Nearly a decade ago, in the midst of Indian Army’s largest ever mobilisation–Operation Parakram–on June 10, 2002, a cover story in Outlook magazine outlined the reasons for India’s reluctance to go the whole hog against Pakistan.
Ten years down the line, Indian military planners say they have learnt their lessons from the ‘failure’ of Operation Parakram. Several exercise since 2004 have evolved a new war fighting doctrine against Pakistan–sometimes mistakenly dubbed as “Cold Start.”
Over the past one year itself Exercise Vijayee Bhava and Exercise Sudarshan Shakti have tested some of the new “transformational aspects of the Indian Army. This summer’s Exercise Shoor Veer will allow India’s youngest Army–the South Western Command– to validate the ongoing transformation of the Indian Army.
Looking back, I am not sure we were entirely right. With hindsight I think, we were partially wrong in our analysis.
One other remarkable aspect of this cover story was a candid interview by the then serving Defence Secretary Yogendra Narain. In my limited memory at least, no other Defence Secretary has spoken to the media on record in the past decade, leave alone with such candour.
I am trying to figure out in my mind the reasons for an absence of dialogue/interaction between top decision-makers in the Defence Ministry and the media currently. Is it because there are too many media outlets clamouring for attention? Or is it because of some thing else? Decide for yourself.
Small Is Scary
The Indian army uncovers a Pakistani surprise, tactical low-yield nukes, and revises strategy accordingly
A serious new complication has emerged in India’s battle plans against Pakistan. As strategists at the army headquarters in New Delhi grappled with various war scenarios and options last week, a fresh and hitherto unexplored factor—of Pakistan using a TNW or a tactical nuclear weapon with limited destructive power on military targets—has begun to play on the minds of the army top brass. In two separate briefings, senior officers told Outlook that the concern was real.
“We know that Pakistan will use a tactical nuclear weapon if it finds itself cornered. Our current strategies are being worked out after taking into account this possibility,” says a serving general.
According to him, the size, shape and the delivery system Pakistan is likely to use in the launch of a TNW will depend upon the “opportunity and timing” during the conflict. “We have intelligence inputs and field reports that indicate Pakistan has clandestinely acquired highly sophisticated miniaturised tactical nuclear weapons which could be launched even from field artillery guns or aircraft,” the general said.
The TNW, depending on yield, can destroy an advancing tank squadron and kill 500-1,000 troops. The thinking in the army headquarters is that Pakistan will not hesitate to use these weapons if its “value objectives” are threatened. By this, the army means a situation where either Pakistan’s strategic North-South Highway (running from Peshawar to Karachi) or its key cities come within India’s strike range. However, the general says Pakistan will avoid a nuclear strike unless pushed to the wall. “It is not as if the Pakistanis will play the nuclear card without a serious provocation. So, our strategy should be well calibrated so that it is limited to contain terrorism in J&K.” He rules out an all-out war which carries the risk of escalating into a nuclear conflict.
The possession of TNWs gives Pakistan an edge over India. The army emphasises that though India has an enormous “second-strike” capability, our timing of response may not be quick enough to escape international pressure. “Given the fact that our command and control system is not geared for a swift counter-strike, international pressure on us not to use a strategic nuclear weapon in retaliation will be tremendous. That’s where we’ll lose out,” a general toldOutlook.
International pressure will bear upon India since the use of a strategic nuclear weapon, with high yield, would inflict widespread devastation. India’s response therefore will be of far greater magnitude and intensity than Pakistan’s first strike. Besides, the radioactive fallout and combustion from the big bomb will impact neighbouring countries as well. A TNW, on the other hand, if used in the battlefield against the army, would be seen as a strike against the military and limited in its destructive power.
Many defence strategists debunk the army’s concern. Their theory is that Pakistan does not possess TNWs. The think-tanks believe that manufacturing a miniaturised nuclear device is way beyond Pakistan’s technical competence and that only the US and Russia possess TNWs. Says K. Santhanam, director, Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses: “All this talk of TNWs is an attempt by peaceniks to indulge in scare-mongering.” Bharat Karnad, research professor at the Centre for Policy Research, also believes that neither India nor Pakistan will exercise the nuclear option. “Nuclear weapons do not figure in the conflict except for political posturing,” he says. Adds nuclear disarmament expert Amitabh Mattoo, associate professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi: “Implicit in the suggestion behind a limited nuclear war is that it can be controlled. That concept has been rubbished over the years.”
With strategic thinkers across the board doubting the validity of the army’s apprehension,Outlook spoke to the top generals to gauge the seriousness of the claim.They once again reiterated that they had “credible” intelligence that Pakistan did indeed have “baby nukes” or tactical low-yield nuclear weapons. “We don’t know why Musharraf’s threat of Pakistan being ready to exercise the nuclear option is being treated lightly. We are aware that Pakistan is capable of deploying and using TNWs,” says a general. Serving and retired generals too emphasise that Musharraf’s bluster over nuclear weapon use not be treated as an empty threat.
Lt Gen (retd) D.B. Shekatkar, who has served as an additional director-general, military operations, and as additional director-general, perspective planning, confirmed as much toOutlook (see interview). “We have always factored in this possibility even in the past,” say he. Maj Gen (retd) Afsir Karim, a former member of the National Security Advisory Board, too believes that Pakistan possesses TNWs. “The US has some kind of control over Pakistan’s nuclear warheads but not entirely since there is a possibility that Pakistan has kept some of its nukes hidden from the Americans. Also, anything can be pushed in from the Chinese side and launched at the last moment,” he says. Gen Karim also adds that India doesn’t have TNWs. A senior defence ministry official too told Outlook that the army’s concerns are not unwarranted. “It is right to presume that Pakistan has TNWs, although we can counter it with a strategic nuclear strike,” he says. In Lahore, Outlook’s correspondent spoke to a clutch of scientists at the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission who said that their country was much closer to a nuclear confrontation with India than at any other time since the warheads it possessed were in place. They also confirmed that the tactical nuclear warheads had been moved close to the border.
The Indian army, of course, is taking no chances. In May last year, even before the current stand-off began, it had carried out an integrated exercise in the Rajasthan desert to test India’s preparedness in the event of a “chemical, biological and nuclear assault”. In one such exercise, sources reveal, the army indulged in a mock encounter with an enemy aircraft carrying a nuclear warhead. But having taken the N-factor into account, what are the options before the army? Top army officers draw out two realistic options for Outlook: a) strike terrorist camps across the LoC through a short, swift, special forces raid and b) precision air strikes to destroy camps and supporting infrastructure.
Senior army officers say a commando operation is feasible if it is backed by real-time intelligence on the strength and location of the terrorist camps. “If the Americans want, they can give us ‘actionable’ intelligence obtained through their satellite pictures,” says a military intelligence officer. What is ruled out are deep strikes across the LoC. “The kind of operations envisaging occupation of important Pakistani bases like Skardu and Gilgit and holding it for a considerable time would require massive troop mobilisation to the order of 10 divisions,” says a general. Similarly, altering the LoC is also being deemed impractical since the area close to the LoC is heavily mined and has a thick concentration of Pakistani troops”.These two scenarios will start a full-blown war and are therefore ruled out,” he added.
Given the risk of sending troops across the LoC, the more favoured option is pin-pointed air strikes on the camps located 20-30 km across the LoC. Indian aircraft can cross the LoC, strike at the camps and return within six to seven minutes. “Given the fact that the terrain in Kashmir is difficult for quick detection of intruding aircraft and that Pakistan’s air defence is weak, our fighters can quickly achieve the objective with ease,” a senior air force officer toldOutlook.Air Chief Marshal (retd) A.Y. Tipnis, who led the air force during Operation Vijay in Kargil, feels that the Indian Air Force can be put to effective use. “The air force can be used in concert with the army. It can be used for attacking the terrorist networks. It can be used for targeted attacks across the LoC.”
Air strikes are also a favoured strategy since they’re a low-cost, high-return option for India. Also, as analysts say, India will be fully justified in attacking terrorist camps across the LoC. “Our problem is terrorism in J&K. Most of the international opinion will be in our favour since we have a legal and moral right to destroy terrorist networks in PoK,” says a senior IAF officer.
India’s surgical strikes, however, have to be timed and calibrated in a manner that Pakistan is not provoked into escalating the war in other theatres across the International Border in Rajasthan and Punjab. In Rajasthan, although the Indian army’s armoured strength is superior, it is constrained by the desert terrain and the fact that Pakistan has roads and infrastructure ensuring better movement of its mechanised forces. At the moment, army officers say, the searing heat is also affecting men and machines in Rajasthan. In Punjab, once the monsoon breaks out in a month’s time, carrying out any armoured operation will become impossible since tanks will get bogged down in the slush.
All these factors have narrowed down the “window of opportunity” for the Indian army in the coming weeks. The favoured theatre of operations remains J&K. “It is also in consonance with the primary objective of curbing terrorism and preventing infiltration,” says a general. With Pakistan brazenly raising the nuclear pitch, the Indian army is fine-tuning its response. In this charged scenario, the army feels strident posturing by the political class will only raise the temperature further. They are advocating a more pragmatic approach. That perhaps is the reason why New Delhi is still trying to resolve the crisis through coercive diplomacy.
“A Surgical Strike Is The Answer”
The Defence Secretary on India’s strategies and preparedness.
Post-Kaluchak, the defence ministry has been coordinating with the armed forces on the possible options India has. In an interview to Outlook, defence secretary Yogendra Narain spells out some of India’s strategies and defence preparedness. Excerpts:
Why is India restrained in its response despite Pakistan’s brazenness?
Our objective is to eradicate terrorism. We can do it in two ways. One, by an all-out war where we defeat Pakistan and root out terrorism. Two, by coercive diplomacy: through the international coalition on terrorism, we exercise pressure on Pakistan economically, politically and militarily.
Has the government factored in the possibility of the war turning nuclear?
Certainly. But Pakistan is not a democratic country and we don’t know their nuclear threshold. We will retaliate and must be prepared for mutual destruction on both sides.
Is the nuclear command structure in place?
Everything is finalised. It is in the hands of the civilian government and we don’t expect any delay in issuing of orders.
What if there is another attack on civilians or military establishments? Will there be surgical strikes or a full-scale war?
Surgical strikes are the realistic option. But we also know that there will be retaliation on other parts of the border from Pakistan. It’ll escalate and will not be confined to one region.
Do we have a moral and legal right to go across the LoC and target militant camps?
Yes, we do. That was the original objective after the 13/12 attack. Troops were deployed but then Musharraf came out with his famous January 12 speech. We had our doubts but the West asked us to give him time to deliver.
What is happening now?
Infiltration was steadily rising in March, April and May. When Kaluchak happened on May 14, the US and UK governments expected a mature response from us. We told them we were running short of options and had no choice but to retaliate. But we deferred action again. Now after his disappointing speech, we continue to keep our troops on the border. We can strike at three hours’ notice.