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Future wars: operational doctrines by Lt Gen Sudhir Sharma

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Author: Lt Gen (Retd) Sudhir Sharma

Among all the ambiguities induced by the possession of nuclear weapons by two of our neighbours – Pakistan and China – there is still a clear window of opportunity for conventional warfare below the nuclear threshold. China has published tomes (demi-semi officially) that a “limited war” with India could happen. Pakistan is just rearing to go to delink Kashmir preferably with its conventional forces camouflaged in tribal salwarkameez. India does not have a policy of territorial aggrandisement but its war aim must be to liberate its own territory and break the China-Pak nexus in Jammu and Kashmir. It would be a test of India’s political military leadership to devise a strategy to achieve that aim before the nuclear boom is lowered.

Before we delve into the future operational scenario it would be appropriate to examine the strategic landscape of the Indian subcontinent as the same has a direct bearing on operational parameters. Till a few years back the cornerstone of Indian strategic thought was based on the premise that, if a war is to be fought it would be a short, swift and intense conflict, with limited gains, before the big powers forced it to a grinding halt through politico, economic and/or military coercion.

Future wars: operational doctrines

This scenario presupposes that the war would generally be reactive, given the stated moral repugnance of the Indian State to be seen as starting hostilities.Furthermore the war was planned to be fought under a nuclear backdrop with an undefined and rather ambiguous nuclear threshold.

As the war was likely to be thrust upon us and conflict termination was to be dictated by powers outside, the desired end state was never lucidly articulated. Consequently all operational thought was focused on high speed of operations and quick discernable territorial gains. Though there is nothing fundamentally flawed in the need for high speed operations, a disproportionate premium on the same can result in operational imbalance and overstretch, inviting a riposte. Operational plans and design of battle were often based on time lines rather than desired conflict termination aims.

Greater flexibility
As things stand today, fortunately we have come a long way from our past compulsions and limitations. Our strength and importance as a country across the strategic spectrum is such that we cannot perceive being pressurised to initiate or terminate hostilities at the dictates of another country. Thus the first hypothesis that emerges is, that it is now in the realms of strategic planning to prosecute war in supreme national interest at a time and place of our own choosing, as also to do so with a well thought out end state in mind. At operational level plans need not be too time sensitive and hostilities could be terminated on achieving theatre specific conflict termination aims. This paradigm shift bestows a degree of flexibility to operational level commanders.

Another interesting geopolitical dynamic which merits scrutiny relates to our subcontinental rivals and the world order. The situation as it stands today would suggest that should we go to war with one or both of our adversaries, that, besides routine rhetoric no major country would oppose the war vehemently. We can thus assume enough strategic space short of the nuclear threshold to fight a just war with a somewhat tolerant public opinion and even tacit international support. Except for the fear of the war spiraling out of control and / or spreading, a number of countries would be secretly happy to see our adversaries brought down a few notches.

Nuclear overhang
The second strategic dynamic that needs to be kept in mind is that post World War II, there has never been a direct major conflict between two nuclear powered nations especially where one or the other has transgressed territorial boundaries. In the case of the Indian subcontinent the potential adversaries are nuclear powered with one nation having a stated policy of nuclear ambiguity. Be that as it may the war would need to be fought in the strategic space available below the nuclear threshold. This is highly possible and bold and specific plans should be made to exploit this window. However nuclear brinkmanship of threats and counter-threats would test the resolve and resilience of the top political and military hierarchy. An incorrect reading of conflict scenario may force the early cessation of hostilities by the victor and of course an overreaction or misreading of the same may result in catastrophic results.

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