In India, a Military Strategy Guided by Precision

In India, a Military Strategy Guided by Precision
AP Photo/Channi Anand
In India, a Military Strategy Guided by Precision
AP Photo/Channi Anand
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  • Introducing tactical nuclear weapons into India and Pakistan's military calculations will make operations using large-scale conventional forces less desirable.
  • India will modify its strategy to account for its growing need to use limited military strikes, narrow in scope and duration, to avoid a potential nuclear exchange.
  • India's so-called "surgical deterrence" strategy will be less likely to trigger a wider war with Pakistan, though escalation will remain a risk.


South Asia is not known for its stability, but India and Pakistan's military strategies could lead to greater insecurity in the region. Nuclear weapons, particularly tactical nuclear weapons that are launched on the battlefield, have been introduced into India and Pakistan's military calculations, causing both sides to re-evaluate their policies. Originally, India's unofficial military doctrine, Cold Start, relied on rapid, flexible conventional military operations to strike Pakistan while avoiding a protracted war that could increase the likelihood of nuclear retaliation. But Pakistan countered by developing a tactical nuclear response that made the prospect of large-scale fighting too risky for New Delhi and Islamabad. Nevertheless, India has sought alternate forms of deterrence against Pakistan's asymmetric tactics. Using more limited military strikes, or "surgical deterrence," India will decrease the chances of a wider conflict erupting. Still, escalation will remain an underlying risk.

India and Pakistan's Status Quo

India is the status quo power in the India-Pakistan equation. First, India controls several territories disputed between the two countries, principally Jammu and Kashmir and the Siachen Glacier. Second, India maintains stronger armed forces, increasing its military advantage every year. Third, India has achieved incremental progress to isolate Pakistan diplomatically, all the while increasing its own standing. Most recently, New Delhi announced that it would boycott the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation summit for Pakistan's alleged role in a Sept. 18 militant attack on an Indian army base. Bangladesh, Bhutan and Afghanistan quickly followed India's lead, though it remains to be seen how effective their attempt to punish Pakistan will be.

Conversely, Pakistan is on the losing side of the status quo. To extricate itself from its difficult position, Islamabad has had to rely on asymmetric means to level the playing field, though not without considerable risks. For instance, to compensate for the widening divide between its military strength and that of India, Pakistan has invested heavily in the development and fielding of tactical nuclear weapons. Although the weapons increase the chance of deterring a full-scale invasion from India, they simultaneously increase the chance of a devastating nuclear exchange. They also provide no real way for the Pakistani military to seize disputed territory.

Pakistan's support for the insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir is a way to disrupt Indian governance in the disputed border regions. Previously, Pakistan's strategy, like India's, relied on the military option to take back the territory. But that course of action is becoming more unrealistic as India's military strength grows, forcing Islamabad to turn instead to tactics such as supporting militants and their efforts, despite the toll this policy has taken on Pakistan's diplomacy. 

As a result, New Delhi has again been forced to rethink its punitive deterrence strategy. India is unwilling to take actions that could expose the country to severe danger. Even though Cold Start provides New Delhi with the flexibility to scale military attacks, Pakistan's tactical nuclear weapons would make strategic- and even operational-level offensive operations on Pakistani soil too risky for India's armed forces. Large-scale offensive operations could also degrade India's international standing, undermining its diplomatic progress

Surgical Deterrence

There is much confusion surrounding the Sept. 28 military events along the Line of Control, when Indian paratroopers launched a cross-border raid on at least five suspected terrorist camps in the Pakistan-administered portion of Kashmir. Indian reports were a mix of contradictory statements on the composition of the raid. Adding to the confusion, Pakistan denied that a raid took place at all, claiming that the attack consisted of Indian gunfire over the Line of Control. What is certain, and arguably most important, is that India initiated the operation and loudly signaled its limited nature.

The confrontation, however confusing, offers the most visible example of India's latest deterrence strategy with Pakistan. India cannot allow Pakistan's support for insurgent attacks on its positions to go unpunished, but neither can it respond through large-scale military action. Instead, it focuses on what officials have called "surgical strikes" of specific scale and duration. These operations are a departure from previous war planning, placing less emphasis on sustained artillery bombardments, massed mechanized assaults and sweeping air operations in favor of tailored missions with light infantry, special operations forces and precision-guided weaponry. The objective is no longer to seize territory, but rather to punish the enemy and discourage future provocative acts.

The Pitfalls of Escalation Control

Just as India seeks to avoid a full-scale war, so does Pakistan. Fighting an extended conflict with an increasingly powerful Indian military provides no real benefit for Islamabad. In fact, the likelihood that Pakistan would be able to wrest back territory from India through a conventional conflict is now remote. Pakistan and India therefore have mutual incentive to prevent military escalation.

However, it would be a mistake to dismiss the risk just because both countries want to avoid a conflagration. After all, neither side is fully aware of the other's intentions or plans. A raid or mission carried out by one could easily be mistaken for something larger or perceived as a prelude to a wider offensive. Efforts to increase transparency — like the Indian military's announcement shortly after the Sept. 28 confrontation about how narrow it was — can mitigate the threat somewhat, but the policy does not completely remove the possibility of miscalculation.

Furthermore, military missions are by their very nature dangerous and susceptible to escalation. A pinned down unit in a raid may call for reinforcements, only for the reinforcements to be attacked by a larger force. Fire could be met with heavier retaliatory fire, fueling a rapidly escalating exchange across the Line of Control. Even in a case where both sides want to avoid a larger fight, there is no guarantee that the violence will stay confined. Such are the risks of armed conflict.

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