|Conflict strategy for the decade
The beginning of the decade is variously dated to the beginning of 2010 and at other places to 1 January 2011. Be that as it may, a preview of conflict possibility over the coming decade, or balance of the decade if you will, is warranted. Any such preview must begin with and remain anchored in India’s national aim and grand strategy. This article attempts to outline the appropriate security strategy for the coming decade.
India’s grand strategy is to protect and further its economic trajectory. Economic power, seen as furnishing power in general, requires at least another decade of consolidation. This implies that India’s security strategy, that is an outflow of grand strategy, would require working towards keeping the forthcoming decade free of conflict and in case of conflict outbreak to ensure that this does not divert India from its economic trajectory. How can such an outcome be brought about?
Keeping the decade free of conflict is not entirely dependent on Indian strategy. Conflict could be imposed on India by instability in its neighbourhood. For instance, on the Pakistan front, Obama’s December review promises culmination of the ‘surge’ in checking the momentum of the Taliban in 2011 and perhaps a roll back by 2014. In case of either a positive or negative outcome, regional stability could be impacted adversely. In case the Taliban is on the ropes, Pakistan or its proxies could engineer another Mumbai to divert attention onto a regional crisis. In case the Petraeus plan does not work, then triumphalism could infect the Taliban and its state sponsor. Therefore, continuous engagement with the possibility of conflict is the first step.
Such thinking will help identify what needs be done to deter conflict and in case this cannot be done, to limit it. Limitation is important in order that the security situation does not force a costly diversion from or burden on India’s growth story. That this is the line of thinking in the security establishment is evident from the statement of the Army Chief, declaiming the existence of a ‘Cold Start’ doctrine and indicating that the Army has catered for proactive ‘contingency’ operations. The preparations and the strategic communication indulged in by the Chief is itself an effort at deterring sub-conventional attack on India. The very term ‘contingency operations’ spells limitation. Thus, an effort at both deterrence and catering for its break down through building in limitation can be observed.
Ongoing military developments such as acquisitions, increased defence budgets etc are indicators of like intent across the spectrum of conflict. Escalation dominance that is expected to ensue from higher military asymmetry would enable deterring of an escalatory counter by Pakistan. Higher capability levels would enable easier reckoning with Pakistani counter, thereby lessening both the nuclear overhang as enabling limitation. Not having the capability would entail higher exertion or expansion of conflict, militating against its limitation.
While it suits Pakistani agenda to project future conflict as one fraught with escalatory potential, to enable it to pursue its proxy war with impunity, India needs to be aware of the escalatory potential since escalation would be dependent in part on Pakistani decisions, forced by considerations such as ‘face saving’, internal instability, right wing tilt etc. A review of the potential for conflict escalation is below.
In case of another Mumbai 26/11, contingency operations including surgical strikes are by now indubitably on the table. Pakistan may choose to ignore the option of a defensive counter and instead opt for a military adventure. To preempt Pakistan’s aggressive moves or to counter them elsewhere, India could choose to selectively launch operations as envisaged in now discredited Cold Start formulation. Pakistan, unable to face the fait accompli of Indian advantage, may escalate to a full blown conventional conflict. This may trigger Indian pincers across the international border to a depth corresponding to Indian appreciation of Pakistani redlines. India would be content to terminate the conflict at any of these stages, since in comparison with Pakistan, that has nothing to lose but much to gain in terms of Chinese assistance, India has much to lose on the economic front, particularly in relation to China.
At the nuclear threshold level, India’s military moves would be mindful of both inadvertent triggering of thresholds as also any nuclear signaling Pakistan could resort to. The latter includes testing missiles, testing nuclear devices, ‘green field’ demonstration strikes and even perhaps a strike after due warning on captured territory such as an enclave. While these do not necessarily demand a nuclear response by India, Indian nuclear strategy, informed but not restricted by its nuclear doctrine, would likely prove responsive, in order to display resolve for in-conflict deterrence. The next higher, nuclear level of the spectrum is one that both sides have a mutual interest in avoiding.
The point that emerges is that escalation could happen once a conflict is underway. The response would be dictated by the conflict aim, itself a function of the overall national aim. India’s strategy would be a combination of deterrence and limitation. In a way this is paradoxical. The intent to limit may prove alluring to the enemy to provoke or escalate, thereby diluting deterrence. This apparent underside gives rise to the alternative strategy option of being both proactive and aggressive. The debate is worth engaging in, but clearly the exercise of choice either way is a political prerogative.
Such a political choice may well face the decision maker as early as next year. It should find the military ready on three counts: one, to take proactive but limited action as currently envisaged by its leadership; two, to take the battle with finality to the enemy aggressively as held by the alternative formulation; and lastly, for continued Indian restraint. The military would require facing up to either the test of combat and remaining untested, with the latter, being unpalatable, proving equally challenging. Seeing security and military strategy as ensconced in wider national strategy, and the international strategic circumstance, may help ease any unease.
Ali Ahmed is Research Fellow at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses (IDSA)