India’s Strategic Preparedness in Times of Escalating Cross-border Tensions

This reading list analyses India’s war policy and its strategic preparedness.

On 14 February, a convoy carrying Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel was attacked by a suicide bomber in Pulwama district of Jammu and Kashmir, killing 40 soldiers. The attack was claimed by the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), a United Nations-designated terrorist outfit whose founder, Masood Azhar, currently resides in Pakistan.  

Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised revenge for the attack, saying a “befitting reply” to Pakistan would be given to assuage the Indian populace, whose “blood is boiling” after the death of the soldiers. Modi also stated that the army had a free hand to retaliate in a manner it deemed fit, with Lieutenant General Kanwal Jeet Singh Dhillon issuing a warning that  all Kashmiri militants would be “eliminated”. News commentators too have called the attack an “act of war.”  

Besides the operation four days after the Pulwama attack which killed three JeM operatives, India recently launched a “non-military pre-emptive strike” targeting a JeM training camp in Balakot. In response, the Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi termed the strike an “act of aggression” that violated the Line of Control, and that Pakistan had every right to respond. 

In light of the escalating rhetoric within India and also between the two nations, this reading list explores articles in EPW's Strategic Affairs column by Ali Ahmed, a former UN official, which look at the realities of declaring war in the subcontinent.       

1) What Is India’s Strategy?
The present government has refrained from publishing a national defence white paper. Ali Ahmed writes that operations such as the “surgical strike” across the LoC suggest that India’s disposition towards the use of force has changed from traditional “strategic restraint” to “strategic proactivism”. He argues that this shift will not bring about greater security, and that such proactivism is the influence of cultural nationalism in strategic thinking.

It is questionable as to whether India has the strategic wherewithal to think through such a strategy. Its national security instruments are far too disjointed to put together such a complex strategy… Doctrine-making is never left to professional strategists, but is an intensely political exercise. Paying attention to the defence minister’s remarks on the cultural nationalist inspiration of proactivism provides a hint (Times of India 2016). By this yardstick, strategic proactivism is only chimerically about external security in relation to Pakistan and its internal security blowback in Kashmir. Instead, structural proactivism is the cultural nationalist imprint on national security.

2) What Happens if India Goes to War? 

According to Ahmed, the 2017 Indian armed forces joint doctrine is conceptually flawed. Definitions of terms in the doctrine are suspect. For one, it defines peace as the absence of threat and conflict as a threat that necessitates military measures. It neglects that threats could exist during peacetime, and that military measures could be used in these instances to prevent a transition into conflict.  

Some problematic phrases also give one pause for thought. One such phrase is “decisive victory,” occurring thrice in the document. When obtaining politically desirable outcomes is sufficient as a military aim, going for decisive victory can be overkill and is unnecessarily escalatory. The armed forces intend to “shock, dislocate and overwhelm” the enemy. After mobilising “swiftly” and with an “early launch” of operations, they are to “rapidly achieve tangible gains” (p 19). This appears to be a hangover of the Cold Start doctrine, as the 2004 army doctrine was colloquially referred to.

The Indian Army also recently published the “Land Warfare Doctrine” which Ahmed contends displays the army’s inability to move beyond its fixation of Pakistan as the primary threat to national security. In the event of a “two–front war”, the Chinese front is expected to be of secondary concern. More importantly, however, Ahmed asserts that the fundamental gap in this doctrine is that it does not address  the nuclear factor. The doctrine details how to get into a war, but not how to de-escalate and exit one, in case it goes nuclear. 

In so far as the “collusive” threat—described as the “greatest danger”—figuring in the LWD, the government can afford to overlook it as a small price to pay since the threat is unlikely to materialise…  A holistic nuclear doctrine would require expansion from its current-day focus on deterrence and employment of nuclear weapons in conflict, to include conflict containment, de-escalation, and termination. Any conventional-level implications need inclusion in a comprehensive LWD. Else, what is there to distinguish an LWD written in the nuclear age? 

3) Whom Does War Benefit? 

More military power, writes Ahmed, does not necessarily mean greater security. While India could win a conventional war against Pakistan, things get murkier if nuclear weapons are introduced in the battlefield. 

A conventional attack on Pakistan can find India sandwiched between the other two levels—nuclear and sub-conventional. The more successful it is at the conventional level, the more dangers will kick in at the other two levels. The nuclear level is fairly straightforward. Pakistani TNW use would breach the nuclear taboo. This would leave India a choice to escalate or to respond at the same level of the nuclear ladder. The first choice is what it currently promises in its declaratory nuclear doctrine. 

Further, internal politics cannot be ignored when formulating war strategy. The war bugle has often been sounded to reap political and commercial dividends. Ahmed contends that there needs to be greater discussion on formulating war policy, considering the inordinate amounts spent on its preparation and the potential social fallout. 

In India, the social outcome could be in further marginalisation of the liberal spectrum and of the country’s largest minority, its Muslims. Likewise, the economics of war making and recovery will likely see greater militarisation of Make in India, with the military technology conduit deepening India’s American and Israeli connection. Thus, to some there can be a “good war,” with the war used to deepen the right-wing grip over India. 

4) What Happens if the War Becomes Nuclear? 

Can both nations survive a nuclear war? If Pakistan is “finished”, argues Ahmed, India would be too. India—which maintains a "no first use" nuclear policy—would have two retaliatory options in the event of a nuclear attack on its soil, namely higher-order retaliation and lower order retaliation. The former, Ahmed contends, would ensure mutually assured destruction of both parties, while the latter would make it difficult to assume escalation control, given the politically charged atmosphere of war. 

Escalation control, therefore, requires prior arrangements with doctrinal exchanges between the two sides as a first step. Escalation control mechanisms can even be tacit and reliant on foreign powers trusted by both sides. However, in a circumstance as currently obtains, with the two not even talking to each other, creating such mechanisms can be ruled out. The paradox is that where trust levels enable such mechanisms, these mechanisms would not be required in first place.

Therefore, Ahmed writes that the best option to a war gone nuclear is to terminate it at the lowest threshold of nuclear activity. To avoid the above-mentioned outcomes, Ahmed cites non-retaliation to a nuclear attack as a caveat. 

The realists underemphasise the equalising effect of nuclear weapons. Strategists of the liberal perspective are wishful in believing that escalation control is possible. The anti-nuclear community is missing in action in the debate. Here, non-retaliation is taken as a caveat. An abolitionist’s contribution to the debate could well be that non-retaliation is the best option across the board; indeed, to even higher-order nuclear first use. This is strategically sustainable, even if it is deterrence heresy.


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