Published March 10, 2019
Pakistani soldiers stand next to the wreckage of an Indian fighter jet shot down on February 27, 2019, in Bhimbar district near the Line of Control | AFP
Pakistani soldiers stand next to the wreckage of an Indian fighter jet shot down on February 27, 2019, in Bhimbar district near the Line of Control | AFP

This article was originally published in Dawn on March 10, 2019

When Pakistan handed back Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman to India, the spectacle of the graciously quick return of the MiG-21 pilot, shot down and captured by Pakistan, elicited both international plaudits and misplaced triumphalism. But the spectacle also masked more important military and political factors at play.

The two military rounds played between Pakistan and India on February 26/27 in the wake of New Delhi’s aggression against Islamabad, after the February 14 Pulwama attack, have important lessons for deterrence as well as the question of whether limited war options are possible between a nuclear dyad.

India has, since long, accused Pakistan of playing the conflict game at the sub-conventional level while denying India its superior conventional capabilities by signalling the resolve to introduce nuclear weapons first and early into a conventional conflict. This line of reasoning, simplistic though it is, has been widely lapped up, not only by Indian analysts but also Western scholars.

Meanwhile, India, since the limited conflict in Kargil (1999) and then the 10-month long Twin Peaks crisis (2001-02) has been conceptualising how to punish Pakistan conventionally while remaining below the nuclear threshold.

Pakistan and India came closer to a devastating war than they have in almost 17 years. As the dark clouds of impending all-out conflict begin to dissipate, it is important for both to see what the current tensions can teach us about deterrence and preventing a repeat

Put another way, India thought — and many experts agreed — that there was a band in which India could act militarily and punitively. That, if India were to play within that band, it would make it extremely difficult for Pakistan to escalate to the nuclear level because such escalation would be considered highly disproportionate and would draw international opprobrium and consequences. The argument was that the certainty of international diplomatic and economic isolation would force Pakistan to stay its hand and not escalate to the nuclear level.

The banal equivalent of such a situation would be someone punching another person in a crowded bazaar and the victim, instead of keeping the fight to fisticuffs, chooses to draw and fire a pistol. Not only would such a person lose the sympathy of the crowd, he would also invite the full coercive and normative weight of the law.

Corollary: whoever ups the ante in a basic fight ends up as the loser.

India’s Cold Start doctrine dates back to 2001-02 but has only now been deployed by PM Narendra Modi | Reuters
India’s Cold Start doctrine dates back to 2001-02 but has only now been deployed by PM Narendra Modi | Reuters

However, while the Indian military planners were thinking about this for the past two decades, until the arrival on India’s political scene of Narendra Modi and his éminence grise, Ajit Doval, New Delhi shied away from actualising a short, sharp military option against Pakistan, focusing instead on exploiting diplomatic channels using its diplomatic heft.

According to India’s official figures, the 2001-02 standoff cost India three billion dollars with hundreds of soldiers killed without any exchange with Pakistan. The mobilisation was a political decision and as then-Indian Chief of Army Staff S Padmanabhan noted, in an interview to The Hindu, “You could certainly question why we are so dependent on our strike formations and why my holding corps don’t have the capability to do the same tasks from a cold start. This is something I have worked on while in office. Perhaps, in time, it will be our military doctrine.”


This was the beginning of India’s Cold Start doctrine that envisaged creating eight Independent Battle Groups, placed closer to the border and capable of a short, sharp, punitive action against Pakistan without the long mobilisation delays India experienced in 2001-02. Interestingly, while India for long denied that such a doctrine existed — despite having done some field exercises to validate it — the current Indian army chief, Bipin Rawat, acknowledged its existence in an interview barely three weeks after taking office on December 31, 2016.

As an explainer in The Economist put it, “Cold Start is the name given to a limited-war strategy designed to seize Pakistani territory swiftly without, in theory, risking a nuclear conflict. It has its roots in an attack on India’s parliament in 2001 … by the time its [India’s] lumbering Strike Corps were mobilised and positioned on the frontier, Pakistan had already bulked up its defences, raising both the costs of incursion and the risk that it would escalate into a nuclear conflict. Cold Start is an attempt to draw lessons from this: having nimbler, integrated units stationed closer to the border would allow India to inflict significant harm before international powers demanded a ceasefire; by pursuing narrow aims, it would also deny Pakistan a justification for triggering a nuclear strike.”

Let’s consider the underlying assumptions in all this.

The ‘theory’ assumes that:

(1) There is a band in which India can use its conventional military option;

(2) that band can be exploited;

(3) India has the conventional superiority to make it work;

(4) if it does so in response to an attack it can pin on Pakistan, it has enough diplomatic weight to have the world opinion on its side for such a strike;

(5) it can make it work through a military surprise which can gain its objectives;

(6) Pakistan, having suffered a setback, will be hard pressed to retaliate because it will have to climb up the escalation ladder, a costly proposition both for reasons of the earlier military setback as well as international diplomatic pressure;

(7) given India’s upper hand, both militarily and diplomatically, Pakistan will choose to not escalate;

(8) if, however, Pakistan did choose to escalate, India will still enjoy escalation dominance because of its superior capabilities and because it will have international diplomatic support; and

(9) India, given its diplomatic and military heft, will be able to raise the costs for Pakistan in an escalation spiral.

Result: Pakistan will weigh the consequences as a rational-choice actor and prefer to climb down.

Modi from the word go has been hyping his masculinity and informing his right-wing Hindutva vote bank that he could and would act where his Congress predecessors failed to, namely that he would teach Pakistan a lesson and create a “new normal”.

The interesting assumption in all this, and one that should not be missed is this: the first-round result. Every subsequent assumption flows from what India could achieve militarily in the opening hand.

Pakistan’s jointly developed JF-17 Thunder jets acquitted themselves well in the current tensions
Pakistan’s jointly developed JF-17 Thunder jets acquitted themselves well in the current tensions

Somehow, barring a few analysts, most literature took for granted that the first round would, of necessity, go in favour of India. And therefore, Pakistan’s cost for retaliation would increase both militarily and diplomatically. In fact, this does make sense if it can be guaranteed that India’s gambit will work. Except, the opening round success could be guaranteed only if India were applying force on an inanimate object or if its conventional capabilities were far superior to Pakistan’s.

As Clausewitz noted, “War is the realm of uncertainty; three quarters of the factors on which action in war is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty.”

The second crucial point in unpacking these assumptions is the limited nature of the engagement. It should be clear that India’s politico-military strategy post the 2001-02 standoff looked at any punitive military action in a limited, not full-scale, mode: military action below the nuclear threshold.

Pakistan has never drawn clear red lines, managing risk through ambiguity. The only time a former — and longest-serving — Director-General Strategic Plans Division, Lt-General Khalid Kidwai, enunciated four parameters for resorting to nukes was during an interview to two visiting Italian physicists:

(1) India attacks Pakistan and conquers a large part of its territory (space threshold);

(2) India destroys a large part of Pakistan’s military forces/assets (military threshold);

(3) India strangulates Pakistan economically;

(4) India destabilises Pakistan politically or through internal subversion.

As Dr Nitin Prasad says in his book, Contemporary Pakistan: Political System, Military and Changing Scenario, Kidwai was using hypothetical scenarios, and his four thresholds — geographic, military, economic, domestic-political — were not red lines, defined and understood by the adversary or other parties, because clearly defined red lines dilute deterrence and provide room for conventional force manoeuvring.

The point about the limited nature of India’s military plans is important because, while a case can be made for India possibly overwhelming Pakistan in a drawn full-scale conventional conflict which brings in other factors, a limited thrust or strike — if there’s not a huge differential in technical and other capabilities — may not necessarily play to the stronger adversary’s advantage.

Put another way, if the presumably weaker side denies the stronger side success in the opening round, draws its own blood successfully while showing restraint, it can raise the costs for the stronger actor by upending the latter’s assumptions based on the success of the opening round.


This is exactly what has happened in the two rounds fought this time. One can put it thus: deterrence has held because the aggressor has to factor in the nuclear dimension and keep its military options below that threshold. The defender, having defended successfully and then drawn blood, shows restraint. Third parties get involved knowing and realising that any attempt by one or both sides at escalation dominance could spiral. [Note: Dr Moeed Yusuf has a brilliant book on third party brokering (2018), which studies US diplomacy during three crises — Kargil (1999), Twin Peaks (2001-02) and Mumbai (2008).]

But what exactly is deterrence?

After his capture, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman being escorted to a military facility | APP
After his capture, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman being escorted to a military facility | APP

It can have both the conventional and the nuclear dimensions. Essentially, deterrence is the ability to discourage an actor from undertaking an unwanted action, including an armed attack. It is, in other words, about prevention, i.e. convincingly stopping an actor from an action. The sister concept, what Thomas Schelling described as compellence, is about forcing an actor to do something in line with what the compeller (adversary) wants it to do.

By India’s reasoning, its limited military options are about deterring Pakistan to undertake actions at the sub-conventional level and to deter India from making use of its conventional strength because of the existence of nuclear weapons.

This is where the problem begins.

Deterrence is not just about threatening an adversary with punitive action. In order for it to be successful, it must shape the adversary’s perceptions, i.e., force the adversary to change its behaviour by estimating that it has options other than aggression and which are more cost-effective. Shaping perceptions of the adversary that needs to be deterred would then require the deterrer to understand the motives of the actor who has to be deterred. Without that exercise, any limited action, even if it were temporarily successful, would fail to impact a behaviour change or incentivise a state actor to do something different.

Also, deterrence by denial, the ability to deter an action by making it infeasible is a far better strategy than deterrence by punishment which, as the term implies, promises the resolve and the capability to take punitive action(s) and inflict severe punishment.

So, in the case of the rounds played, deterrence has worked at two levels.

First, the overall, umbrella deterrence that flows from the possession of nuclear weapons on both sides. This level ensures that even if one or the other side decides to undertake military action, it must keep it limited.

Kashmiri children hold placards and shout freedom slogans in Srinagar: the root cause of Indo-Pak tensions is ignored by India | AP
Kashmiri children hold placards and shout freedom slogans in Srinagar: the root cause of Indo-Pak tensions is ignored by India | AP

The second level is about conventional deterrence. If X has undertaken a military action, Y can prevent it from achieving its objective and, by successfully undertaking its own action, can force X to rethink its use of any military option. The rethink is important because, in such a play, if Y has prevented X’s action and successfully undertaken its own, X cannot simply retaliate to a reprisal. X will have to climb up the escalation ladder, i.e., it has to scale up by using an escalatory option to defend his commitment. Escalation is about a higher cost and the rethink is a function of forcing X into that cost-benefit analysis.

It is precisely for this reason that the opening round is so crucial for the aggressor, in this case India. To recap, as noted above in the list of assumptions, every subsequent assumption flows from the success of the opening round.


At this point it would be instructive to view all this from the perspective of the Modi-Doval duo. Both men believe, or at least had convinced themselves into believing, that the previous Indian governments did not make use of a conventional military option because they were weak-kneed. Modi, by referring to his 56-inch chest, from the word go has been hyping his masculinity and informing his right-wing Hindutva vote bank that he could and would act where his Congress predecessors failed to, namely that he would teach Pakistan a lesson and create a “new normal”.

In September 2016, following an attack on an army camp in Uri in Occupied Kashmir, one morning the Indian Director-General Military Operations announced to a packed press conference that India had conducted “surgical strikes” in Azad Kashmir, across the Line of Control (LoC) and destroyed “terrorist” bases. He also said that he had told his Pakistani counterpart that India did not intend to take any further action and that its action was only directed towards non-state actors.

The Indian media, as well as serious analysts, went into a tizzy. Days on end, there was nothing on Indian TV channels and newspapers other than this “great victory” against Pakistan. We were told that Pakistan had not retaliated because Pakistan Army posts and troops in the area were caught off-guard and Pakistan was playing it down because the action was an embarrassment for it. Even serious analysts began talking about a new normal.

This is what Shashank Joshi, then based at the Royal United Services Institute in London, wrote in the opening paragraph of his op-ed in The Hindustan Times: “India’s ‘surgical strikes’ on Wednesday night… — barely a few kilometres across the Line of Control (LoC) — … represent one of the most important changes in India’s military posture to Pakistan in over a decade.” He did acknowledge that this hadn’t happened for the first time and the fact, as he put it, “that Pakistan will not reverse seven decades of policy without a diplomatic process” but there was headiness, nonetheless. And this is just one example. There are scores of others.

Pakistan did not retaliate because it was a fire raid where Indian troops were blocked at two points of ingress but managed to sneak in at the third, fired at some hutments and withdrew.

Pakistani Kashmiris carry the coffin of a civilian who was killed in a gunfight between Indian and Pakistan troops on the Line of Control | AFP
Pakistani Kashmiris carry the coffin of a civilian who was killed in a gunfight between Indian and Pakistan troops on the Line of Control | AFP

By hyping it, Modi locked himself further into a commitment trap. Apart from some discerning commentators in India, everyone chose to forget that such actions had been undertaken at the LoC by both sides in the past and that there was nothing ‘surgical’ about India’s fire raid.

On February 14, therefore, when a bomber mounted the deadliest attack on Indian paramilitary troops in recent times, Modi was left with no option but to act. With a tough election staring him in the face and his chest blocking a clear view of rationality, he decided to use a limited military option. Only this time it had to be more than just a raid across the LoC. He jumped a few rungs on the escalation ladder by deciding to use his air force.

The story about what happened on the morning of February 26 has now become a laugh and it has been walked back a few miles and some more by India itself, so those details are not necessary. Whatever little was left of India’s fantastic claim about hitting a “training camp” and killing “terrorists” has been finally laid to rest by a Reuters story that reviewed satellite imagery from Planet Labs Inc.

However, what is important is not whether Indian planes came into Pakistan (original claim), whether they struck in a stand-off mode (i.e. when aerial platforms are used from a safe distance, away from defensive weapons, and use precision munitions such as glide bombs to attack a distant target without actually coming upon the target and swooping down for a bombing run) or even whether they could or could not make a hit. The important and crucial point was that India had challenged Pakistan and Pakistan needed to put an end to the “new normal” talk. Pakistan chose its targets, struck to show resolve and capability and then also won the dogfight.

Later, we are told that India had thought of using missiles to hit nine targets in Pakistan. But Pakistan readied its missiles and informed India that it will hit back. That forced India to back off. If this is true — and it comes to us from a briefing by Prime Minister Imran Khan — then it seems that Modi had nursed the idea of playing a very dangerous hand, which he couldn’t because that would have meant exchange of missiles between a nuclear dyad — a development which has remarkable escalation potential. Missilery between nuclear powers is a big no. There’s no known technology in the world that can determine whether the incoming missile has a tactical or a strategic (nuclear) warhead and that can lead to response miscalculation.

The two sides are back to the ‘old normal’ — artillery and small-arms duelling across the LoC. The attempt by an Indian submarine to enter Pakistan’s territorial waters was also deftly picked up by Pakistan Navy, with the sub forced to return. It could have been sunk but Pakistan, in keeping with its policy of not escalating, chose not to make a hit.

From here on, there’s nothing more for India but to understand the imperative of positive engagement through a sustained dialogue. The framework for such engagement is already in place. There is no alternative to talking and walking that talk. But that will not happen until we see the electoral contest in India and its results.

At the same time, Pakistan must not underestimate India based on these limited rounds. While India could not coerce Pakistan militarily at this moment, if the growth differential between Pakistan and India continues to grow, the technological asymmetry will increase to the point where strategies of coercion could kick into play. That scenario could see very different results on the ground. For instance, India will possess the anti-access, area-denial (A2/AD) S-400 system by 2020. That system is not just defensive but can also be employed in a preemptive offensive role. Typically, A2/AD systems ensure that they can deny a mission to incoming hostiles (anti-access) and ensure safety of their own area against any hostile action (area denial mode). If things do not change through engagement, we could see India use the S-400 in any future round. That would be an entirely different ballgame altogether.

The writer is Executive Editor at Indus News and specialises in defence and security.

He tweets @ejazhaider

Published in Dawn, EOS, March 10th, 2019



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