Monday, 16 March 2015

The nuclear foredrop to the conventional backdrop

Visualising Impact of Nuclear Operations at the Conventional Level

For visualising future conventional war, the first step here on will necessarily be visualizing the nuclear overhang.  While traditional nuclear thinking concentrates understandably on deterrence and its operation in conflict, additionally, conventional operations need to reckon with how to proceed in case of its breakdown. This web-article discusses the latter scenario in its implications for conventional land operations, without prejudice to the viability of India’s deterrence. Also, here only the western front is looked at for simplicity of analysis.
There are two ways nuclear operations can be envisaged. The first is in anticipating the manner Pakistan may resort to first use: higher order or lower order strike.[i] A higher order strike would be at the upper end of the ‘opprobrium quotient’ such as a ‘bolt from the blue’ first strike, decapitating strike, counter value attack etc. Since India has second strike capability, that with the operationalisation of the Arihant shall be unassailable soon, Pakistan first use is unlikely be in the form of a ‘first strike’. It is aware that its advantage in numbers is rather slim, a mere 10-20 warheads.[ii] These cannot ensure that India will not strike back, particularly once its under-sea leg of the triad is operational. It is also aware that not very many Indian warheads need to survive to do grievous damage to Pakistan. Setting Pakistan back comprehensively, does not require more than 20-30 warheads. Such numbers can easily be expected to survive a first strike attempt by Pakistan. Even if it ever doubted it, Pakistan can no longer reckon on Indian nuclear decision making not rising to the occasion. Therefore, Pakistan may be self-deterred from higher order first use.
If in case Pakistan is not deterred from a higher order nuclear first use, it is axiomatic that India’s counter will be as per its 2003 declaratory doctrine. India will visit unacceptable nuclear punishment.  How will this higher order nuclear exchange from both sides impact the conventional level? There would be three choices for land operations. First, is to retrieve to the start line, since the nuclear devastation will require military resources in ‘aid to civil authority’ in a variety of tasks. Second, is to pause conventional operations on a defensible line in order that military resources can redeploy for helping regulate life back home. The endeavour will likely be to check the nuclear consequences, both physical and socio-political, at this line. There is also little reason to continue into the enemy hinterland devastated by nuclear strikes. The third may be to press home the advantage and occupy the prostrate enemy. Thereafter, stabilization operations in nuclear-stricken Pakistan can proceed for decisive conflict termination.
Of the three, the first may appear appealing since the change in the conflict’s character would have led to a revision of war aims altogether. Also proceeding with occupation may result in India  having to take up the burden of putting Pakistan back on its feet, something it would be hard put to in case it is itself recipient of Pakistani higher order nuclear first use. Alongside, a jihadist-nationalist surge in truncated Pakistan cannot be ruled out that would such Indian troops into a nuclear contaminated sub conventional fight.
However, higher order nuclear exchanges are the least likely scenario, if most dangerous scenario. More likely therefore are lower order nuclear exchanges, assuming a conflict does go nuclear. Since conventional operations can reasonably be expected to continue, their manner is worth doctrinal attention. This must of necessity begin with positing the scenario of Pakistani lower order first use, for which it has two options.
The first is as a ‘shot across the bow’ in the form of a ‘green field’ option with no Indian military targets, for strategic signaling. The purpose of such asymmetric escalation would be catalytic.[iii] Pakistani intent would be to energise foreign - read US and Chinese - conflict termination efforts.
This could also be in the form of counter military targeting with a single or a few warheads, attempting operational level gains of stopping an Indian thrust, alongside serving strategic purpose. The second option could be more widespread in case India’s proactive offensives threaten to overwhelm the Azm-e-Nau-honed preparedness of Pakistani forces.  It’s much-advertised, Nasr, and other nuclear weapons, may be employed for redressing operational level disadvantage. These may be to attempt degrade an offensive formation by hitting its spear heads, the shaft or support base including fire support, logistics and supporting airfields.
How do these two options impact the battlefield?
Arguably, the first – lower order strike such as a demonstrative strike – will have greater consequence for the nuclear level, since it would breach the nuclear threshold, rather than any immediate effect on conventional operations. Increased caution in terms of nuclear preparedness of troops in the combat and communication zone would require to be incorporated in operations; thereby, at best slowing down operations. However, at the breaking of the nuclear taboo, the diplomatic prong of war strategy would temporarily eclipse the military prong of strategy since, alongside responsive nuclear strikes, de-escalation may be advisable. Conventional military moves would therefore be conditioned by the need to support the diplomacy-predominant lines of action at the strategic level.[iv] The military aim would be how to gain aims, suitably modified for a conflict gone nuclear, in a non-escalatory way.
In case of the second lower order manner of first use – limited counter military targeting - then conventional operations will be directly impacted. India in accordance with its nuclear doctrine would contemplate nuclear retaliation. Conventional operations will defer to the nature of India’s nuclear 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. Conventional operations may help set the stage for an Indian nuclear counter strike. This could be as per the declaratory nuclear doctrine or an operational nuclear strategy at variance with it envisaging proportional retaliation. Conventional operations may be required to profit from the consequence of the nuclear attack such as by occupying territory or mopping up enemy forces. In any case, further conventional operations will need to factor in the nature of nuclear counter strike(s).
Lastly, how conventional operations are unfolding needs to feed into India’s nuclear retaliation considerations. Proportionate retaliation by India is not unthinkable in light of nuclear strategy being distinct from nuclear doctrine, even if informed by it. In case of counter military lower order strike there may be a case for continuing conventional operations so as to take advantage of the nuclear retaliatory strike and posture favourably for conflict termination. How conventional operations can then unfold will have to be tagged into nuclear retaliatory operations. This means that nuclear operations in a lower order scenario are not to be considered or conducted in isolation of the conventional level. The questions at the conventional level would be: How can conventional operations be non-escalatory? How can conflict termination and exit points be shaped?
In case of nuclear outbreak, since in-conflict deterrence will be active, the politico-diplomatic prong of strategy will be predominant over the military-strategic prong of strategy. International moves at play need recognizing.  The possibility of the international community forcefully intervening for escalation control, to include with military muscle such as declaring enforceable no-fly-zones, cannot be ruled out. 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.[v] This increases departures in operational nuclear strategy from declaratory nuclear doctrine. This means that conventional operations in the nuclear environment of lower order nuclear exchange(s) are more likely than not.
Consequently, the army needs to think these through in peace time in order that when it comes to a nuclear crunch, and this can happen in short order, the army has credible options it can present to the government considering its nuclear counter strike. This would facilitate more options for the Nuclear Command Authority than merely higher order retaliation. Doctrinal thinking incorporating the conventional-nuclear interface as visualized here is one direction to proceed.
Ali Ahmed is author of India’s Doctrine Puzzle: Limiting War in South Asia, Routledge, 2014. He blogs at Views expressed are personal.
[i] Ali Ahmed, Reconciling Doctrines: Prerequisite for Peace in South Asia, IDSA Monograph, 2010, pp. 44-45.
[ii] Pakistan reportedly has 100-120 weapons to India’s 90-110. See SIPRI Yearbook 2013, ‘World Nuclear Forces’, available at, accessed on 1 August 2014.
[iii] Narang, V., ‘Posturing for Peace? Pakistan's Nuclear Postures and South Asian Stability’, International Security, Vol. 34 No. 3, 2009/10, p. 38.
[iv] Ali Ahmed, ‘Diplomatic engagement in a post nuclear use environment’, Indian Defence Review,
[v] Helfand, I., ‘Nuclear famine: Two billion people at risk’, International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War, 2013, available at, accessed on 24 July 2014.
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