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.