Saturday, 5 December 2020

Eschewing and (Not) Manipulating Escalation

India’s unwillingness to tactically manipulate escalation makes its responses predictable 

and has led to strategic inertia most evident in the handling of the situation at the Line of 

Actual Control in Ladakh. The responsibility for this inertia primarily lies with the political

leadership, but the military top brass also shares this responsibility.


On 7 November, at the 60th anniversary observance webinar of the National Defence 

College (NDC), New Delhi, Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat expressed worries 

on the possibilities of escalation along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), saying, “border 

confrontations, transgressions and unprovoked tactical military actions spiraling into a larger 

conflict cannot be ruled out” (Pandit 2020). He had averred to similar dangers a year ago 

but in relation to the Line of Control (LoC), when he said, “The situation along the LoC can 

escalate any time. We have to be prepared for the spiraling of the escalatory matrix” 

(Times of India 2019). Rawat’s fears were expressed in the context of Pakistani border 

action teams actively supporting last-minute infiltration attempts prior to the usual winter 

respite in Kashmir. A year on, the LoC witnessed a significant spike in firing over the Diwali 

period this year.


Escalation dangers can be seen in Pakistan’s strike back after the Indian surgical strike 

at Balakot, launched in response to the Pulwama terror attack in February 2019. Apparently, 

Pakistan’s aerial counter was so provocative that India had prepared to retaliate. Recent 

internal political salvos between the government and opposition in Pakistan reveal that the 

Indian preparations caused the Pakistani army chief and its foreign minister considerable 

apprehension (Economic Times 2020). In the event, Pakistan pre-empted the missile strike by returning the Indian fighter pilot downed in the aerial dogfight over the LoC, short circuiting what Prime Minister Narendra Modi later colourfully depicted as could well have been a qatl ki raat (night of killing) from missile strikes (Asian Age 2019). That it would not have been a one-sided qatl (killing) is evident from Pakistan reportedly readying three times the number of missiles in a counterstrike (Miglani and Jorgic 2019).


As for China, its Ladakh intrusions suggest that it has a measure of India’s sensitivity to escalation. Its incremental intrusions began with cutting off Indian patrolling in Depsang sector in April, before intruding along the northern bank of the Pangong Tso in May. India, fearing escalation if it took the more robust action of either evicting the Chinese or taking equivalent territory in real time elsewhere, settled for mirror deployment, leading by the onset of winter to some 30,000 troops being deployed in Ladakh. Its occupation of Kailash range, south of Pangong Tso in end August, though depicted as a vigorous response, was limited to securing unoccupied heights on its own side of the LAC. The much-touted tactical action, which is certainly a remarkable martial feat, was at an operational cost. India lost both an opportunity and an avenue of approach to offset Chinese intrusions elsewhere.


Unwilling to Escalate


Escalation thus appears to loom large in India’s thinking, resulting in both adversaries taking advantage of India’s sensitivity. Pakistan, a relatively weaker opponent, has exploited Indian escalatory concern by restricting India’s options to lower-order, sub-conventional-level surgical strikes. At this level, there is a degree of equivalence where it seeks to give as good as it receives. Up the proverbial escalation matrix, it has matched the Indian doctrinal movement. Even as India firmed up its Cold Start doctrine of swift, conventional punishment for terror incidents, Pakistan has adopted a new doctrine, namely “new concept of war fighting.” For good measure, it brought to the fore the nuclear card in its operationalisation of full spectrum deterrence, with the tactical nuclear weapons at the vanguard and keeping a step ahead of India in nuclear warhead numbers.


China, for its part, has thrown the onus of escalation on to India. In its turn, India, convincing itself that the escalation advantage was with China, owing to its comprehensive national power, allowed China to get away with territorial gains. When challenged by the intrusions, India instead settled in favour of prudence over risk-taking. Even while experts argued that it is not the cumulative power that matters as much as the power that can be brought to bear at the point of contact at the end of a long line of communication in Ladakh (Menon 2020), India took the counsel of its fears and decided on talks as the route for an expansive, if unrealistic, aim of a return to status quo ante. The rounds of talks—that at last count included eight at military level, three at the level of the diplomats in the working group, three ministerial level talks, including a telephonic conversation between the two special representatives—have neither brought down troops to more hospitable altitude levels nor lessened their numbers in Ladakh.


Escalation concerns dominate Indian considerations on the use of force. Its military power is hobbled by self-deterrence brought on by an interpretation of escalation as inevitable and uncontrollable. Contrast this to the Pakistani and Chinese approach to escalation concerns. Pakistan has deliberately exploited the possibility of escalation. Not only did the landward surgical strikes not prevent the major terror incident at Pulwama, but the aerial surgical strikes, already debilitated by their inability to hit the target, resulted in a setback to India in the dogfight they provoked. An outcome has been Pakistani psychological ascendance, which the subsequent information war has not quite obscured.


Against China, over the years, India settled rather tamely in the initial stages itself, for deterrence by denial, where deterrence by punishment might have been warranted. India’s doctrinal shift in the decade prior was from deterrence by denial to deterrence by punishment with precisely such intrusion scenarios impelling the shift. The mountain strike corps was to be the vehicle. Since the financing of the strike corps progressively stalled, the army shifted last year to innovating, with integrated battle groups for a reconfigured, if truncated, corps. It innovatively flexed its muscles in Exercise Him Vijay, held in Arunachal Pradesh, even as Chinese premier Xi Jinping landed for the Chennai Connect dialogue at Mamallapuram (Peri 2019). Even so, when push came to shove in Ladakh, India was either unprepared or unwilling to shift to its newly minted and practised doctrine. This is reminiscent of India’s Cold Start doctrine lacking teeth in the wake of the Mumbai 26/11 terror attack.


Prime Minister Modi, in his Diwali address to troops at Longewala, explaining India’s strategic reticence, had this to say: “Today the strategy of India is clear. Today’s India believes in the policy of understanding and making others understand. But if attempts are made to test us, the reply they receive is intense” (Free Press Journal 2020). While it is true that India has been “tested” by both adversaries, it is difficult to see from recent strategic developments that India’s reply has been “intense” against either of them. India’s unwillingness to chance or inability to manipulate the escalatory threat led it to rely excessively on dialogue as substitute, even where force is manifestly warranted as and when territorial integrity is at stake.




Escalation is intrinsic to the use of force, prompted not only by the usual play of chance and the fog of war, called inadvertent escalation. This impelled the Clausewitzian concept of Absolute War or war’s tendency to spiral (Walzer 1977: 23–24), if untrammelled by political control and the constraint of friction. Consequently, it is reasonable to be wary of escalation and especially so in a nuclear dyad such as India respectively finds itself in with its two adversaries. The very first dictum put out early in the nuclear age by Bernard Brodie (1946: 76) remains applicable: “Thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them.” However, the danger is in over-learning, for it opens up a state to the fear of escalation, eroding its will to use force. Thomas Schelling (1967: 142–43) conceptualised the manipulation of the dangers as follows:

It is in wars that we have come to call “limited wars” that the bargaining appears most vividly and is conducted most consciously. The critical targets in such a war are the mind of the enemy … the threat of violence in reserve is more important than the commitment of force in the field.


Escalation is thus Janus-faced, a threat that also provides a strategic opportunity. India’s strategic problem therefore is not to allow self-deterrence to a degree that the use of force where warranted is negated substantially. Further, the collusive “two-front” threat, while in the realm of possibility, is not in that of probability. Nevertheless, it has been repeated so often that India has begun to believe it, further constraining willingness to resort to force.


The reticence to use force stemming from self-deterrence requires explaining, particularly for a government that projects a muscular strategic approach. A case for ‘‘strategic patience’’ is currently being argued. Minister of External Affairs S Jaishankar (2020), in his new book, lays out the narrative thus

We need to cultivate the strategic patience … Use of force must always be the considered option, never the first one …. Major nations have multiple weapons in their armoury and blunt instruments are usually the least productive. But efficacy aside, the imagery is no less significant. Those who casually advocate application of force abroad do damage. Such actions, as the instructive epic (Mahabharat) tells us, are an option reserved for imminent danger or serial offenders.


While this is explicable for the ‘‘application of force abroad,” its utility is somewhat diminished when a state faces loss of territory, a core characteristic, that elevate such threats to constituting an “imminent danger.” China’s record of salami-slicing over the past decade makes it count amongst ‘‘serial offenders.” Also, as the ‘‘imagery is no less significant,” Indian reluctance to use force nevertheless is at a reputational cost. To overplay its securing of the Kailash range to compensate may have had internal political utility, such as in the fig leaf it afforded the government from questioning by the opposition in the recent Bihar election campaign, but the limited significance of the operational level manoeuvre just ahead of the defence and foreign minister level talks is evident from its inability to compel China to blink.


The narrative that India stared down China by preventing it from chewing off more than what it already has is being played up. This year’s Vijayadashami address by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS) supremo, Mohan Bhagwat, said that, “Bharatiya defence forces, government and the people remained unfazed and responded sharply to this attack. This example of a strong resolution, exercising self-respect and bravery has stunned China” (Bhagwat 2020). Such self-congratulations undergrid his Jaishankar-reminiscent prescription: “Rising above China economically, strategically, in securing cooperative ties with our neighbours and at international relations” as “the only way to neutralise those demonic aspirations” (emphasis added; Bhagwat 2020).


Strategic Inertia


At the political level, the policy of dialogue has been exposed at its critical test against China. Not only was the “Wuhan spirit” vacuous, but the talks have been infructuous. The strategy of patience—to hold one’s horses till comparative comprehensive national power enables an Indian military response—ends up but as an alibi for doing nothing. The intensity of the information war that sees India manufacturing favourable military history is testimony to the fact that it knows it has something to hide.


Since the political level supersedes the strategic, a top-down cadence is visible in Bipin Rawat’s usual media interventions. His hyping up of escalation possibilities, including a collusive two-front threat, seemingly allow India to weigh in on the side of pragmatism and prudence. In the midst of an economic downturn and a pandemic, it would not be sensible to be off to war reflexively. But then, it is ostrich-like to determinedly avoid a war when warranted, especially since models of war are available that eschew escalation, even while manipulating it.


Rawat, familiar with the spectrum of war, knows that war is not necessarily Total War, else the Limited War concept would not obtain in strategic theory. Clausewitz (2008: 7) wrote that,

War can be of two kinds, in the sense that either the objective is to over throw the enemy … or merely to occupy some of his frontier-districts so that we can annex them or use them for bargaining at the peace negotiations.


In a nuclear dyad, only the latter, limited form of war, is possible. Indian military thinking has an exaggerated impression on the inevitability of the latter turning into the former, apparently bought into by the political level.


The past year revealed that either the Indian military lacks expertise in the art of strategy in terms of manipulating escalation to one’s advantage or it did not press the political level enough to allow it to prove its credentials. If in the case of the latter it was denied the opportunity, there has been no resignation from its upper ranks to prove that it pressed fulsomely to exercise its professional expertise in the national interest. Consequently, the onus for strategic inertia in Ladakh does not rest at the political level alone, but also with the brass in its compromising on its advisory and representational role.



Asian Age (2019): “Going to be ‘Qatal Ki Raat’: PM Warned Pak during Abhinandan’s Captivity,” 21 April, viewed on 30 October 2020,

Bhagwat, Mohan (2020): “Address by Param Poojaniya Sarsanghchalak Dr Shri Mohan Ji Bhagwat on the Occasion of Sri Vijayadashami Utsav 2020,” RSS website, 25 October, viewed on 15 November,

Brodie, Bernard (1946): The Absolute Weapon: Atomic Power and World Order, New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company.

Clausewitz, C von (2008): On War, B Heuser (ed), Translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics.

Economic Times (2020): “Pakistan Army Chief’s ‘Legs Were Shaking’ as Shah Mehmood Qureshi Said India Would Attack,” 29 October, viewed on 6 November,

Free Press Journal (2020): “India Believes in Policy of Understanding and Explaining: Modi,” 14 November, viewed on 15 November,

Subramayam, Jaishankar (2020): The India Way: Strategies for an Uncertain World, New Delhi: HarperCollins India.

Menon, Prakash (2020): “Political Will and Military Power,” Deccan Herald, 12 August, viewed on 4 November,

Miglani, Sanjeev and Drazen Jorgic (2019): “India, Pakistan Threatened to Unleash Missiles at Each Other: Sources,” Reuters, 17 March, viewed on 1 November,

Pandit, Rajat (2020): “Confrontations on LAC Could Spiral Into Larger Conflict: CDS,” Times of India, 7 November, viewed on 15 November,\

Peri, Dinakar (2019): “Army’s Mountain Strike Corps to Conduct Exercise in Arunachal,” Hindu, 11 September, viewed on 15 October 2020,

Schelling, Thomas (1967): Arms and Influence, Washington, DC: Stimson Center.

Times of India (2019): “Situation Along LoC Can Escalate Any Time: Army Chief Bipin,” 18 December, viewed on 30 October 2020,

Walzer, Michael (1977): Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations, London: Basic Books Classics.