India and the Four Day War

The Indian military is caught between preparing for conventional war against neighbouring powers, Pakistan and China, and reorganising as an asymmetric deterrent against cross-border terrorism. It seems they are struggling on both counts.

By Shashank Joshi for

South Asia remains one of the last holdouts of symmetric, conventional warfare. Even with nuclear tipped missiles directed across the Indo-Pakistani border, wars between the two enduring rivals have been drawn out affairs. Ten years ago, the Kargil War stretched to twenty weeks. Accordingly, the prospect of a four-day war would pique the interest of any observer. At the beginning of this year, the media in both countries breathlessly reported that the Indian Chief of the Army Staff, General Deepak Kapoor, had boasted that India could win a two-front war against Pakistan and China within 96 hours, prompting Pakistan's foreign ministry to attack his 'hostile intent' and 'hegemonic and jingoistic mindset'.

But the most eye-catching claim, that India envisions a four day war, is an almost comic perversion of the reality. India's new offensive doctrine calls for rapid thrusts into Pakistani territory, but these are to begin, rather than end, within four days of the order being given - before diplomatic pressure can enmesh the political leadership and preclude a strike. The irony, overlooked in the public maelstrom, is that these war plans are now a full six years old, and the military remains far from being capable of actually executing an attack in anything like an effective manner.

The context

In 2002, Pakistan-based terrorists of the Lashkar-e-Taiba group (LeT), historically supported by the Pakistani military establishment, assaulted the Indian parliament. They inflicted grave symbolic and human damage, compounding the military standoff resulting from an earlier attack. India responded with the largest military exercise ever carried out by an Asian country, Operation Parakram, during which half a million troops were mobilised in an attempt to coerce Pakistan into curbing its passive tolerance of, and active support to, terrorism. Ten months later and with nearly 800 Indian soldiers dead (in mine-clearing, accidents, and skirmishes), India called off 'arguably the most ill-conceived manoeuvre in [its] military history', an ignominious end to the polity's most severe challenge since the Kargil War.

For a variety of reasons, the Indian political leadership deemed that it could not retaliate with a punitive or deterrent military attack on Pakistani soil. Some contest that it was the very existence of nuclear weapons that stayed India's hand, others that the restraint was a result of commercial and diplomatic pressure from Washington. Regardless, one important factor in the accretion of that pressure was judged to be the delay in mobilisation. India's three inertial 'strike corps' took nearly a month to arrive at the border from Central India by virtue of their enormous size and distance from the prospective theatre (although some contest that their speed was not unimpressive). Furthermore, once arrived the massed forces - trained to dismember Pakistan - seemed unable to offer a finessed response that would be narrow enough to avert nuclear retaliation.

Cold Start

In April 2004, the Indian military announced a new doctrine, Cold Start, which sought to integrate India's apparently discordant military and political strategies. Characterized as a doctrine of 'blitzkrieg', the strategy had three principal components.

First, army units would be reorganised into eight forward deployed and division-sized 'integrated battle groups' (IBGs), replacing the more cumbersome earlier formations held further from the border. Each, encompassing armour, artillery, infantry and air support, would theoretically be able to operate autonomously on the battlefield.

Second, India would rely on speed, both in mobilisation and in manoeuvre. To retain 'strategic surprise', the battle groups would punch into Pakistan at different and unpredictable points - to the extent that anyone can be surprised by a division-sized mass of weaponry headed towards an international border - and operate continuously. This would irrevocably commit the civilian leadership to a military solution, surmounting the perceived civilian reticence that has been the bane of a subordinate military. And, in contrast to the previous plan's 'armoured formations slicing towards the Indus', the battle groups would traverse only thirty to forty miles past the border (though this is still much further than has ever been attempted in an Indo-Pakistani war). This restraint would allow the IBGs to target the military, disrupting its command and control networks, but stop well short of locations more likely to trigger nuclear retaliation, such as population centres - 'flexible response' redux.

Third, the doctrine would exploit combined arms, relying on the Indian Air Force (IAF) (and, to a lesser extent, naval air power) to support the army by seeking air superiority and engaging in ground attack, the intended result being a massing of firepower rather than forces.

The overarching objective would be, as Walter Ladwig has argued in International Security, to 'establish the capacity to launch a retaliatory conventional strike against Pakistan that would inflict significant harm on the Pakistani Army before the international community could intercede, and at the same time, pursue narrow enough aims to deny Islamabad a justification to escalate the clash to the nuclear level'. In other words, the plan stems from ,  a particular diagnosis of deterrence failure over the last decade: what the political scientist Barry Posen has called 'political-military disintegration', a failure of extant military plans to mesh with political imperatives. Those imperatives are sharpened by India's democratic institutions, with the populace increasingly frustrated at the government's seeming impotence in the aftermath of not one but two attacks of Pakistani provenance. One of India's UN representatives, Arundhati Ghose, suggested that another attack would demand that 'we should go in and bomb the daylights out of them'. Arun Shourie, a prominent MP, demanded 'not an eye for an eye', but 'for an eye, both eyes'. And on a trip to New Delhi in January 2010, US defense secretary Robert Gates acknowledged that 'I think it is not unreasonable to assume Indian patience would be limited were there to be further attacks'.

The reality

However, it is not clear if military deterrence is a solution. It will not have escaped attention that these battle groups were conspicuously absent when LeT struck again in November 2008, wreaking havoc in Mumbai and unambiguously originating in Pakistan. Sumit Ganguly and Paul Kapur argue that 'although Pakistan is largely to blame for creating and nurturing the jihadis, it is no longer wholly in control of them', so 'they should not be seen simply as tools of Pakistan's policy'. Yet even if Pakistan could be coerced into suppressing terrorism, for a number of reasons India remains profoundly ill equipped for credible deterrence.

First, no amount of doctrinal innovation will eliminate the nuclear shadow. In the war of 1999 and the subsequent crises, Indian decision makers were acutely conscious of Pakistan's deterrent. For reasons including Pakistan's posture and India's politics and strategic culture, it may be that no Indian government will ever countenance military operations on undisputed Pakistani soil because of the intolerably high risk of a nuclear exchange. The reported deployment of battlefield nuclear weapons in 2002 and the publicly articulated threat  to use 'a few nuclear weapons on [Pakistan's] own soil against Indian attacking forces' underscores how simple it has been for Pakistan to lower its red lines. A flexible response to a flexible response, and one that will likely become even more supple over time.

Second, many other non-doctrinal factors, such as US pressure, were at work in restraining India in 2002 and 2008. India's diplomacy has made considerable ground in the last eight years, but American reliance on Pakistani intelligence and supply routes to Afghanistan places natural limits on American support for any Indian offensive.

Third, the emphasis on speed of response and movement would present challenges to civilian decision-making by lowering the threshold at which Indian leaders could make decisions to cross the border and, once an offensive began, reducing their reaction times. The compression of the military timetable and consequent pressure on civilian leadership would create resistance to the strategy's institutionalisation. This may be no bad thing for India, if the end result is a 'threat that leaves something to chance', but it could generate greater uncertainty.

Fourth, inter-service rivalry has hobbled various efforts at modernisation, and doctrine is no exception. Just as the role of an Indian Chief of Defense Staff has never materialised, for fear that it would be army-dominated, Cold Start has been stalled as it appears to threaten the organisational essence of the air force. Not only does it underplay strategic bombing, but it also ties down air force units to the fixed operational areas of battle groups and tasks them with close air support, rather than allowing them to use their larger numbers over the Pakistani Air Force. One former senior air force officer at the official Centre for Air Power Studies bluntly insisted that 'there is no question of the air force fitting itself into a doctrine propounded by the army', dismissing this as 'a concept dead at inception'. Without better coordination, whether politically imposed or organically developed, the army will struggle to bring others on board. The largely non-specialist civilian bureaucrats in the defense ministry have so far proven unable to arbitrate these 'turf considerations', and the numerous exercises since 2004 have highlighted the obstacles to effective joint warfare.

Fifth, the military's readiness is remarkably poor. Ammunition holdings remain well below the necessary levels, much ordnance is defective, the artillery shortage is worse than ever, only a minority of the army is able to move freely around the country, and there is a substantial shortage of the officers necessary to operationalise a plan that relies on initiative. During 1997-2002, Indian government auditors found that the army could make only 10 per cent of its planned acquisitions. During 2002-7, only a third of the necessary tanks could be procured. Nor is the logistical infrastructure of Cold Start in place. Shortages, inefficiencies, and corruption afflict the full range of the armed forces, from the highest level (vide the saga of the delayed aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov) to the lowest. After Mumbai, the army was forced to tell politicians that 'it would take them several weeks before it could prudently commence operations'. Its inertia at that time precluded even a strike from the navy or air force, since there was no guarantee the army could deal with a Pakistani response.

Sixth, even as the army is still grappling with the half-decade old doctrinal shift, it is trying to accommodate new tasks. When it met in 2009 to review the progress made in instituting Cold Start, it undertook a 'reconfiguration of threat perceptions and security challenges'. In particular, it emphasized what the army chief called 'a proportionate focus towards the western and north-eastern fronts' - meaning not only Pakistan, but also China.  Given the embryonic status of Cold Start, this represents a severe challenge. The defense ministry affiliated Indian think-tank Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis (IDSA) wrote that 'logically' a two-front war plan 'comprises first knocking Pakistan down by a blow from a Cold Start and then transferring the centre of gravity to the relatively slower paced, but more portentous conflict in the eastern Himalaya': to put it mischievously, a South Asian Schlieffen Plan. But with nine divisions already oriented to China, and the border dispute simmering, it is hard to see how the army is equipped for this.

The future

The Indian army's doctrine of 2004 had called for it to 'effectively project deterrence and dissuasion through the medium of strong, well-structured combat capability'. The strategic predicament in which India has found itself, facing terrorism originating from a country which is a 'major non-NATO ally' of the US, is a stringent one, compounded by raging insurgencies within. The failure of deterrence on 26 November 2008 in Mumbai was down to a great deal more than the army's posture, but to the extent that the Indian army of 2002 was the wrong one for the task, there are few signs of radical change.

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.


Shashank Joshi

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