Complete Nuclear Lunacy?

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Since May 5 an Indian strike force of 60000 plus is conducting Corps é level exercise code-named “Poorna Vijay” (Complete Victory) in the Bikaner sector of Rajasthan, the final assault on “enemy positions” (believe it or not, that’s us) is scheduled for Thursday May 10, 2001. Armour might in the form of T-72 tanks make up the center-piece of the maneuvers, supported by mechanized infantry, self-propelled artillery and about a 100 combat and transport aircraft which will launch mock ground attacks. Even though not stated, heliborne assault forces is certainly making up an integral part of the deployment. The exercise “aims to evaluate concept and practice, battle procedures during defensive and offensive operations on the future battlefield, with a nuclear backdrop”. The Indian Government further states that “the operation’s aim is to enhance the army’s operational preparations through the conduct of a number of tactical exercises with troops under simulated battle conditions. Drills and procedures to meet challenges of a nuclear, chemical or biological strike will also be practiced”. Air Marshal (Retd) Kak, a noted defence analyst, opines that “the exercise also aims to prove India’s nuclear deterrent is indeed credible and that our (i.e. Indian) retaliation will be massive. Our doctrine is to escalate conflict beyond battlefields to strategic targets in case of nuclear war”, unquote. In violation of the ground rules agreed upon in April 1991 about exercises conducted in the proximity of each other borders (i.e. within 75 kms) and in the presence of the hotline between each other’s Military Operations, India conveniently failed to inform Pakistan that it was carrying out offensive maneuvers so close to our borders. This deliberate omission signals a provocation of sorts, such maneuvers will certainly lead to friction if Pakistan chooses titéfor-tat escalation.

On 28-30 January 1999, a war game entitled “International Game 99, Crisis in South Asia” was conducted between India and Pakistan by the United States Naval War College. Participants came from South Pacific and Asia (Australia, China, India, Iran, Japan, Pakistan, Philippines, Singapore), Europe (Finland, France, Russia, UK), Latin America (Peru) and North America (Canada and USA). After the opening scenario, India made a massive conventional attack on Kashmiri militants and across the Ceasefire Line (CFL) and the international border at their supporting bases in Pakistan (Operation Resolute Sword). This followed a supposedly grave provocation by the militants, the shooting down near Srinagar of an Indian transport aircraft carrying India’s Defence and Interior Ministers, as well as the Army Chief of Staff, by a ground-to-air missile fired by Kashmiri freedom fighters. Faced with massive incursion, Pakistan in retaliation supposedly launched “Operation Resolute Shield” and gained some Indian territory. After an initial setback, the Indians then war-gamed to have gained conventional superiority due to their sheer numbers. Depicted as unable to withstand this, Pakistan uses tactical nuclear strikes to destroy three armoured columns of invading Indian forces in the desert as well as the rail-hub at Jodhpur. India sees this as a major crossing of the nuclear threshold, an “unwarranted” escalation by Pakistan. Pakistan says the strikes are only surgically directed against military targets. While the western nations and Russia, China and Japan struggle to contain the conflict from spreading into a full scale nuclear conflagration, even a possible World War 3, India launches a comprehensive nuclear strike on 12 of Pakistan’s command and nuclear installation, mostly in and around the major cities, supposedly destroying most of the Pakistan Government as well as the Pakistan Armed Forces command and nuclear control mechanism, causing millions of casualties, mostly civilian. Survivors of the Pakistan Government say they are unable to control isolated commanders who are still in possession of nuclear weapons and as a matter of vengeance (an eye for an eye!) could retaliate at their will. The war game ended in a diplomatic stalemate, with Russia openly supporting India, China as usual defending Pakistan and the western nations playing neutral, giving lip-service only to the massive Indian nuclear attack on mainly civilian population.

While the present Indian exercise closely resembles the desert war portion of the wargame model, a number of factors govern why India has opted for holding exercises in the desert during the extreme hot weather. During the Kargil crisis, to take pressure off its vulnerable strategic border road connecting Occupied Kashmir to Leh, and more importantly Siachen, India had three military options. These included (1) retaking the heights along the strategic Leh road (2) to make a massive conventional ground attack in (a) across the Ceasefire Line in Kashmir (b) in the Punjab and/or (c) Rajasthan or (3) to do a naval blockade of Pakistan. The third option fizzled out because of (a) the bad state of operational readiness of the Indian Navy (b) the weather in the Indian Ocean not being conducive to “blockade operations” during the months May to July and (c) the capability Pakistan Navy’s submarines and the PAF’s land-based aircraft to take heavy toll. A “quarantine” has no teeth (US-USSR missile crisis Cuba 1962) unless the enforcement is backed by firepower. As for the second option there was not much reward in attacking across the fixed defences in Kashmir (along the CFL) and in the plains of the Punjab. The other available option for them was to attack in strength in Rajasthan and threaten Pakistan’s vital North-South Line of Communications (L of C) where Pakistan is most vulnerable i.e. Rahimyar Khan é Sadiqabad area. Here India was faced by three very significant problems, viz (1) were the troops acclimatized to fight a (very) hot weather campaign in the desert and the necessary logistics support to go with it (Coca-Cola may kuch bath hain?) (2) faced with such a loss would Pakistan forswear the use of tactical nuclear strikes? And (3) would the world accept a full-scale Indian invasion of Pakistan on the Kargil pretext? With a no-no to all questions, India went for the first option, drowning its tremendous losses in Kargil in a crescendo of media publicity, declaring military victory where the victory (and that was considerable) was really diplomatic. India always takes into consequence ground reality and in the backdrop of the developing scenario of the war game conducted by US Naval War College, the present maneuvers were conceived to overcome India’s weaknesses in the desert during May-June 1999 and is now being implemented. It assumes considerable strategic significance, not the least being a warning to Pakistan and China (and Bangladesh?) that India can (and is ready to) fight a conventional war even in nuclearised conditions.

While our present available forces in the area are well balanced to resist a massive Indian attack in Rajasthan, we must take to heart the lessons of 1971 in the desert, the most important being, viz (1) we need better air cover and (2) we have no tactical depth. Obviously the Indian attack, if and when it comes, will be at a level of a Command i.e. two corps plus, as envisaged in the original “Brass Tacks” exercise conducted in Rajasthan in 1987 by Gen Sunderji, then Indian COAS, with his newly conceived RAPID Divisions. This had brought India and Pakistan perilously close to war, only Zia’s cricket diplomacy defused the situation. In the desert and with little air cover, we cannot depend upon the “three to one” theory for repulsing enemy offensives i.e. the enemy has to be at least three times stronger to overwhelm us. In the desert we need almost equal firepower and mobility, if not numerical strength to fight mobile battles. As such we need to strengthen our conventional armoured forces at Pano Aqil and Rahimyar Khan, seriously thinking of putting a Brigade plus each at Daharki é Ubaro and Sadiqabad. We cannot escalate to the tactical nuclear stage without giving a chance to our conventional forces to withstand the enemy offensive.

If India had young leadership we would not be so apprehensive but given the geriatric lot (with one foot in the grave) now running India, adventurism leading to nuclear holocaust cannot be ruled out given what these leaders have most to lose (life), is almost lost to them anyway. What do they care what happens to the youth of India as long as they can take India to glory, even a “nuclear-holocausted” one? We have to give ourselves a fighting chance on conventional terms before we use the nuclear option. There is one satisfaction in all this, the Indian leadership (and the world) knows that if push comes to shove, Pakistan has the means of rendering their so-called “complete victory” hollow. In a perverse way this “complete nuclear lunacy” (Poorna Pagalpani) is a form of détente, a no-win situation which could well lead to a possible solution of the many problems between Pakistan and India.

Mr. Ikram Sehgal is Publisher and Managing Editor of Defence Journal (Pakistan). He was Chairman APSAA for the year 2000, now acting in adhoc capacity pending elections for the year 2001.

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