Even if India is unable to respond to the Uri attack, there is still time for the Modi government to recover.

Uri, Kashmir, Modi, Doval, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and Foreign Secretary Subrahmanyam Jaishankar

File Photo

These are early days yet, but it is still difficult to overcome the impression that the Indian system was not fully prepared to meet the Uri contingency. This is unfortunate and surprising. Considering that Prime Minister Modi has been a strong critic of India’s lack of firm response to Pakistan’s attacks on previous occasion, one would have thought that the Indian system would have deliberated and decided on India’s options under various contingencies, including such a predictable terrorist outrage. But even if India is unable to respond to the Uri attack, there is still time for the Modi government to recover. Pakistan, after all, is not about to stop terror attacks against India. Immediate preparation will allow the government to be ready to respond to a future attack.

It is possible that India’s civilian leaders, including Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, assumed that the military had such plans and they would be made available to the civilian leaders whenever they were needed. This appears to have been the general approach of previous governments, as we know from the high-level deliberations after the Mumbai attack. If so, hopefully the current crisis will disabuse them of such assumptions and demonstrate that they need to take a much more active role in planning for potential military contingencies.

The most basic reason for the current state of affairs lies in the peculiar nature of India’s civil-military relations: India’s political leadership has traditionally taken a rather hands-off approach to what appears, by civil-military consensus, to be issues of purely military competence. Military operational matters and plans fall in this category, according to this presumed consensus. The 'Cold Start' doctrine (whose actual status is uncertain, even if it has formally been disavowed) is a good example. It is unclear whether the direction to draft such a doctrine came from the political leadership or was purely a military decision; or indeed, whether the political leadership was even aware that such a doctrine existed. It does appear, to the extent it is possible to gather from the outside, that the doctrine was framed by the Army with little specific political input. This is not a point about the efficacy of the Cold Start doctrine, but about whether the Indian political and military leadership communicate with each other in some detail about what threats to prepare for, the plans to meet such threats, the contingencies that might impact these plans, what lacunae exists in fulfilling these plans, and the political implications of these plans.

India’s political leadership has traditionally taken a rather hands-off approach to what appears, by civil-military consensus, to be issues of purely military competence.

The fact that both the IAF and Indian Army chiefs told Prime Minister Manmohan Singh after the Mumbai attacks that they were not ready for war — whatever the reasons — suggest that these conversations do not take place in the Indian system. Early indicators from the current crisis indicate that not much has changed. It is not clear whether the Defence Minister’s Operational Directive, for example, goes beyond bland, generic directions that Indian military should prepare to deter China and defeat Pakistan.

The fact that both the IAF and Indian Army chiefs told Prime Minister Manmohan Singh after the Mumbai attacks that they were not ready for war — whatever the reasons — suggest that these conversations do not take place in the Indian system.

This is the root of the problem. While actual operational details might have to be framed by the military, this should be done in consultation with and under the leadership of the political decision-makers. Such military plans need to be discussed and finalised not under the pressure of crises but well prior to it. The broad contours of the conditions that might require India to use its military instrument is not very difficult to fathom: a conventional attack on India by Pakistan or China, or both in concert; and Pakistan-sponsored terrorist attacks of varying intensity, from attacks on border posts or bases such as Pathankot or Uri to mass-casualty attacks such as the Mumbai attack or, at an even higher level, an attack on the Indian political leadership. The political leadership needs to be actively involved in the military plans and preparations to meet each of these contingencies. In a crisis, the political leaders should not have to task the military to come up with plans, or have to consider generic plans that might not be suitable for the conditions they face but only have to decide which of the specific plans that the military had already prepared, equipped and trained for, to implement.

Another fundamental problem that Indian military preparations face is determining the kind of military equipment and training that India requires to carry out its military objectives. Indian defence acquisition process has become notorious for its inefficiency, but a larger problem is deciding what military equipment India should even seek. Currently, this is left to the military services, who determine their needs based on what the market offers and what their doctrine and service interests dictate. The requirements are justified as either replacements for obsolescence or to match what China or Pakistan have. This process requires some modification to, at least, also reflect what specific Indian plans of the type above require. For example, a deep infantry assault into Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) would require heavy-lift helicopters, which India lacks. India only has a couple of Mi-26 helicopters, and the fifteen CH-47 Chinooks it has ordered from the US will be insufficient for transporting significant number of forces. Other plans might require different capabilities. The point is that unless specific equipment needs — as well as training — is considered ahead of time, Indian political leaders will find that they have no appropriate military response plans when they need them.

Indian defence acquisition process has become notorious for its inefficiency, but a larger problem is deciding what military equipment India should even seek.

Coordination between the different departments is equally important, and is another serious lacuna in the Indian system. Even the three Indian military services do not coordinate as they should. It is difficult to read the published doctrines of the three services and not come to the conclusion that they are planning to fight three different wars rather than one. It is obvious that the army and air force, in particular, need to coordinate to carry out any significant offensive against Pakistan. This means that the two services be tasked to present joint plans rather an army plan and an air force plan. But this can happen only if the political leadership insists that the two services present such joint plans, which will take time to develop.

These plans also require coordination with the intelligence services and other departments such as the Ministry of External Affairs and Home. For example, without such coordination from higher political levels, intelligence agencies cannot be tasked to produce the information that is needed to make or operationalise plans. But without political leaders pushing it, these departments will not coordinate.

The Indian political leadership also needs to get over the fear of nuclear escalation, assiduously pushed by probably well-meaning analysts and commentators. The idea of a Pakistani nuclear escalation is to a large extent a strategic myth but a myth that has been useful for Pakistan because it paralysed India from responding to Pakistan’s attacks.

The idea that Pakistan will reach for its nuclear weapons as soon as Indian forces enter Pakistan makes no logical sense. If Pakistan does use nuclear weapons, it has to expect that India will retaliate. Even if India does not let loose with everything in its arsenal — as the Indian nuclear doctrine implies — it would be a very foolish Pakistani planner who would base her assessment on the assumption that India would not respond. The expectation of an Indian nuclear retaliation should suffice to ensure that Pakistan will hold back its nuclear weapons (unless Indian military ambitions are to undo the Pakistan state, which clearly is not the case). The important point here is that no proponent of the escalation thesis has so far explained how Pakistan calculates it will get away with using nuclear weapons. This is the event horizon at which all analysis stops because the entire focus is on not reaching this point.

The expectation of an Indian nuclear retaliation should suffice to ensure that Pakistan will hold back its nuclear weapons.

But pushing beyond this point is essential because getting to the point of escalation requires understanding Pakistan’s calculus beyond this point. To get to this point of escalation requires assuming that Pakistan has thought beyond this point and has calculated the Indian response and their counter-response and that it has decided to launch a nuclear attack on the basis of this calculation. What might Pakistan’s calculations be? That India will not act as its doctrine suggests and launch a massive retaliation?  That India will not retaliate with even a proportional attack? That India will simply pull its forces back, ignore that it was subjected to a nuclear strike and normality returns? And unless the Pakistan Army leaders make the absolutely absurd assumption that India’s response will be non-nuclear, how would they calculate a positive outcome after their nuclear attack? And if they cannot, why would they go down the nuclear path in the first place? There is a logic to Pakistan’s nuclear threats. But there is no logic to a Pakistani nuclear attack.

The problem is that much of the nuclear escalation argument has been shrouded in unexamined assumptions about Pakistan’s first use nuclear doctrine, which have conflated first use with early use. Pakistan will use nuclear weapons first if the survival of the Pakistani state itself is threatened, if Indian conventional forces have destroyed much of Pakistan’s military and is rushing towards Islamabad. Under similar circumstances, no nuclear power — including India, despite its No First Use doctrine — will hold back. It would still be first use, but it would be as a last resort. This would be an understandable escalation, but entirely irrelevant in the current context because the discussion is about punishing Pakistan, not eliminating it.

If India had prepared to respond to Pakistan’s attacks after the Parakram crisis, it might not have been so helpless at Mumbai. If India had prepared after Mumbai, it could have responded to Pathankot. India’s choice is simple: prepare now or get back to hand-wringing when the next attack takes place, as it surely will.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

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