January 16, 2011

Towards limited warfare

January 16, 2011 6:01:07 PM

Limited Wars in South Asia
Author: Maj Gen GD Bakshi
Publisher: KW Publishers
Price: Rs 780

The book analyses how nuclear parity has resulted in the return of limited wars, and how India has much to learn from China on the issue, says Sandhya Jain

The 20th century saw the eruption of total conflict in two World Wars which were unprecedented in scope, scale and havoc thus caused. Towards the end of World War II, America used nuclear weapons on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which brought about a paradigm shift in the power of destructive ordnance. Nuclear weapons transformed the nature of war forever. Many independent historians and experts have since questioned the use of nuclear weapons, as it was known in leading capitals that Japan was already negotiating the terms and language of surrender.

In his eminently readable Limited Wars in South Asia: Need for an Indian Doctrine, Major General Gagandeep Bakshi explains that the US used the nuclear weapons against Japan to signal its new power to the then Soviet Union, whose massive conventional military power was a serious concern in Washington. Moscow received the message loud and clear, but the consequence — perhaps unintended for Uncle Sam — was that the USSR refused to demobilise after the end of the War. This, in turn, triggered fears in Europe, already exhausted by the destruction of two World Wars.

The fear of Soviet tanks began to haunt Europe and also the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, and in response Washington created the doctrine of Massive Retaliation. This meant that any Soviet conventional attack in Europe would be met with an all-out American nuclear attack on Soviet industrial heartland and cities. But by 1949, the Soviet Union managed to establish nuclear parity with the US and this made nuclear counter-attack less credible.

The sheer destructiveness of nuclear weapons made their use under conditions of symmetry impossible, and this made nuclear war notional, giving rise to concepts like Mutual Assured Destruction in strategic parlance. The weapons thus had the effect of ushering in a relative peace. This resulted in the return of limited wars, the theme of Bakshi’s current endeavour. Limited wars, he notes, initially erupted as limited conventional wars between the proxies of superpowers, in theatres outside the critical arena of Europe, where the two superpowers faced each other directly. Strategic thinkers now began to focus on how to avert war, rather than win it.

The first test of the fragile, post-nuclear status quo came in Korea in 1950, where a limited war (in geographical space) raged for three years in the remote Far East. The only limitation was in the ‘non-use’ of nuclear weapons, and General Douglas MacArthur was sacked for urging their use. Beijing threw in a million troops; both sides used the latest conventional weaponry; and, Washington alone suffered 137,000 casualties. Thereafter, the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 brought the world close to a nuclear holocaust, which was averted only by Moscow agreeing to remove the Soviet nuclear-tipped missiles from Cuba, in exchange for Washington removing US missiles from Turkey. Interestingly, Bakshi is the first major commentator who has projected the Cuban crisis as a draw between the superpowers, as most of our West-centric analysts have for decades written about it as a unilateral American triumph, which it clearly was not.

The established nuclear status quo now began to witness a new genre of threats in the form of guerilla warfare, insurgencies and low-intensity conflicts in Indo-China where the Vietnam War (1968) became a quagmire for the US as dense jungle restricted mobility and canopy hindered air power. The ground war spread to Laos and Cambodia. America extended the air war to North Vietnam, used chemical defoliants and Agent Orange, but lost.

The Cold War, thus, saw the absence of large-scale conflict or direct clash between the superpowers in Europe, with the arms race serving as a surrogate for war. But the most decisive campaign of the Cold War era was India’s liberation of Bangladesh in 1971. Then, by the end of 1978, Vietnam liberated Cambodia from the murderous Pol Pot regime, and in 1979 the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. The same year China tried to teach Vietnam a lesson by border invasion, and ended up with a bloody nose. In Afghanistan, America used short-term and short-sighted measures by stoking Islamic insurgency to raise the costs for the USSR, which in turn boomeranged with 9/11.

We are now in what Bakshi calls the Second Nuclear Age. Asia has six indigenous nuclear powers — Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea — and Iran is desperately trying to join the club. The question arises: Will the nuclear theology of the Cold War apply in Asia where nationalism is at a peak?

India localised the Pakistani intrusion in the Kargil sector in 1999 by ordering only partial mobilisation. But Islamabad learnt that it had pegged South Asian nuclear threshold too low in Kargil. India was innovative — with two divisions, heavy artillery fire, air power and navy, it removed the Pakistan Northern Light Infantry troopers from the heights overlooking the strategic Leh-Srinagar artery, in the course of just one month. But India’s great failing, feels Bakshi, was its failure to cross the Line of Control, a defensive military response which gave Islamabad the wrong message, though it kept international pressure at bay.

New Delhi erroneously felt the N-parity negated a conventional edge. This encouraged Pakistan to attack the Jammu & Kashmir Assembly and the Indian Parliament, and our Operation Parakram fizzled out under international glare. We paid the price in terms of terror strikes in Jaipur, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad, Bangalore, New Delhi and Guwahati, until the 2008 Mumbai attacks removed the scales from our eyes.

Bakshi warns that the fearfulness of the Indian elite, which believes the military option is no longer viable, has prompted the jihadi sub-conventional assaults to continue. What India needs, he opines, is escalation planning like China. We are on the way to a multipolar world order, and the focus of global power has shifted to Asia. Here, the trans-national Islamic movement is the greatest threat to peace.

It was General NC Vij who enunciated the doctrine of Cold Start, a subset of Limited War Doctrine derived from Operation Parakram when our forces raced for the western border and beat Pakistani counterparts to the draw and could have done deep penetrations, but were held back by political strategic paralysis. The new doctrine (officially denied by India after WikiLeaks disclosures made fun of Indian bumbling responses) involves smaller integrated battle groups to mobilise and strike more quickly, and hit enemy capabilities at ground level in concert with air and fire power. It takes war to the enemy territory, in keeping with the Kautilyan adage: Avoid battle unless strong and have a decisive asymmetric edge.

India, Bakshi asserts, has much to learn from China which is not deterred by N-weapons of adversaries. China’s strength is that it believes it does not wait passively, but grabs the initiative to catch the enemy unprepared, as in 1962.

Strangely, despite the Indian economy recovering with nine per cent annual growth, the country has taken no steps to close the vulnerability gaps vis-à-vis Pakistan; there is no usable military power — only bureaucratic red tape and a scam-tainted defence acquisition system. Worse, there is no national strategic doctrine, no realisation that in today’s world we must give primacy to air and naval power over land power responses, as land war risks escalation across the nuclear threshold.

At the historic moment when the world should look with respect upon India as a rising world power (not just an economic market), the reality is that Delhi’s force usage profile is declining and lack of political will is sapping the credibility to defend national interests. India needs to create in its military strategy a space for limited conventional war between the spectral ends of nuclear war and sub-conventional conflict.

Bakshi recommends that India retain escalation dominance and control. Delhi must realise that it doesn’t bear the responsibility to prevent Islamabad from imploding. He concludes with a word of wisdom from Mao: “Only a complete fool or a madman would cherish passive defence.”

The book is a must-read for those concerned with the defence of India

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