“Indian Army Chief General Deepak Kapoor has attracted much attention with his suggestion at a training command seminar that India is preparing for a ‘two-front’ war with Pakistan and China, Harsh V Pant comments for ISN Security Watch.
By Harsh V Pant for ISN Security Watch
General Kapoor underlined that this was being done as part of the larger process whereby the Indian army was revising its old war-fighting doctrine and bringing it in sync with the emerging strategic scenario so as to be able to successfully firm up its ‘Cold Start’ strategy.
After strengthening its offensive capabilities vis-à-vis Pakistan by creating a new southwestern army command in 2005, India is now concentrating on countering China effectively in the eastern sector. The Indian army chief said that there was now “a proportionate focus towards the western and northeastern fronts.”
Pakistan reacted predictably by describing India’s move as reflecting a “hegemonistic and jingoistic mindset” as well as accusing India of “betraying hostile intent,” and urged the international community to take due notice of developments in India. Pakistani officials emphasized that their nation’s “capability and determination to foil any nefarious designs against the security of Pakistan” should not be underestimated. Pakistan’s reaction was expected, as the security establishment views this as an opportunity to once again press upon the Americans the need to keep Pakistani forces intact on the India-Pakistan border rather than fighting the Taliban forces on the border with Afghanistan.
China’s response, on the other hand, was more measured, and it chose not to address the issue directly. The controversy arose at a time when the two states were beginning a new phase in their defense ties by initiating a dialogue at the level of defense secretaries. But Chinese analysts have expressed concerns in recent years about India’s growing military ambitions and a purported shift in Indian defense strategy from a passive to an “active and aggressive” nature.
It was the Kargil conflict of 1999 that exposed Indian vulnerabilities as Pakistan realized that India did not have the capability to impose quick and effective retribution. The then-Indian army chief had famously commented that the forces would fight with whatever they had, underlining the frustration in the armed forces regarding their inability to procure the arms they needed. Only because the conflict remained largely confined to the 150-kilometer front of the Kargil sector did India manage to gain an upper hand by throwing the Pakistanis out of its side of the Line of Control (LoC). Then came the standoff between the Indian and Pakistani armies across the LoC after the Indian Parliament was attacked in 2001, and again India lacked the ability to impose any significant cost on Pakistan quickly and decisively because of the unavailability of suitable weaponry and night vision equipment needed to carry out swift surgical strikes.
The nuclear aspect is important because it is part of the reason that elements within the Pakistani security establishment have become more adventurous. Realizing that India would be reluctant to escalate the conflict because of the threat of it reaching the nuclear level, sections of the Pakistani military and intelligence have pushed the envelope on the sub-conventional front.
For India, this presents a structural conundrum: Nuclear weapons have made a major conventional conflict with Pakistan unrealistic, yet it needs to find a way to launch limited military action against Pakistan without crossing the nuclear threshold. Nuclear weapons have allowed Pakistan to shield itself from full-scale Indian retaliation as well as to attract international attention on the disputes in the sub-continent.
After Operation Parakram of 2001-02, the Indian army did try to evolve a new doctrine. This ‘Cold Start’ doctrine is basically an attempt to acquire the ability to fight limited wars under the nuclear umbrella. To resolve the dilemma confronting India post-1998, Indian strategists have focused on a military doctrine that might give them the ability to launch quick, decisive limited strikes against Pakistan to seize some territory before the international community could intervene, which can then be used as a post-conflict bargaining chip.
This doctrine is still evolving and its is not clear how effective it would be in making sure that the conflict remains limited as Pakistan might be forced to bring down its nuclear threshold to respond to this challenge. Moreover, the Indian army has found little support for this doctrine from the other two services, and the civilian government has shown no interest in this venture.
As a consequence, the ‘Cold Start’ doctrine has continued to be in the limelight as India’s national security establishment has searched for policy options vis-à-vis Pakistan. Yet this doctrine remains a work in progress. Execution of this doctrine would need the right kind of equipment, something India will have to acquire on a priority basis.
The army will need to upgrade its capabilities significantly if it is to implement this approach. And to do this it will have to surmount a number of entrenched problems in the defense procurement system.
The 1999 and 2001 crises forced the government to react by boosting defense expenditures, but political compulsions re-asserted themselves soon after. When the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government came to power in 2004, it ordered investigations into several of the arms acquisition deals of the previous government. A series of defense procurement scandals since the late 1980s have made the bureaucracy risk-averse, thereby delaying the acquisition process. The labyrinthine bureaucratic processes involved in military procurement have left the defense forces unable to spend a large proportion of their budgets.
While Pakistan has rapidly acquired US technology over the last several years through involvement in the war on terror and China’s military modernization has gathered momentum, the modernization of the Indian army has slipped behind by as much as a decade.
The Indian army chief stated the obvious recently when he talked of India preparing for a “two-front” war. It is the job of the Indian armed forces to prepare for such wars given the security threats that India faces from its neighbors, just as the Pakistani and Chinese military take into account the possibility of a future conflict with India. But it must be kept in perspective that unlike in Pakistan and China, strategic policymaking in India is the sole preserve of the political leadership and Indian policymakers are yet to sign on to this much talked about new doctrine.
Harsh Pant is a lecturer at King’s College London. His research interests include WMD proliferation, US foreign policy and Asia-Pacific security issues. He is also presently a Visiting Fellow at CASI, University of Pennsylvania.
The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, not the International Relations and Security Network (ISN).”