|Mountain Strike Corps: The nuclear dimension|
Developments along the China front have been considerable over the year. Cumulatively they indicate a more assertive Indian posture. India has gone in for a Rs. 60000 crore worth of infrastructure development along the Line of Actual Control. In addition to two divisions in a holding role already raised, another Rs 60000 is to be spent on raising one mountain strike corps (MSC) and two independent mountain brigades over the next five year defence plan.
This change is being viewed as far reaching as the mechanization of the eighties. However, nuclearisation by the late eighties had impacted the change then leading to the ‘father of mechanisation’, General Sundarji to rue when in retirement that Exercise Brasstacks had proven to be the last opportunity for large scale offensive maneuvers. Likewise, it can be expected that the nuclear factor will have implications for the army’s current expansion, if different. This article examines the nuclear dimension with which the mountain strike corps will have to contend.
The wider nuclear context is framed by both India and China subscribing to a ‘No First Use’ (NFU) doctrine. Since this is a unilateral undertaking, it may be rescinded by either at any time. Some analysts point out that Chinese NFU has a caveat that it is not applicable to its own territory. Extending its perception of own territory to ‘South Tibet’ or Arunachal Pradesh, they argue that first use on its part cannot be ruled out. Therefore the nuclear level must not be ignored. While operational level stimulus for nuclear employment is unlikely for these strategic weapons to come into play, they can be expected to figure at later stages, in which either side is attempting to prevent defeat. The expectation could be that threat of use or lower order first use could help force war termination.
Hypothetically, retracting from NFU itself would be a significant move to indicate that sensitive thresholds are being crossed in a conventional war, such as in India’s case for instance in the event Chinese manage to cross Bomdi La. In any case, the theoretical option of graduated nuclear response indicates that there is space for Limited Nuclear War. Despite its implausibility, limitation in the nuclear domain can be restricted to specific targets or theatres: for instance, strikes on strategic lines of communications such as mountain passes or strategic bridges in the hinterland. The variegated capability available with both states in terms of types of weapons and delivery platforms and the nuclear weapon numbers make this possible. Missiles have been known to be deployed in TAR and India is to stage forward a Brahmos regiment.
Such nuclear considerations will form the backdrop of deployment and employment of the MSC. Since as a potent force it has the potential to turn round an operational situation, it may trigger nuclear employment. Such employment at the operational level would at best be tactical nuclear first use. Acknowledging this as a possibility will help psychologically preparedness and training to operate in a nuclearised battlefield. The current levels of nuclear equipment are in all probability inadequate. These need also to figure on the acquisitions list, at least the protective gear.
Keeping the nuclear factor in mind implies that the MSC must be so employed as to reduce incentive of the enemy for first use. For instance, in case the signature of movement is minimized to the extent possible and the target in terms of concentration offered is minimal, then the enemy may refrain from introducing nuclear weapons into the conflict. The MSC must not also get into such an adverse position as to force the strategic leadership to consider first use by India. The assumption behind MSC employment must be such that nuclear weapons are not available for either progressing its operations or extricating it from unintended adverse situations. This will ensure that only strategic compulsions dictate nuclear weapons employment and operational concerns do not act as bottom-up compulsions at the strategic level.
The more significant aspect at the conventional-nuclear interface is that of choice of operational level objectives. In case the objectives are of a higher value and the effectiveness of the corps in achieving them in the event turns out to be of a superior order, then the possibility of enemy compensating for its conventional deficit in the sector through nuclear use increases. China may choose to exercise the option in case India poses it a military threat or forces an adverse military situation of higher order political costs. The circumstance of Chinese tactical resort to nuclear weapons in first use mode may prevail up to the time, perhaps till end of the decade, till when India reaches a level of notional equivalence; parity being ruled out. This is not true in the reverse case since India would not be breaking its NFU, not on account of any moral considerations, but for reasons of asymmetry.
Indian equivalent use of nuclear weapons in response will inevitably follow since India’s doctrine is one of ‘assured retaliation’. The factor, pointed out by Gurmeet Kanwal, that the waters contaminated by nuclear use all flow into the Bay of Bengal will be a primary consideration in such retaliation. However, such response may not be escalatory. This is not necessarily an adverse circumstance for conventional forces, since the nuclear factor is more manageable at lower levels of exchanges. The ability to exploit such nuclear use must be intrinsic to the MSC, both in terms of equipment inventories and NBC training levels. Resilience, self-sustenance and survivability of the MSC will then be sorely tested. MSC must in such circumstances conduct its campaign to reduce any reliance on nuclear weapons, since once introduced every endeavour to terminate exchanges at the lowest level of nuclear use will be in evidence.
Even if nuclear use is less significant for the China front, the inevitable dual tasking of the MSC for the Pakistan front implies that the nuclear dimension needs thinking through. Its arrival in the western theatre may compel Pakistan to compensate by bringing the nuclear backdrop to foreground, at a minimum through rhetoric. Here, the brief sketch of the nuclear dimension has been to serve as trigger.