Could India's Military Really Crush Pakistan?

India's conventional military superiority over Pakistan is exaggerated.

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.

Alternative Approaches?

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.

Conclusion

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