The Pakistani Army has just completed its summer war games, Azm Nau IV. The press release has it that with the Azm-e-Nau series of exercises held since 2009, Pakistan has arrived at an answer to India’s Cold Start. Its distraction so far with the ‘Af-Pak’ related security situation on its western border appears to be now behind it. With the Americans packing to depart, it’s back to business in South Asia.
The nuclear backdrop does make this worrisome. There is also no guarantee against a war breaking out. A conventional war cannot be guaranteed to stay conventional. It can be argued that Pakistan’s signalling that it is prepared conventionally is good in the sense that it will deter India on the conventional level. But the problem is that this gives Pakistan the confidence to provoke India at the subconventional level; providing a trigger for India to go conventional in response.
The ‘unthinkable’ cannot be wholly discounted. Pakistanis have gone down the plutonium route to miniaturise warheads so as to place them on missiles. Being short on planes, missiles are the mainstay of the Pakistani nuclear force. The latest of these missiles is a nuclear-tipped battlefield missile designed for use against Indian conventional forces. Its battlefield employment serves to bring nuclear war outbreak that much closer. Pakistan’s rationale for such lowering of the nuclear threshold is that it would deter India from launching Cold Start offensives; thereby, making nuclear war more remote.
This has got India debating its options. India could pay Pakistan back in the same coin of proxy war. It is easy to destabilise Pakistan, perpetually on the brink of being a failed and terror sponsoring state. However, there is no guarantee that this will end the terror provocations, and an unstable Pakistan is not necessarily in India’s interest.
India could rely on conventional asymmetry in its favour, deepened by successive defence budgets such as this year’s crossing of the INR250 thousand crores mark. The intent is to deter Pakistani adventurism and, if push comes to shove, to prevail at every level of the conflict, including nuclear. The idea is to gain ‘escalation dominance’, which means to convince the adversary to give up the fight rather than take it to the next higher level at which, yet again, it cannot hope to win.
India’s military has been on a learning curve ever since its conventional war doctrine was rendered obsolete by Pokhran II. While arriving at the concept of Limited War soon thereafter, it was unable to rise to the occasion when it was sorely tested at the next crisis in wake of the parliament attack. The embarrassment of having taken over three weeks to ready itself, led to the intensive thinking that resulted in the Cold Start doctrine.
The doctrine required multiple attacks into Pakistan at-the-double. Genuflecting to the nuclear backdrop, the army sought to limit these thrusts to shallow depths. Even so, this amounted to nuclear flirtation since the attack was to be rapid and along a broad front using resources with ‘pivot corps’ or defending formations and offensive formations staged forward closer to the border for the purpose. With the balance of its strike corps forming up in wake of the limited offensives and an air offensive unfolding simultaneously, Pakistan could well be stampeded into a nuclear decision in a truncated timeframe. This made Cold Start difficult to sell to the political masters.
Consequently, India has since distanced itself from Cold Start. An army chief has gone on to say that there was nothing called Cold Start. The contours of what it has come up with instead are indistinct. The publicity that attended Cold Start, intended no doubt to enhance its deterrent effect, is missing. Consequently, little is known of its successor, ‘Cold Start lite’. It apparently involves quick punches at key locations to punish Pakistan’s army and force its hand against destabilising forces within. While Pakistan could choose to up-the-ante, it is logically expected to be self-deterred when faced with the nuclear overhang. The nuclear scare is to help Pakistani army along in reining in its jihadists in a ‘Pakistan first’ strategy.
At the end of its summer exercises, the Pakistani army has claimed that it is in a position to deploy fast enough to the borders to give Indian attacks a bloody nose. This challenges India’s expectation that Pakistan would choose to lose cheaply than resoundingly at the next higher level. India will need to take the fighting up a notch higher. Its air force is also unlikely to sit out the war. This amounts to getting back into nuclear danger zone.
Clearly, even if a summer’s end finds both militaries more practiced, it does not mean either nation is any safer. The writing on the wall is to not only draw up the calendar for talks agreed on by Salman Khurshid and Sartaz Aziz at their meeting in Brunei recently, but have the two prime ministers meet swiftly to take the reopening forward.