By Firdaus Ahmed
The recent headline in a leading national daily, “Indian Army set for its most radical revamp,” is entirely believable. The article informs that “proposals include setting up of a Strategic Command, comprising of Army’s offensive capabilities” which may be implemented as early as March 2010. The reorganization involves the “creation of a Strategic Command, under which the three Strike Corps would be brought together” as “part of the ‘transformation study’ done by a high-level team under Army chief, General VK Singh, when he was heading the Eastern Command.” The article examines this move in relation to India’s Pakistan policy and the inescapable fact of South Asia’s nuclearization.
India will reengage Pakistan after the long gap since July last year with their Foreign Secretaries meeting on the sidelines of a SAARC meeting in Thimpu next month. This will set the stage for talks between their Foreign Ministers during the first quarter of this year. The strategic changes in India would occur around this time. The message to Pakistan is stark. How will Pakistan react? Although there is no direct link between resumption of the peace process and military restructuring, this exercise has long-term implications for the peace process.
The implications for the peace process arise at two levels – overt and less visible. The overt message is that India is ‘upping the ante’ by establishing a capability for escalation-dominance. Pakistan, led by its Army, will receive the message that India now has an answer to the problem of proxy war. Pakistan would, in response, need to rethink its India strategy. The less visible message is that India has little faith in the peace process. These changes would prepare India for the worst case scenario in which it may need to credibly coerce and possibly compel Pakistan.
Bringing the strike corps under one command headquarters would bring synergy to India’s offensive capabilities, making them seem more potent when employed together. The headquarters enables this capability, although these strike corps can be deployed in the geographical commands, if required.
This capability harks back to the ‘Sundarji doctrine’, in which the strike corps was designed to slice Pakistan at its waist in a counteroffensive. During Operation Parakram, Pravin Sawhney and VK Sood reported that the three strike corps were deployed for this purpose in mid 2002, when they were co-located in the desert after the Kalu Chak incident. By making this capability more ‘doable’ through the creation of a strategic command headquarters, the Army seems oblivious of the nuclear dimension that is present since 1998.
The implications of the nuclear dilemma are of equal consequence. Currently, Pakistan has an unstated nuclear doctrine, that one observer interprets as ‘asymmetric escalation’. Most believe that its nuclear threshold is high enough to permit limited conventional operations, even at strike corps levels and up to a limited depth. This can be triggered by India’s strike corps operating together under a single command headquarters, which highlights the limitations in rationale of a single command headquarters.
The doctrinal trend has moved from the Sundarji doctrine to limited Cold Start offensives. Now, with Cold Start in cold storage, it is to a ‘proactive strategy’. This movement was broadly in consonance with the imperatives of nuclearization. The current reported moves amount to risking a nuclear showdown, which is a strategy that India can do without. It is a strategy that can be adopted in a war situation with one of the command headquarters, Central Command, for instance, playing a role. However, to establish a permanent strategic command headquarters will amount to keeping a sword pointed at Pakistan’s innards, given the message that India, with its offensive capability enhanced, would be able to continue operations even in case of nuclear first use by Pakistan.
Possible Pakistani reactions may occur at two levels – one, its peacetime equations with India and second, in wartime. If the nature of the Pakistani regime is any indication, it would first attempt to balance India. Pakistan could increase its reliance on the nuclear deterrent and its dependence on China. For Pakistan’s reliance on the Chinese, the Indian Army has a ready answer – ‘two front’ doctrine.
In conflict, this change indicates an expectation that nuclear deterrence will work. In other words, the proposed changes would require rethinking whether India’s nuclear doctrine is adequate. Since the conventional and nuclear levels are interlinked, changes in one cannot be considered in isolation from the other. The consequent changes in the nuclear doctrine are not known. However, could the tail end up wagging the dog?
Mr. AK Antony, who will have to take the ultimate call, needs to thus ask himself the question: “Does the proposed change meet India’s security interests?”