Sunday, 5 June 2016
A swift, short war: The revolution at strategic-operational interface
Agni, Jan-Apr 2016, XIX-1
The Army Chief at a meet-the-press event on Army Day indicated that the ‘next round’ would be short and swift. Though left unsaid by the Chief, this owes in part to the nuclear dimension and, in that, not so much to the tactical nuclear weapons that Pakistan misses no opportunity to brandish and to the diplomatic attention that such brandishing at conflict outbreak would occasion. Instead, it would be to the compulsions of India’s diplomatic prong of strategy wherein India would like to seize the political high ground even as its military goes about its task in short order.
This insight essentially turns the Bismarkian notion of the military prong of war strategy overshadowing the diplomatic in war on its head. Since there are many adherants to the understanding that while the military is at its work, the military demands and compulsions reign supreme, it is important to highlight that this cannot any longer be so in the nuclear era, even if it all ever was. The view has been remarkably resilient over the past two hundred years of the modern – Clausewitzian - era. It initially had Bismarck as its proponent, while he set about reunifying Germany and gained laudable victories over the Austro-Hungarians and French. Its proponents a century ago were the Hindenberg-Ludendorf duo, who subordinated Germany’s wider goals to the war effort. The view found expression in the nuclear domain, with MacArthur bidding for nuclear use in the Korean conflict against China.
While war is indeed politics by other means, implying the military instrument would for its duration have primacy, this needs to be diluted somewhat in light of diplomacy, economics, intelligence and soft power also playing significant roles even in war and grand strategy orchestrating these can choose to lean on any one or combination of these depending on the state of play in war. This may lead to eclipse of the military instrument as and when and for the duration necessary.
The very idea of a swift, short war suggests that war would in this circumstance be less politics by other – military – means but diplomacy by other means; in short, the military would be an instrument in support of diplomacy. A swift, short war cannot be expected to blunt an enemy inordinately. This means that the punishment it is subjected to is not so much to impact its military directly as much as to bring about wider strategic affects such as an internal political collapse or external diplomatic pressure. Whereas earlier the concept was that diplomacy was to fore in the run up to war and was in support of the military in war for its duration, only to return to fore on its termination, the point advanced here is that diplomacy would supersede the military dimension not only preceding and after the conflict, but even during its duration. The fallout of this understanding is that military objectives as an outflow of political aims would be less conditioned by military compulsions and considerations, but by diplomatic ones. Diplomatic considerations would influence political aims more than military factors.
This is not a new idea to India. The Kargil War was a forerunner to the wars, if any, in the nuclear era. Then, Prime Minister Vajpayee was clear headed in keeping military action confined to the home side of the Line of Control, aiming for the diplomatic dividend in doing so. This was not long in coming and its effects are there even today for all to see. India is leagues above Pakistan in the international arena, has indubitably swung the US onto its side and over time returned normalcy in Kashmir. These outcomes owed as much to the ‘war unfinished’ of 2001-02, yet again demonstrating that coercive diplomacy worked, albeit not enough to silence its critics at the time.
The wars of the nuclear era were markedly different from the preceding war of 1971. In 1971, India’s strategic aims flowed with the military momentum, expanding from rather limited aims to countenancing a break up of Pakistan. Even though a marked success, it is less a model than the ‘draw’ of 1965. In 1965, India responded to the infiltration of Pakistanis into Kashmir by opening up the Punjab front, but did not depart from its military strategy of only posing a threat to Lahore. It settled for a timely ceasefire instead. A version of this war termination has it that this was a sign of military weakness. Militaries typically wish to end war, maximally with the enemy vanquished, and minimally at a point facilitating a political advantage. In 1965, the Indian military managed the latter, even if some wish that it was allowed to proceed to deliver the former. What the criticism misses is that the military strategy is but one strand in grand strategy that has to take into account other salient strategic prongs such as the economy. The dire straits India was in 1965 precluded ending on a higher note. Consequently, the diplomatic prong was more consequential then than the military prong in determining war termination.
India’s doctrinal movement in the nuclear era is well cognizant of the nuclear threshold. India has taken care to leave this unsaid over the recent past, at least since 2012. Its corps level exercises that earlier would refer to its preparedness to fight in a nuclear environment are no longer making such claims. This does not imply it is no longer capable of doing so but that it is to set in contrast India’s view of nuclear weapons to that of Pakistan. Pakistan, ever since it got tactical nuclear weapons in 2011, has taken to attempting to reinforce deterrence by referring to them at every occasion. The latest one was by Khalid Kidwai, speaking at a discussion in the run up to the nuclear security summit in Washington DC at Islamabad’s Institute for Strategic Studies. Since India does not wish that the nuclear dimension of conflict be highlighted unnecessarily, it has taken to the opposite: keeping silent on the nuclear domain.
This enables India to keep up the idea of utility of conventional war and forces, if in a limited war mode. The parameters – swift and short – imply limitations of essentially of time and by implications of force application. Since under time constraints, force application can be high in terms of intensity, a ‘shock and awe’ route offers itself as an option. This is only superficially so. Even the US that perfected the ‘shock and awe’ strategy was unable to pull it off in any locale. In 1991, it had a head start of six months from August 1990 to waging war in January 1991 in Iraq. In Kosovo, it took 78 days of bombing to tame Serbia. In Afghanistan, it was unable to whittle the Taliban. In Iraq War II, it had about a year and half from 9/11 of run up. Therefore, generating appreciable force applications in a swift war, that is also to be kept short, may be ruled out. Notions of causing attrition to Pakistan’s strategic reserves may require moderation, besides the fact that this would be counter-productively escalatory. This is not lost on India’s military, its discussions on ‘victory’ in its in-house journals as testimony. How it has answered this problem is not up for discussion here, being better left to its planners.
Both ‘swift’ and ‘short’ are diplomatic terms of reference. Swift owes to the time window of external diplomatic pressure kicking in when crisis is triggered in an Incident ‘I’ Day scenario. Implicit in the ‘cold start’ concept was the need to take advantage of the hiatus to deliver a conventional blow to Pakistan. Since the diplomatic pressures would heighten exponentially in such a case, there is a need to also keep the ensuing war short. While it takes two to tango, India’s willingness to step off the war pedal, would help divert the diplomatic pressure onto Pakistan. This will prevent Pakistan from delivering its counter and should it nevertheless choose to do so, enable India to gain the politico-diplomatic high ground. By its willingness to keep the war short, India would be foregoing military temptations, even while keeping any military gains made and preempting any Pakistani success on rebound. Pakistan – keen to gets its retaliatory blow in – would then have to bear the onus of escalation. Even as India militarily preempts this or fends this off, it would gain the diplomatic advantage, placing it favourably for war termination at any time thereon. ‘Earlier the better’ would be appropriate on account of the uncertainties of the nuclear factor and more upfront economic reasons. A short war with lower escalatory possibilities would help keep the international community off focusing on a resolution to the Kashmir issue. It would help keep a perspective on the Indian preferred issue at hand, terrorism.
India’s military therefore has a two-fold task cut out. The first – discussed above - is to appreciate the sense in playing second fiddle even in war, and, second, is how to act in support of the diplomatic prong of strategy. This is essentially at the strategic-operational interface. As to the of intensity conventional retribution for a mega terrorist attack, the military might require relying on the air force. Its land and naval action would take longer to gestate. Whereas the army can be quick off the blocks on the Line of Control, that the LC has over half a century of strengthening of its fortifications, needs to be kept in mind. Elsewhere, the army would require using pre-selected formations to mount attacks. It would be ambitious if it was to attempt more than this since sustaining readiness levels required for wider offensives across the board is not possible. Any further ambition is wishful under the circumstance of traditional Indian cantonment culture. Deploying under prepared forces would only result in avoidable and diplomatically costly reverses. At the outset of the crisis in 2001, the northern army commander had gone out on a limb to stall any notion of an early offensive in his command. Even while Indian doctrine has changed there is no indication that its military culture has changed to the levels required. For instance, the emphasis on Special Forces and within Infantry on Ghatak platoons suggests a quick response capability at hand is sought rather than prevailing through numbers. Realistically therefore at best India can have a few combat commands at higher readiness levels to take on shallow military objectives, some of which may even be only symbolic. As for the balance of the forces they would of course mobilize in time to deter and if necessary thwart Pakistani reaction. The navy can mount a spectacular show in targeting Karachi as in 1971, but would require contending with neutral shipping, and in Gwadar with Chinese presence.
Finally, military action is not sui generis. It is integrated in government policy. Currently, the government is terrorism focused. The dialogue with Pakistan has this at core. It has talked terrorism in diverse fora ranging from nuclear security to bilateral visits such as to Brussels and Riyadh. The next crisis can only be born out of a terrorist attack. The wars this century have clearly spelt out that military cannot solve terrorism. It is part of the tool box and not the most significant one. Therefore, the swift and short formulation is apt. The military will be used but innovatively.
Clausewitz has historically been much misinterpreted. His concept of Absolute War indicates a tendency in war which politics surrounding the war is expected to tame. In the nuclear age this need stands accentuated as the tendency to greater effort to unbalance and destroy the enemy cannot but be restricted. India has rightly acknowledged this. The government is sensibly questioning the manpower requirement of the military, though only for now using the financial rationale. The Army Chief has rightly moderated expectations. The revolution at the strategic-operational interface is the revised understanding of military utility – the less used the better; the more it is the less usable it is etc. This must now be internalised.