadership, is too close to Lahore; fallout from the nuclear explosion might well endanger Indian troops. Besides, the destruction of the city – along with the enemy’s top brass – might disrupt the command system, with officers further down the chain of command hitting back on their own initiative. Karachi is ruled out because, as Pakistan’s largest and most important city, its destruction is almost certain to make it difficult to impossible for the enemy to resist hitting back. Besides, Karachi is far away from the battle front and there’s no way India can justify nuking it to the international community in military terms. That leaves Multan.
Situated in the rough geographical centre of Pakistan, Multan sits astride major communication routes between the north and south of the country, so its destruction will cut Pakistan in two. It’s also home to a large cantonment, a legitimate military target. And, most importantly to Modi, the Pakistanis have used nuclear weapons against Indian forces advancing on Multan, so destroying it will constitute revenge.
Once the strike goes through, and Multan is confirmed destroyed, Modi will go on TV to announce that the Pakistanis have used the Bomb on Indian forces, and justify the destruction of the city; he will also warn Pakistan of total annihilation if they use nuclear weapons again. He orders a speech to be prepared accordingly.
An Indian Prithvi missile carrying a 20-kiloton nuclear warhead – about a third more destructive than the bomb used on Hiroshima – roars into the sky, heading west across the desert.
Dawn is touching the eastern sky. In a few minutes, a second dawn will briefly light up the west.
Multan dies a few minutes after seven, Indian time. The fireball is visible to Indian troops south of Mirgarh, including the tankers who have survived the tactical nuking and are retreating back towards the border. It’s not recorded what they felt.
Modi is due to address the people of India at nine in the morning. By half past eight, the television crews are ready and waiting, and speculation is mounting. Rumours are rife; the commonest is that he will announce the fall of Lahore. Others speculate that the Chinese have attacked India’s northern borders to take the heat off their Pakistani allies. Either way, they all say, whatever Modi will announce will be of extreme importance.
That announcement never takes place.
At seven minutes past the half-hour, Indian radar controllers detect a single Pakistani aircraft approaching fast from the west, at a very low altitude, virtually treetop height. It’s already well within Indian territory when first seen, and is obviously protected by sophisticated electronic jammers. The radar immediately alerts Indian Air Force interceptors of the “bogey’s” course and heading, and MiG-29 pilots at Hindon airbase are ordered to scramble. Just two minutes after the alert, they’re in the air.
Well before they reach the “bogey”, though, the Pakistani pilot is already trying to get away. Rising in a steep turning climb, he banks sharply and is headed back home at nearly twice the speed of sound. The Indian pilots relax slightly, though they keep in pursuit. It’s just another of the PAF’s attempts to keep the Indian fighters off balance by making brief intrusions. Nothing to worry about, really.
They couldn’t be more wrong.
The Pakistani aircraft is an F-16D Block 52+ of No 5 Falcons Squadron, flown by Wing Commander Tauseef Ahmed, one of the PAF’s top pilots. In order to evade detection, Ahmed took off not from his squadron’s airbase at Shahbaz, near Jacobabad, but from a highway west of Lahore, where he’s been waiting since the start of the war. He’s trained and prepared for years for this one mission, and has already completed it successfully long before two Indian air-to-air missiles explode near his tail and send him spiralling down in flames near Amritsar in Indian Punjab. It was already too late to stop him by the time he’d completed his climbing turn.
Slung below the belly of Ahmed’s F-16 was a one-megaton thermonuclear bomb. He armed it just as he began his climb, and pressed the bomb release seconds before he started to bank away. Even as he was rushing back westwards, the bomb was climbing into the sky. As gravity began tugging at it, the weapon slowed, then slowed further, until it finally stalled and began to fall. Describing a perfect parabola, it began its descent over Delhi.
The Destruction of Delhi:
At exactly 0847, Tauseef Ahmed’s bomb reaches its pre-set altitude and explodes low over Connaught Place in Delhi. A flash of actinic light precedes a fireball, which reaches temperatures approaching those at the centre of the sun. Expanding at terrific speed, the fireball strikes the ground, and instantly vaporises everything it touches – earth, concrete, metal, human flesh, all is incinerated in an instant.
The fireball rushes across the city, consuming everything in its path, in a rapidly expanding circle around Delhi’s commercial district. Hotels, roadside stalls, elegant politicians’ residences, the pink sandstone edifice of the Presidential Palace, all turn in a fraction of a second to incandescent dust. A little further off, some of the thicker walls survive, with people leaving shadows of themselves on them as they evaporate. The fireball is preceded by a shock wave, a wall of air moving at the speed of a supersonic jet, which knocks down buildings, people, trees and vehicles with equal impartiality, and sends smashed concrete and glass whistling through the air at lethal velocities, shattering bones and slicing through arteries.
As the fireball slows, the air above it, heated to solar temperatures, rises, taking along with it the ashes of everything vaporised by the flash. A column of superheated air ascends into the upper atmosphere, till it finally begins to cool. As it does, the water vapour in it condenses, mixing with the dust and ash, and spreads out in the cooler upper air, forming a cloud. The rising column of air below, now stained with smoke and soot, as well as vapour, is a tether connecting it to the ground. From a distance, it looks like a titanic mushroom.
Like a gigantic, evil monster, writhing in torment, the mushroom cloud rears its head over the destroyed city.
As the fireball dies out, the winds begin. Rushing back to fill the space cleared by the column of superheated air and the shock wave, the winds fan the thousands of fires now breaking out all over the shattered city, and combine them together into a swirling wall of flame. Within twenty minutes of the bomb’s explosion – when Ahmed and his fighter already occupy a smoking crater in a wheat field near Amritsar – the fire has created its own weather system, sucking in air from all directions. A firestorm roars across the city, consuming everything in its path. By the time it burns itself out, nothing will remain but a field of ashes and ruins.
Later in the day, as the fires finally begin to burn themselves out, the irradiated dust from the first explosion begins to descend, in a plume over north-west India. Those it touches will know of their misfortune only much later, as their hair begins to fall out and their guts cramp in agonising spasms. By then, it will be much too late.
Delhi is dead, along with most of the Indian government and the top command of the armed forces; but the horror is just beginning.
Now that the war is over, and the governments on both sides which caused it are history, it is probably of little benefit to go into the details of the nuclear exchange which followed over the next two days, with detailed description of each strike and counter-strike. Suffice it to say that both governments and high commands ceased to exist early on the 1st February, and after that it was left to lower-level officers to carry out attacks at their own initiative. The destruction of Multan and Delhi was followed by nuclear bombs over Karachi, Rawalpindi, Islamabad, Quetta, Hyderabad and Gwadar in Pakistan; and Ahmedabad, Ludhiana, Jalandhar, Surat, Agra and Kanpur in India. Mumbai was destroyed too, though not directly – a long range nuclear missile struck the Trombay atomic reactor, sending a cloud of lethal radiation over the city. It was the last nuclear attack of the war.
All the India strikes were carried out by ballistic missiles. Pakistan uses a mix of toss-bombing raids similar to Ahmed’s attack on Delhi, followed by missile strikes as they run out of pilots trained in the technique. Not a single attack on either side is intercepted by the respective defences, as far as is known.
The skies over both nations are soon black with drifting smoke and dust, and lethal radiation falls over the plains like malevolent, invisible, snow. The loss of medical facilities, concentrated within cities in both nations, dooms the people of the countryside to death by radiation poisoning and cancer; what international aid there is arrives far too late to help anyone.
The legacy of Armageddon:
One of the most destructive features of the nuclear exchange was that the weapons were almost all set as groundbursts, with the fireballs from the explosions touching the ground. This limited the immediate area of damage, but lifted enormous amounts of irradiated dust into the air, which later came down in lethal fallout. To this day, the survivors of the carnage in what remains of Northern India and Pakistan have extremely high levels of cancer, and they have almost stopped reproducing owing to the enormous levels of mutations among the children.
By the time Trombay was destroyed, late in the morning of 3rd February, the war was already over in all but name. Lahore had fallen on the afternoon of the 2nd, but nobody cared about it by then. The soldiers were no longer shooting at each other – both sides were trying desperately to find shelter from each other’s missiles.
How many people were killed in the nuclear exchange is impossible to compute – guesses range from eighteen to twenty million Indians and eleven to sixteen million Pakistanis by various estimates. The actual total will never be known, because the death toll keeps rising to this day. To the deaths from the bombs themselves and the radiation must be added the millions of casualties from the famines which still sweep across northern India and all of Pakistan, where agriculture has all but ceased; and since medical facilities in South Asia are all concentrated in the cities, millions more must have died, and are still dying, of otherwise treatable diseases, including of the epidemics that afflict both nations owing to the total breakdown of sanitation.
Nor is the dying confined to Indians and Pakistanis. Borne on high altitude winds, the fallout covers South Asia, from eastern Iran, southern Afghanistan, all of Nepal, till it touches western Bhutan and the fringes of Bangladesh. Some of it crosses the Himalayas and taints the high plains of western Tibet. Some of the dust and smoke particles are still in the atmosphere now, and will be for many years to come.
The war wasn’t ended by surrender on either side, or by international intervention. In fact, international intervention wouldn’t have done any good, because by evening on 1st February there wasn’t any government on either side to intervene with. The war burned itself out when neither side was able to hit out at the other any longer.
So obvious it was that both sides had lost that there was no TV channel in India which even tried to claim victory.
Pakistan virtually ceased to exist. That it didn’t completely disintegrate can be credited to one man. Arsalan Ghumman, whom Nawaz Sharif had imprisoned early in January, was released from custody at the end of the war, and took over the reins of what was left of the country. Over the next months, he travelled over all of Pakistan, supervising relief efforts, setting up local administrations, and co-ordinating the distribution of international aid. He diverted the rump Pakistani army from the Indian front to rescue and relief efforts, with combat operations restricted to putting down jihadist outbreaks in the north and west. Even with all his efforts, he was left with a ruined, devastated nation, which has to this day not begin to recover from the war and probably never shall.
India, despite its much larger size, did little better. Most of its industrial base had been wiped out with the destruction of Mumbai and Ahmedabad, Kanpur and Ludhiana; and with the end of the central government, the country rapidly began to unravel. State after state in the north-east of the country declared independence, and had to be forcibly pacified by military units stationed there, which massacred tens of thousands. Kashmir – over which India and Pakistan had shed so much blood – was blanketed by radiation raining down from both sides. Neither India nor Pakistan was any longer either able to or interested in claiming it, so the people were left to their fate.
As law and order collapsed, the nation began to disintegrate into a conglomeration of city-states and mini-fiefdoms, each jealously hanging on to its resources. Finally, a right-wing military dictatorship led by a junta of colonels took over, with the southern Indian city of Hyderabad (not to be confused with the destroyed Pakistani city of the same name) as its seat of government. It still remains in power, though there isn’t much to rule over any more; its authority runs only in the large cities, and that only during the day. The night belongs to the criminal gangs.
Delhi, though it remains India’s notional capital, has not, as of this writing, been re-occupied. It remains a sea of ashes and charred ruins. Mumbai is slowly picking itself up, though it’s still a shadow of what it once was. There’s nothing left of the other destroyed cities.
The silence of the “international community” was deafening. Once the nuclear exchange had started, it made not the slightest effort to do anything but watch in horrified fascination as the two countries destroyed each other. Only much later was a trickle of aid organised, and then it made little difference because, with communications in the nuked areas utterly destroyed, little of it ever reached the intended recipients anyway.
To this day nobody knows just who set off the car bombs which started off the whole thing in the first place. There never was a proper investigation, not that it really matters any longer.
Operation Revenge is over.
(Note to reader: This account of the India-Pakistan War of 2019 is not meant to be a prophecy. Call it, instead, a warning – and a cry for peace, while we still can achieve it.)