Tuesday, 8 June 2021


An assessment of new ‘strategies’ for Pakistan and China

A report in The Print informs citing sources that the Indian army has come up with new strategies for Pakistan and China that it respectively calls ‘punitive deterrence’ and ‘credible deterrence’. The new posture is result of the rebalancing on since last year after China’s foray into Ladakh from the western front to the northern front.

Deterrence is prevailing on the adversary against taking action that it would either be punished for or find relatively costly. Punitive deterrence would imply deterrence by punishment, in that India would retaliate heavily in case of Pakistani military misadventure. Whereas for the China front, credible deterrence is based on deterrence by denial predicated on India making it prohibitive for China to bite of territory by effective defence, besides retaining the capability to make equivalent gains elsewhere to neutralize any Chinese designs on Indian territory.

The tumult involves restructure of the infantry elements of a strike corps in the plains into a second mountain strike corps (MSC), the first MSC having witnessed its raising truncated through last decade. Also, the concept of integrated battle groups (IBGs), having been tried out over last few years, is to be operationalised across both fronts. Alongside, there is a bid for more monies for defence, with the army asking for some 1700 tanks and the artillery that there is no disruption to artillery modernization.   

The ‘sources’ who put out this significant change into the open domain have taken care to preempt any possibility of a course correct that the pandemic and our tepid response provided. To them, ‘more of the same’ is necessary to emphasise in order to undercut any thought of doing things differently post pandemic. That India’s health and social security infrastructure was revealed as hollow by covid wave II necessitates a rethink on India’s priorities, which such reinsertion of militarized discourse into the national cognitive domain prevents.

There is little that has changed in the supposed military changes underway.

On the western front, it remains unclear how over the short term, punitive deterrence will be exercised with the third strike corps. The advantage of being one-up on Pakistan had enabled the conventional asymmetry (ours three to their two strike corps). With the infantry elements reassigned to the northern front as part of the MSC, the infantry would require to be recreated. Over the long term it is predictable that the army will recoup the infantry elements of the strike corps. Precedence can be seen in the army filling in the gaps that arose due to the raising of the Rashtriya Rifles by poaching their numbers from the regular army. As a result it now has 60 battalions of infantry reserve. The central police forces having been extensively deployed in Kashmir since mid 1999, occasioned by the disembowelment of Article 370, are in a position to relieve the Rashtriya Rifles, which can in turn relieve the infantry from the Line of Control, thereby creating the infantry needed by the third strike corps when warranted. The temporary short term premium on infantry is thus chimerical.

Against China, the preexisting posture of deterrence manifestly failed, though the IBG concept had been proven in an exercise in Arunachal Pradesh by the time the Chinese and covid intervened early last year. It was a force in being that could have been used at the outset of the crisis for offensive options as counter grab, but remained unused. Therefore, it is not for want of capability as much as a deficit in political will that saw a slovenly response in Ladakh by India. The intensity of perception management that has followed only proves that much needed to be hidden. Therefore, it is not accretion in force capability that is necessary. It is no one’s case that India can bridge the gap in comprehensive national power between the two sides. 

The IBGs are being projected as game changers. These are task oriented forces tailored to specific objectives, in a move away from operations of corps levels formations. This rethink had been forced by the nuclear overhang on the Pakistan front and on the China front by the difficult terrain configuration and the long frontage. On the Pakistan front, IBGs are to make gains offensively, whereas on the China front they are to be suitably poised to react to Chinese nibbling by reinforcing the sectors threatened as also slicing off elsewhere for trade off later. Does this secure India?

Against Pakistan, the last military make over was with the roll out of ‘cold start’ doctrine (CSD). CSD had it that swift retribution would be exacted in case of a terror attack breaching India’s famed tolerance threshold, but keeping in mind the nuclear awing Pakistan quickly drew down over the conventional asymmetry. However, now that the conventional asymmetry is relative less (one strike corps losing its infantry elements), Pakistan, through its new concept of war fighting doctrinal innovation, can putatively take on India’s forces exercising its punitive intent.

In the doctrinal shadow boxing over last decade, it had reconfigured its conventional forces to blunt India’s conventional advantage, even while threatening - for the sake of form – India with nuclear redlines. This had deterred India with following through with cold start, even in case of Pulwama levels of terror attack, and restricted it to ‘surgical strikes’. Therefore, it is unlikely India can do more with less; so ‘punitive’ is an unnecessary bit of macho jargon. Recreation of the asymmetry that allows for a punitive strategy is therefore necessary and certainly on the cards, once the current day pivot to the China front stabilises.

As for the China front, ‘credible deterrence’ makes little sense as a phrase, since deterrence is meant to be credible, based on three characteristics: capability, intent and communication. Through two MSCs divided up into IBGs, India has given itself the capability. Its mirror deployment in Ladakh and action on the Kailash range in late August is meant to convey implacable intent, while communication is through an overt pivot to the China front, unmistakably serving notice to China against further salami slicing.

Against China, the Line of Actual Control is strongly held, though not at Line of Control levels. Reports are of an additional division sent into Ladakh that is likely to stay put long term. IBGs are to be stationed along the LAC length, to respond with alacrity to any future incursions, not only defensively - as was the case along the Kailash range - but offensively in a shorter time frame, both to cover the gaps, vast frontages and the large forward zones in some sectors, plus partaking of counter grab where feasible. This is reminiscent of deterrence by denial, making not only biting off prohibitive, but the likelihood of losing a morsel alongside elsewhere.

Whereas earlier the Panagarh MSC was being readied for this, now there are two MSCs for the role. Against a credibility yardstick, besides covid onset, commentary last year had it that India restrained from exercising offensive options as counter grab, since the comprehensive national power imbalance weighed against this. Recall practiced MSC reserves were at hand but used only for the ‘mirror deployment’ undertaken. It is not axiomatic that doubling the IBG capacity enables political will any. In fact, contrarily, the ability to carry the conflict to the enemy shall make the CNP factor kick in more significantly, reinforcing preexisting self-deterrence against escalation. In short, ‘more of the same’ is not necessarily better.

Importantly, since deterrence by definition entails influencing the adversary’s mind, it presumes that the adversary is out to do something that needs deterring. This needs interrogation in light of China restricting itself to its 1959 claim line, when it could have done more having caught Indians off guard last year. If Chinese interests are not expansive, then the good part is that there is little to deter. The bad part is that building up China as a threat which can only be militarily deterred, reduces a focus post covid on other options that could reasonably present themselves as efficacious.

The principal aspect of the new Indian strategic posture is a bid to frame the post covid possibilities. The manner the new strategies are being put out in the public domain, through sources rather than officially and upfront through the chief of defence staff mechanism or the defence ministry, makes for a surreptitious move. While the newsworthiness of the military at the time of covid wave II may seem anachronistic and intended to distract from the mishandling of the crisis, it is worth interrogating if the moves in the military sphere are the direction to go post covid.

Covid is a juncture at which India needs reappraising its strategic direction, in terms of continuing in a dangerous neighbourhood by doing the same things differently or doing something different. A shift to human security predicated on privileging the education and health sectors is warranted, implying self-evident knock-on diplomatic initiatives with neighbours and corresponding dilution in strategic postures. The new strategic posture must therefore be debated with vigour as India’s covid hit economy does not permit it to have its cake and eat it too. More than a pivot from the west to the north, India needs a pivot from traditional national security thinking to the human security paradigm.