Originally Published 2010-07-05 00:00:00 Published on Jul 05, 2010
In January 2000, when I spoke about the concept of limited conventional wars under the nuclear threshold at an international seminar in New Delhi, there was considerable uproar in the media and the strategic community, particularly in Pakistan.
Fighting limited wars: A major challenge for the military
In January 2000, when I spoke about the concept of limited conventional wars under the nuclear threshold at an international seminar in New Delhi, there was considerable uproar in the media and the strategic community, particularly in Pakistan. My articulation was pronounced as highly provocative. What the Pakistani media did not state or realise was that the idea of a limited war came from their country. It was the Pakistan Army which had initiated Kargil war and surprised us. But its military leaders then had failed to think it through and thus created strategic imbalance for themselves at Kargil, and in future.
The limited conventional wars concept was prepared after going through the full conflict spectrum scenarios to find an answer to the Pakistani challenge below the nuclear threshold, other than launching a covert or a proxy war. I am happy to see that this concept and its realisation have been progressed and continuously refined since then.

There are two strategic conditions which can spark off and then escalate a military conflict between India and its neighbors. First, the border disputes where a serious skirmish can lead to a conventional military conflict, and second, intense proxy war that may lead to a conventional war. When a conventional war does break out in such conditions between two nuclear nations, it is expected to be fought under a nuclear overhang. Some people call that a sub-conventional war or a limited conventional war. The Chinese call it ‘local border wars’. Such a conflict could also spread out in time, in what could possibly be termed as a war in ‘slow motion’. It will have to be conducted within the framework of carefully calibrated political goals and military moves that permit adequate control over escalation and disengagement.

The limited wars concept is far removed from the classical ‘no holds barred’ attitude. It is typically characterised by severe limitations and constraints imposed by the political leadership on the employment of the military. It would imply limited political and military objectives, limited in duration, in geography, and in the actual use of force levels.

Important political and military objectives, the time available to the armed forces to execute their missions and achieve politico-military goals, would be crucial for their planning and conduct of operations. There would have to be complete understanding between the political and military leadership over this. We can also expect restricting political terms of reference, as were given during the Kargil war.

In a ‘reactive’ situation like the Kargil war, the war duration can be prolonged. However, the duration available will be much less if we decide to take the initiative.

There is also a linkage between deterrence and limited conventional war escalation. Capability to wage a successful conventional and nuclear war is a necessary deterrent. A war may well remain limited because of a credible deterrence or ‘escalation dominance’ (which means that one side has overwhelming military superiority at every level of violence). The other side will then be deterred from using conventional or nuclear war due to the ability of the first to wage a war with much greater chances of success. It means that more room is available for manoeuvre in diplomacy and in conflict. A limited conventional war does not mean limited capabilities but refers to their use. 

In such a war scenario, politico-diplomatic factors will play an important role. Careful and calibrated orchestration of military operations, diplomacy, and domestic political environment is essential for its successful outcome. Continuous control of the escalatory ladder requires much closer political oversight and politico-civil- military interaction. It is, therefore, essential to keep the military leadership within the security and strategic decision-making loop and having a direct politico-military interface. During a conflict situation, all participants must remain in constant touch with the political leadership, as was done during the Kargil war.

Important challenges in the limited wars concept are: The political definition of the goals and its translation into military objectives would be difficult, sometimes uncertain and indirect. Yet, it is critical to the attainment of the political goals. The key military concepts pertaining to the desired end result such as victory, decision, and success, are fundamentally transformed to reflect a much heavier political emphasis and attributes.

The successful outcome of such a war hinges on the ability to react rapidly to an evolving crisis, which often erupts by surprise. This would be a major challenge for the military. For the military is expected to react quickly to the changing circumstances in order to localize/ freeze/ reverse the situation on the ground, and to arrest its deterioration, enhance deterrence, and diminish incentives for escalation.

Mobilising and sustaining domestic and international political support for such military operations in the present age of transparency and openness would depend on the ability of the military to operate in a manner that conforms to political legitimacy, i.e. minimum civilian and military casualties and collateral damage.

Militarily, the greatest challenge could be in the political reluctance to commit a pro-active engagement and insistence to retain the authority for approving not just key military moves, but also many operational decisions pertaining to deployment and employment of military assets.

Political requirements and military targeting would need heavy reliance on accurate intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance before and during the battles. Surgical strikes would be a common option. Airpower, precision guided weapons, standoff armaments, and information would be the weapons of choice. Employment of ground forces across the borders could be discouraged, or delayed, due to fear of casualties and difficulty in disengagement at will.

Information operations become important due to the growing transparency of the battlefield to the public. The political requirements of the military operations, in order to achieve and retain the moral high ground and deny that to the adversary, would need a comprehensive and sophisticated media, public affairs and information campaign. This would have to be fully integrated and synchronised with the planning and execution of the military operations.
Counter-intervention and defensive measures cannot be overlooked. Lucrative targets would have to be defended and denied through dispersal and other means, taking into account the symmetrical as well as asymmetrical capabilities of the adversary.

At the operational level, the military implications on the ground are effective and continuous surveillance, integrated capabilities, rapid concentration and launch, surprise, multiple choices/thrust lines, short, sharp intense actions, maximum use of Special Forces, force multipliers, and a pro-active deployment.

In a meeting of the National Security Advisory Board with the Prime Minister on the day Op Prakaram was called off, I had recommended ‘strategic relocation’ of ground forces and the need to prepare joint contingency plans which can be implemented at a short notice or during the course of mobilisation. The logic is that the sooner an intervening force can arrive to influence the course of a military event; the lesser is the chance of the conflict devolving into a firepower intensive, wasteful slugging match. Rapid mobilisation and contact out-paces enemy, and has the same asset as surprise. For a limited conventional war environment, therefore, it is necessary to carry out strategic relocation and tasking of combat formations, particularly those which take a long time to be moved and deployed. We need not wait for mobilisation of the entire theatre or border to be completed. This important aspect and its military application on the ground have led to what is now euphemistically called the ‘cold start’ doctrine.

In a post-Kargil war India Today Conclave, Ashley Tellis had stated “Limited war should be viewed not as a product of the proclivities of the state, but rather as a predicament resulting from a specific set of structural circumstances.” No one in their right senses would want to have a war. Least of all democracies like India, and people like me who have studied, participated, and had to conduct a war. But the armed forces of the nation must be prepared for all possible conflict contingencies.

The writer is a former Chief of Army Staff
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