The last point made in the controversial interview given by Indian Army (IA) chief General Bipin Rawat was his belief that ‘limited war’ with Pakistan was not likely. In this point at least, the general is not beating the drums of war, though the same cannot be said of some of his colleagues like Air Force chief B.S. Dhanoa, who directed the IAF to be ready for a short-duration war with Pakistan last month. The key and simple lesson of the many wars of history is that it is easy to start them, but very hard to figure out how they will end. Ask the Germans in 1939, the Japanese in 1941, or, for that matter, the Pakistanis in 1965. When it comes to war, there are simply too many independent variables at play.
It is important to reflect on this, considering the rising temperatures in Jammu & Kashmir, where the Indian Army’s corporate belief is that it is involved in a proxy war with Pakistan. The Army may be sanguine that war with Pakistan is not around the corner, but the same cannot be said of the social media or the jehadi anchors who, in the absence of a coherent government policy, influence policy in an unconscionable manner.
On paper, the Indian military vastly outnumbers its Pakistani counterpart both quantitatively and qualitatively. India’s army is 12 lakh strong, compared to Pakistan’s 6,50,000. The IA has 4,000 tanks, including 1,600 T 90s, while the Pakistan Army (PA) has some 650 MBTs and 1,000 second-line tanks. The difference is even more marked in the case of the Air Forces and the Navies.
India’s Cold Start strategy now has little surprise. And the Pakistani Army has focused on stopping and trapping them.
India lacks the capacity for precision long-range strike to knock out the Pakistani military in a short war, as, for example, the Americans did with Saddam Hussein or the Taliban. There is nothing in the equipment and organisational profile of the IA today, which indicates it can quickly breach or bypass the ditch-cum-bund defences in Punjab, or make a breakthrough in the mountain terrain, where there are limits to employing forces and firepower. It could do better in the desert, but ‘doing better’ could well mean reaching the Indus, with its attendant escalatory consequences.
India’s military modernisation is a patchy process, leaving key gaps in its force profile. For example, it lacks self-propelled artillery, which would be vital for any armoured thrust into Pakistan. Likewise, its mobile air defence systems are seriously outdated.
There are two aspects to Indian efforts—the first is modernisation, or replacing obsolete equipment; the second is enhancing its capabilities to newer and qualitatively higher levels. As the record shows, it is managing the first task with considerable difficulty. Given the modest increases in its military budget, it is hard put to replace older systems and acquire new equipment.
In any case, even if the Modi government manages to cut through the thicket of delays, it will be a decade before that equipment is meaningfully assimilated into the Indian military to make a difference. Indeed, the present focus of the government has been to make up shortages in ammunition, missiles and critical equipment for the so-called War Wastage Reserves (WWR). So, while there has been an improvement in India’s ability to undertake a war now, it is only in the sense of making existing and, in many cases, obsolete equipment battle-worthy.
Since the Kargil war, India has explored ways and means of deterring Pakistan’s proxy war. It first theorised on the concept of ‘limited war’ and then, after the Operation Parakram fiasco of 2002, began to think of a Cold Start doctrine, through which it would quickly grab key bits of Pakistani territory in bites small enough to avoid crossing the nuclear threshold.
However, as of now, offensive forces have not been stationed near the border for a quick move, and neither have they been provided weapons and equipment for the task. So, any Indian offensive will tread on the beaten path of a long mobilisation, which would rob Cold Start, or its new version, ‘proactive strategy’, of the element of surprise.
Rawalpindi believes that it has sufficient forces to blunt any Indian military venture. After the 1965 and 1971 experience, Pakistani war plans no longer dream of planting their flag on the Red Fort. Instead, the PA has been practising ways to halt any Indian ingress and to use ground defences to trap Indian thrusts by counter-offensive manoeuvre.
The Pakistan Army may be half of that of India’s, but it also has half-million strong reserves. India, too, has such reserves, but the Pakistani advantage is that a significant portion of its Army comes from three districts in Punjab, making mobilisation of reserves a swift and meaningful process. Further, PA formations are located close to the border and and they can be quickly deployed in forward defences.
In reality, the situation has not changed much since 2002, when Musharraf boasted that he had blocked the Indian Army because the forces that Pakistan maintained were well above the ratio required to effectively counter the Indian Army.
The IAF does have a significant edge over its Pakistani counterpart and can carry out punitive bombardment of targets, but Pakistan will certainly retaliate and with its ballistic missiles it has the capacity to do so. This would put us on an escalator towards a larger, all-out war.
We cannot ignore the new dynamics of the Sino-Pakistan relationship. Indian diplomacy has singularly failed to break this nexus, despite the fact that it has been around since the 1960s. Instead of weakening, it is strengthening by the day and it has important military consequences.
During the Bangladesh War of 1971 and the Kargil conflict of 1999, Beijing studiously avoided supporting Islamabad beyond a point. That situation may not hold this time around, considering the more hawkish overall posture of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, its changed attitude to Arunachal Pradesh and the generally poor state of Sino-Indian relations.
It was only a limited conflict; still Kargil today would cost Rs 2.28 lakh cr (Assuming an average annual inflation rate of 6% since 1999, when the Kargil war was estimated to have cost Rs 10,000 cr a week)
New Delhi must also contend with the sharper increases in Beijing’s defence spending. It should be clear to everyone that our government cannot provide more money than it does for our defence forces. Indeed, a RAND Study comparing India and China noted that ratio of Chinese to Indian military spending will grow, and in addition “reported ineffectiveness and inefficiencies in the Indian research, development, and acquisition system suggest that, unless India succeeds in major reforms, the gap between China and India in the production of actual defense capabilities—quantitative and qualitative—could be even larger”. This study was issued in 2011; six years later there are no signs yet that deep reforms are being undertaken to make the Indian military more effective in terms of its equipment and organisation.
The really big question mark relates to the issue of nuclear weapons. A massive Indian thrust and an imminent Pakistani conventional defeat means that Islamabad’s hand will inch towards the nuclear trigger. And therein lies the danger. China and India are such large countries that even conventional setbacks will not be treated as being a catastrophe, but Pakistan is brittle. Given its geography, it is inherently vulnerable and, more dangerously, it is psychologically insecure vis-a-vis India, and hence the threat of use of nuclear weapons in the face of defeat is a real one.
And it is this danger that would bring external intervention into any war-like situation, either through the US and its allies, or by China. The US concerns are dual—the first set relates to instabilities that could affect the outcome in Afghanistan, something for which Washington still looks at Islamabad for help. But neither the US nor the world community can stand by if nuclear war clouds gather in the region, because any nuclear conflagration will have global consequences.
There are many chicken hawks in India who say that the Pakistani threat to employ nuclear weapons is a bluff. Perhaps it is, but it is a tough one to call. Dealing with them is not easy, with just four or five weapons and a missile that can only go half way to the US, North Korea has stymied the greatest power in the world.
India may believe that nuclear weapons are merely to deter adversaries, but the Pakistani doctrine is quite clear—they are for ensuring that it does not suffer military defeat at the hands of India. Anyone familiar with the PA’s hatred for India should know that it would be quite willing to cut Pakistan’s nose to spite India’s face.
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation)