Indian Army Chief’s statement on winning the conventional war, undeterred by a Pakistani nuclear strike, signals a paradigm strategic shift.
Today’s The Tribune features a very interesting interview with the Indian army chief, General VK Singh. There is one particular answer by the army chief in the interview which stands out among all the other usual ones. It is about fighting a conventional war with a nuclear-capable Pakistan.
There is also a nuclear dimension with Pakistan having acquired the capability as well?
We have been looking on this threat for quite sometime. It is not that suddenly it has come, we knew at the capabilities of our neighbourhood and what was happening over there and we have been talking about it, we have been training for it and we have been looking at our own concepts and doctrine etc so far as this particular issue is concerned. As an Army, we are prepared to fight dirty which means not dirty in the sense of street fighting, dirty in the sense of fighting through our area which has been contaminated by a nuclear strike. We are confident that we will get through in such contaminated areas and this is part of our training methodology, doctrine and our concept.
It is not that somebody is going to say I will drop a bomb and therefore you stop on your track. Sorry, it does not happen that way, it is not going to happen. We will take the war to its logical conclusion whether it is a nuclear strike or no nuclear strike. I am quite confident of our nuclear capability. We are clear that as a nation we will be able to withstand whatever comes our way and retaliate in adequate measure.[Tribune]
Last year, the then army chief, General Deepak Kapoor had cautioned that the possibility of a “limited war under a nuclear overhang” was a reality in the sub-continent. This meant that India was constrained to fight a limited war below the nuclear threshold which restricted the punitive military options available to India vis-a-vis Pakistan. Now, for perhaps the first time, an Indian Army chief has openly spoken about fighting a conventional war, undeterred by the threat of a nuclear strike by Pakistan. He says, “We will take the war to its logical conclusion whether it is a nuclear strike or no nuclear strike.” Significant words these. For this signals a paradigm strategic shift — a significant step-up in terms of attitude, approach and mindset of the Indian Army, and by extension, the Indian state.
India has a publicly declared No-First Use doctrine — enunciated first in 1999 and then revised in 2003 — for its nuclear weapons. This means that India will not be the first to initiate the use of a nuclear weapon. It will only retaliate with nuclear weapons if such weapons are first used against India [see Dhruva Jaishankar's blogpost on No-First Use]. K Subrahmanyam, who was then the convener of India’s National Security Advisory Board, had explained it thus:
The Indian no-first-use doctrine is not just a declaratory policy unrelated to deployment and command and control. It is rooted in the perception that the core of deterrence lies in the uncertainty about the adversary’s likely capability to cause unacceptable damage to oneself after the initial use of nuclear weapons against him. The survivability of the assets to strike back in retaliation constitutes deterrence and not the provocative forward and risky deployment as was carried out by the nuclear weapons powers.[link]
In contrast, Pakistan’s Nuclear Doctrine essentially revolves around the first-strike option. It means that Pakistan will use nuclear weapons if attacked by India even if the attack is with conventional weapons. As a Pakistani military analyst has explained:
In a deteriorating military situation when an Indian conventional attack is likely to break through our defences or has already breached the main defence line causing a major set-back to the defences, which cannot be restored by conventional means at our disposal, the government would be left with no other option except to use Nuclear Weapons to stabilize the situation. India’s superiority in conventional arms and manpower would have to be offset by nuclear weapons. The political will to use nuclear weapons is essential to prevent a conventional armed conflict, which would later on escalate into a nuclear war.[link]
Indubitably, Pakistan has, over the last two decades, used its nuclear capability to prevent an Indian military retaliation against Pakistan’s sustained and active usage of jehadi terror as a strategic weapon against India and Indian assets — largely in Jammu & Kashmir, but also in other parts of India and in foreign lands like Afghanistan. The Indian army chief’s statement suggests that India is no longer willing to allow Pakistan to continue with its profitable strategy of asymmetric and sub-conventional warfare against India. While India may still be able to endure a terror strike in Jammu & Kashmir, the stakes have perhaps been raised prohibitively for Pakistan in the event of another Mumbai-like terror strike elsewhere in India in the future.
By upping the ante, General VK Singh has delivered the clearest warning yet to a nuclear-capable Pakistan about the damaging consequences of continuing to use jehadi terror as an instrument of state policy against India. One trusts that adequate attention is also being paid to the tactics, operational capability, equipping and training, in case Indian Army is forced to deliver on the words spoken by its chief. Although one hopes that such a ghastly eventuality never becomes a reality, hope, as they say, is not strategy.