Could India's Military Really Crush Pakistan?

India's conventional military superiority over Pakistan is exaggerated.

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.

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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.

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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.”

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