Could India's Military Really Crush Pakistan?
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Following a raid by Indian special forces into Myanmar early this month, increasing attention has been given to the prospect that India might use similar means against Pakistan to pressure it to end support for anti-Indian militant groups. India’s on-going military modernization and headline-grabbing increases in defense spending have already raised concerns that it threatens to upset the delicate conventional military balance in the region and make military action a more attractive prospect for New Delhi.
Taken at face value, there appears to be some validity to this line of thinking. Indian defense spending has doubled in real terms since 1997, growing at an average of 6.3 percent per year. The Modi announced a further 11 percent hike, raising the 2015–2016 military budget to $39.8 billion. Moreover, India is presently the world’s largest buyer of conventional weapons, with upwards of $100 billion expected to be spent on modernizing its defense forces over the next decade.
Consequently, a number of scholars and analysts have suggested Indian military modernization is threatening Pakistan’s conventional deterrence and pressuring Islamabad to embrace battlefield nuclear weapons as a tool of self defense. Yet, this line of thinking overlooks the fact that the Indian military is beset by obsolete platforms.
Moreover, a pair of key structural factors mitigate whatever advantages India may be gaining through military modernization: terrain is not conducive to rapid successes in areas of significant strategic value, and in the most likely conflict scenarios, India is unlikely to achieve the strategic surprise necessary to make a limited offensive succeed. Consequently, Indian policymakers cannot be confident that even a limited resort to military force would achieve a rapid result, which is an essential pre-condition for deterrence failure.
Deterring State-Sponsored Terrorism with Conventional Force
Since the mid 2000s, the Indian Army has explored changes to its force structure and concept of operations to enable short-notice offensives of limited duration that would seek to make several small thrusts to Pakistan to quickly seize and hold territory. Termed “proactive strategies,” the aim is to rapidly mobilize division or smaller sized formations to carry out retaliatory conventional strikes that would deter or punish Pakistan for its links to terrorist groups, while simultaneously pursuing narrow enough aims to deny Islamabad a justification to escalate the clash to the nuclear level. In particular, the Indian Army seeks a rapid mobilization and offensive action by division or smaller sized formations who would seek to punish enemy forces or seize territory in a limited offensive of short duration.
Unsurprisingly these efforts have not been well received in Pakistan, whose leaders view the country’s conventional armed forces as the cornerstone of their strategic deterrent capability.
Consequently, in recent years, a number of Pakistani analysts have sounded warnings about the Indian military’s alleged growing quantitative and qualitative advantages, alleging that Islamabad’s inability to keep pace with New Delhi’s military build up has increased the pressure to expand Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal to include low-yield warheads and short-range delivery systems. These concerns have been echoed in Washington, D.C. A number of researchers at think tanks, including the Carnegie Endowment, the Congressional Research Service, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Hudson Institute appear to share the beliefs of the Stimson Center’s Michael Krepon that Pakistan’s recent embrace of the utility of tactical nuclear weapons and broader Pakistani efforts to enhance the quality and quantity of their nuclear arsenal is a result of “India’s growing conventional capabilities and its more proactive military plans.”
Despite the seemingly dramatic increases in its defense spending, the Indian military—in particular the Army—faces numerous capability shortfalls that would hinder military operations against Pakistan.
The large number of obsolete tanks, armored vehicles, and artillery pieces, not to mention critical shortages of ammunition and air-defense assets, raise serious questions whether India can undertake large-scale military operations at all, let alone whether ongoing defense modernization really is sharply shifting the conventional balance in its favor. Although Indian defense spending has gained attention worldwide, much of that money has been spent merely replacing obsolete weapons and equipment.
The most visible manifestation of the “hollowing out” of the Indian Army occurred in the aftermath of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, when then Army chief General Deepak Kapoor reportedly was forced to admit to the country’s political leadership that the Army “was not ready for war” with Pakistan in retaliation for the terrorist attacks.
Consequently, deterring Pakistani support for terrorism via conventional punishment faces a number of obstacles, including a lack of sufficient numerical superiority in the conflict zone, unfavorable terrain for a quick offensive and a lack of strategic surprise that could offset these other two factors.
Since the end of the Cold War, the manpower balance between the two armies has hovered around a 2:1 ratio in India’s favor. However, just 18 of the army’s 36 divisions are stationed in the states bordering Pakistan, fifteen of which are infantry divisions, with only limited offensive power. In contrast, 18 of the Pakistani army’s 22 divisions—including both of their armored divisions—are deployed in provinces adjacent to the international border. If we account for the estimated 70,000 Pakistani soldiers that have been temporarily redeployed to confront the Pakistani Taliban, India’s manpower advantage at the theater level at the start of any crisis would be 1.2:1.
The conventional wisdom amongst some defense analysts is that an attacking force requires a minimum of a 1.5:1 superiority in forces at the theater level to succeed. However, an attacker would likely seek a larger advantage, on the order of 2:1, before initiating offensive operations and those seeking a decisive outcome would want still higher force ratios in their favor. In any instance, India’s local force advantage is not decisive. Although in a longer conflict India could bring its numerical superiority to bear, the military has numerous shortfalls of ammunition and equipment that make a struggle of more than a few weeks duration unlikely. For example, as of August 2014, the Army lacked ammunition to undertake more than twenty days of “intense fighting” with less than seven days of reserves of key stocks of artillery ammunition, anti-tank missiles and a “critical shortage” of ammunition for its main battle tanks that would run out after ten days, hardly enough time for additional forces to make a difference.
In terms of equipment for ground combat, Pakistan appears to have partially closed a nearly 2:1 gap in tanks that India possessed in the early 1990s, to the point where India’s advantage is just over 1.15:1. However, this modest edge is undercut by the fact that Pakistani armored units are primarily stationed in the vicinity of the international border, while India’s are primarily based in central India.
Main Battle Tanks: 1992-2014
Moreover, it is alleged that large numbers of the Indian army’s fleet of tanks are nearing obsolescence and unable to operate at night, while their modern replacements are unsuited for operations in the desert regions around the international border. Unsurprisingly, some Indian defense analysts have suggested that their army requires at least 1,500 modern tanks to gain a conventional edge.
The major shortcoming for Indian forces seeking to undertake a short-notice offensive is their lack of mobile artillery to provide fire support to advancing units. Political scandals and bureaucratic red tape have left the army with just 10 percent of the self-propelled artillery its mobile armored brigades and divisions require, constraining the kind of bold thrusts a limited aims offensive would require. A recently announced plan to acquire 814 mounted gun systems will address some of this shortfall, but the byzantine nature of Indian weapons procurement and a history of repeated artillery acquisition failures makes it unknown when, if ever, these weapons will actually find their way into service.
The 2,900 kilometer long Indo-Pakistani border is characterized by diverse and varied terrain that has differential impacts on military operations. In Kashmir, the landscape is mountainous and heavily forested. When combined with a lack of wide roads, the movement of vehicles and large military formations is significantly hindered. Depending on the time of year, it is possible to conduct large-scale military operations across the Line of Control (LoC) in the areas of south Jammu and the Kashmir valley. However, difficult terrain and under-developed transport infrastructure, in the words of one scholar, “makes swift, deep penetrations unlikely, if not impossible, in the face of even minor resistance.”
A second section of the border running from Southern Jammu and Kashmir through the Punjab down to Northern Rajasthan is marked by a near continuous line of concrete irrigation canals that stretch for 2,000 kilometers. Not only does this network of canals and their tributaries form an obstacle in its own right, they have been turned into defensive fortifications with the addition of large pilings of soil, concrete bunkers, minefields, and fortified gun emplacements. Securing a bridgehead and mounting a cross-canal assault against a dug-in opponent will be a time consuming and bloody affair.
The third section of the international border, where the Sindh and Punjab meet, is often described as Pakistan’s major point of strategic vulnerability because the country’s primary north-south transportation artery runs extremely close to the international border. However, that historical risk has been significantly alleviated by the construction of a largely parallel highway on the western side of the Indus River. Although this region lacks the extensive fortifications described in the northern Punjab, the presence of irrigation canals and a major river constrain the available axes of advance and allow defenders to fight from prepared positions.
The southernmost sections of the international border, consisting of the flat, barren deserts of Rajasthan and Gujarat are extremely suitable for mechanized military operations, however they lack significant strategic value. Moreover, on the Pakistani side of the border areas of the harsh desert have been left empty to provide a natural buffer-zone that allows defenders to trade space for time as they readied a counter-attack.
Absence of Strategic Surprise
In a future clash in which India would wish to employ a pro-active strategy against Pakistan, the Indian Army is unlikely to achieve strategic surprise in a manner that would allow it to overcome the previously discussed constraints of numbers and terrain.
As the status-quo power in the dispute over Jammu and Kashmir, India has little incentive to launch a surprise attack. Consequently, under the most likely conflict scenarios, Pakistani forces will not be caught off guard, but will have a warning period in which they can mobilize their forces. A large-scale act of terrorism within India that is linked to Pakistan is by far the most probable trigger of conflict. That being said, given that the infiltration of Pakistani forces into Kashmir preceded the 1965 and 1999 wars, a future Pakistani government’s decision to do the same cannot be ruled out as a proximate cause of conflict. In either case, the Pakistani government will have prior warning about the imminent commencement of hostilities, either because scenes of terror are playing out on international television or because they were actively infiltrating troops into Indian territory.
Indian response time will also provide a buffer for Pakistan to respond. Based on the aftermath of the 2001 and 2008 terrorist attacks, the Indian army would require several weeks before it could hope to initiate military operations. Although reducing mobilization time is a key aspect of the “pro-active” strategies, offensive forces have not been pre-deployed in the border region, nor will the army’s efforts reduce the amount of time the country’s political leadership requires to deliberate before choosing to employ military force.
With 80 percent of the Pakistani Army’s divisions based in provinces adjacent to the international border—the majority of which are forward-deployed in defensive positions—Pakistan’s military is postured to repel an Indian attack. Additionally, it has taken steps in recent years to improve its crisis response capability so that it can capitalize on any warning it receives. Given the previous discussions of the terrain advantages accruing to a defender in Kashmir and the Punjab, even a partial mobilization of Pakistani forces is likely to present a significant obstacle to a limited offensive.
Were the Indian Army to seek to launch a short-notice, limited offensive, the twin constraints of geography and lack of strategic surprise suggest that under the most likely scenarios, India would have parity at best in the number of troops they could bring to bear in the early days of a conflict. In a conflict of several weeks duration, the army could leverage its larger numbers by shifting forces from East to West, but that would require a longer period of fighting than most analysts believe is possible before outside powers intervene to force a resolution to the crisis or the Indian Army runs out of ammunition. Moreover, a major shift of troops or the opening of multiple fronts beyond the Line of Control in Kashmir would signal to Pakistan that the conflict was not limited and short-duration, but full-scale war with the attendant nuclear escalation risks. None of this suggests Indian political leaders would have a high degree of confidence that a limited offensive would quickly achieve its objectives at minimal risk.
The main alternative to crossing the LoC on the ground in force is reliance on long-range punishment strikes. These could be carried out by manned aircraft or missiles. The problem facing a bombardment strategy is that achieving a decisive result and limiting escalation are necessarily in tension: the targets that are of lowest escalation risk are also those of least value. If India were to opt for attacks on high-value militant assets in Pakistan proper, such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba’s massive headquarters in Muridke, or, as some suggest, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) facilities linked to terrorist groups, it may succeed in imposing significant costs on Islamabad and Rawalpindi, but a significant military response would be guaranteed. In contrast, the most limited target available would be terrorist training camps in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. However, these targets are likely to be unsatisfactory for several reasons. First, Kashmiri militant groups have diversified across Pakistan which means there is no guarantee that the group suspected of responsibility for a specific terrorist attack would be vulnerable to retaliation in Pakistani Kashmir. Moreover, following news of a major terror attack, anti-Indian terrorist groups—even those unconnected to the event—are likely to go into hiding for a period of time, leaving identified camps unoccupied. Finally, since India does not possess heavy bombers, the ability of fighter jets or missile strikes to significantly damage terrorist bases is open to question.
It may be possible to reduce escalatory pressure on the Pakistani government by strictly confining strikes to the disputed territory of Kashmir, avoiding a direct confrontation with Pakistani military assets and inflicting very limited civilian casualties.mNevertheless, the Pakistani government will likely face strong domestic pressure—from both the military, radical Islamist groups, and a nationalistic public—to mount a response to an Indian attack. The optimistic case is that confining the strikes to Pakistan administered Kashmir—rather than internationally recognized Pakistani territory—will prevent Pakistan from horizontally escalating the conflict beyond Kashmir, thus keeping the clash from escalating vertically into full-scale war.
Limited strikes on a limited number of targets in Kashmir may prevent a conflict from escalating but, for reasons described above, this is likely to result in military action that is of symbolic, rather than substantive, nature, designed to assuage the anger of the Indian public rather than inflict meaningful harm on terrorist networks. Ultimately Indian military leaders may have to accept, if they haven’t already, the very unpleasant reality that what is essentially a political problem—Pakistan’s continued desire to wrest Kashmir away from India and its army’s pathological hatred of “Hindustan”—may not be amenable to a strictly military solution.
The Indian government has demonstrated an increased willingness to use force in an environment where headline grabbing increases in the Indian defense budget and a high-profile military modernization program are already alarming observers who worry that this could undermine the conventional military balance maintaining South Asia’s “ugly stability.” While on their face these concerns have validity, upon deeper examination, it is clear that, modernizing or not, the Indian military is capable of bringing far less force to bear in a limited conflict with Pakistan than most people realize. As a result, it is unlikely that Indian policymakers would conclude that they can either achieve strategic surprise against Pakistan necessary for a successful ground incursion or carry out highly-effective air strikes with little escalatory risk, each of which is a necessary condition for military operations to be authorized. Consequently, claims that India’s growing military power justifies Pakistan’s pursuit of tactical nuclear weapons, lack a firm foundation. South Asia remains an unstable region of the world, but the Indian military is not a source of that instability.
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