Monday, 8 October 2018

India-Pakistan and the tussle of escalation dominance

Unedited version

The cancellation of a meeting of the two foreign ministers that was to be held on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session framed the Indian army chief’s statement that, ‘there is a need for one more action (surgical strike).’ He later added that surgical strikes are not the only option for decisive action for India confronted with Pakistan provocation.
On cue, the Pakistani military spokesperson claimed its military is ready for war, rationalizing that war happens when either side is unprepared for it. Pakistan’s information minister took care to remind India that Pakistan is a nuclear power.
The annual war of words between the two sides continued at the 73rd General Assembly session in New York with the two foreign ministers using respective addresses to trade barbs, followed by officials exercising the right of reply.
This period of rhetoric, brought on by the slide to brutalization in Kashmir in the killings of special police officers and mutilation of a Border Security Force trooper, framed the end-September Parakram Parv (celebration of valour) exhibition commemorating the second anniversary of the surgical strikes.
The singular aspect of the surgical strikes episode missing in the valourisation was its cognizance of escalatory possibilities.
Surgical strikes were deliberately kept limited, a feature emphasized early in a press briefing by India’s military operations chief. For its part, Pakistan, aware that the onus was on it, wisely pretended that the trans-Line of Control (LC) raids never took place.
If the ratcheting up of rhetoric now is any indicator, the subcontinent is closer, yet again, to another crisis, especially since the buffer of meetings and talks - that could serve as an intervening step in being called-off - is no longer there.
In case the lesson learnt from the surgical strikes is to apply to the next round, then India shall likely keep any substitute options to surgical strikes equally limited.  
The problem is that the Pakistani army cannot use its earlier alibi twice over. Once bitten, it has surely war gamed its reaction. It follows then that there are two possibilities.
The first is Pakistan - duly prepared - drawing blood. The second is - caught flatfooted yet again - it is forced to up-the-ante.
In the first case, the onus of upping-the-ante would be on India. Having milked the surgical strikes anniversary for political dividend, the government would not like egg on its face as it goes into elections. Irrespective of the military’s itch to get even and goading by the long-compromised media, it will have its own political compulsions to ‘do something’.
In the second case, to save face with its domestic constituency, Pakistan’s army may make a retaliatory move or two. India’s putting up its guard and warding the counter punches off, constitute steps towards a slippery slope.
Both would edge towards a slippery slope, with an eye to catalyzing intervention of the international community. A worried United States, that has political heft with both countries, and China, that can work better on Pakistan, will be on hand to help de-escalate.
This is a happy ending of a script going from crisis to confrontation.
Its likelihood depends on validity of each sides’ self-assessment of ‘escalation dominance’. Though usually associated with nuclear warfighting, the term can be used to imply the ability to prevail at a particular level along the spectrum of conflict: subconventional, conventional and nuclear.
To illustrate, India’s effort over the past decade and  half has been  at honing its conventional edge has been to signal that since it has the advantage at the next higher level, Pakistan would be better advised not to test its tolerance threshold in its proxy war at the subconventional level.
Pakistan’s turn to ‘full spectrum deterrence’ is an effort to deny India escalation dominance at conventional level. Noticing Pakistan obfuscation of the conventional-nuclear divide in its introduction of tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) into the picture, India has lately broadened its subconventional options. This explains surgical strikes and any variants up its sleeve.
India is alongside embarked on rekindling escalation dominance at the conventional level. It has an army restructuring program afoot, reportedly to be signed off at the army commanders’ annual autumn conference.
Emphasising its necessity, the Indian army chief confessed that the army is only prepared to fight previous wars. Apart from the other features of the reforms such as optimization of manpower and equivalence of army ranks with civilian peers, the restructuring shall enable the army to work its ‘cold start’ doctrine better.
To recap, the doctrine is informed by the limited war concept. The reported doing-away with divisional headquarters of pivot corps in the reform will make for sprightly and multiple limited thrusts, while remaining under even the TNW threshold.
This brings the conventional level back into play, while preserving India’s punch in the form of strike corps that are not subject to the restructuring. India’s military restructuring promises to expand the scope for moving from crisis to confrontation. Its deterrent value is in being able to take a step closer to the slippery slope.
The tussle is between India pulling up the window for military options below the nuclear level and Pakistan thrusting down the nuclear awning over it. In the doctrinal tennis match, the ball is now in Pakistan’s court.