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The message from mock battles

Ali Ahmed was Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • May 07, 2010

    The well-informed military watcher for Times of India, Rajat Pandit, titled his piece on Pakistan’s recently concluded Azm e Nau III military exercise as ‘Pak wargames to blunt India’s strategy’. This was only to be expected. Pakistan’s understandable pre-occupation over the last four years with counter insurgency on the western front required, in its perception, to be balanced by a professional demonstration against the traditional foe on the eastern front. The manoeuvres, touted as the largest since Ex Zarb e Momin over two decades ago, served the purpose of muscle-flexing directed at India.

    There is little doubt that the Indian military, with a self-image as being more ‘professional’ stemming from being apolitical, has been following the exercises closely. Discerning how Pakistan intends to thwart India’s ‘proactive’ military doctrine through watching Pakistani moves, it would likely build in precautionary and counter measures into its strategy. These would be built into its own ongoing Exercise Yodha Shakti in real time. The exercise involves the strike corps, 1 Corps, operating under South Western Command.

    The professional demonstration of the two militaries serves the purpose of conventional deterrence. However, both militaries can be expected to come up with answers on how to undercut the other’s counter. For instance, if Azm e Nau was Pakistan’s answer to Cold Start, then India’s Yodha Shakti can be expected to come up with work around Pakistan’s counter. Considerations if any of future military contest would not only revolve around higher order issues like nuclear stability and economic implications, but also the potentiality of the military instrument. This article deals with how the latter may eventuate in a possible scenario of another 26/11.

    A recent news report has it that on an input from the United States, India had placed security in Delhi on a high alert. The relationship of this terror attack possibility to the judgement of a court in Mumbai finding the lone survivor of the 26/11 outrage, Ajmal Kasab, guilty is obvious. Further, India has not resumed composite dialogue with Pakistan, with the confabulations on the sidelines of the SAARC summit in Thimpu only yielding foreign minister level talks as the next step. This owes to India being unconvinced that the terror infrastructure in Pakistan has been rolled back adequately. This proves that the terror threat persists and another 26/11 cannot be ruled out. In case of such an eventuality, considerations of response options would include resort to military force. Acknowledging this does not imply that use of force would be a default option or one that would be eventually arrived at.

    Nevertheless, the consideration would be informed by the fact that the Army has over the years since Operation Parakram practiced quick mobilisation. As a routine it practices one of its strike corps yearly in rotation. A former Chief expressed his confidence that Cold Start could be operationalised stating, "A major leap in our approach to conduct of operations (since then) has been the successful firming-up of the cold start strategy (to be able to go to war promptly)." The Air Force through an earlier statement of its former C-in-C Western Air Command has already assured its preparedness for ‘surgical strikes’ at a minimum and any eventuality of escalation thereafter. This capability was on display in its Ex Vayu Shakti in February. It can be expected that developments in the intervening year since has made invalid Manoj Joshi’s conclusion on the 26/11 aftermath: ‘…given the imperative of striking immediately, the Manmohan Singh government could not press ahead because … [the] army [was] in an unready state…’ The higher state of readiness would strengthen the case for a military response.

    The ‘Cold Start’ operational sequencing has received considerable attention. It involves early reaction by pivot corps offensive elements. The inroads made would be exploited by strike corps building up in their wake. Ex Azm e Nau has been designed to counter this. News reports have it that the exercise witnessed the build up of troops from an initial number of 20,000 to 40-50,000 later. This can be interpreted as Pakistan responding to initial Indian offensives with defending formations. Over time, reserves formations - committed in counter insurgency to the West in Baluchistan earlier and NWFP later – are to build up.

    Given that higher order considerations – in particular the implications for the economy, stability of Pakistan, the international community’s effort in AfPak – would take precedence, it would appear that India has two possible options. The minimal option is of ‘surgical strikes’. The next – ‘limited’ – option would be to terminate the conflict at the stage in which the two states have only committed their defensive formations. In India’s case these comprise the offensive content of pivot corps, even if supplemented by closer-at-hand strike corps resources.

    The time-window for exerting pressure on Pakistan in such a case would be prior to its reserves that are reeling in from the west, positioning towards the east. In other words, this would be prior to the additional 30,000 practiced in Azm e Nau rushing towards the east in support of the already embattled 20,000. Both states would be forced to commit their strength building up in case the other was to do so. Since militaries understandably favour seizing the initiative, so as to force the other side onto a reactive mode, the pressures on leaderships of both states at this juncture would be considerable. Pakistan has a military leadership, presumably therefore more responsive to the operational situation. India, however, would likely be better poised with its strike corps more speedily ready to flow into battle. This conflict exit point is a critical one, but considerably fraught.

    India’s response to Azm e Nau would perhaps be in taking advantage of the 1:2.5 asymmetry in air power in its favour. The air force, in addition to the traditional task of gaining air dominance, would likely be tasked to interdict and channel the movement of Pakistani forces towards the east. This would increase the mobilisation differential in favour of strike corps in case Pakistani reserves are reacting from a position of commitment in counter insurgency. (The military situation is a reverse of the earlier one of the nineties, best evidenced in the Kargil War, in which India had been forced to reel in from counter insurgency for a conventional role.) It is possible that the less visible Exercise Highmark of the Pakistani Air Force that ran alongside Azm e Nau, was geared to denying this to the IAF.

    Nevertheless, there are dangers in India pressing its advantage at this stage in that disruption of deployment of reserves would result in Pakistan feeling pressured. Such pressure would increase its reliance on the nuclear card. This would include rhetoric as also nuclear signalling in terms of heightening of nuclear alert status. The paradox that emerges is that the closer India approximates military advantage, the closer it gets to nuclear danger. The criticality of the exit point identified is therefore heightened.

    The exit point has advantages for both states. India would likely have met its conflict objectives of unmistakably conveying to Pakistan: ‘Thus far and no more’. The internal political compulsions that necessitated the offensive would be placated. Escalation would be avoided. Militarily, territory taken and attrition inflicted would indicate success. For Pakistan, the exit point provides an opportunity to avoid further punishment, possible due to an adverse air situation. It permits a face-saving exit in that it can claim to have fended off an Indian offensive with merely its defensive forces. Since Islamists stand to gain politically in an India-Pakistan military standoff, the earliest possible end to the conflict would keep the balance in favour of the establishment. A reasonable showing could even enable the Pakistan Army to exorcise its 1971 hangover.

    The self-confidence gained by both militaries through the coincident mock battles on either side of the border is useful not only for its own sake. For India, the capability of launching strike corps in early assures it escalation dominance. This would enable it to influence Pakistani considerations for conflict termination at the exit point prior to their launch, since Pakistan too would like to avoid the nuclear factor coming to the fore. For Pakistan in particular it has two advantages. In case Azm e Nau enhances its confidence of being able to redeploy from the West, then it could be bolder in ‘going after’ the Taliban. General Kayani could rethink his earlier stand after Operation Rah e Nijat in South Waziristan, that, ‘“There is, however, no need at this point to start a stream roller operation in North Waziristan.” Secondly, it increases its belief that it can handle the challenge of Cold Start without nuclear resort, even if it cannot do without sabre rattling.

    Even though the two exercises were about handling of respective offensive reserves, the message that emerges is not how this can best be done. Instead, it emerges that their employment needs to be avoided by both states grasping the exit point prior to embroilment of respective offensive formations.