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


When we consider the nature of wars in South Asia, which includes China’s border with South Asian nations, at the outset, two important facts need to be noted.

Geopolitically, armed conflicts and wars around the world are gradually moving down the paradigm scale of intensity and inclusivity. People do not talk of nuclear war; only of nuclear deterrence or disarmament. Even the probability of regular high intensity conventional conflicts has got reduced.

This article is published with the kind permission of „Defence and Security Alert (DSA) Magazine“ New Delhi-India

Defence and Security Alert (DSA

There are several reasons:

  • The world has shrunk. Developed as well developing nations have no options but to join ‘internationalisation’ and ‘engagement’, thus reducing the chances of open and intense conflicts. USA, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam and India’s engagement with China are an example.
  • Governments are focused on economic development. This requires regional stability and not conflicts.
  • There is close monitoring of conflict situations by the media. This ensures greater accountability of governments.
  • The cost of maintaining standing armed forces and military weapon equipment has escalated.
  • Finally destruction of enemy’s military potential or occupation of foreign territories are not easily attainable objectives even in an asymmetrical armed conflict. We have seen that in Vietnam, Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan.

With paradigm shift in the nature of security – military and non-military – the military today has to prepare itself for an elongated spectrum of conflict, ranging from Aid to Civil Authority, counter terrorism, low and high intensity conflicts to a war involving Weapons of Mass Destruction. The military has to be more innovative and receptive, to new ideas and changes to be able to deal with this elongated spectrum. More importantly, it requires greater political guidance to decide on priorities and defence planning than hitherto fore.

Nuclear war

In South Asian security scenario, due to horrendous destructive power of nuclear weapons, almost certain universal condemnation and nuclear deterrence, the chances of a nuclear war between India, China and Pakistan are extremely unlikely. My own experience is that even a miniscule probability of a nuclear war inhibits political leaders, particularly the democratically elected leaders, from taking a chance with nuclear weapons. It exercises stricter control on such weapons in a conflict situation. Let us be clear; no nation is prepared to use nuclear weapons at the drop of a hat, more so when a credible nuclear deterrence is in place. Some people talk of very low nuclear threshold of Pakistan. However, Pakistan Army too is maintaining very large conventional forces which indicate that they are not going to jump into a nuclear war scenario in an irresponsible manner.

Despite being nuclear weapons states, Soviet Union and China were the first to fight a border war along Usury River way back in 1968

Conventional wars

India, since independence, has had to fight four wars; either due to border and territorial disputes or because a smaller neighbour thinks that we are a weak nation and wishes to keep us that way. It keeps us engaged in a proxy war.

Along a disputed border – be that of India-Pakistan or India-China – a skirmish which can escalate into a warlike situation is not an infrequent occurrence. As far as proxy war situation is concerned, I have always maintained that a proxy war is part of the spectrum of conflict. 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.

Here, we must also note that despite being nuclear weapons states, Soviet Union and China were the first to fight a border war along Usury River way back in 1968.

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A limited conventional war would imply limited political and military objectives, limited in duration, in geography and in the actual use of forces level. It could also be limited in the quantum and pace of application of firepower. The adversaries will try not to hurt each other excessively at any one time. The limited wars concept is, therefore, far removed from the classical ‘no holds barred’ attitude

So, is there a space for waging conventional war in South Asia between the spectral ends of all out nuclear war and sub-conventional conflict? My answer is yes! It would be wrong to assume that there is no space for a conventional conflict between a proxy war or border skirmishes and a nuclear conflict. We may call that a conventional war or a limited conventional war or just a limited war. Chinese call that border wars. As all post World War II wars have been only conventional, nonnuclear wars with several political, geographical and military restrictions, there is no clear-cut definition of a ‘limited war’. Such a conflict can also spread out in time, in what could possibly be termed as ‘a war in slow motion’.

Limited war concept

A limited conventional war would imply limited political and military objectives, limited in duration, in geography and in the actual use of forces level. It could also be limited in the quantum and pace of application of firepower. The adversaries will try not to hurt each other excessively at any one time. The limited wars concept is, therefore, far removed from the classical ‘no holds barred’ attitude. It is typically characterised by severe limitations and constraints imposed by the political leadership on the employment of the military.

Due to nuclear overhang, such a conflict would have to be conducted within the framework of carefully calibrated political goals (capping of the military objectives) and military moves which permit adequate control over escalation and disengagement. What will be important political and military objectives? Should this simply aim at acquiring a piece of territory for post war bargaining? Or should it aim to destroy a particular facility or capability? Should it be simply to raise costs for asymmetric adventurism? What should be the aim and desired end state in such a war? What are its political and military implications and possible reactions of the adversary? What is likely to be the duration of war, or how much time is available to the armed forces to execute their missions and achieve politico-military goals? All such decisions will be crucial for planning and conduct of operations. This is something on which there would have to be complete understanding between political and military leadership. In such situations, we can also expect fairly rigid political terms of reference as were given to the military in the Kargil war. (In 1962, China and India did not employ air power due to (justified or unjustified) political reasons.

Escalation dominance means that one side has much greater military superiority at every level of violence. The other side will then be deterred from escalating it to higher intensity conventional or a nuclear war level as the superior military power will have greater chances of success

Another aspect: in a ‘reactive’ situation – like the Kargil war – the duration of the war can be prolonged. However, the duration available will be much less if we decide to take the initiative.

There is also a linkage between deterrence and conventional war escalation. A limited war does not mean limited capabilities. It refers to the use of those capabilities. Capability to wage a successful conventional and nuclear war is a necessary deterrent. A war is likely to remain limited because of a credible deterrence or Escalation Dominance. Escalation dominance means that one side has much greater military superiority at every level of violence. The other side will then be deterred from escalating it to higher intensity conventional or a nuclear war level as the superior military power will have greater chances of success. It implies that more room is available in diplomacy as well as in conflict.

In such a conflict scenario, politico-diplomatic factors will play an important role. Careful and calibrated orchestration of military operations, diplomacy and domestic political environment is essential for successful outcome. Control of ‘escalatory ladder’ requires much closer political oversight and politico-military interaction. Therefore, it becomes necessary to keep the military leadership in the security and strategic decision-making loop and maintain a direct politico military interface. During a conflict situation, all participants must remain in constant touch with political leadership. We did that during the Kargil war.

The fundamental point in a limited conventional war is that it is a process conducted primarily for obtaining political advantage and bargaining. The aim is not to be ‘victorious’ but to fight in such a way that the enemy is forced to concede the politico-strategic advantage and settle for peace. When a war starts to move down the intensity spectrum, victory and defeat shift more into the political, economic and psychological dimensions. In such a situation, perceptions are as important as the reality. The political goals may be limited but are synergised in a way that optimises them in our favour. This aspect too stands out in the conflicts fought during 1962 and 1999.

Important politico-military challenges

The political definition of the goals and its translation into military objectives: It would be difficult, sometimes uncertain and indirect, yet its success is truly critical to the attainment of the political goals. Key military concepts pertaining to the desired end result such as ‘military victory’ or ‘success’ is fundamentally transformed to reflect a much heavier political emphasis.

Rapid decision making and military reaction: The successful outcome of such a war hinges on the ability to react rapidly to an evolving crisis, which most often erupts by surprise. This would be a major challenge for the military. For 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.

Mobilising and sustaining domestic and international political support: Military operations in the present age of transparency and openness require political legitimacy. In that most important issues are avoidance of casualties on both sides and minimisation of collateral damage.

It is Necessary to keep the military leadership in the security and strategic decision-making loop and maintain a direct politico-military interface

Militarily, the greatest challenge could be in the political reluctance to commit a pro-active engagement and insistence to retain the authority for approving not just key military moves but also many operational decisions pertaining to deployment and employment of military assets.

Political and military requirements will require heavy reliance on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR). Surgical strikes would be a common option. Airpower, precision guided weapons, stand-off armaments and information would be the weapons of choice. Employment of ground forces across the borders could be discouraged, or delayed, due to fear of casualties and difficulty in disengagement.

Information operation becomes important. The political requirements of the military operations, in order to achieve and retain the moral high ground and deny that to the adversary, would need a comprehensive and sophisticated media, public affairs and information campaign. This has to be fully integrated and synchronised with the planning and execution of the military operations. Psychological warfare has always been a part of classical war; it becomes more important now.

Limited conventional war would also have to take into account counter-intervention and defensive measures. The so-called ‘cold start’ does not mean inadequate defence measures. Lucrative targets would have to be defended and denied through dispersal and other means, taking into account the capabilities of the adversary.