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.
Walter C. Ladwig III is an Assistant Professor of International Relations in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. For a more detailed examination of this topic, see the author’s “Indian Military Modernization and Conventional Deterrence in South Asia,” Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 38, No. 4 (2015).