Asia — Limited War and Escalation in South Asia

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.

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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.

Team GlobDef

Team GlobDef

Seit 2001 ist GlobalDefence.net im Internet unterwegs, um mit eigenen Analysen, interessanten Kooperationen und umfassenden Informationen für einen spannenden Überblick der Weltlage zu sorgen. GlobalDefenc.net war dabei die erste deutschsprachige Internetseite, die mit dem Schwerpunkt Sicherheitspolitik außerhalb von Hochschulen oder Instituten aufgetreten ist.

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