Meeting India's military challenge

Thursday, January 28, 2010

During US Defence Secretary Gates’ recent visit, we have again heard the refrain of our Western friends that terrorism and the Taliban, not India, pose an ‘existential’ threat to Pakistan.

But India’s own actions and pronouncements belie these Western assertions. For the past year, India has refused to resume "composite dialogue" and has regularly threatened military action against Pakistan in the event of another Mumbai-like incident. And, while protesting loudly about pro-Kashmiri militant groups like the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, India has been busy fomenting dissension and insurgency in Balochistan, FATA and other parts of Pakistan.

It was hardly helpful that Secretary Gates virtually endorsed India’s belligerence when he told reporters in New Delhi that "it’s not unreasonable to assume India’s patience would be limited were there to be further (Mumbai-type) attacks." It would have been better if India was told that it is its posture which risks an Indo-Pakistan conflict and that anti-Indian violence will end once New Delhi halts its suppression of the Kashmiri people.

Any lingering doubt about India’s hostile intentions and policies towards Pakistan should have been set to rest by the new military doctrine outlined recently by the Indian army chief. General Kapoor identified five thrust areas for the Indian military build-up: the ability to fight a two-front war against Pakistan and China; optimise capacity to counter asymmetric and sub-conventional threats; enhance capabilities for strategic reach and "out-of-area operations from the Persian Gulf to the Malacca Straits; acquire strategic (intercontinental) and space-based capabilities and ballistic missile defenses, and ensure a technical edge over adversaries (that is, Pakistan and China).

The new doctrine reflects India’s great power aspirations. But, the greatest danger for Pakistan emanates from the concept of the so-called ‘Cold Start’ strategy, propounded by General Kapoor, to mobilise and strike fast (within 96 hours) at Pakistan "under a WMD overhang". At its meeting on January 13, 2010, Pakistan’s National Command Authority "took serious note of recent Indian statements about its capability to conduct conventional military strikes under a nuclear umbrella" describing this as "oblivious to the dangerous implications of adventurism in a nuclearised context."This is, of course, not the first time India has contemplated a limited war or a conventional attack against Pakistan after South Asia was nuclearised. Indian leaders and military officers have often threatened ‘hot pursuit’ and ‘lightning strikes’ against training camps across the LoC in Kashmir. But they could not ignore Pakistan’s stance that no war between India and Pakistan could be conceived as a limited war. In 1987, and again in 2002, India contemplated a full-scale attack against Pakistan. On both occasions, India discovered that it did not have the capacity to overcome Pakistan’s conventional defences.

India no doubt hopes that with the western weapons faucets now open to it, it can, in the near future, acquire the capability to defeat Pakistan in a conventional conflict. All the new capabilities and weapons systems acquired by India, whatever the proffered rationale, can and will be deployed and used against Pakistan in the event of a future confrontation or conflict. Today, over 70 per cent of India’s military capabilities – land, air and naval – are deployed against Pakistan. There is no reason to believe that this proportion will change in the foreseeable future.

Pakistan cannot, of course, afford to match India’s military build up. Its response will have to be defensive, asymmetrical, innovative, and achieved at much lower cost. Pakistan’s forces may need to do some tactical rethinking. For example, an Indian tank force can be more effectively destroyed by drones and missiles rather than a matching tank force. A large surface navy can be seriously damaged by submarines and mobile missile-boats. The eight Indian "battle groups" may be more mobile; but they would also be vulnerable to encirclement and destruction. Rather than spread themselves thin to defend the entire Eastern border, Pakistani forces could adopt an offensive-defensive strategy, focusing a thrust into Kashmir to bottle up half a million Indian troops there.

Following the post-Mumbai situation and the emergence of India’s Cold Start strategy, Pakistan’s armed forces have undertaken extensive war games to counter this threat. If the Indians have watched these closely, they should be clear in their minds that the danger of conventional adventurism escalating to the nuclear level cannot be ruled out. This was the general conclusion in 2002 — confirmed among others by Pentagon war games. The Indo-Pakistan "composite dialogue" was restarted in 2003 on the basis of the mutual recognition that a military conflict between the two nuclear-armed countries was too dangerous to contemplate.

The critical question which arises, therefore, is what has given Indian military planners the confidence now that a conventional attack will not escalate to the mutually disastrous nuclear level? There could be three possible reasons for India’s "new" confidence:

First, India may believe that the new capabilities it is acquiring – Israeli AWACs, US-Israeli-Russian ballistic missile defence systems, advanced strike aircraft – can effectively neutralise Pakistan’s nuclear strike force of missiles and aircraft. This would be shallow strategic thinking since Pakistan could ensure penetration of Indian defences through multiplication of its missiles and warheads.

Second, Indian plans may envisage, together with a Cold Start conventional attack, a pre-emptive strike against Pakistan’s strategic delivery systems. This is likely to push Pakistan to maintain at least a part of its strategic capabilities in a state of readiness to respond to a pre-emptive counter-force strike.

The third, and most ominous, possibility is that India has come to believe that foreign powers will prevent Pakistan, by threats or military means, from escalating a conventional conflict to the nuclear level.

If India launches a Cold Start strike, the world community would first try to halt the conflict. India may count on making quick military gains and then accepting a ceasefire. But, the priority western goal would be to prevent Pakistan from resorting to its nuclear deterrent. If diplomatic demarches and threats do not work, even more drastic measures could be contemplated.

Numerous media stories have mentioned the existence of US plans to seize or neutralise Pakistan’s nuclear weapons in the event of their threatened take over by Islamic radicals. These plans, if they exist, could be executed also in the context of an Indo-Pakistan conflict.

An article which appeared in the Foreign Affairs Quarterly (November-December 2009), "The Nukes We Need", is also worth noting. The two writers argue that "The United States will sooner or later find itself embroiled in conventional wars with nuclear-armed adversaries" and should have the "ability to launch precise, very low-casualty nuclear counter-force strikes." This would enable the US "to deter nuclear attacks" as well as have "retaliatory options." The writers point out that the US already has such low-yield nuclear weapons in its arsenal.

Despite the present counter-terrorism alliance with the US, Pakistan needs to factor in these scenarios into its deterrence posture and doctrine. As the Foreign Affairs article, cited above, asserts: "If not backed by the capability and credibility to execute threats, deterrence is merely a dangerous bluff."

To preserve the credibility of their nuclear deterrent capabilities, the major nuclear powers adopt some or all of three options: first, keep at least part of their nuclear-strategic weapons systems in a state of "high alert"; second, deploy a sufficient number of nuclear-armed missiles in hardened silos, deep underground, at secret and dispersed locations; and third, possess nuclear powered submarines as a credible second-strike nuclear force.

These objectives deserve the highest priority in Pakistan’s response to India’s new military doctrine. Pakistan’s response should also be accompanied by robust diplomatic action. This should include:

* A dialogue with China to coordinate an effective response to India’s new doctrine and capabilities at the diplomatic, strategic and tactical level.

* Press India’s weapons’ suppliers to refrain from providing it with the capabilities to execute its "adventurist" strategy; and

* Activating efforts to promote a South Asia restraint regime that provides for nuclear restraint, conventional balance and resolution of conflicts, especially Kashmir.

A clear and visible response by Pakistan is essential to convince India, and the international community, that Pakistan is determined to defend its independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity and that "cold start" could end in a hot finish.

The writer is a former Pakistani ambassador to the United Nations.