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Sunday, July 19, 2009

Limited nuclear war, limitless anxiety As 'limited war' doctrine evolves to 'limited nuclear war', the strategic necessities as well as their implications for the polity must be repeatedly examined, says Firdaus Ahmed. March 2003 - Over the period preceding the ten-month mobilization of last year, Indian strategists offered 'Limited War' as India's answer to what in security theory is termed as the 'stability-instability' paradox. The standoff resulting from the mobilization however indicates that, far from calling Pakistan's bluff on its oft-repeated threat of first use of nuclear weapons, India sensibly did not attempt the conventional military option of 'Limited War'. Instead, post-mobilization, it appears that with its nuclear arsenal having reached a fair degree of sophistication, India is now countenancing 'Limited Nuclear War' as the answer to its twin predicaments - Kashmir and Pakistan.
The 'security-insecurity' paradox, conceptualized in relation to South Asia at the Stimson Center, a US think tank with a focus on South Asia, refers to the increased resort to military means short of war under the cover of the nuclear deterrent. Thus while the nuclear deterrent prevented war, armed conflict short of war could be used to further political objectives.
In the Cold War the military tryst between the superpowers was carried out through proxies in peripheral parts of the world while the central strategic balance across Europe was maintained by respective nuclear deterrent. In the subcontinental Cold War this has been replicated ever since the advent of nuclear weapons, variously dated to 1987 and 1990 in the Pakistani and Indian arsenal. Emboldened by its nuclear card, Pakistan could fish in India's troubled waters, initially in Punjab and later in Kashmir. Thus, while on the higher level stability prevailed through war being seen as a non-option, at the lower level instability was endemic in areas of Indo-Pak militarized contestation in Punjab, in the ongoing Siachen conflict, across the Line of Control, and more importantly in the low intensity conflict within Kashmir itself.

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This was a crude replay of the early years of the Cold War. The acquisition of nuclear weapons by the Soviet Union had rendered pointless the threat of 'massive retaliation' that the Americans had been relying on in the brief period of their monopoly over nuclear weapons. The 'Limited War' concept was then put forward by security analysts, such as Robert Osgood. In order to keep the Cold War 'cold', it was felt that military means used in a nuanced manner could prevent escalation into homeland threatening nuclear war. India adopted this thesis with great publicity, its most vigorous proponent being Gen Malik, Army Chief during its Kargil War. The intent of publicizing the fresh doctrine was not only to prepare the public for the demands, albeit limited, that such a war would entail, but also to send a message to Pakistan that India would bring its conventional superiority back into the equation.
Pakistan's first-strike nuclear option is unlikely to be used on Indian cities or second-strike responding facilities. Instead, Islamabad's nukes will more likely be used on invading Indian columns, in apprently defensive mode and deflecting the expected international criticism. The mobilization of 2002 revealed the limitations of the 'Limited War' doctrine. Apologists have opined that Indian restraint owed to Indian aims being limited; i.e. India was engaged merely in 'coercive diplomacy'. Others, for instance President Musharraf, hold that India was deterred by the Pakistan's declared intent of bringing its nuclear capability to bear if India crossed the Line of Control or the International Border. The fact is that 'Limited War' has an escalatory dynamic inherent to it. The question 'what next?' would arise if Pakistan chose not to respond as the 'Limited War' doctrine predicts. 'Limited War' theorizing, and India's nuclear doctrine of 1999 vintage, provides no politically acceptable answers.
The Director of Pakistan's Strategic Plans Division of its National Command Authority has indicated that nuclear use is contemplated in the event of threats to Pakistan's territorial integrity, military power, economic situation through blockade and externally sponsored internal instability. Any Indian attack, even one in pursuit of limited political and military advantage, could be deemed self-servingly as threatening any of these parameters. Besides such an attack would require to be launched with considerable fury, given India's need to terminate the war quickly and on a positive note. Such high levels of violence are easily misperceived, and may trigger a nuclear response from Islamabad.
But the most likely 'first-use' would still be constrained by military and political considerations. Pakistani 'first use' in the form of a decapitating strike on India, an attempted 'first strike' on counter force targets, or even a 'wargasm' in the form of city busting, are all of low to negligible probability. Instead, Pakistani 'first use' would most likely be on invading Indian columns within its territory. Clearly, then, Pakistan will use nuclear weapons in a defensive mode so as to gain military advantage, deny the incentive to India for escalation and in a manner so as not to further outrage international opinion already bristling at the breach of the nuclear taboo.
India's nuclear doctrine through 2002 was presumably at least partially based on the Draft submitted by the National Security Advisory Board in Aug 1999. This Draft contemplates infliction of 'unacceptable damage' as punitive retaliation for nuclear attack on its territory or military forces. i.e., any manner of first nuclear use by Pakistan will be met with overwhelming punishment. However, if Pakistan plays its nuclear card tactically and in defense against an Indian conventional assault, Indian nuclear retaliation in the manner envisaged by the doctrine would be both disproportionate and non-discrimnatory. India would then be self-deterred from escalation. Equally intolerably, it would be unclear how else Indian politicians could respond adequately.
A 'Limited War' doctrine, is thus not deemed to be enough. The lesson from the mobilization is evidently that nuclearisation implies more than the 'Limited War' Indian strategists had envisaged when terrorists targeted India's parliament in December 2001. Specifically this 'lesson' is that preparing for 'Limited Nuclear War' would not only strengthen deterrence but may be necessary should deterrence break down. This can be inferred from the set of actions taken by India in the new year, namely setting up of the Nuclear Command Authority and Strategic Forces Command, the official release of a set of eight points to form India's nuclear doctrine, the requirement of preparing a Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP for nuclear targeting) and the raisings of the Disaster Management Authority and four CISF companies for reaction to incidents of use of WMD (weapons of mass destruction). India stands ready to fight a nuclear war, even if this readiness is intended only to deter it.
Limitation is a value in itself. A policy of 'graduated escalation' would help deter Pakistan from 'first use', and thereby keep a war non-nuclear. This would help undercut Pakistani nuclear checkmate of India's superiority at both the conventional and nuclear levels. With the requisite command and control structures in place, India is giving itself a 'flexible response' capability, so that even a nuclear first-strike from Pakistan can be met with a non-escalating, comparable, response. The sub-kilo ton tests of 1998 provide assurance of such tactical nuclear capability. By avoiding escalation in its response, it would negate the advantage that Pakistan seeks to obtain and push Pakistan into being a nuclear pariah for breaking the nuclear taboo. The onus would be thrust on Pakistan to escalate, something it would be deterred from doing for fear of the consequences. India would thus acquire what in nuclear theology is understood as 'escalation dominance'. Leveraging 'escalation dominance' in this manner, India can ensure limitation in war, even a nuclear one.
Admittedly, this logic isn't impregnable. The first point is that if limitation in a conventional 'Limited War' was not guaranteed, it is not self-evident how 'graduated escalation' can be made to work regardless of the good health of the institutional mechanism raised to oversee it. Second, an Indo-Pak military contest has the potential to acquire unforeseen dimensions in the current context of religiously charged nationalism on both sides. This will have an impact that politicians in the Political Council on the Indian side and uniformed decision makers in Pakistan's Employment Control Committee will find hard to contend with. The expectation that Indo-Pak military engagements will continue to be civilized affairs in the tradition of their past wars may require revision. Thirdly, the psychological environment arising from breach of the nuclear taboo will exponentially multiply the pathologies that are even otherwise associated with nuclearisation.
For these reasons there is a need for public opinion to keep pace with the trajectory of India's nuclear adventure. As long as arms control and disarmament negotiations are held in abeyance for want of a d├ętente in the subcontinental Cold War, this is necessary. Strategic thinking, enamored with nuclear theory of Cold War vintage, is not likely to yield political answers to policy cul-de-sacs. Vested corporate interests of the security establishment, even though aware of the contradictions in deterrence theory, will take a technocratic view of the issues involved. Therefore the onus of pointing out the nakedness of the Emperor is on those at the margins. Society will have to cast its vote against being 'defended unto death'.
March 2003

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