Defence Primer,Schelling

A soldier in Normandy

In his foreword to Roberta Wohlstetter’s ‘Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision’[1], Nobel Laureate Thomas Schelling wrote, “There is a tendency in our planning to confuse the unfamiliar with the improbable. The contingency we have not considered looks strange; what looks strange is thought improbable; what is improbable need not be considered seriously.” He goes on to warn that the “danger is not that we shall read the signals and indicators with too little skill; the danger is in a poverty of expectations – a routine obsession with a few dangers that may be familiar than likely.”

This essay looks at three strategic scenarios that may sound unfamiliar today but cannot be dismissed from the realm of reality. With a time horizon of 2030, it is possible that some or all of them may be seen as more likely going into the future, and a few perhaps completely dismissed as the situation evolved. None of the scenarios, however, is a ridiculous fantasy; all of them are grounded in reality as it exists today.

There are a few common characteristics kept in mind while framing these scenarios. One, they must threaten India substantially, whether geographically, economically, politically or socially. Two, the threat must have a security component, which necessitates the involvement of the military. Three, the scenarios have to be broad-based in nature where the details of the specific threat may vary but still fit in the larger picture. And four, they should fall within the danger of ‘poverty of expectations’ of the government.

Scenario 1: A tactical nuclear weapon attack by terrorists on Indian mainland

Pakistan has developed the Hatf-9 (Nasr) short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) as part of its full-spectrum deterrence against India. Pakistan claims the Hatf-9 is equipped with a tactical nuclear warhead (TNW) which can stop the advance of Indian mechanised forces into Pakistan. A TNW is a low-yield (8-10 KT) short-range nuclear warhead which is extremely costly and complex to manufacture and difficult to transport, store and maintain under field conditions. Because TNW-fitted missiles have to be fired at a very short notice, unlike bigger strategic weapons, these nuclear warheads have to be kept in a fully assembled state. Moreover, the authority to fire a TNW has to be delegated to lower-level military commanders at an early stage in the battle. All this creates a proclivity among the military commanders to ‘use them or lose them’.

Pakistan army’s control over nuclear decision making and the risk of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of the jihadis have been the potential threats that India has been worried about. As far as the use of TNWs by Pakistan army is concerned, Indian policy is crystal clear. Former National Security Advisor (NSA) Shiv Shankar Menon has put it thus, “If Pakistan were to use tactical nuclear weapons against India, even against Indian forces in Pakistan, it would effectively be opening the door to a massive Indian first strike, having crossed India’s declared red lines. There would be little incentive, once Pakistan had taken hostilities to the nuclear level, for India to limit its response, since that would only invite further escalation by Pakistan.”[2]

A similar degree of clarity exists, courtesy the No-First-Use policy, on India’s non-usage of nuclear weapons to respond to a terrorist attack from Pakistan. But confusion would prevail if terrorists, from groups seen to be closely aligned to the Pakistan army or the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), or operating from Pakistani soil, get their hands on a tactical nuclear weapon. As Menon has explained, the one situation that India really worries about is the radicalisation of the Pakistan army.[3] Even a section of radicalised officer cadre could get easy and full access to a TNW during deployment, unlike a strategic nuclear weapon which needs multiple levels of control before being fired. The radicalised officer could then fire a TNW on an Indian civilian township or a military target. Or it could hand over the device to a terrorist group, which could try and smuggle it into India to use it on a major Indian city in the glare of television cameras.

A 10 KT nuclear weapon would damage all buildings within a radius of one kilometre, and debris would cause injuries within six kilometres of ground zero.[4] All electronic devices within five kilometres would stop functioning and a mushroom cloud would be visible in the sky. Population up to 30 kilometres of the blast will suffer from acute radiation and all public services in the area would be rendered non-functional. The number of dead would depend on the density of population, nature of blast and the weather conditions but in a densely populated Indian megacity, it could well be in thousands. All this would be happening in the full glare of media, making the situation even more untenable for the authorities. This is a scenario India’s nuclear doctrine does not provide a clear answer to.

The situation is further complicated by the precedent set by cross-LoC surgical strikes following the terror attack on Uri army camp in September 2016. To satisfy popular anger and achieve emotional closure for the wider public following a nuclear strike, the Indian government will be forced to respond. The nature of response would be a political call but a nuclear strike gives India full authority to retaliate using a nuclear weapon, which the international community will have to accept. It would then have to be a massive Indian first strike to prevent any further escalation by Pakistan. If Pakistan does not want India to respond with a nuclear strike, it will have to make huge public concessions on terrorists to New Delhi. Even then, depending on the political climate and the state of bilateral relations, India may have to unleash a demonstrable military response.

There is little that India can do to prevent this scenario from developing except using international diplomatic pressure to stop Pakistan from developing TNWs, and force it to act on terror groups which are aligned with the Pakistani army and the ISI. Moreover, Pakistan should double-check the security of its fissile material, and take forward a process of strict vetting its one-star and above military ranks for jihadi proclivities. If US authorities covertly monitor the development and movement of nuclear weapons in Pakistan, New Delhi should try and be a part of such a monitoring mechanism without making it public. Finally, notwithstanding the state of bilateral relations, India and Pakistan must keep lines of communication between its top political, military and diplomatic leadership at all times to prevent any miscommunication and misleading step from either side. It will not be easy but the fallout can then be contained to a great degree, if not fully prevented.

Scenario 2: Evacuating Indian diaspora if Saudi Arabia collapses

The Indian diaspora population in West Asia is currently estimated at 7.3 million, out of which three million alone are in Saudi Arabia.[5] The largest evacuation done by India was in 1991, when more than 0.17 million people were evacuated by Air India in 67 days.[6] Even though India has undertaken many other diaspora evacuations since, they have all been much smaller in nature. Mass evacuations of this nature from a foreign land present several challenges and risks which vary from political, diplomatic, military to media and perception management. The situation is further complicated because such situations arise in a conflict scenario where a humanitarian crisis in simultaneously unfolding.

Saudi Arabia remains ostensibly politically stable at the moment with the ruling house of Saud at its helm in Riyadh. There are however underlying problems which can cause upheaval in the oil-rich country any time. The sectarian divide in the country between the Sunni majority and the Shia minority, plus within various Sunni tribes, remains a major cause of concern. It is also threatened by extremist Islamist forces which remain opposed to the house of Saud, and have been responsible for many terror incidents in the country. Saudi Arabia remains a close American ally but its constant tussle with the Shia republic of Iran or the Jewish state of Israel can trigger major instability in the kingdom. The region has also seen a demand for democracy in recent years, and those protests could erupt against the monarchy too. These could be triggered by the state of economy, which is dependent only on crude oil prices. It needs a barrel of oil to be in the range of $80 to balance its budgets, and if the price of crude oil remains low for a sustained period of time, even a minor incident could bring about a major change.

An analysis of available naval and air assets shows that the total current evacuation capacity of the government in a single trip is 67,458 persons.[7] This number is woefully inadequate in case of a rapid mass evacuation. A better understanding of the evacuation capacity comes from the concept of ‘Figure of Merit’, which is defined as the number of people that can be transported across a certain distance in kilometres. It is derived by multiplying the carrying capacity of each asset with its maximum operating range in a single trip. The total sea lift capacity (Figure of Merit) per day is 30,993,600 persons-km and the total air lift capacity (Figure of Merit) per day is 556,171,176 persons-km, if all the military and civilian aviation and sea-based assets of the government are included.[8]

With Riyadh being 2,780 km from Mumbai, the desired evacuation capacity for three million-strong Indian diaspora in Saudi Arabia comes to 8,340,000,000 persons-km. If 100 per cent of the 556,169,376 persons-km Figure of Merit are available, the evacuation from Riyadh can be completed in 15 days. If a more realistic estimate of only 30 per cent of the resources being made available is done, the evacuation from Riyadh will take 50 days.[9] The Indian diaspora works in the kingdom largely in the unskilled and the semi-skilled sector; and is spread all over the country. This assumes that the Indian missions in Saudi Arabia will be able to bring the Indian diaspora from various locations in the kingdom to Riyadh as air and naval assets are made available by New Delhi.

These assumptions—of 50 days taken for evacuation from Riyadh with the airport being functional there and the Indian diaspora being moved easily from across the country—are only valid if the crisis does not alter the governance structure of the kingdom. In the case of a scenario where the kingdom is overthrown by either Islamists, a democratic protest or due to an external conflict, the situation would be more desperate for New Delhi. Having set a precedent of rescuing Indians in trouble from the region over the last 26 years, the Indian government will still have to move quickly to evacuate the Indian diaspora from Saudi Arabia.

If the Riyadh airport is unavailable, India will have work out alternate plans to move the populace to neighbouring countries, provided a safe route is available. India must have access to operational sea and air bases for uninterrupted operations in neutral countries, wherever there is a major concentration of the Indian diaspora.

Alternatively, India will have secure the ports and use only its naval assets to evacuate the Indian citizens. This can be done with the help of the local forces or along with one of the foreign forces, which may have secured the naval bases for the evacuation of its own nationals. If no foreign force is available, India will have to send its force to secure the naval base and the airport as well as create a secure enclave for the Indian diaspora for those 50 days. Although this activity can be undertaken by the Navy’s Marine Commandos as the vanguard, it needs logistics support, scenario planning and rehearsals to be successfully executed at a short notice. The Indian Air Force and the Army will also have to be involved to provide support and additional resources for the enormous task. Besides the military component, New Delhi will have to put its diplomatic energies to ensure that the evacuation of the Indian diaspora takes place in an unfamiliar and non-conducive environment.

Scenario 3: China strangulates India

In 2005, American consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton came up with the ‘String of Pearls’ theory. The theory, which has been debated vigorously, argued that China will try to expand its naval presence by building civilian maritime infrastructure along the Indian Ocean periphery. It has been partly discredited as Chinese efforts to control the South China Sea have left most Asian countries wary of Beijing, which has been further supplanted by the American pivot towards Asia. The global focus, however, has not been directed at India and its neighbourhood—a clear and present danger for India.

The Indian Ocean is a nerve centre as half of the world’s container traffic and one-third of its bulk cargo plies through that route. More than 80 percent of the world’s sea-borne oil transit—over one lakh ships annually—takes place in the Indian Ocean with the Strait of Malacca in the East accounting for 40 per cent of it. For the planners in New Delhi, there is strategic importance in controlling the sea lanes in the Indian Ocean. But the scenario goes beyond the sea lanes of the Indian Ocean, as it involves encircling the Indian landmass by creating various pressure points in the neighbourhood and restraining New Delhi from assuming its natural leadership role in the region.

Some of the elements of this strategy are already in place. Pakistan remains a staunch military ally of Beijing; and the Gwadar Port, developed by China, has the potential to become a full-fledged regional hub and a transshipment port in future. Beijing provided the majority share of funding for the $1.2 billion construction, which is connected to the Karakoram Highway, linking the Arabian Sea to Western China through the China Pakistan Economic Corridor.[10] This has the potential to not only develop into a sea-based threat but also a strategic military challenge for India.

Similarly, in Sri Lanka, the recently added Colombo International South Container Terminal was built with the collaboration of China Merchant Holdings Company. The same Chinese company is set to take over an 80 percent share of the Hambantota deep sea port in exchange for taking over $1.1 billion of Sri Lanka’s debt to China.[11] As part of similar proceedings, an as yet unnamed Chinese company will also take over the debt-riddled, revenue-draining Mattala International Airport in Southern Sri Lanka in an attempt to turn it around financially. Sri Lanka had offered China debt-for-equity swaps that included the Hambantota port and Mattala airport, but these were rejected on the grounds that China preferred to enact such deals via commercial entities rather than through government-to-government exchanges. However, there seems to be a change in thinking in Beijing, which has the potential to convert Sri Lanka into a full-fledged Chinese enclave at a very strategic position in India’s neighbourhood.

China has also financed a container shipping facility in Chittagong, Bangladesh, which has a potential military role for the Chinese. Even though the current Bangladesh government insists that the port is of an entirely commercial nature and is off limits to military vessels, the situation could change rapidly with a change in government in Dhaka. Reports about Chinese presence in Maldives and Myanmar have also been seen from time to time. While no concrete developments have been announced here, China could move on rather quickly to build a military base in these two countries. New Delhi should also be equally concerned about a Chinese military presence in Nepal, sometime in the future.

The worst-case scenario, in such a case, would mean Chinese military bases—or civilian facilities which could easily double up as military bases—in Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Pakistan. That would encircle India dramatically, constraining Delhi’s strategic freedom in its own neighbourhood and putting it under pressure in bilateral negotiations. Imagine China making a grab for the Andaman and Nicobar Islands—something Indonesia had threatened to do in 1965 after having laid a claim for them. The military situation did not materialise then but India was concerned enough to approach US even then.[12]

The answer to such a scenario is similar even now. Indian response has to be premised on preventing such a scenario from developing, even if it doesn’t have the economic muscle to match those of Beijing. But by using deft diplomacy, and exploiting historical and cultural connections with the countries in the neighbourhood, India can still achieve a lot. Further, New Delhi will have to be more open to the idea of allying with other countries in the region which are concerned about China’s hegemonic designs. Even under the current Bharatiya Janata Party government, there has been political resistance to the idea of doing joint sea combat patrols with the US Navy in the Indian Ocean. That resistance may have to be overcome if the Chinese ambitions in India’s neighbourhood have to be thwarted. Finally, there is no alternative to building India’s military strength to create the correct balance of power, which will provide both an incentive to prospective allies and a deterrence to China.


These scenarios are neither exhaustive nor exclusive in nature. But they provide a window into the diverse and unlikely nature of military challenges that could be thrown up in future. As India’s influence increases and it starts playing a greater global role, the complexity of such challenges will increase manifold. The military and the government cannot afford to be surprised by these challenges. They must learn to anticipate what is likely but appears unfamiliar. “The failure to anticipate effectively,” as Schelling warned, can often lead to a catastrophic disaster.[13]

This article was originally published in Defence Primer

[1] Roberta Wohlstetter, Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision, Stanford University Press, 1962, pp vii-ix

[2] “Choices: Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy” by Shiv Shankar Menon

[3] ibid 2

[4] Damage Zones after a Nuclear Detonation: Idealized Maps, US Department of Health and Human Services

[5] Ministry of External Affairs, “Population of Overseas Indians,” April 2016,

[6] K. P. Fabian, “Biggest Ever Air Evacuation in History,” Indian Foreign Affairs 7, no. 1 (January–March 2012)

[7] Guru Aiyar, “Capacity Analysis for Evacuation of Indian Diaspora” Takshashila Policy Brief 2016-S04, (2016)

[8] ibid 7

[9] ibid 8

[10] CPEC official website,

[11] Sri Lanka re-negotiating Hambantota port deal with China, The New Indian Express, January 4, 2017

[12] When India sought covert United States help to tackle the ‘triple squeeze’ of 1965, The Indian Express, August 25, 2015

[13] ibid 1

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



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