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Blinkered vision

A Pakistan-centric military strategy has stunted our global aspirations

Written by Bharat Karnad |
February 12, 2009 12:35:40 am

Repeated incidents of terrorist violence in India engineered by Pakistan army’s Inter-Services Intelligence-assisted Islamic extremists raise questions about the Indian government’s reluctance to order retaliatory strikes and,absent such measures,whether the Indian military is at all capable of hitting back.

India’s inaction has often been explained away,as Shekhar Gupta has tried to do in his last column (‘No first-use options’,IE,January 17),as the consequence of its losing the conventional military edge vis a vis Pakistan which,he avers,is the basis for the ‘No First Use’ (NFU) principle supposedly animating India’s nuclear strategy. India,in the event,has suffered a double whammy: it is unable to use either its conventional military or nuclear forces coercively. Such arguments both disregard the unique nature of India-Pakistan “wars” and how it has habituated the Indian armed services to the wrong kind of force planning that has obtained for the country military capabilities to contain a minor foe but not the major threat,and misunderstand the nuclear dynamic in South Asia.

Take 26/11. If the ISI could embark irregulars on an operation to shoot up Mumbai hotels,they could as easily have launched a team of underwater demolition experts to do a “Pearl Harbour”,sink with limpet mines and similar ordnance a good part of the Indian Navy’s Western Fleet berthed less than a kilometer away from the Taj Hotel,and which attack no Quick Reaction Teams patrolling the area would have been able to prevent. The ISI do not undertake such eminently doable missions in the main because that would push India beyond its pain-bearing threshold resulting in Pakistan’s destruction,whatever the cost to India. It is a denouement the Pakistan Army understands well and seeks in extremis to avoid. As the ISI Chief,Lieutenant General Ahmad Shuja Pasha,said in a recent interview on a related matter,“We may be crazy in Pakistan,but not completely out of our minds.” However,the Pakistan army will happily persist with using terrorism as an asymmetric means to keep its larger,more powerful,neighbour off-balance,especially as it is seen to occasion neither reprisal nor incur great cost.

If Pakistan does not want to push India into a nuclear conflict owing to a grossly adverse “exchange ratio” — the bearable losses for India versus the unbearable ones for Pakistan — Delhi since 1947 has been mindful of domestic political factors that make impossible the waging of a war of annihilation against Pakistan. The growing political clout of the Indian Muslim community (over 13% of the population) constituting the swing vote in some 25% of the Lok Sabha constituencies,ensures Pakistan is safe from total destruction. Indian Muslims,with continuing bonds of kinship,culture and religion with the Pakistani people,might countenance the bloodying of Pakistan in war but not its extinction. What has,therefore,ensued are “wars of manoeuvre” with no lasting effect,which the late Major General D.K. Palit famously described as “communal riots with tanks”. Counter-force engagements restricted in terms of duration,casualties,geographic space,time and the eschewal of counter-city bombardment and ending in speedy return to the status quo ante characterise the subcontinent’s system of severely constrained wars. It is something the Indian military has adjusted to,if not wisely then only too well.

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Adjustment has involved the Indian military foregoing large holdings of war stock (ammo,shells and chemical explosives) and war wastage reserve (spares and petroleum,oil,lubricants) that would have enabled fighting wars to a decision. Budgetary allocations have instead gone into acquiring the latest tanks,guns,aircraft,warships and submarines. Resource scarcity,however,ensures that not enough of these can be procured to achieve a 2:1 conventional military superiority war planners hanker for but which edge,assuming it was achieved,could not,for the afore-mentioned socio-political reasons,have been used to eliminate Pakistan. In any case,realising conventional superiority is unaffordable. For instance,a rough calculation suggests that inducting T-90 tanks in strength to maintain their numerical level in the armoured formations at the early-1990s level,which exceeded Pakistan’s only marginally,will require in excess of Rs 500,000 crores (at the 2006 value of the rupee and armament).

The Indian army has been reconciled for the last 20-25 years to Pakistan closing the gap. What it counts on is that enough of the Pakistani forces will be tied up in the Punjab and Kashmir sectors to permit fast-paced ‘Cold Start’ operations to accomplish shallow penetration of Pakistan along the Sukkur-Rahim Yar Khan line in the desert,with the captured territory being subsequently used as bargaining chips in the post-conflict negotiations. In such limited war scenarios,nuclear weapons do not come into play. But assuming Pakistan strays from the script and initiates nuclear weapons use,the certain nuclear annihilation it will face will be entirely its own doing. Even the most spineless Indian government will be compelled to react with total war.

But the situation is unlikely ever to reach that point because the nuclear bomb is perceived by the Pakistan army as a fail-proof insurance policy,whose deterrence utility is at a maximum short of actual use. Even so its nuclear arsenal makes it feel more secure,which is a good thing because an insecure Pakistan will at once be unpredictable and dangerous. On the other hand,for India nuclear weapons are an attribute of great power and a strategic imperative-cum-military hedge against China. In this context,NFU is a device to match the Chinese rhetoric and to bolster India’s image as a “responsible” nuclear weapon state. Whatever its doctrinal worth,NFU will not prevent first use against any country if it is mandated in crisis situations.

Alas,the pattern of fighting short and indecisive wars with a weak and vulnerable country that is less than a credible threat — Pakistan’s Gross Domestic Product is less than a quarter of the market cap of the Mumbai stock exchange! — has shaped the Indian armed forces’ “small military” mindset. Pakistan — in realistic terms no more than a nuisance — has drawn disproportionate attention and aggressive treatment from the Indian military,even as the Indian army’s capability against the profound and potent threat posed by China is pathetic. Military infrastructure,like roads,remains undeveloped. And the urgent requirement of three to four,but ideally nine,Light Mountain Divisions,equipped with advanced portable howitzers and light tanks,for offensive operations on the Tibetan plateau has been languishing for forty years.

The Indian military apparently is content with its minor league status as evidenced in the defence expenditure priorities. A rough estimate indicates that compared to 26-32 per cent of the defence budget annually spent on Pakistan-specific and capital-intensive armour and mechanised formations,the proportion of the monies expended on Plains Infantry Divisions (useable mostly against Pakistan) is 16-22 per cent,on Mountain Divisions is 13-16 per cent,on air force’s strike squadrons is 5-8 per cent,on air superiority /counter-air assets 4-8 per cent,on air defence 5-7 per cent (with the bulk of the aerial assets being short-ranged and primarily meant for Pakistan contingencies),and 4-6 per cent each on the surface navy and submarines. As a result of its unchanging anti-Pakistan orientation and strategic myopia,the Indian military remains stunted. And as a vehicle for the country’s great power ambitions it cannot muster the mileage.

The writer is Professor at the Centre for Policy Research,New Delhi,and author most recently of ‘India’s Nuclear Policy’.

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