By Dr Manpreet Sethi*
Swarnim Vijay Varsh was celebrated throughout 2021 to mark 50 years of India’s victory against Pakistan in the 1971 war. The three services commemorated their successes: the Indian Air Force’s achievement of complete air superiority, its extensive disruption of Pak energy and transportation, and the foiling of its planned ‘Tikka offensive’; the Indian Navy’s blockade of Karachi seaport that crippled trade, and the Indian Army’s march that compelled a surrender at Dhaka. At the same time, it is important to acknowledge that such an extensive use of force in a future war between the two may no longer be possible. Nuclear weapons in both countries have changed the bilateral equation.
1971 left a scar on the Pakistani military’s psyche. Soon after the end of operations, the then Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who had long been inclined towards the acquisition of nuclear weapons, moved resolutely to acquire them. Nuclear weapons came to be perceived as a security imperative: a ‘strategic equaliser’ to address the conventional asymmetry with India, and a shield to avert the risk of conventional war, even as Islamabad indulged in acts of terrorism. These twin objectives have sustained as Pakistan continues to wage a proxy war against India with a network of terrorist organisations that it trains, equips, and supports. In Pakistan’s perception, however, the deniability of such actions frees the country from responsibility. Meanwhile, projecting a low nuclear threshold protects Pakistan against the possibility of a conventional conflict.
Pakistan’s acquisition of nuclear weapons has changed India’s calculus of the use of force. Despite its conventional superiority, New Delhi must customise the application of military instruments in a way that can effectively punish, but without causing a nuclear-armed Pakistan to feel the need to use its nuclear weapons. This is where the difference lies between the war that was waged in 1971 and one which will not be possible today, at least not without raising the risk of nuclear use. So, even as India’s military capabilities have grown, their ‘safe’ employment has necessitated new thinking.
This changed reality first became evident in Kargil in 1999. The shadow of nuclear weapons tempered India’s response in choosing self-imposed constraints on the application of force. Operation Parakam further exposed the limits of coercive diplomacy with a nuclear-armed adversary and the perils of a large-scale offensive under new circumstances. The 2001-02 episode forced India to look for novel conventional responses that could be meaningfully executed between two nuclear-armed countries without running the risk of nuclear escalation. India demonstrated innovative use of military instruments in 2016 and 2019.
The successful surgical strikes in 2016 illustrated the efficacy of using a sharper tool against a nuclear-armed adversary, rather than the blunt edge of full mobilisation. Rapid entry into and exit from enemy territory signalled India’s ability to hurt terrorists and their supporters by hitting out at will, thereby denting the Pakistani Army’s image and credibility.
Another arrow in India’s quiver was used on 26 February 2019, when IAF aircraft flew across the international boundary into Pakistan to target a terrorist camp in Balakot in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, in response to the attack on paramilitary forces on 14 February 2019. This was the first use of air power between the two since 1971. In doing so, India rewrote the template on the use of force, opening new possibilities of retaliation. Air action trashed the assumption that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons had tied India’s hands on responding to Pakistani provocations. It also exposed Pakistani nuclear strategy’s lack of credibility, which rests on projecting the inevitability of the use of ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons in response to Indian military action.
From India’s experience of conflicts with Pakistan pre- and post-nuclearisation, it is clear that conventional war in the presence of nuclear weapons will be a challenging proposition involving the re-thinking of politico-military objectives and operations. The pursuit of traditional war aims such as territorial occupation and blitzkrieg for fast-paced attrition would be ineffectual to address an adversary’s use of terrorism. It would also unnecessarily heighten Pakistan’s sense of existential crisis, increasing the temptation to use nuclear weapons—thus raising the dangers to itself. The focus, therefore, must remain on choosing a military instrument that can deliver the right dose of punishment while minimising chances of escalation.
With this realisation, it is also important to re-prioritise future military acquisitions to include capabilities that can offer high calibration potential. As seen in Uri and Balakot, the use of Special Forces and air power offered the advantages of secrecy and surprise, flexibility of employment and quick disengagement, calibration of force to minimise collateral damage, and a relatively lower risk of escalation. In fact, they even offered Pakistan the option to deny that such action had taken place at all, thus freeing itself of the burden of response.
To successfully defeat and deter Pakistan’s strategy of continued use of terrorism to bleed India, the Indian military has to alter its style of application of conventional force. The more options military planners can find to fit these new circumstances, the greater the chance of success in forcing a change in Pakistan’s behaviour. These actions will be required repeatedly since raising costs cannot be a one-action exercise. The objective will have to be the denying cross-border terrorism as a low-cost strategy for Rawalpindi. So, even in 2021’s nuclearised environment, the use of force is possible—it will only have to be applied differently than how it was done in 1971.
*Dr Manpreet Sethi is Distinguished Fellow, Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS), New Delhi.