The phrase “offensive defence” sums up the approach India adopted in past wars with Pakistan. This approach involved a strong defensive line in areas of importance, with adequate forces to break up enemy forces that might manage to penetrate the defenses. These formed the dissuasive elements of the force structure. They comprised infantry divisions for control of territory, mechanised infantry for shifting positional operations like counter-penetration and some tank elements for counter-attack operations. In addition, substantial forces have been created that are equipped to conduct offensive operations in enemy territory. These consist of armoured forces and supporting infantry, with strong artillery support. The Indian Air Force favours the Second World War approach of winning the air war before coming in to fully support the ground war. As the official Indian Air Force doctrine states, “in the doctrine of the Air Force, the fight for control of air or air superiority gets first priority in every case.” According to some Indian defence analysts, this doctrine reflects “conceptual confusion between ‘favourable air situation’ and ‘air superiority.’” The sequential development in Indian Air Force doctrine of air operations through the ladder of counterair operations, interdiction operations and finally in support of ground operations has led to inadequate synergy in the conduct of war. It has also meant the Indian Air Force conducting operations deep inside Pakistan, while land forces objectives were more limited.
The basis of Indian Army’s planning is to “await in a defensive posture the start of a war by Pakistan. After Pakistan … had launched its offensive, a multipronged Indian offensive would be launched.”
Pakistan has fought previous wars with India by taking to the offensive first. These offensives were led by its air force striking at Indian airfields. Its overall plan always included a substantial military offensive in Jammu and Kashmir. This offensive included both conventional military offensives and large-scale infiltration by irregular forces into and behind Indian positions. Pakistan also launched airborne forces behind Indian lines in an attempt to disrupt communications and command facilities. Seizing territory was and remains the criteria for success. In the scenario of a future Indian-Pakistani war, a victory for Pakistan would mean the seizure of land and it would be logical for the Pakistan Air Force to wrap its operations around the land plan. In all its wars with India, there was a major operational emphasis by Pakistan on severing communications links between Jammu and Kashmir to rest of India. The Indian response, not unexpectedly, was both violent and extensive.
The emphasis on a ground offensive defines the operational doctrine of both India and Pakistan. In the past, Pakistan used its air power to support the ground offensive while the Indian Air Force used its superiority to cripple Pakistani military facilities, including air bases deep inside Pakistan. The defining emphasis on offense by both sides is the central pattern of their previous wars. This pattern is unlikely to change in a future war. Indian plans are firmly based on taking a future war into all Pakistani territory, even if the conflict commences in Jammu and Kashmir. This almost existential response reflects both the military and political principles of Indian planning. Since 1965, when Indian forces crossed the international border to take the war into Pakistan’s Punjab province, an attack on Jammu and Kashmir has invoked the doctrine of an Indian military response against Pakistani territory outside Jammu and Kashmir. Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine of first use in the event of Indian conventional attack explicitly anticipates this eventuality. If vital Pakistani territory were taken by an Indian offensive, Pakistan could retaliate by initiating first use of nuclear weapons. Indian restraint in not crossing the Line of Control during the Kargil conflict reflects Indian awareness of this nuclear reality. As a result, considering the need to avert a nuclear first strike from Pakistan, future Indian operational doctrine can be expected to aim at seizing vital Pakistani territory in the earliest phase of a future war, before a Pakistani decision to escalate could be made. This strategy could, however, inadvertently encourage a more rapid — and possibly less considered — nuclear response from Pakistan. Indian attempts to avoid a nuclear attack from Pakistan, by attaining military objectives with a powerful and rapid offensive, could in fact hasten a Pakistani nuclear response.
Wars are not generally started casually or by a cavalier attitude about the possible consequences. This observation applies equally to India and Pakistan. The possibility of a war has been dismissed by Indian and Pakistani political leaders, as discussed above. It has also been discounted by some outside observers. In a 1997 study of stability in South Asia, RAND analyst Ashley Tellis characterised the situation as one of “ugly stability.” The RAND study based its conclusion on the inability of the two countries to obtain a decisive outcome through a conventional military conflict. Nevertheless, the study cautioned that “ugly stability” could collapse if Pakistan were affected by an internal power struggle and if the Indian quest for great power status were to make good progress. This situation could “unnerve Pakistan and cause it to initiate military action — as it did in 1965 — to secure out-standing territorial claims before it is too late.” The study also noted what it termed the “implausible” possibility of India embarking on a war to “solve the Pakistan problem.”
The Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests were conducted in 1998 and the Kargil conflict commenced just months afterwards. Pakistan apparently intended to bring about a situation which would force the Indians to negotiate from an unfavourable military position. Pakistan’s argument that its operations in Kargil were a response to Indian actions in the Siachen glacier area was no more than an after-thought, voiced only after Pakistan was forced to give up on Kargil. The Kargil conflict led to the assumption of power by the military in Pakistan, led by officers who had planned and conducted the Kargil operation. Violence levels went up in Jammu and Kashmir in 1999 and Indian political and military leaders declared a readiness to fight a limited war over Kashmir. It would not be entirely incorrect therefore to infer, that the “ugly stability” of 1997 has been replaced by an “ugly instability” that rests much more openly on nuclear weapons.
In an unstable conflict situation, decision-making processes assume a special importance. The processes and assumptions that influence decision-making can be critical elements in conflict management and escalation control. Decision processes in India and Pakistan operate on different premises. In India, decision-making has undergone a shift from a collegial and consensus-based process to decisions arrived at by a small group of individuals based in the prime minister’s office. The decisions to conduct the nuclear test of 1974, authorise nuclear weapons related research during the 1980s and embark on an integrated missile programme were all made without forging a national consensus. Former Indian External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh had described the national security decision-making apparatus as a transitional system and had said he would prefer an institutionalised decision making arrangement. While political control over military matters in India remains a reassuring fact, the growing tendency towards major decisions being taken by the more risky individual, rather than the more considered collective process, is cause for concern.
Decision-making in Pakistan has traditionally been influenced by the burden of dealing with a stronger and larger adversary. The “pathology of decision-making” in Pakistan has been largely influenced by the military. When the Pakistani military is in power it has tended to ignore or brush aside advice based on political and international realities. Past experience has shown that when the military leadership in Pakistan is in full political control of the country it has preferred to choose the military offensive even in a situation of a military asymmetry. Military governments are more likely to favour war irrespective of the prevailing strategic situation. In the military-dominated government of Pakistan, the absence of strong representation from other key government departments, particularly the foreign and domestic ministries, gives the central decision makers the illusion that they are operating without political limits. In addition, decision-making in Pakistan has not been free from “cultural discounting.” The phenomenon of cultural discounting describes the belief that the adversary is culturally inferior and therefore can be defeated despite his real quantitative advantage. That Pakistan’s military has taken decisions based on such assumptions has been convincingly demonstrated. One example of a similar analysis from Pakistan demonstrates this point. In his article “Four Wars and One Assumption,” former Pakistani cabinet minister, biographer and columnist Altaf Gauhar, wrote that Pakistan’s four wars with India, including the one in Kargil, were “conceived and launched on one assumption: that the Indians are too cowardly and ill-organised to offer any effective military response.” How India would wage a limited war against Pakistan is not explained in either official statements or in the analysis put out by the quasi-governmental think tanks like IDSA. As one commentator put it, Indian restraint in the Kargil conflict was at least in part dictated by the reading that Pakistan would not now take a humiliating defeat of the kind it experienced in 1971, without resorting to desperate measures including the possible use of … nuclear weapons capability. The reality of a post-nuclear India … has come to roost.
On the other hand, Indian restraint has been tested to the extreme. The talk of a limited war by Indian leaders is therefore not to be lightly dismissed. India would like to limit a future war with Pakistan to the level of conventional military forces. It must therefore secure its political and military objectives in a rapidly conducted operation, without giving Pakistan the opportunity for nuclear retaliation. This approach would require a proactive military operation to seize carefully considered territorial objectives. The traditional approach of bringing the adversary’s forces to battle and destroying them in a long series of battles would be counterproductive for India under current circumstances. The territory seized must be of critical importance to Pakistan. The military offensive to obtain that outcome would have to be extremely powerful. These two Indian requirements are likely to combine to provoke a violent response from the Pakistani high command. If the Indian offensive gains ground in critical areas, Pakistan would be forced to exercise the nuclear option or the threat of its use.
Decision processes in India and Pakistan operate on different premises. In India, decision-making has undergone a shift from a collegial and consensus-based process to decisions arrived at by a small group of individuals based in the prime minister’s office
The Indian-Pakistani wars of 1965 and 1971 offer examples that confirm the possibility of the nuclear option coming into play sooner rather than later in a limited war. In 1965, the Indians launched an offensive into Pakistan’s Punjab province. The Indian forces reached within miles of the major metropolis of Lahore only hours after the commencement of the offensive. If that were to occur now, Pakistan’s military high command would be faced with a very serious dilemma. In military terms, the more time the Indian forces had to consolidate, the greater would be the difficulty of dislodging them. An offensive by Pakistan elsewhere into Indian territory would weaken the defence around Lahore. The Punjabi heartland of Pakistan having been breached and the Indian offensive threatening to make deeper inroads, recourse to a nuclear strike would become a necessity. In political terms, the leadership would be under immense pressure to retaliate quickly. International pressures to broker a ceasefire would mount by the hour. A nuclear strike would seem to offer many advantages to a beleaguered Pakistani leadership. As this scenario shows, an escalation from a conventional to a nuclear war, within one or two days of the outbreak of war, is not implausible.
In the 1971 Indian-Pakistani War, an Indian heliborne and ground forces offensive succeeded in making a small but meaningful thrust into Pakistan’s desert sector towards Rahimyar Khan. If a larger armoured and mechanised forces thrust had been made in this weakly defended “waist” of Pakistan, there was a risk of the country being strategically split. Pakistan could certainly have used nuclear weapons in this situation, had they then been available. It can be argued, of course, that the overt presence of nuclear weapons now precludes such offensives being launched. On the other hand, from the Indian perspective, the post-Kargil need to engage in limited war could motivate even stronger and more decisive thrusts to forestall Pakistani attempts to manipulate the nuclear threshold. It is difficult to determine which dynamic — the attraction of a conventional offensive, or the fear of a potential nuclear riposte — might actually prevail in such circumstances. The high probability of a rapid escalation from conventional to nuclear engagement cannot, however, be ignored. A transition from the ongoing low intensity war between India and Pakistan, to a limited war and then quickly to a nuclear exchange is a possibility. This scenario has been anticipated by a recent Pakistani analysis. The presence of extremist militant organisations in Pakistan could create added pressures on the Pakistani military high command. The presence of armed militant groups in Pakistan and their influence in the military is a factor that can contribute to escalation. As one Pakistani analyst said: the principal danger lies in escalation of low intensity war into a nuclear conflict. This is a serious possibility. On the Pakistan side this threat has a deeper connection with militants, who are a smaller group but enjoy greater support in the country’s armed forces.
As noted earlier, India and Pakistan have both listed a number of measures they intend taking to ensure nuclear stability. They have each declared a moratorium on further testing; asserted that they intend to have no more than a minimum nuclear deterrent; committed themselves to not deploying nuclear weapons; pledged not to export nuclear technology; and said they will join negotiations at the Conference on Disarmament on stopping further production of fissile material. Pakistan has made it abundantly clear that it will use nuclear weapons, if its survival is threatened by Indian military action. While Pakistan has not brought out an official document defining a nuclear doctrine, the essential elements of a doctrine can be surmised from various Pakistani writings on the subject. India has stated that it will not be the first to use nuclear weapons, but will respond with massive nuclear retaliation if nuclear weapons are used against it. Its draft doctrine states, “any nuclear attack on India or its forces shall result in punitive retaliation with nuclear weapons, to inflict damage unacceptable to the aggressor.”
In doctrinal terms, the critical difference between the two countries rests on the question of first and second nuclear strikes. India will do everything to maintain a second strike capability. If Pakistan must use nuclear weapons first to halt an Indian offensive on its territory and hope to avoid an Indian nuclear strike, it will be faced with extremely difficult choices. It will either have to be ready to bear the impossibly high costs of a massive Indian nuclear response, or limit its own nuclear strike to Indian forces on Pakistani territory. The collateral costs of the second option would also be heavy and would still not entirely guarantee Indian restraint.
India’s challenge in engaging Pakistan in a limited war would be to ensure that Pakistan does not face circumstances in which a nuclear strike becomes necessary. The circumstances under which Pakistan would use nuclear weapons would therefore be dependent on the military and territorial losses it can sustain. The losses Pakistan can sustain would be of two kinds: actual losses as a consequence of combat and potential losses as a consequence of Indian nuclear retaliation which would follow a Pakistani nuclear strike on India. It is difficult to believe that if India were to receive a nuclear strike from Pakistan that it would refrain from retaliation in deference to international pressure or promises of reparations. Pakistan’s decision on a nuclear strike would be heavily influenced by its military hierarchy and the decision-making dynamics discussed above. The dangers of escalation and the initiation of a spiral of negative action and reaction thus become apparent.
Pakistan has not yet announced a nuclear doctrine. However, on the subject of fighting a war when the adversaries have nuclear capability, there is a body of published Pakistani opinion written by senior military and civilian officials. Perhaps the most credible assessment has come in an article by three experienced Pakistani policymakers. In an article published in The News on October 5, 1999 — a few days before the military government assumed power — they defined the red line that would trigger a Pakistani nuclear strike against India. One of the authors, Abdul Sattar, became the Foreign Minister in the military-led government. The article listed three occasions before 1998 when nuclear deterrence, as applied by Pakistan, produced a restraining effect on India. The implication of this statement is that a nuclear threat was issued by Pakistan, through explicit or implicit means. The authors argued that a minimum deterrent would be adequate for Pakistan and said it need not enter an arms race with India. The authors dismissed India’s no-first-use declaration as, a cost-free exercise in sanctimonious propaganda. Renunciation only of first use of nuclear weapons seems like a subterfuge to camouflage the intention to resort to the first use of conventional weapons. They went on to define the condition in which Pakistan would use nuclear weapons as a situation when, “the enemy launches a general war and undertakes a piercing attack threatening to occupy large territory or communication junctions.” Under these conditions, they concluded, “weapons of last resort would have to be involved.”
These views indicate the Pakistani tendency to extend the nuclear deterrent to different levels of military conflict. As was demonstrated in Kargil, the threat of a nuclear strike would be held out at the very beginning of small scale conflict. The threat would be projected as part of a plan, which would attempt to gain political advantage through military action in Jammu and Kashmir. The threat of use of nuclear weapons would be exploited to contain a larger military response from India. This strategy would be in keeping with plans for the Pakistani nuclear deterrent to be used in influencing the outcome of armed political conflict. Once war is joined and major operations are begun, conditions for a nuclear first strike by Pakistan are clearly spelled out by a senior military analyst.
In a deteriorating military situation when an Indian conventional attack is likely to break through our defences or has already breached the main defence line causing a major set-back to the defences which cannot be restored by conventional means at our disposal, the government would be left with no option except to use nuclear weapons to stabilise the situation. India’s superiority in conventional arms and manpower would have to be offset by nuclear weapons.
Pakistan’s preferred option to escalate quickly to the nuclear level is indicated by another Pakistani analyst. “It [Pakistan] should go for a one-rung escalation ladder knitted-in tightly with a highly cohesive state-of-the-art tactical conventional military. This means that it must acquire sophisticated conventional technology at the tactical, theatre level while maintaining a posture of one-rung escalation in case of all-out strategic war. This becomes necessary because Pakistan lacks spatial depth and should not needlessly waste its resources in a static conventional war.”
The Indian official position, indicating a readiness to fight a limited war, is an attempt to impose a higher military and political price on Pakistan without giving it cause for commencing a nuclear exchange. There is, however, no certainty that Pakistan’s response to this strategy can be kept limited. The notion of nuclear deterrence is being stretched by both sides to include non-nuclear conflicts. An escalatory process is inherent in the linkage being established between nuclear deterrence and the perceived need to change territorial status quo through military action. This situation effectively creates deterrence instability between the two countries.
If Pakistan acted with disregard for major strategic consequences in Kargil, India showed restraint by limiting the conflict to Kargil. When India demonstrated resolve to widen the conflict by moving forward its offensive forces, Pakistan was able to pull back from Kargil, albeit under powerful pressure from the United States. Both India and Pakistan are developing weapons systems and command and control structures to create a survivable second strike capability. Pakistan is in no doubt that a nuclear first strike would bring about a massive retaliation from India. Indian planners cannot be in doubt that a second strike, notwithstanding its size, is still likely to leave Pakistan with some residual nuclear capabilities. Indian planning must also take into account the possible response from other powers, which would be determined to bring the apocalyptic exchange to an end, by force if necessary. Not enough thought seems to have been given to these possibilities in India and Pakistan. As for avoiding an accidental nuclear war, the two countries have made tentative efforts at unofficial levels, but have yet to find common ground. The balance, therefore, remains adversely weighed against deterrence stability.
The doctrinal contradictions analysed above in the declared and undeclared nuclear policies of India and Pakistan have introduced serious difficulties in establishing nuclear stability on the subcontinent. In the absence of an official dialogue between the two countries, the emergence of a deterrence stability model remains problematic. Deterrence perceptions between two new nuclear states also need time to evolve. Past experience and models of the Cold War also do not always apply in their entirety to South Asia. India and Pakistan have thus become a, “test bed for nuclear deterrence theory.” Attempts by these two countries to extend the interpretation of nuclear deterrence and apply it to a wider spectrum of conflicts, does not augur well for deterrence stability between them. The risk of nuclear escalation is therefore further enhanced by the doctrinal differences between the two countries.
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. His 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
About the Author
Lt Gen V R Raghavan PVSM, UYSM, AVSM (retd)
The writer was India’s Director General of Military Operations from 1992 to 1994. He is currently a Director at the Delhi Policy Group. He has been a visiting fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation, Stanford University, USA.
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