Historic tensions between India and Pakistan have heightened in recent months due to anti-government protests in Indian-controlled Kashmir, raising the prospect of nuclear conflict.

The situation came to a head on Sunday after a militant attack on an Indian military base in the region left at least 18 soldiers dead. India has blamed the attack on Pakistan, eliciting an angry response from its neighbor, and there is a real possibility of conflict between the two nuclear-armed nations.

india and pakistan kashmir war
Image: Pakistan and India’s Flag.

Who would win a nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan?

As India analyzes how best to respond to the attack on its military base, some figures in the national press are calling for revenge. However it seems likely that Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities will ultimately dissuade New Delhi from any attack.

Looking at the Arms Control Association (ACA) fact sheet for nuclear weapons, we can analyze which of the nations has the stronger nuclear arsenal. According to ACA estimates, Pakistan in fact has a higher number of nuclear warheads than India. Experts believe that Pakistan has 110-130 nuclear warheads, while India has 100-120.

This data is echoed by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) data, which publishes the same figures. The report also says that both countries continue to expand their nuclear arsenals in terms of the number of warheads and missile delivery capabilities.

“Despite the ongoing reduction in the number of weapons, the prospects for genuine progress towards nuclear disarmament remain gloomy,” comments Shannon Kile, Head of the SIPRI Nuclear Weapons Project. “All the nuclear weapon-possessing states continue to prioritize nuclear deterrence as the cornerstone of their national security strategies.”

Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal growing fast

At this point in time it appears that neither country has deployed any warheads. Instead they are maintaining them de-mated from missiles, with warheads in a central storage facility.

Interestingly India’s nuclear warfare policy is built on a No First-Use (NFU) doctrine. In contrast Pakistan has not adopted an NFU doctrine, although it has indicated a reluctance to make a first nuclear strike.

As things stand Pakistan is on course to have the third-largest nuclear weapons stockpile in the world, according to a research report from two think tanks based in the United States. “Pakistan operates four plutonium production reactors; India operates one. Pakistan has the capability to produce perhaps 20 nuclear warheads annually; India appears to be producing about five warheads annually,” the study notes.

Islamabad could command third-largest nuclear arsenal within 10 years

The report, which came out in 2015, notes that Pakistan could “have a nuclear arsenal not only twice the size of India’s but also larger than those of the United Kingdom, China, and France, giving it the third-largest arsenal behind the United States and Russia.”

“Many observers have concluded that Pakistan’s rate of fissile material production (and assumed construction of nuclear weapons) gives it the fastest-growing nuclear weapons stockpile,” the report continues.

The 2015 Carnegie Endowment for International Peace/Stimson Center report shows that Pakistan is using more of its fissile material to make weapons than India.

India has about 600 kilograms of plutonium stockpiled, while Pakistan has about 170 kilograms of plutonium and 3.1 metric tons of highly-enriched uranium (HEU). If we assume that one nuclear warhead would need 5 kilograms of plutonium or 15 kilograms of HEU, India could make 120 weapons with its existing stockpile, compared to 240 for Pakistan.

India ramps up rhetoric against Pakistan

At the same time India has an advantage in terms of plutonium stockpiles. Less plutonium is required to make a fission bomb than HEU. As a result plutonium warheads are lighter and better for use with ballistic missiles.

In the existing atmosphere of heightened tension the rhetoric from India has escalated in its aggression. Indian Home Minister Rajnath Singh called Pakistan a ‘terrorist state’ during an anti-Pakistan rant after hearing news of the deadly militant attack, and India accuses its neighbor of masterminding the attack.

Singh said that “there are definite and conclusive indications that the perpetrators of the Uri attack were highly trained, heavily armed and specially equipped.”

“I am deeply disappointed with Pakistan’s continued and direct support to terrorism and terrorist groups,” he said.

Pakistan ready to respond to any threat

For its part Pakistan has underlined its military preparedness and its willingness to counter any attack from India, according to a report from The News. Sources claim that although Pakistan will not make the first attack, it would retaliate with full force if attacked by India.

The sources also maintained that Indians would not be allowed to cross the red line. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is currently in the U.S. at the United Nations General Assembly, where he will try to convince the international community that the problems in Kashmir are India’s fault. He has also discussed the situation with Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Raheel Sharif.

Pakistani sources maintain that India has blamed the country for its involvement on the army base in Uri without undertaking a proper investigation. Pakistan continues to deny the claims.

General Raheel also underlined that the Pak Army would respond to any challenge from India. “Pakistan’s armed forces together with their resilient nation have surmounted every challenge and will thwart any sinister design against integrity and sovereignty of the country in future as well,” the COAS said.

Pakistan maintains that India is trying to cover up alleged human rights abuses in Kashmir. Since anti-India protests broke out earlier this year there have been 80 reported deaths in the region, most of them anti-government protesters.