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.


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.