Military scales don’t all tip India’s way

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Professor Anthony Cordesman of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC, has issued another edition of The Asian Conventional Military Balance, in which a special section is devoted to South Asia.

This reference work is widely consulted by policy-makers, diplomats and analysts who wish to understand the military capabilities of the various countries in the region. It has acquired a new salience, given the ongoing standoff between India and Pakistan. By looking at the data in the tables and graphs in the report, one gets the impression that India has an overwhelming military advantage over Pakistan.

It outspends Pakistan 6:1 in military expenditures, and can field an army that is twice as large as Pakistan’s. Its army can deploy three times as many artillery pieces as the Pakistan army, and its armoured formations contain 50 percent more main battle tanks than Pakistan’s. The Indian Air Force has a 2:1 size advantage over Pakistan’s. India’s helicopter inventories are five times as large as Pakistan’s, and its transport aircraft inventories are 10 times as large. The ratio of major naval combatants is 3:1. The Indian navy includes an aircraft carrier and eight guided-missile destroyers, while the Pakistan navy has none of these craft.

Such comparisons have led the hawks in New Delhi to infer that they can dictate their terms to Islamabad. This is wrong for many reasons. First, static comparisons of forces and equipment inventories can be misleading, since they do not represent important dimensions such as age and condition of the equipment.

As noted by Brian Cloughley, the Indian T-72s look impressive, but very few of them could survive on the battlefield. This fact was brought out vividly in the Gulf War, when the much older M60s of the US Marine Corps demolished the T-72s of the Republican Guard in a few hours. India’s Su-30s look good zooming and booming, but they have no air-to-air armament. The Indian navy’s new main surface combatants are pretty shiny – but they have no integral air defence systems because the designers have come up with yet another disaster.

Second, static ratios do not capture the availability of spares and ammunition, which can hinder or accelerate military operations. They obscure the crucial role of logistics in warfare. In his memoirs, General Norman Schwarzkopf calls logistics the “long pole” in the tent. So much rides on successful logistics that it has been said “experts discuss logistics while amateurs discuss strategy”.

Third, such ratios hide the central role that terrain and geography can play in determining a nation’s capability to project military power. The Indian army discovered the importance of this fact during the 1965 war when they were unable to vault a canal en route to Lahore. The importance of terrain was again brought out during the Kargil campaign in the spring of 1999 when the Indian army struggled for months to eliminate a foe that was highly motivated and had dug itself in at higher elevations.

Fourth, many of the data on force inventories are based on The Military Balance, published annually by the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London. This data are reported by the various countries to the institute through a survey, and are, therefore, subject to the usual biases associated with self-reporting of information. Very little exists by way of objective evaluation of the quality of these data.

Fifth, the fate of wars has often been decided by intangible factors such as the quality of generalship, the readiness of the troops and their morale and fighting spirit. In his military classic, On War, General Carl von Clausewitz laid out a “triad” of factors that have to be considered in any comparison of strength between nations: the will of the leader, the morale of the people and the quality of the army. Under today’s conditions, the quality of the “army” includes the ability to execute joint land-air-sea operations. It also needs to factor in the potential interaction between conventional and nuclear forces.

Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Brookings expert Stephen Cohen has noted that India would probably come out worse in a nuclear exchange with Pakistan, given the higher quality of Pakistan’s nuclear delivery systems and the prevailing wind direction in the subcontinent.

Finally, military force is only one element in determining a nation’s ability to project power and influence. Economic, political and diplomatic factors are every bit as vital in the final analysis, and need to be factored in. In his classic critique of the US military’s failures in the Vietnam War, On Strategy, Colonel Harry Saunders cites an apocryphal story that brings out this point.

Soon after Richard Nixon became President of the United States, he asked his staff to find out who would win the war. The staff in the Pentagon fed the force inventories of both sides into a computer model to simulate the outcome. It did not take long for the computer to crunch the numbers. It answered: “You won six years ago, in 1962.” This is not to say that force inventories are unimportant, but to recognize their limitations as predictors of combat effectiveness.

Of course, much of what has been said above applies equally to Pakistan and India. During the 1971 war, most analysts expected that the Pakistani garrison in East Pakistan would hold out for several months. Yet, under General Niazi’s inept command, they caved in within 13 days. On the western front, where there was approximate parity of forces, the much-awaited counter-offensive under General Tikka Khan failed to occur. The Pakistani army troops along India’s western border were highly trained and well-equipped. They had not been fighting a war of insurgency for the past nine months. But under the command of an effete president who fancied himself a soldier-statesman, they were reduced to an ineffective mass of people in uniform. Pakistan has much to learn from this sad episode in its history.

At the same time, India needs to reflect seriously on carrying on with its strategy of trying to bully Pakistan through shows of military might.

The author is an economist in Palo Alto, California.  He lived in Pakistan during the 1965 and 1971 wars.  He has written on Pakistan’s Strategic Myopia in the RUSI Journal, and reviewed Mazari’s book, Journey to  Disillusionment for International Affairs. He has authored “Rethinking the National Security of Pakistan”, which will be published later this year by Ashgate Publishing in the UK. He is a Fellow of the American Institute of International Studies in California.

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