writings of ali ahmed, PhD (JNU), PhD (Cantab), with due acknowledgement and thanks to publications where these have appeared. Download books/papers from dropbox links provided. Twitter: @aliahd66
Also see blog-www.subcontinentalmusings.blogspot.in. Former UN official, academic and infantryman. Author India's Doctrine Puzzle: Limiting War in South Asia (Routledge 2014). All views are personal.
Accustomed to the phrase ‘nuclear backdrop’ as the army has been over the past two decades, the title may require explaining. The assumption is that in case of introduction of nuclear weapons into a conflict, even at the lower order levels of nuclear first use and retaliation, the conflict is dramatically transformed from its original scope. The understanding that informs the pre-nuclear use situation, specifically conventional operations in a nuclear backdrop, has therefore to change to one in which conventional operations form the backdrop for a nuclear foreground.
The political and diplomatic dimension will be dominant and nuclear operations will supersede conventional operations, making the latter recede in significance, urgency and importance to the background.
This implies that conventional operations will require deferring to nuclear operations and would be subject to a greater stringency in so far as supporting the political and diplomatic dimension goes. Clearly, military aims and conventional objectives would require review. Since this can be anticipated, the contingencies can be thought through for early and speedy realignment of conventional operations.
There are two conceivable directions along which this could proceed. Operations duly tweaked for the nuclear situation could either proceed with greater vigour exploiting the nuclear shock or they could be more restrained and cautious since nuclear operations may proceed apace. In either case, the endeavour will be to gain a favourable position for conflict termination since this could, under the nuclear circumstance, be sooner than later in light of international conflict termination initiatives.
The latter may be more likely since quickening operations under conditions of mobility and logistics under nuclear conditions may not be readily possible. Also, the slow-down, to include tactical pauses, may help create the conditions for nuclear retaliatory strikes. Since counter strikes can be expected, caution in movement and particularly in reconfiguring of the communication zone may be necessary to prevent targeting from counter strikes.
On the other hand, the former – speeded up operations – may be more dangerous in a nuclear situation since, firstly, the enemy may get into a ‘use them-lose them’ dilemma; and secondly, his resulting conventional paralysis may make him rely more on the nuclear card. Also, own nuclear retaliatory strikes will require space for execution, uncluttered by ongoing conventional operations.
However, in case of enemy lower order nuclear first use or demonstrative strike, there could be a case for postponing nuclear retaliation and proceeding with conventional operations at a heightened tempo. As has been argued on the IDSA website in 2008 and recently in 2014, India’s nuclear doctrine lends itself to be interpreted accordingly. Since it states that nuclear retaliation will be of unacceptable levels in case of ‘first strike’, if India is to interpret ‘first strike’ as a higher order first use aimed at degrading India’s retaliatory capability, then India’s nuclear retaliation can be flexible – later and/or lesser. In case lower order strikes are met with a lower order nuclear retaliation the scope for conventional operations potentially enlarges.
From a politico-diplomatic point of view, India’s position to press on conventionally will be unassailable since Pakistan will be in violation of the nuclear taboo. India can retain the choice of punishing it either by nuclear means, by conventional means or both. In such a case, the retaliatory strike can be reconfigured to suit the conventional battle so as to together shape conflict termination.
Anticipating other down-flow effects from the nuclear level to the conventional level enables preparing for them. This collapsing of the two levels – nuclear and conventional – seen as distinct in the spectrum of conflict into one with the disappearance of the nuclear firebreak will require factoring into planning and preparation. As seen above, conventional operations will require playing second fiddle to nuclear operations and the military plane to the politico-diplomatic one, but not necessarily so such as in the case of lower order first use and proportionate retaliation.
Which of the two – speeding up or slowing down – suits the military is the input that the military needs to make, not only at the crux in face of enemy first use, but also in the discussion stage of doctrine formulation. Since both doctrines are up for revision – the nuclear doctrine being 11 years old and the conventional doctrine 10 years – the ongoing, run-up or warming-up stage, is the time for doctrinal free thinking.
Given that Pakistan will play the asymmetric card there will also be a collapse between the conventional level and the subconventional level. The Doctrine for Sub Conventional Operations (ARTRAC 2006) stops at the border. It does not talk about stabilisation operations that will be akin to low intensity conflict. In case of nuclear incidence, then the conventional-subconventional interface can be expected to be much more violent. Clearly, even subconventional doctrine that is closing on ten years may require being part of this doctrinal upheaval.
Since higher order nuclear retaliation risks stabilisation operations, this is an input that the military alone can provide. Such input tends to tilt the consideration towards ‘flexible’ nuclear retaliation. Alternatively, in case of default higher order nuclear retaliation, then the army may well require recoiling to the border so as to cauterise the social and humanitarian effects. In case it is in vicinity then the onus may fall on India to respond to the catastrophe, one it cannot meet in light of the subconventional challenge its conventional forces can be expected to meet.
The exercises have had the nuclear dimension as background. This needs reimagining so as to come up with operational level options in a war gone nuclear. One way to do this is to cease beginning exercises with an ‘I’ Day scenario in which ‘I’ stands for a mass terror incident. Instead, exercises could begin with an ‘N’ Day scenario in which ‘N’ stands for day of nuclear first use. Preparedness such as this helps with deterrence as also with its breakdown.
Effects on the conventional level of nuclear operations
In an op-ed piece in the New Indian Express (24 July), Manpreet Sethi of a sister think tank writes that, ‘it should also be made widely known that Indian troops have the ability to fight through tactical nuclear use.’ To her, this is necessary to, ‘send a message of preparedness to handle such use without bringing conventional operations to a halt or even confronting the political leadership with the choice of war termination, as assumed by Rawalpindi.’ This is to strengthen the present concept of deterrence that India subscribes to: deterrence by punishment.
Irrespective of how the competing concepts of deterrence influence the new nuclear doctrine when it emerges from an impending review, the point Sethi makes, that conventional operations cannot remain unaffected by advent of nuclear weapons on the battlefield, is of consequence. This part deals with possible implications of nuclear operations on conventional operations.
That there is a mutually influential relationship between the two levels – conventional and nuclear – has been recognised fifteen years ago in the Draft Nuclear Doctrine. The Draft had required India to maintain highly effective conventional military capabilities to raise the threshold of outbreak both of conventional military conflict as well as that of threat or use of nuclear weapons. Further, defence forces are to be in a position to execute operations in an NBC environment with minimal degradation. Since, barring the exceptions in the official doctrine of January 2003, the Draft has been adopted as the nuclear doctrine. These stipulations of nuclear doctrine therefore are operative for conventional operations.
That the army is cognisant of this is clear. Take for instance its turn from defensive defence to active deterrence with the reconfiguration for the eastern front. It has enhanced conventional deterrence and in the event of its failure, it can undertake operations without India resorting to the threat of use of nuclear weapons. This is to keep the NFU inviolate. In so far as continuing operations in a nuclear environment is concerned, the press reports from the generally well covered corps level exercises indicate that nuclear dimension, both conceptual and physical, is incorporated in these exercises.
However, as with everything, there is a room for improvement. What direction this should take would be dependent on visualising the nuclear battlefield. There are two ways this has been done. The first is in anticipating the manner Pakistan may resort to first use. Since India has second strike capability, that will with the operationalisation of the Arihant be unassailable soon, Pakistan will unlikely go for first strike. Therefore, lower order options are ruled in.
The Nasr, its tool for this, has two possibilities of employment. One could be as a shot across the bow, for strategic signalling. The purpose would be catalytic, to use the term of Vipin Narang, in order to energise foreign, read US, conflict termination efforts. This may well be in the form of a ‘green field’ option with no Indian military targets. The second could be more widespread in case India’s proactive offensives threaten to overwhelm the Azm-e-Nau-honed preparedness of Pakistani forces with Nasr and other nuclear weapons for operational level employment. This may be to stop an armoured formation in its tracks by either hitting spear heads or the shaft or support bases including fire support bases, logistics and supporting airfields.
The former will unlikely have any immediate effect on conventional operations. However, increased caution in terms of nuclear preparedness of troops in the combat and communication zone would require to be incorporated in operations, necessarily slowing these down. The effect of breaking of the nuclear taboo would be such as to make the diplomatic prong of strategy the more significant one. Operational level military moves would be conditioned by the need to support the diplomacy predominant action at the strategic level. Two options present themselves: either proceed with greater vigour under cover of the fact that Pakistan is in the nuclear doghouse; or be more cautious lest conventional moves complicate the political positioning at the strategic level or, worse, trigger avoidable nuclear escalation.
In case of the latter, more widespread use but at the operational level to redress emerging conventional disadvantage, India would be contemplating nuclear retaliation. The conventional moves would therefore yet again take second place, this time in relation to the nature of the retaliation. The nature of India’s retaliation and likely counter by Pakistan, alongside the intensified politico-diplomatic activity, would determine the direction of conventional operations. Next, there is also the possibility that has found mention in strategic circles that the international community may intervene more forcefully to include with military muscle, such as declaring no-fly-zones, for escalation control. This has increased in likelihood with the publication of the report in late 2013 that even a regional nuclear war would have global environmental consequences.
In this case, the tempo of conventional operations will be considerably degraded. While there would be immediate nuclear effects to cope with, shifting of gears in the form of rethinking priorities, weight along thrust lines, tactical pauses etc. may be required. The priorities will rearrange around the nuclear retaliatory strikes and the communication zone will have to be reconfigured to prevent targets for Pakistani counter strike. In this consideration, while in-conflict deterrence will be pre-dominant, the anticipated fallout on conventional operations requires feeding in.
Two concluding points emerge. Firstly, in case this inter-face is not in the ambit of the Strategic Programs Staff of the NSCS, a mechanism located in HQ IDS needs being created. The SFC, concerned with nuclear operations, cannot be the site for this. Secondly, the principal effect is that in both cases of lower order first use – catalytic and operational – the conventional level is superseded by the state of play at the nuclear level. Therefore, how the nuclear doctrine shapes up is of consequence for the military. It would require inputting the endeavour, lest the traditional distinction between the nuclear and conventional sphere in India continues unwarrantedly.
 http://idsa.in/idsacomments/RevisitingIndiasNuclear Doctrine_gbalachandran_200614.html and http://www.idsa.in/idsastrategiccomments/TheNeedForClarityInIndiaSNuclearDoctrine_AAhmed_111108.html