“The most fantastic wargame the world can ever have seen,” an excited magazine called it. In the summer of 1955, the Fourth Allied Tactical Air Force, along with the United States’ Sixth Fleet and 49th Air Division, hurled itself at Belgian, British and Dutch forces, supported by the Second Tactical Air Force. Exercise Carte Blanche was the first effort to simulate what would happen when Nato used its new tactical nuclear weapons to beat back Soviet armour driving towards the heart of Europe.
In less than a week, the answers were in: 1.7 million dead, 3.5 million injured, large parts of Europe levelled by 335 nuclear bombs. The mock-Soviets won, despite Nato’s use of tactical nuclear weapons. That is, if the desolation could be called victory: “…there would be no winners and no losers,” Air Commodore Peter Wykeham-Barnes told journalists of the new kind of war.
Last week, behind closed doors, the US held out a stark message to Pakistan’s visiting Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. India’s government, he was warned, was almost certain to authorise strikes against jihadist infrastructure inside Pakistan in the event of a mass-casualty terrorist strike. Had terrorists succeeded in blowing up a passenger train in Gurdaspur earlier this summer, war might well have been the outcome.
Few believe PM Nawaz is serious about his promise to take on the Lashkar-e-Taiba — an organisation the Pakistani state has long patronised. For both Indians and Pakistanis, it is important to start talking about the costs of failing to do so.
The facts driving the US’s grim warnings are known. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has an air force that India’s intelligence services provide with targeting data on at least a dozen jihadist camps in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. The army is confident it can inflict punishment across the Line of Control (LoC), and contain the inevitable retaliation. The PM, in his election campaign, promised to “speak to Pakistan in its language” on terrorism — and would be under pressure to deliver if a large terrorist attack occurred. Frustration has long mounted in India about the lack of means to deter nuclear-armed Pakistan from backing jihadist proxies.
In 2001-02, then PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee threatened war after India’s Parliament was attacked — only to be deterred by the prospect of a nuclear conflagration. Although the near-war did push the Pervez Musharraf regime to initiate a de-escalation of the jihad in Kashmir, learning the right lessons about the costs of crisis, it also taught the Pakistan army that its nuclear weapons would deter India from actually going to war. Following Musharraf’s departure, his successors thus felt able to resume their covert war — leading up to 26/11.
In a crisis meeting held as Mumbai burned, then PM Manmohan Singh is known to have asked military commanders for options. The air force noted that there wasn’t enough intelligence for precision strikes on jihadist camps across the LoC. General Deepak Kapoor, then army chief, wasn’t confident the army could successfully wage a short-duration war.
Even as India has sharpened its sword though, Islamabad has also strengthened its shield — growing its nuclear arsenal and letting its willingness to use these weapons be known. Hans Kristensen and Robert Norris estimated earlier this year that Pakistan’s arsenal has expanded to between 110 and 130 warheads — exceeding levels the US estimated it would reach in 2020.
The Indian gamble is this: Air strikes and small military operations on the LoC won’t give Pakistan enough reason to escalate a conflict, mired as it is in a sapping internal war. Although there would likely be some retaliation against the Indian strikes, punishment for terrorism would have been delivered. India might have to absorb some blows in return, the thinking goes, but both sides could, plausibly, declare victory — an attractive end-state for political leaders.
The story, though, may not end there. Terrorists will, almost certainly, retaliate against the destruction of their infrastructure by staging more attacks. India’s government will have no option but to hit back. Each successive phase of Indian retaliation will, inexorably, be that much more intense, as New Delhi seeks to compel Pakistan’s military establishment to act against its terrorist proxies.
Ever since 1990, when China tested Pakistan’s first nuclear weapon on its behalf — in the midst of a crisis sparked off by the Khalistan insurgency — the fear of such a war has haunted Pakistan’s strategic thinking.
Lt Colonel Syed Akhtar Husain Shah, writing in a Pakistan army publication in 1994, warned that the “probability of the application of nuclear devices at the strategic and tactical level will be high”.
Like Pakistan, the US had hoped tactical nuclear weapons would blunt the Soviet Union’s conventional-power edge. In 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower took office, with a plan of budget cuts that needed US forces in Europe to be reduced to 5,00,000 from 1.5 million — and thought nuclear weapons would even the score. From the mid-1970s though, US military manuals simply stopped trying to tell commanders how to fight a nuclear war: Simulations like Carte Blanche made it clear there wasn’t a winnable option.
In 1962, Exercise Fallex concluded that 10-15 million Germans would be slaughtered in a limited nuclear war — this, despite targeting instructions designed to minimise civilian casualties. In 1972, the Soviet general staff completed the last of a series of exercises simulating a European nuclear war. The numbers were stark: Eight million dead, 85 per cent of Soviet industrial capacity wiped out, the army degraded by a factor of 1,000; the European part of the country reduced to an uninhabitable wasteland. The two Cold War adversaries came to the conclusion, in the 1980s, that a war in Europe was unwinnable — and focussed on enhancing their conventional defensive means instead.
For Pakistan, there are obvious lessons here. Its nuclear weapons may not deter Indian retaliation — and may not succeed in ending a conventional war, should one begin. Although cultivating ties with anti-India jihadists may seem attractive to a military establishment whose legitimacy is under challenge from hostile Islamists, it is a high-risk strategy. The generals need to ask themselves if risking annihilation is an acceptable price for legitimacy.
India, in turn, needs to consider that the goddess of the battlefield is fickle with her favours. “If the military art could be reduced to arithmetic,” Soviet nuclear theoretician General Andrian Danilevich observed, “we would not need any wars. You could simply look at the correlation of forces, make some calculations, and tell your opponent, ‘we outnumber you 2:1, victory is ours, please surrender’.”
“The correlation of force is significant,” he concluded, “but there is also a sea of specific, subjective factors, or even random events, which reduce these objective factors to nil”. For years now, both countries have worked on the assumption that time is on their side. From the status quo to the apocalypse, though, might not be as long a walk as we imagine.