In Any War, India's Conventional Superiority Will Prevai

The Pakistan government has failed to respond satisfactorily to India's demands to convincingly end terrorism emanating from its soil and to hand over terrorist leaders and fugitives from Indian justice. Though both governments have toned down the political rhetoric and war clouds are no longer hovering on the horizon, the palpable anger of the people after the terror attacks on Mumbai has not been assuaged and a future conflict with Pakistan remains a possibility.

Most analysts and commentators know that war is not a good option - it will add to the complexity of the challenge of cross-border terrorism without in any way helping to resolve it. Yet, there is widespread agreement that limited military measures and covert intelligence operations are necessary to raise the cost for the Pakistan Army and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to wage a proxy war against India through terrorism. Unless some punishment is inflicted on the real perpetrators, they will not be persuaded to terminate their low risk-high payoff strategy to destabilize and weaken India by "bleeding it through a thousand cuts".

The military measures that are actually adopted have to be carefully calibrated to ensure that escalation can be controlled short of all-out war. These include precision strikes by artillery, rocket and missile forces and air-to-ground strikes by fighter aircraft and attack helicopters against purely military targets in Pakistan-administered Kashmir so as to inflict punishment on the Pakistan Army, ISI and the leadership of the terrorist organizations acting against India. Special Forces raids will also be viable under certain circumstances. In case conventional conflict does break out, the endeavour should be to limit the fighting to the Line of Control in Kashmir so as to avoid risking escalation to nuclear levels.

There is, of course, some risk of conventional conflict spilling over from Kashmir to the plains. Though the Indian Army and Air Force still enjoy an edge over their Pakistani counterparts despite the slow pace of modernization and numerous operational deficiencies, Pakistan may choose to escalate the conflict for political reasons. The Pakistani armed forces have received considerable aid from the United States to fight the so-called global war on terror but are in no shape to successfully fight a war with India because of their large-scale commitment in the NWFP, FATA and Swat Valley and because of the recent battering that they have received at the hands of militant groups like the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

If conventional conflict does spill over to the plains, India's army and air force will plan to take the fight into enemy territory through their new concept of joint air-land offensive operations. This has been tested in a series of annual exercises that have included Poorna Vijay (2001), Vijay Chakra, Divya Astra, Vajra Shakti (May 2005), Desert Strike (November 2005), Sanghe Shakti (May 2006) and Dakshin Shakti-Brazen Chariots (March 2008). All of these exercises were aimed at concentrating and coordinating the firepower of all available assets and fine-tuning army-air force joint operations in a strategic setting premised on conventional operations in a nuclear environment.

The doctrine for offensive operations prior to Operation Parakram (2001-02) was to employ the massive combat potential of India's Strike Corps to advance deep into Pakistani territory to capture strategic objectives and to bring to battle and destroy Pakistan's Army Reserve (North) and Army Reserve (South), so as to substantially degrade its war machinery. This concept was evolved in 1981-82 and tested in Exercise Digvijay when General Krishna Rao was army chief. It was further refined during the famous Exercise Brass Tacks IV in 1987 by General K. Sundarji as chief of the army staff and was accepted as the army's doctrine for offensive operations in the plains.

While the option to strike deep and call Pakistan's nuclear bluff remains on the table, a new concept of offensive operations now under consideration is a combination of "cold start" and integrated battle groups (IBGs). During Operation Parakram the Strike Corps had taken too long to move to their concentration areas. The aim of Cold Start is to move rapidly from the cantonments directly to battle positions to launch a number of potent strikes all across the western border without prior warning to give India strategic advantage. IBGs based on combinations of infantry divisions and armored brigades are offensive battle groups capable of penetrating across the border over a wide front. Supported by massive firepower, IBGs can launch multi-pronged offensive operations into Pakistan without presenting large targets for nuclear strikes.

India's strike formations are now better capable of launching offensive operations quickly. Within 72 to 96 hours of the issue of the order for full-scale mobilization, a large number of IBGs based on strike divisions may be expected to launch offensive operations even as the defensive divisions are still completing their deployments on the border. Such simultaneity of operations will unhinge the adversary, break his cohesion and paralyze him into making mistakes from which he will not be able to recover.

Each strike division battle group will be specifically structured to achieve designated objectives in the terrain in which it is expected to be launched and yet be flexible enough for two or more of them to be grouped for concentrated operations under a corps HQ. This will enable them to bring to bear the combined weight of their combat power on a common military objective deep inside Pakistani territory. The "pivot" or holding Corps has been provided significant offensive capability that is now integral to them. The then army chief, General J.J. Singh, had stated that "they have been assigned roles, which are offensive as well as defensive..."

Should the Pakistan army find itself unable to stop the Indian juggernaut, it may consider launching nuclear strikes against India's mechanized forces operating inside its territory. However, Pakistan has a lot to lose by initiating nuclear strikes. Its military leaders are well aware that while India will sustain considerable damage in a Pakistani first strike, India's massive retaliatory strike will completely destroy major Pakistani cities, industry and combat forces and Pakistan will cease to exist as a nation state.

Under the circumstances, Pakistan's "red lines" are not as close to the border as the Pakistan army has been trying to convince Indian military planners to believe. Obviously, the red lines vary according to the terrain. For example, in the developed state of West Punjab, Pakistan's nuclear threshold will be much lower than in the Cholistan or Thar deserts, which are relatively less developed and, consequently, more thinly populated.

The nuclear tipping point in a conventional conflict is a matter of fine military judgement. A rational Pakistani approach would be to opt for a graduated response in case push comes to shove. Lt Gen Sardar F.S. Lodhi (Retd) has written about a demonstration warning shot followed by a low-yield nuclear explosion over Indian forces advancing inside Pakistani territory. If that fails to stop Indian offensive operations, Pakistan may choose to target a small border town in India. However, it will risk total annihilation.

In the end, India's conventional superiority will prevail and a future conflict in the plains may be expected to end on terms favorable to India. Hence, while war is not a rational option, there is no need to fear war and act timidly. India must act in its national interest and not continue to suffer the adverse consequences of Pakistan's interminable proxy war.

(Gurmeet Kanwal is Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi. He can be contacted at kanwal.gurmeet@gmail.com)    


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