How will a nuclear war in South Asia play out? Brigadier (retd) Gurmeet Kanwal discusses the nuclear options should Pakistan reach its red lines quite early in a conflict.
Kanwal is an old friend and we have had umpteen discussions on this subject here and abroad in many conferences, some with Pakistani strategists as well.
In his column last week, he writes: “They have been particularly vocal in holding out the threat of employment of tactical nuclear warheads (TNWs) against Indian forces. For almost three decades, India has shown immense strategic restraint despite grave provocation from Pakistan. However, first in Pathankot in January 2016 and then in Uri in September 2016, India’s red lines were crossed and the government was left with no option but to include calibrated military measures in its response."
Elsewhere in the same article, Kanwal says: “The conventional wisdom in India is that there is space for limited war below the nuclear threshold. Though Indian military retaliation to a major terrorist strike would be carefully calibrated to avoid threatening Pakistan’s nuclear redlines, under certain circumstances the exchanges could escalate to a war in the plains.”
Quite obviously, because we seem to have accepted Pakistan’s declaratory policy of threatening early escalation to the nuclear step, India seems to have given itself few options of imposing costs on Pakistan.
So far it has restricted itself to minor cross-border raids, the latest of which Kanwal describes as “carefully calibrated military measures".
These kind of calibrated military measures, or "surgical strikes", have been taken several times in the past.
This particular raid by about 25 troopers, mostly para-commandos, on June 30, 2011, killed 13 Pakistan army troopers; and in retaliation for an earlier gory deed committed by them, three dead Pakistani soldiers were decapitated and their heads brought back as trophies.
The assault sites were also carefully recced by UAV’s and the Indian assault team wore night-vision gear and carried special assault weapons.
The only difference was that the military leadership of the time didn’t call them carefully calibrated military measures or even more extravagantly as “surgical strikes".
|Pakistan could become a more irrational player if the mullahs seize military power. Hence, we are better off with it under the jackboots of the generals. (Photo credit: India Today)|
However, it is admitted that earlier cross-border strikes by Indian troops were on one or two targets, the present one reportedly was targeted at four or five jihadi areas simultaneously. The big difference between then and now is that the 2011 attack was against the regular Pakistan army while the recent attack was against a terrorist gang.
Neither the earlier attack nor the latest one resulted in any restraint on further cross-border strikes from the other side. Hence the utility of our retaliation must be questioned.
It is time for India to seriously contemplate higher steps on the escalatory ladder, like decapitating terrorist leadership or destroying terrorist camps, which are deeper inside PoK or Pakistani Punjab.
But we seem to have locked ourselves in a box of our making, having internalised Pakistan’s bombast of a low threshold of pain before it embarks upon a nuclear adventure.
That is largely because our nuclear theologians have tended to believe the Pakistani declarations of early crossing of their vaguely stated red lines. I disagree with their belief that Pakistan will employ theatre nuclear weapons (TNWs) even for a single major retaliatory territorial ingress by an Indian armoured column.
The escalation costs are too much even for an irrational actor like Pakistan postures itself to be. I don't believe Pakistan's declared policy is anything more than a posture since it knows the destruction that will descend upon it. That is if it takes India’s declared policy as gospel!
It used to be said that Soviet president Leonid Brezhnev used to get sleepless nights when Richard Nixon was US President because of Nixon’s madman reputation.
We have also seen how declared policy goes out of the window when confronted - Nikita Khrushchev backed down when the US Navy intercepted and blocked Soviet naval vessels bound for Cuba on the high seas during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.
Like Brezhnev, we too seem to have locked ourselves into knots believing Pakistani irrationality. On the contrary, its generals are rational persons and have given themselves free space for military provocations by professing irrationality.
This is a carefully crafted policy knowing how unprepared civilian leaders are for coercive diplomacy. That is why coercive diplomacy is out of the purview of Pakistan’s civilian leadership.
In our system, the military is not even a partner in policy planning and ignorance and a natural credulity make our civilian leaders more prone to believing the illogical and impossible.
I also feel India's declared posture of massive nuclear retaliation is not logical. To threaten complete annihilation of Pakistan even with the use of a single TNW is quite incredible.
We must be ready with a flexible response, with a bigger TNW or multiple TNWs as options. I believe if Pakistan knows annihilation is in store for it, even for a single TNW why will it do that and await complete destruction. Why will it not go for a major preemptive strike in the first place?
First of all I don't believe Pakistan's red lines are so down the ladder. They will only happen when our conventional forces inflict unacceptable losses. Hence I conclude that below the nuclear threshold, there is much more space for step-by-step escalation of conventional warfare.
However, Pakistan could become a more irrational player if the mullahs seize military power. Hence we are better off with it under the jackboots of the generals, and even better off with a full democracy under full civilian control.
If the mullahs seize control, we must contemplate a full Pakistani first-strike at a lower threshold and calibrate our responses accordingly.
Incidentally, this has been gamed many times and we have always found that the escalatory ladder has many steps to climb before the nuclear threshold.
And the nuclear threshold is an impossible or near impossible line to cross for even an irrational actor, as Pakistan currently postures itself to be. Generals are very rational people and generally abhor huge battlefield costs.