Saturday, September 24, 2016

How to Deal with the Next Uri -- or Mumbai

The latest Pakistani terrorist outrage in Uri has led to a predictable debate about why and how India should react.  I am a bit tired of this debate because it has been clear for quite a while that India's "strategic restraint" is neither effective nor logical.  But the usual excuse of lack of preparedness, a nice football that the military and politicians keep kicking to each other endlessly, is also frustrating.  So here are a few thoughts, not so much on how to respond to the current crisis, but the next one.  I suspect we will be as unprepared the next time as we were this time, and that's enormously frustrating.  But this is all that academics can do: at the least, no one (politician, bureaucrat or military officer) will be able to say later that they didn't receive any advice! This was published by ORFOnline two days back. 

How to deal with the next Uri -- or Mumbai

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

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 specifically 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.

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.

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 officers 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. 

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. 

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.

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