Asia — Limited Wars in South Asia: Against the Nuclear Backdrop


We all know that the air­pow­er is faster to mobilise, is more flex­i­ble and can achieve strate­gic and tac­ti­cal sur­prise bet­ter than oth­er ser­vices. Air­pow­er is also deci­sive because it can cause heavy and pre­cise destruc­tion. It pro­vides mobil­i­ty, aer­i­al obser­va­tion and close air sup­port. It is ide­al­ly suit­ed to ini­ti­ate and achieve suc­cess in a lim­it­ed war con­flict. Con­trol of air is the sin­gle great­est manoeu­vre and fire­pow­er advan­tage. Along with oth­er Air Force pri­or­i­ties, we need to make close air sup­port most respon­sive to Army needs.

Rapid mobil­i­sa­tion

The soon­er an inter­ven­ing force can arrive to influ­ence the course of a mil­i­tary event, the less­er is the chance of the con­flict devolv­ing into fire­pow­er inten­sive, waste­ful slug­ging match. Rapid mobil­i­sa­tion out-paces ene­my and has the same asset as sur­prise. For a lim­it­ed con­ven­tion­al war envi­ron­ment, we may need to car­ry out strate­gic re-loca­tions of some of our com­bat for­ma­tions, par­tic­u­lar­ly those that take a long time to be moved and deployed. Also, we need not wait for full mobil­i­sa­tion to start oper­a­tions.


The mil­i­tary is expect­ed to be able to react quick­ly to the chang­ing cir­cum­stances, in order to localise, freeze and reverse the sit­u­a­tion on the ground and to arrest the dete­ri­o­ra­tion, enhance deter­rence and dimin­ish incen­tives for esca­la­tion

Sur­veil­lance and intel­li­gence

With­out ade­quate intel­li­gence and con­tin­u­ous sur­veil­lance, even the best of plans can­not suc­ceed. We require a very clear strate­gic, oper­a­tional and tac­ti­cal pic­ture and assess­ment with the help of all pos­si­ble tech­nol­o­gy and human intel­li­gence. We have to obtain real time intel­li­gence and ensure that it reach­es those who need it in time. We need much bet­ter inte­gra­tion of sur­veil­lance and oper­a­tional resources like satel­lite imagery, air recon­nais­sance, radars, armed heli­copters and so on to reduce force gen­er­a­tion time.


In a lim­it­ed con­ven­tion­al war, due to short dura­tion, sur­prise as a fac­tor becomes more impor­tant than ever before. Strike the ene­my at a time or place or in a man­ner for which he is least pre­pared. A pro-active strat­e­gy and con­tin­gency plan­ning in peace­time have dis­tinct mil­i­tary advan­tage. But that would be a dif­fi­cult polit­i­cal option.

Rapid reac­tion forces

In a lim­it­ed or small-scale war, tem­po and speed dic­tate that light, Rapid Reac­tion Forces com­pris­ing ele­ments from arms, ser­vices, with embed­ded air force capa­bil­i­ty. We need more Spe­cial Forces for such mis­sions.

The basic engine of attri­tion will be the syn­er­gised and inte­grat­ed appli­ca­tions of fire­pow­er — artillery, mis­siles and all oth­er fire­pow­er. Mas­sive and sur­gi­cal­ly applied fire­pow­er will cause dis­rup­tion, destruc­tion and dis­lo­ca­tion and pro­vide a deci­sive edge in a war. Air deliv­ered fire­pow­er and long-range artillery will not only affect enemy’s morale, it will offer free­dom of move­ment to the manoeu­vre ele­ment. How­ev­er, in dif­fi­cult ter­rain con­di­tions like Siachen, Kargil and north-east, we must have a clear under­stand­ing of what fire pow­er and tech­nol­o­gy can or can­not do.

Elec­tron­ic war­fare

A con­flict in future could well be decid­ed on the basis of bet­ter exploita­tion of the elec­tro-mag­net­ic (EM) spec­trum. Its impact is all per­va­sive: to assist in anti-ter­ror­ist oper­a­tions, pre­vent attacks against civil­ian or mil­i­tary tar­gets. The e‑bombs have the advan­tage of no col­lat­er­al dam­age and less­er like­li­hood of loss of life. Con­cert­ed R and D and user inno­va­tions into the var­ied uses of the EM spec­trum are an urgent require­ment.

Infor­ma­tion war

These days, media report­ing catch­es events at their source, when the events are still history’s raw mate­r­i­al. Robust report­ing of the past has now giv­en way to brit­tle report­ing. The result can be unpre­dictable swings in pub­lic sen­ti­ment, com­pound­ing the government’s chal­lenge of build­ing sup­port for the war. And it is not pos­si­ble to resist the trans­paren­cy pres­sure any­more to be trans­par­ent. Peo­ple — ana­lysts, jour­nal­ists, investors, employ­ees, or mem­bers of the pub­lic — have high stan­dards and con­sid­er know­ing sit­u­a­tion­al infor­ma­tion to be their right, an enti­tle­ment rather than a lux­u­ry. The les­son, there­fore; don’t try to seal all lips. The com­mu­ni­ca­tions effort — dai­ly brief­in­gs, live broad­casts and so on — must start from the very top and go down the chan­nel in a planned man­ner.


Mere pos­ses­sion of nuclear weapons does not stop con­flicts. A ques­tion that often aris­es, ‘are we, there­fore, ade­quate­ly equipped and trained for the more like­ly form of con­flicts or the less like­ly form?’ Are we pre­pared for yes­ter­day or tomorrow’s armed con­flicts? India now is con­front­ed with the task of defend­ing itself mil­i­tar­i­ly against nuclear armed adver­saries. The action has to be effec­tive but not so effec­tive as to cause inad­ver­tent esca­la­tion. These para­me­ters demand new war fight­ing strate­gies and doc­trines that the Indi­an polit­i­cal and mil­i­tary lead­er­ship is not used to tra­di­tion­al­ly. It is a con­flict sit­u­a­tion and a strat­e­gy, that puts a pre­mi­um on achiev­ing speedy deci­sion on the bat­tle­field and then ter­mi­nat­ing offen­sive action before the con­flict degen­er­ates into attri­tion.

Cur­rent­ly, our oper­a­tional plan­ning caters more for reac­tive all out con­ven­tion­al war set­tings; much less for lim­it­ed war sce­nar­ios. A reac­tive strate­gic cul­ture tends to erode our deter­rence capa­bil­i­ty

Cur­rent­ly, our oper­a­tional plan­ning caters more for reac­tive all out con­ven­tion­al war set­tings; much less for lim­it­ed war sce­nar­ios. A reac­tive strate­gic cul­ture tends to erode our deter­rence capa­bil­i­ty. For the new strate­gic envi­ron­ment, there is a need for the armed forces to pre­pare dif­fer­ent lev­el joint plans, which can be imple­ment­ed at a short notice, or dur­ing the course of mobil­i­sa­tion. Such con­tin­gency plans and their full impli­ca­tions will need pri­or politi­co-mil­i­tary dis­cus­sions: even ‘in prin­ci­ple’ approval of the Cab­i­net Com­mit­tee on Secu­ri­ty.

Last­ly, with the con­flict becom­ing mul­ti-dimen­sion­al, the armed forces require geo-strate­gi­cal­ly aware and spe­cialised polit­i­cal guid­ance and net­work­ing. We also need to re-organ­ise net­work­ing of the armed forces with­in and with oth­er gov­ern­ment and non-gov­ern­ment agen­cies which could have an impor­tant role to play in any future armed con­flict. Only then it would be pos­si­ble to suc­ceed in such con­flicts.

There may be sev­er­al sit­u­a­tions where both the ini­tia­tor and the affect­ed nation are tempt­ed to use con­ven­tion­al weapons and forces. The ini­tia­tor is tempt­ed to give it a greater push with con­ven­tion­al forces to achieve the desired results, as it hap­pened in 1947, 1965. In the 1999 Kargil war, it did so despite our nuclear weapons capa­bil­i­ty. On the oth­er hand, the affect­ed nation, when pushed to the wall, may use its con­ven­tion­al forces to bring the proxy war into the open rather than fight with all the lim­i­ta­tions of a ‘no war no peace sit­u­a­tion’. Pak­istan did in 1971. We almost did in 2002.

About the Author
Gen­er­al V P Malik PVSM, AVSM, VSM (retd)
Gen­er­al Ved Prakash Malik assumed charge of the Indi­an Army, as the 19th Chief of Army Staff, on 30 Sep­tem­ber 1997. He was dec­o­rat­ed with the Param Vishisht Seva Medal (PVSM) in 1996. He took over as Chair­man of the Chiefs of Staff Com­mit­tee with effect from 01 Jan­u­ary 1999. He coor­di­nat­ed and over­saw the plan­ning and exe­cu­tion of Oper­a­tion Vijay to suc­cess­ful­ly defeat Pakistan’s attempt­ed intru­sion in the Kargil sec­tor dur­ing May to July 1999.

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