Thursday, 31 May 2012

Taking Nuclear War-Fighting Seriously

IssueVol. 27.1 -Mar 2012| Date : 19 Mar , 2012

What are the implications of a nuclear battlefield? Since the early eighties, this question has been posed since Sundarji’s postal seminar on nuclear conflict while he was in command of the College of Combat (Army War College). However, then it was posed for an asymmetric setting in which India was depicted as not having the weapon while its putative adversary did. The question has resurfaced periodically with changes in the setting occasioned by India’s developing nuclear capabilities. The setting has since changed and today, India is arguably in an unacknowledged position of escalation dominance across the spectrum.
In the wake of Pakistan testing a tactical nuclear weapons system, the Nasr, the DRDO recently conducted tests of their missiles, the Shaurya and the Prahaar, which were then declared dual capable for both conventional and nuclear ordnance delivery. It appears that the technologists on both sides are in dialogue through a mutual demonstration of capabilities. These demonstrations underline the credibility of deterrence even as they confer a nuclear war-fighting capability. With time, these capabilities may well figure in the already variegated armouries of both nations and the battlefield scenario could well turn nuclear.
Since India has eschewed any intent of being the first to introduce nuclear weapons into a conflict, the option for first-use will lie with the adversary. Despite the operation of deterrence, the Indian military must be prepared to face a nuclear first-use and a possible aftermath of nuclear war-fighting. Press briefings during military exercises invariably elaborate on the preparedness in the event of a nuclear war – a part of signalling to enhance deterrence. The higher the capability, greater the credibility.
The increasing conventional asymmetry between India and Pakistan could make the latter risk the former’s nuclear doctrine of unacceptable damage.
What are the implications of a nuclear battlefield? Since the early eighties, this question has been posed since Sundarji’s postal seminar on nuclear conflict while he was in command of the College of Combat (Army War College). However, then it was posed for an asymmetric setting in which India was depicted as not having the weapon while its putative adversary did. The question has resurfaced periodically with changes in the setting occasioned by India’s developing nuclear capabilities. The setting has since changed and today, India is arguably in an unacknowledged position of escalation dominance across the spectrum.
The contention here is that it is time to shift the simulated backdrop of a nuclear conflict to the ‘foreground’. The psychological fallout of a ‘backdrop’ is that while the nuclear context to the conflict is there, it has been taken care of by effective deterrence enabling continuation of conventional conflict. Even if this expectation is found to be accurate, there is a case for preparing for the worst – a situation in which the ‘backdrop’ comes to the ‘foreground’. Therefore, the necessity of the re-appraisal.
There is an equal likelihood of the nuclear factor being in the foreground hereon. Firstly, the increasing conventional asymmetry between India and Pakistan could make the latter risk the former’s nuclear doctrine of unacceptable damage. This asymmetry owes also to its preoccupation in the West that will continue till at least mid-decade. Secondly, Pakistan may resort to a ‘shot across the bow’ necessitating a punitive nuclear response from India. Nevertheless, the demonstration strike will have the effect of escalating a nuclear conflict. Thirdly, even if nuclear exchanges were to take place ‘over the heads’ of conventional forces, the conventional conflict will continue apace till political decree otherwise. Ability to fight on will enable greater options for the political head in the circumstance. Lastly, while the Pakistani decision maker can be reckoned to be rational, a war may witness internal political pressures in Pakistan, such as from extremists, that may render rationality askew. Therefore, to work in the nuclear factor is warranted.
Pakistan may resort to a ‘shot across the bow’ necessitating a punitive nuclear response from India.
Since nuclear first-use would be costly in the long run, both politically and militarily, Pakistan would like to derive maximum benefit. Nuclear first-use by Pakistan is therefore unlikely to be for tactical purposes. Instead strategic advantage would be sought, such as nuclear signalling for war termination purposes. Ensuing strategic exchanges, involving as they would counter value, counter command and control and counter force targets, may not be of direct relevance to combat forces. However, there are operational level advantages that Pakistan could attempt that are of immediate relevance. For instance, if there are no troops in the vicinity of an amphibious landing, Pakistan may well seek to compensate for its weakness with a strike either at the bridgehead or on the supporting flotilla. Therefore, from the point of view of the question posed, it would appear that the operational level use of nuclear weapons needs some thought.
The operational level utility is enhanced in case of conventional asymmetry. In a defensive scenario, if reserves are not suitably poised to launch counter attack and take up a counter penetration posture, the breakthrough could be addressed by nuclear means. This would be not so much to halt the manoeuvre directly but to impose a time penalty for the disadvantage to be reversed. The breakout would be slowed down. A tactical pause may be forced so as to have the logistics tail cope, to reconfigure for a nuclear battlefield and turn over troops.
The operational utility is enhanced for an offensive scenario. For instance, in case of proactive offensive operations by Indian forces taking Pakistani territory, any Pakistani offensive would require first breaking through its captured territory before making territorial gains on the Indian side of the Line Of Control or the International Boundary. In such a case, nuclear first use or strike subsequent to first use elsewhere may yet be on its own territory. This has a low opprobrium quotient, if one higher than the defensive use mentioned in the previous paragraph. Punching a hole in the Indian frontline would help it reach its culminating point later, thereby ensuring the gains it seeks from such a counter offensive.
The likelihood of later stage attacks is lower, since strategic exchanges may have been prompted by then. At this stage there may be a heightened nuclear threat to reserve concentrations, command and control nodes, logistics bases and bottlenecks. Their being spared first-use or early use would owe to their location on Indian territory, where strikes would have a higher opprobrium quotient. Likewise, but on a higher scale of opprobrium quotient, Pakistan could ‘take out’ an air field that may be in consequential support for the progress of land thrusts. Since this would be a counter military strike, the opprobrium quotient will be less than, say, a counter value strike.
For analytical clarity and practical start-point for looking at implications, a threat assessment can be carried out based on operational dividends, opprobrium quotient, collateral damage likelihood and alternative means of neutralisation available. This can be useful for countermeasures such as allocation of finite protection resources and location of NBC protection assets. Perhaps more important than the physical preparation and training is the neglected dimension of psychological preparedness.
While nuclear aspects do figure in military preparedness, as new reports from the latest military exercise in the Thar desert, Exercise Sudarshan Shakti, indicate, the psychological fallout of the nuclear battlefield needs greater reflection than has been accorded it thus far. The Defence Institute for Psychological Research could take this up scientifically, as also affiliated think tanks of the ministry and service headquarters academically. Studies can take the use of chemical weapons in the First World War as a start point. The weapon failed to break the military or national morale. It did not have a notable military effect in breakthroughs in the trench lines either. As a result, the weapons were not employed in the Second World War but they did serve as deterrents. Strategic bombing in the Second World War failed to break national morale also, and instead may have resulted in strengthening of the national resolve. However, nuclear weapons are usually taken as a being of a separate class in themselves. Therefore, the psychological effects of their employment on the front or in the hinterland need special study with their findings being incorporated into physical and psychological training regime.
To anticipate a finding, there is a need for organised evaluation on mobilisation of service families from cantonments and on-campus living on airfields. This would be required so as to keep the serviceman’s attention to fighting rather than distracted by family matters. The possibility of cantonments, particularly those closer to the border, coming under air and missile attack is higher since communications centres, headquarters and logistics bases may continue in such location. Even though mutual deterrence will operate, since enemy cantonments are equally vulnerable, escalatory possibilities exist. If service families are inadvertently targeted, then the likely response will be escalatory opening up the civil sphere for targeting, something that has been avoided in earlier wars in South Asia.
In case nuclear push were to come to shove, then among the middle order counter military target could well be a cantonment. Doing so would be seemingly less inflammatory, having a lower opprobrium quotient, than the targeting of a small-sized city. The expectation will be that families would have evacuated by then, targeting military infrastructure would keep it from being a counter value target. The effects could be minimised by targeting by tactical nuclear weapon in a low air burst mode to lessen the nuclear footprint. The scenario is only by way illustration of the psychological effects on the frontline of nuclear exchanges in the communication zone. The psychological impact of the frontline itself acting as a Ground Zero site is an obvious question needing exploration.
It has been assured by the political class and the technologists that India will not allow its forces to be at a nuclear disadvantage. Therefore, nuclear war-fighting may be for a very short duration and restricted to, at best, a few nuclear exchanges. This is enough to bring rationality and the need for self-preservation back into the reckoning in Pakistan. But to discount a nuclear battlefield altogether may be less than professional. It is to take Pakistan’s posturing at face value, despite knowing that bluff and bluster are not only have relevance for deterrence but that these form part of Pakistani strategic culture. Doing so is not to bring nuclear warfighting closer, but to reinforce deterrence in sending the unambiguous message that the conventional campaign will continue irrespective of the nuclear dimension superimposed on any such conflict.

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