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Reopening the Debate on Limited War

Ali Ahmed was Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • February 29, 2012

    The former Army chief General Deepak Kapoor joins his predecessor General V.P. Malik1 in dwelling on the contours of Limited War. In a recent article, he writes: “… it may be mentioned that in the emerging security paradigm, where future wars may be limited in scope and time, new thinking is essential.”2 He concludes: “The necessity for a tri-service approach in such operations has been well established and must be duly ensured.”3

    Kapoor’s successor, General V.K. Singh, is also seized of the matter. In an interview to Maj. Gen. (Retd.) G.D. Bakshi, one of the leading votaries of the Limited War paradigm, V.K. Singh, in his avatar as Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee, said, “Conceptualisation and promulgation of joint doctrines, including the visualisation of Limited War against a Nuclear Backdrop, forms an important facet of our integrated approach.”4 The contours of this joint approach presumably find mention in the Joint Doctrine of 2006 and the Air-Land doctrine of 2010. General Singh’s statement may be a cryptic indication of an ongoing project at the Head Quarters Integrated Defence Staff (HQ IDS) on the formulation of an explicit Limited War doctrine. If so, this is a welcome step; more so as it is a top-down initiative. The respective services can, taking cue from this document, either formulate their own specialised doctrine or add a chapter to the next edition of their existing doctrines.

    Measures to firm up Limited War possibilities have, over the past decade, included organisational evolution, such as setting up of the South Western Command, and enhancing the offensive potential of pivot corps, etc. Periodic reports since, of training exercises of formations, such as the recently concluded Exercise Sudarshan Shakti that validated the theaterised logistics system concept, indicate the distance the military has traversed.

    The journey began in the wake of the Kargil War, when General V.P. Malik laid out a case for Limited War at a seminar in the first week of 2000 at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. However, the lessons learned were not quite in place by the time of Operation Parakram. Reflecting on that experience, General Padmanabhan stated in an interview: “You could certainly question why we are so dependent on our strike formations … and why my holding Corps don't have the capability to do the same tasks from a cold start. This is something I have worked on while in office. Perhaps, in time, it will be our military doctrine.”5

    The effort Padmanabhan hinted at culminated in the Army’s 2004 doctrine, which was published during the tenure of his successor, General Vij. The shorthand for the doctrine in the media has been the mildly controversial term, “Cold Start”. (Incidentally, the term, otherwise attributed to Maj. Gen. Sammanwar, the army’s chief information warrior in 2004, first appears in Padmanabhan’s statement reproduced above!)

    In 2010, the Army chief clarified that “there is nothing called Cold Start”, implying that it is not so much a doctrine but a strategy option of choice if warranted by the strategic circumstances. That the military option exists is evident from his words during the 2012 Army Day: “A lot has changed since the days of Op. Parakram. If we did something in 15 days then, we can do it in seven days now. After two years, we may be able to do it in three days.”6

    General Kapoor’s recent revisiting of the concept indicates that there is room for further improvement. As mentioned above, there is need for an explicit doctrine. In the current doctrine, Indian Army Doctrine (2004), the term Limited War finds mention twice: once in the diagram on the Spectrum of Conflict (p. 19) and then in the paragraph on Conventional War: ”It may be total or limited in terms of duration, the range of weapon systems employed, scope, objectives and its ultimate outcome. Given the prohibitive costs in terms of human lives and material, as well as the rising lethality of modern weapons, conventional war may be of short duration (p. 22).” It is interesting that five years into the nuclear age, beginning with the 1998 tests, the doctrine does not mention the nuclear factor as a compelling limitation.

    There are three issues that need addressing and make the debate worth reopening. First, at the organisational level, the General’s suggestion is that “Prosecution of limited wars will require requisite re-orientation of our concepts and possibly, even some force structures.”7 Can this be construed as a reference to the continued existence of the strike corps? The deputy director of United Services Institution, Maj. Gen. Sandhu, had pre-empted the question as far back as 2004, opining: “…our military hierarchy has taken an easier way out. If you can’t handle them (strike corps), do away with them.”8 While he spiritedly defended their continuance, but, neglected to touch upon the nuclear issue. Media reports on the annual exercises of the strike corps in rotation suggest that the strike corps continue as formed entities. That they are armoured formations suggests that they are eminently capable of reforming in real time and on the move into battle groups and combat commands as the situation develops. Therefore, they are perhaps already reconfigured for a nuclearised battlefield.

    The second is the conceptual issue raised in General Padmanabhan’s consequential observation that “…the kinds of limited strikes some were pushing for would have been ‘totally futile’.” According to him: “If you really want to punish someone for something very terrible he has done, you smash him. You destroy his weapons and capture his territory.”9 The logic is that “War is a serious business, and you don't go just like that.” In effect, firstly, what political purposes can a “Limited War” achieve? Secondly, owning up to a Limited War plan will not serve to deter the adversary from continuing its proactive policy of exporting terror at the subconventional level.

    A reopening of the debate is, therefore, not unwarranted. One, this would be to the advantage of in-service thinking on the issue. It would help streamline the conventional-nuclear interface so that the three institutions, the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS), HQ IDS, and the service HQs are on the same page. Two, the discussion would certainly be followed in Pakistan and serve to persuade its security minders that India’s options are not foreclosed by “Nasr” or otherwise. Third, it will condition the public debate to, in turn, impact political thinking. This will help in the exercise of choice when push comes to shove.

    But thirdly, and perhaps more importantly, a debate can provoke articulation of the strategic doctrine by the government. A military doctrine must either have governmental imprimatur or be integrated with strategic doctrine. It would become implausible in case there is dissonance between the two. Currently, perspectives on India’s strategic posture range from defensive deterrence through offensive deterrence to compellence. While such plurality yields dividend from the point of view of ambiguity, it does not help much with locating military doctrine in the governmental scheme. The Limited War doctrine has the advantage of reconciling military doctrine with the government’s inclination towards a “strategy of restraint”.

    • 1. V.P. Malik, “Fighting Limited Wars: A Major Challenge for the Military”, Article no. 150, 7 March 2010, available at
    • 2. Deepak Kapoor, “Limited Wars in the Indian Context”, India Strategic, February 2012, available at
    • 3. Ibid.
    • 4. “Exclusive Interview of General V K Singh COAS with our Executive Editor Maj Gen (Dr) G D Bakshi,” Defence and Security Alert, September 2011
    • 5. Praveen Swami, ‘Gen. Padmanabhan mulls over lessons of Operation Parakram’, The Hindu, February 6, 2004.
    • 6. Rajat Pandit, ‘Nuclear weapons only for strategic deterrence: Army chief’, Times of India, January 16, 2012.
    • 7. Kapoor, “Limited Wars in the Indian Context”, n. 2.
    • 8. P.J.S. Sandhu, “Taking the Easier Way Out”, The Indian Express, July 1, 2004.
    • 9. Praveen Swami, ‘Gen. Padmanabhan mulls over lessons of Operation Parakram’, n. 5.