After the 1999 Kargil conflict, India introduced the notion of a limited war which can be fought and won despite nuclear deterrence. Indian Defence Minister Fernandes spoke on January 5, 2000, at a seminar, “Challenges of Limited War: Parameters and Options,” organised by the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) in New Delhi. In his address Fernandes stated:
They [Pakistan] held out a nuclear threat to us on May 31, 1999 and did it again yesterday without absorbing the real meaning of nuclearisation, that it can deter only the use of nuclear weapons, but not conventional war. … The issue is not that war has been made obsolete by nuclear weapons … but that conventional war remained feasible.
Fernandes repeated this view at another seminar conducted by the IDSA later in January 2000. At the same seminar, the Indian Chief of Army Staff, General Malik, added to this perspective by saying limited war can erupt any time. He went on to say that India would have to remain operationally prepared for the entire spectrum of war — from proxy war to an all out war … Strategy adopted for Kargil, including the Line of Control constraints, may not be applicable in the next war. In all limited wars the only commonality would be the national aim and objectives.
These statements raised serious doubts about the understanding of the limited war concept amongst the Indian leadership. As Raja Mohan pointed out at the time, such statements revived concerns about South Asia as a nuclear flash point. Mohan concluded: “It is in India‘s interest to elaborate in greater detail, its compulsions in adopting a strategy to fight a limited war and commitments to maintain nuclear restraint.” The ill-informed references to limited war by Fernandes and General Malik also drew a sharp response from other Indian strategic analysts”.
As if in response to criticism about Indian limited war policy, in October 2000 the IDSA elaborated on the meaning of limited war as understood by the Indian leadership. The IDSA journal, Strategic Analysis, carried an article by IDSA Director Jasjit Singh on the subject. Singh argued that “it is necessary to define … what we mean by limited war. The context is of regular military operations by a state against regular military of another state.”
The article then recommended that air power should be the primary means of forcing results in a limited war, owing to its capability to strike targets of critical importance at will. Superiority in the air, then, would be the key factor in deterring limited war. This explanation, however, creates more questions than it answers about the belief that a war between two nuclear adversaries can be kept limited, without a mutual understanding to do so. Studies during the Cold War and analysis of results from the many war games conducted by other nuclear powers have indicated that such restraint would be a near impossibility. Even in the much smaller 1999 Kargil conflict, India started moving its major military formations towards their battle locations and its navy had put out to sea westwards towards Pakistan. In response to these steps, Pakistan had warned of a nuclear response, if the conflict widened. The less than limited conflict in Kargil displayed the potential to turn a small war into a wider military conflict with the potential to reach the nuclear threshold.
Nuclear reality between India and Pakistan is therefore of an uncertain quality. It is neither based on deterrence stability, nor on a desire to seek it. Pakistan appears to seek continued deterrence instability as a means of pressure aimed at achieving its desired political outcome in Kashmir
India and Pakistan fought three wars before they declared themselves nuclear weapon states. These wars of 1948, 1965 and 1971 were fought with the full military power available to the two nations. They were fought without the appellation of either total or limited or general wars. The overt introduction of nuclear weapons on the subcontinent in 1998, quickly followed by the conflict in Kargil in 1999, forced Indian political and military leaders to assess the new dynamic of conflict with Pakistan. Indian leaders believe that in the Kargil conflict, Pakistan demonstrated its willingness to test the limits of military restraint placed on India by nuclear weapons. From this perspective, Pakistan worked on the assumption that India would not be able to resort to a general war in the face of a possible nuclear retaliation. The Indian response to Pakistani action in Kargil, which included not crossing the Line of Control and consequently accepting very high casualties in clearing the Kargil heights of militants, may have reinforced this Pakistani belief. The Indian political and military leadership, on the other hand, have obviously convinced themselves that a war can be fought and won without crossing the nuclear threshold. The assumptions behind these beliefs are not only unclear but they also underestimate the risks of nuclear escalation inherent in an Indian-Pakistani military conflict. While there is a divide between military contingency planning and political authorisation for the implementation of such plans, there is no assurance that restraint will prevail in a future conflict under conditions in which one side feels forced to act in the face of grave provocation or military losses as in Kargil.
The nature of limited war
At this point, it is worthwhile to examine the concept of limited war as it has been traditionally understood. The Indian understanding of the issue is better grasped in the light of the substantial body of thought on limited war that appeared at the height of the US-Soviet nuclear stand-off during Cold War. This literature on limited war grew in the aftermath of the Korean War. The United States had entered that war with the predominant experience of total war. Its military doctrine was based on total victory. However, in Korea, the United States found that neither the use of total force nor total victory were feasible. The arrival of nuclear weapons had changed the nature of war.
Four major themes concerning limited war emerged from the debate that followed and continued into the 1960s. First, there was the question of limited objectives. Bernard Brodie, in widely quoted writings, made the essential argument that weapons of unlimited capacity had made it necessary to find some way to fight without using the full military power which was then at hand. He went on to add that regardless of the need to limit warfare, it would be impossible to do so, unless both Americans and Russians agreed on the concept of war limitation. Robert Osgood and Henry Kissinger both defined limited war as having limited political objectives. They argued that local wars could stay limited if both adversaries had well-defined political objectives.
The second theme in the limited war debate concerned possible limits on resources to be applied in war. Should war be fought for unlimited objectives or for limited objectives with unlimited resources? The first was unlikely to gain victory as in Korea and the other was counter-productive in the response it might evoke from a nuclear adversary. The third theme concerned the role of bargaining with the adversary, in arriving at limits for limited war. This point implied that either before, or certainly during the limited war, the two sides would have to settle on the limits to which they would pursue their objectives. One of the earliest writers on the subject was Thomas Schelling. He made the persuasive argument that the limiting points or “saliencies” should be distinct and known to the adversaries. Examples would be geographical limits or on the kind of weapons to be used.
The fourth theme concerned the relationship between limited war as the instrument and the desire to achieve the goals of arms control. Kissinger’s famous comment that limited war provides a middle road between stalemate and total victory was a dominant theme for some time. A critique of this thinking came from Albert Wohlstetter. He argued that fighting a limited war significantly increases the likelihood of total war through escalation and he cautioned against the use of nuclear weapons. Limited war, he thought, was neither likely to be short nor small. It could prove protracted and require the mobilisation of significant national resources. This pattern would tend to escalate the conflict into unpredictable dimensions and generate an escalatory spiral leading to a nuclear exchange.
In the 1970s, after the Vietnam War ended, ideas about limited war again surfaced. Robert Osgood believed winning the Vietnam War was beyond US capabilities. Osgood felt that the perceived national security needs of the United States became more sweeping and generalised than US vital interests warranted … The doctrine of limited war not only exaggerated the efficacy and underestimated the costs [of conflict] … but also exaggerated the US security interests and the nature of threat to them.
Osgood pointed out that while rapid escalation to win the war would probably risk wider conflict, gradual escalation would involve the United States in a protracted and costly war. He offered no solutions, but effectively pointed out the fallacy of getting into the Vietnam War without a clear purpose. Perhaps the most important analysis of Vietnam came from Harry G Summers. Summers’ main argument concerning limited war was that in Korea, while the United States limited its objectives, it did not limit its means to attain those objectives. It used every resource available other than nuclear weapons. On the other hand, in Vietnam, the United States reversed the equation and consequently paid the price of a long war and eventual defeat.
Robert Osgood and Henry Kissinger both defined limited war as having limited political objectives. They argued that local wars could stay limited if both adversaries had well-defined political objectives
That raises the question of how to define victory in limited war. If victory is negotiable, constraints would have to be placed on the operational needs of the military. These constraints can have serious consequences, if limited military operations are perceived as weakness by the opponent. Such constraints can also lead to ineffective application of military force. On the other hand, the idea of limited war reflects the principle that war continues to be an instrument of policy, in which the primacy of political purpose remains paramount. Victory in such circumstances cannot therefore be defined in military terms, even as the military remains the more visible and dramatic instrument of policy.
The fact remains, however, that limited war is not yet a fully developed idea, even at the turn of the 21st century. In many countries, the military does not like the restrictions imposed on military operations, while political leadership has few ideas on how a given conflict can be kept limited. The reality of limited war is that the limits set on it make it difficult to gain a military victory and war termination without a victory closely resembles a defeat.
Indo-Pak limited war
Limited wars can be limited in more than one way. First, setting limits on political and military objectives will certainly limit the war substantially. Second, geographic limits on the war zone can limit the war to specific areas. Third, war can also be limited by placing restrictions on the type of weapons to be used. Such a limit would reassure the adversary about controlling possible escalation. Fourth, a time limit can be placed on the war by stating that military operations can be called off when the adversary complies with certain demands. It is worth noting that the wars that India and Pakistan fought in the past exhibited, with one exception, none of these limits. The exception was India’s terminating the 1971 war immediately after Pakistan’s forces laid down arms in Bangladesh. In previous wars, India has reserved and exercised the right to take the battle into Pakistani territory in response to an attack on Jammu and Kashmir. The Indian Air Force has attacked targets deep into Pakistan as part of that policy just as Indian strike corps attacked and seized territory in Pakistan’s Punjab and Sindh provinces. All available resources, including the navy, were employed in the previous Indian-Pakistani wars. All weapon systems were utilised. Neither country imposed a time ceiling on the war. Neither side threatened civilian populations while the wars were fought. A significant factor in these conflicts, however, was that neither country posed an existential threat to the survival of the other. The overt acquisition of nuclear weapons by India and Pakistan has altered the context of military conflict between them. It has substantially raised the threat of a nuclear conflict, if another war is fought by the two countries.
How would the political and military leadership in India and Pakistan plan and conduct limited war against each other? Can they unilaterally limit political and operational objectives? The answers to these questions remain uncertain, as one side’s limited political and military objectives could be viewed as unlimited and unacceptable by the other. If a nuclear first strike from Pakistan is to be avoided after a limited war is begun, how are Indian political and military saliencies to be conveyed? If Pakistan wishes to avoid escalating a limited conflict with a nuclear strike, how would it cope with an outcome which is militarily or politically unfavourable? Indicating the geographical limits of war would detract greatly from operational needs, while identifying political limits will allow the adversary to better plan his response. Under these circumstances, how would victory be quantified in political and military terms?
In Kargil, a conflict on much smaller scale than a limited war, India was able to define its geographic salience by announcing that its forces would not cross the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir. That immediately placed serious limits on operational plans. It forced a high casualty rate on the Indian Army. A number of former senior military officers were publicly critical of the government’s self-imposed limitation at the cost of military casualties. This criticism placed the government under pressure and it started moving its major combat forces to operational locations, as preparation for widening the conflict, if it became necessary. That in turn placed the Pakistani military leadership under pressure. The escalation ladder had thus been placed against the wall. It was fortuitous that the Kargil conflict ended when it did. It is true that the conflict ended by a combination of graduated military measures taken by India, which placed the Pakistani leadership in an increasingly untenable position. But it was also equally likely that a beleaguered Pakistani leadership could have perceived the situation as one warranting extreme decisions.
How to define victory in limited war? If victory is negotiable, constraints would have to be placed on the operational needs of the military. These constraints can have serious consequences, if limited military operations are perceived as weakness by the opponent. Such constraints can also lead to ineffective application of military force
At the moment, both official pronouncements and published doctrine fail to clarify how the two sides will limit a future conventional war. There is also no perceptible change from past patterns in Indian and Pakistani approaches to fighting a conventional war. The way the two countries fought previous wars throws some light on how any future conflicts might unfold and suggests how they could escalate to the nuclear threshold.