|Naval Operations in an India-Pakistan Context
|Research Fellow, IDSA|
The Indian Navy has rightly furthered and defended a wider maritime dimension in its strategic thinking. The focus on external presence in the Indian Ocean, the growing Chinese footprint, India’s seaborne economic interests and the navy’s deterrent role has kept Pakistan peripheral to its perspective. In the Kargil conflict and the mobilisation of 2001-02, it demonstrated that it could proactively handle Pakistan by shifting naval assets from the eastern seaboard. Action is also in hand in conjunction with the Coast Guard to fill in security deficiencies that the 26/11 terror attack revealed. Given these concerns, it is understandable that the naval dimension of conflict strategy in the India-Pakistan context has received less attention. This article dwells on possible naval force application in otherwise land-centric conflict scenarios against Pakistan.
26/11 has demonstrated that defensive operations in terms of safeguarding the coast would be equally important in wartime. The presence of India’s commercial capital on the western coast, coastal development in Gujarat, offshore oil assets among others indicate that defending these from both sea and air borne attack would be important. The asymmetric threat would additionally need to be factored in.
Nevertheless, offensive being a preferred strategy, naval options would depend on the level of the conflict. These include options short of war; conventional war operations; and also a nuclear card. These are discussed below.
In case India goes in for a response option not amounting to war, such as ‘surgical strikes’ by air force, missile strikes and perhaps activation of the Line of Control to a limited extent, then the Navy could participate through a 1971-like raid on Karachi harbour or terror facilities connected with the ‘Karachi Project’. A rerun of the post-Kargil downing of the Atlantis reconnaissance aircraft is another example. The possibility of escalatory reaction by Pakistan would need to be catered for even as these are launched, lest the head start with Pakistan enable it to seize the initiative in such case.
The next higher order case is launch of conventional war in a ‘Cold Start’ scenario. This would imply naval participation in real time with the surface, subsurface and air assets available with the Western Fleet. In the interim, as with the building up of strike corps in wake of pivot corps offensives, the assets from the eastern seaboard and further south could be mobilised. The Navy would be critical in effecting Pakistan’s economy, particularly by interdicting fuel and operations at its main port, Karachi. Increasing naval pressure would likely be dependent on whether Pakistani reaction to Cold Start is escalatory and intended to spiral the conflict into a higher order war. That any such conflict in the realm of Limited War would inform naval operations.
In any such expanded conventional war, given international presence in the waters, it would require being mindful of the law of sea and of international law in relation to blockades. Additionally, over the near term, it would require factoring in US-NATO logistic presence at various ports. Perhaps with time, commercial and naval use by the Chinese of Gwadar and other Pakistan ports would also require attention in such operations. An additional possibility is that of influencing the internal situation in Pakistan. This could be in the form of uprisings by the Baluch, Sindhis or Mohajirs.
The major operational task in addition to gaining sea dominance would be to constitute a credible amphibious threat and execute it if necessary. This would be in conjunction with operations of Southern Command south of the desert sector. Already a brigade worth land forces capability exists. The INS Jalashwa has been acquired for the purpose. A joint doctrine has been formulated by HQ IDS that covers the details. This would be designed to increase pressures on the Pakistani leadership to concede Indian aims.
The highest level is the nuclear one. Since India has a ‘retaliation only’ nuclear doctrine, introduction of nuclear weapons would be a Pakistani initiative. Naval operations have potential to impact Pakistani nuclear threshold thinking. The cumulative impact of the land and air offensives would be enhanced by operations across the front of Pakistan’s premier city, Karachi. Two of the ‘thresholds’ described by Lt Gen Khalid Kidwai who headed Pakistan’s Strategic Plans Division could be affected by naval operations. One is regarding ‘economic strangulation’. The allusion is perhaps to an effective blockade. The second is with regard to internal destabilisation. This is perhaps a reference to a possible wartime spike in Baluch insurgency and unrest in Karachi. Attention on this score would therefore be advisable.
How the nuclear card would manifest in the naval dimension has yet again received little reflection. The possibility of a demonstration strike after due warning by Pakistan needs to be ruled in. Given that Indian forces would be advancing in the desert sector and threat of collateral damage to his people exists in developed terrain, the sea lends itself as a possible ‘green-field’ site. It would enable him to show case his missile capability alongside. While this would place his action in international waters outside the pail of international law, it would increase international conflict termination focus as intended.
The next category of nuclear first is ‘lower order’ nuclear strikes involving military targets. This could be an aircraft carrier task force or an amphibious flotilla in the Arabian Sea. However, a more likely possibility is on amphibious landing under execution. This would be in keeping with parameters of strikes with the least ‘opprobrium quotient’: on own territory in a defensive mode. Lack of suitably placed reserves particularly if the Southern Command is making headway; and the resulting threat to Karachi could conspire to trigger such reaction.
This month the three Indian armed forces chiefs figured in a media photo on the release of the joint doctrine document on air and land operations. The initiative needs taking further to deliberating on operations in all three dimensions – air, land and sea - at all three levels: sub-conventional, conventional and nuclear. As has been seen here, the potentiality of the lower two to nudge the next higher level exists, particularly when taken cumulatively in their effects. The Joint Doctrine of 2006 could consider these aspects in the five-year review due soon.
Ali Ahmed is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi