Who will win in an India versus Pakistan nuclear and non-nuclear war?

Hi Cecil,

I have done a lot of reading on the subject question but am not able to get a well calculated answer. Thought I should turn to the smartest man on Earth. Well, given the current strengths and weaknesses of both India and Pakistan (excluding nuclear power), if an all out - last man standing - apocalyptic war breaks out; who will win and how? Also, if one of the countries get an itch and decide to go nuclear, what will happen then? How will the events turn out and who wins? Who survives?

Nobody wins a nuclear war.

On a less glib note, if we could rule out the use of nuclear weapons (which would pretty much destroy both civilizations, leaving scattered groups of survivors scrabbling to continue to survive in the irradiated aftermath), I would hazard a guess that a conventional war would go something like the Iran-Iraq war where casualties on both sides were high and horrible (especially when you consider how things have gone in the Kashmir thus far). Assuming the “keep throwing bodies at the enemy until someone wins” strategy continues India would eventually win but at a high cost, and would struggle to retain any territorial gains as jihadists (including those from other countries) conducted an ongoing guerilla campaign indefinitely.

If you want to factor in allies (and particularly the US) into the picture it gets even messier, but since you’ve posited an “all out - last man standing - apocalyptic war” it all depends where the US decides its loyalties lie in the end.


India has traditionally done very well in standard combat against Pakistan.

In a protracted war, India would “win” in a certain sense. They would defeat all organized Pakistani forces out in the open they would face. But they would not be able to conquer and control the whole country. (Nor would they want to.) Even taking, and holding, the remainder of Kashmir would be a problem, given the terrain and the militancy of the local population.

India’s goal in conventional war with Pakistan is to clearly demonstrate that they are superior and therefore convince Pakistan to agree to a ceasefire and not stir anything up for a while.

I don’t think a nuclear war would wipe out either country to any major extent. India has far too many major urban centers. Pakistan couldn’t hope to knock very many out with their current supply of weapons, even if delivery was perfect. (Which it won’t be.)

Pakistan has fewer major cities, in particular too much is concentrated in and around Karachi. So India could really hurt Pakistan’s central government. But that still leaves a lot of people and territory untouched.

Again, Pakistan takes any truce offer India offers (via the UN) and little to no territory is gained.

I know the Pak Army Staff College ran an exersize to see the longest a war could last without turning nuclear. The longest they got? 11 days.

As for a conventional war, the Iran-Iraq war is not an apt comparison (and neither are “Jihadis”). The number of troops on either side are fairly small for what is a 2000 mile plus border, both sides have large urban centers a few dozen km from the border and have industries to back up the forces, unlike Iraq/Iran.

I love the whole idea of “getting an itch” for inflicting a nuclear holocaust onto the world - it’s just one of those niggling things you need to do around 4 on a Sunday.

India spends 46 billion a year on their military with 1.1 million active army members.
Pakistan spends 6 billion a year on their military with 0.55 million active army members.

In a conventional war India has the advantage in money, numbers and available depth for both strategic retreats and maintaining links to the world outside the immediate conflict zone. Pakistan has to defend both Karachi and Gwadar from blockade/bombing while Indian has numerous ports available outside of the reach of Pakistan’s navy. There is basically no way for Pakistan to win a conventional war and highlights why they’ve elected to use insurgents/terrorists to pin prick India.

A problem here is if India ever manages to respond fast enough to be able to punish Pakistan before other powers can step in and calm thing down. For Pakistan, poking India and having a couple of weeks to find a fig leaf is wildly different from poking India and watching tens of thousands of army guys pushing you border in under 48 hours. That would be a very naked place to be.

The difference in military capabilities means Pakistan would be pushed back and then would almost have to use their nuclear forces, which means India has to retaliate. Assuming each country only manages to use a third of their nuclear stockpile we wind up with 60 odd smoking craters dotting the subcontinent. Megadeath with no winners.

Read up about the 1987 and 2002 deployments if you ever are bored or have time. the problem for India is the relatively small number of troops available versus the area that has to be covered. If they attempt to concentrate overwhelming forces in one region, they end up denuding some other area leaving that ripe for a counter strike (1987). At the same time if India raises the stakes first, the size of India means that it takes several weeks to full mobilise while Pakistan takes days and India exposes itself to an enemy with local superiority and interior lines at least until forces can be built up(2002). Moreover, India has to at all times commit a significant forces to the China border, while Pakistan can concentrate most of its forces to battle in the East.

Pakistan’s primary disadvantage is the exposed position of some of its larger cities, Sialkot, Gujranwala, Lahore, Faisalabad. This is also Pakistan’s Industrial heartland. This necessitates a forward defence strategy in the central region. While Lahore and Faisalabad have rivers and a very large Canal system for defence, the former two cities don’t.

India’s inability to maintain control over its territorial gains would likely be offset by its ability to (eventually) establish air superiority (though Pakistan’s air force is much closer in size in numerical terms to India’s than its ground forces.) Remember, this is an “all out” war so you don’t necessarily need to hold population centers; bombing them into oblivion is presumably okay too.

Like the Pakistani command staff, I see no way to avoid nuclear escalation. At that point, the only “winners” are Indians who live in the extreme south and east of the country - because everyone else will be dead.

Re: Nobody wins a nuclear war.

This. Particularly in densely populated countries like India and Pakistan, the human cost would be horrific.

Re: At that point, the only “winners” are Indians who live in the extreme south and east of the country - because everyone else will be dead.

Yes, this.

I would guess that there’s a good chance that the south and east might take advantage of the crisis to secede, blaming the war on nutty Hindu nationalists in the north.

Huh? The south and east are (mostly) more Hindu-dominated than the north.

Not politically, no. The Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has only ever had one state government in the south of India - in Karnataka, in 2007 (very briefly) and then from 2011 to 2013. Compare that with, say Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand and Chattisgarh - all very strongly Hindi-speaking states in the centre, north and west of the country, where the BJP has had multiple governments over multiple full terms. These are also states with large populations, which skews the political demographic even further.


Running down that list of states that they have been in power in, the only eastern or southern states are Karnakata and Arunachal Pradesh, both of which they subsequently lost. The south of India tends to be dominated by smaller regional parties, and less so by the BJP / Congress, though of course they do have a presence.

Look at this map of current BJP state governments - their strength is very much in the Hindi-speaking north and west of the country.


Even looking at the demographics, eastern India has for a long time been the most Christian-dominated area of the country, and I believe that Christians are a majority in some north-eastern states.

Hindu-dominated in terms of demographics, I mean. Karnataka (to pick one example) is 11% Muslim, versus, say, Maharashtra which is 16% Muslim.

True, but the Hindu nationalists that Hector_St_Clare is referring to have much more of a stronghold in the north and west. Hindu-dominated in terms of demographics doesn’t mean that Hindu nationalism dominates politics, which is the point he or she is making, I believe.

The politics of secession are much more important than the demographics, IMHO, though I don’t personally think that the south would secede even in the very unlikely event of a nuclear war. To begin with, it’s not really all that far to Pakistan and there wouldn’t be any guarantee that either bombs or fallout wouldn’t reach the south. Historically, the armed forces have been more of a unifying influence in the country than a divisive one, so any movement towards secession would be firmly discouraged. Of course, this is all speculation - I hope it never becomes more than that.

Well, that’s why I didn’t mention BJP influence, since as far as I know (and admittedly I’ve never lived in India and haven’t followed Indian politics that closely) the BJP has never espoused a secessionist policy; quite the opposite, in fact.

Even 100 nuclear weapons isn’t going to make a dent in Northern India’s population. It is a gross over-statement to assume that one warhead kills everyone in a city and everyone around it. Especially at the likely size of Indian and Pakistani weapons.

I strongly suspect that an all out war between India and Pakistan versus the somewhat more limited wars in the past, will quickly become regional. China, in case of a non nuke conflict, will surely be tempted to grab the bit of India they have been eyeing and if it goes mushroom clouds, will not tolerate a Nuclear exchange on its borders. This opens the door for all kinds of problems.

Even if China does nothing, serious questions remain. What opportunities do the militants on Pakistan’s western border see when the military is preoccupied with India? What happens in Kashmir? Will India be able to remain a unified, democratic State?

That said, I doubt that India and Pakistan are going to war anytime soon, both Governments have a lot on their plate at the moment and probably have little to gain in an all out war. A Nuclear exchange I find less likely as there is even less to gain and a lot more to lose. I hope that both sides realize the a nuke war cannot be contained and feasibly would drag in much of the world.

That all is MHO and YMMV.

Straight up, toe to toe, conventional war. India wins but at a terrible cost.


At the risk of someone doing a “Here, let me google that for you”, can someone summarize what the strategic objective of an Indo-Pakistani war would be for each side? I’m aware that the Kashmir is a territory they would both like to have, but otherwise, do they want to take over all of each other’s territory, or what? Economic dominance of the region? Religious tension? Or all of the above?

How would Pakistan take advantage of that? Does it have the ability to invade India somewhere other than across its land border?

I know diddly-squat about the specifics of the two sides, but…

Good point - there is very little access to the outside world for Pakistan if India blockaded their ports - mined harbours, submarines (I assume India has some) and fleet blockade. Of course, the USA might want to play chicken with an India air blockade -maybe twenty years ago, but today?

What are the delivery methods (missile I presume?) and the defenses? What is the believed arsenal of nuclear weapons for each country? These things are not cheap an simple, I suspect neither country has a lot, nor are they big? Ploughshares.org guesses about 110-120 per side. How reliable are the missiles?

India probably would have the Iraq problem… You can take the territory, but can you hold it? Especially against a bunch of jihadists with primitive weapons but suicidal tendencies. You think Syria or Iraq/Iran between Shiite and Sunni is bad, wait til they all have the chance to take on polytheistic heathens.

Presumably then India would concentrate on destruction rather than conquest (“I am become Shiva…”) and simply do as much damage to the Pakistani infrastructure as possible. It seems to me that a lot more of Pakistan is close to India than percent of India that is close to Pakistan, so unless Pakistan’s air force or missile system is incredibly better, Pakistan is more vulnerable.