The Russia-Ukraine war has highlighted the relevance of a key tenet laid down by 18th-century Prussian military general and theorist Carl Von Clausewitz—on the conduct of war. Clausewitz’s warning to heads of State and military commanders was this: “Recognize the kind of war they are undertaking, neither mistaking it for, nor attempting to turn it into something it cannot be because of the nature of the circumstances.” Furthermore, he regarded this task as “the first, the supreme, the most decisive act of judgement” that policymakers and military strategists must observe. As global and regional geopolitical tensions surge, Clausewitz’s warning becomes more relevant to India’s strategic planners. There is a need to seek answers to a pressing question: What sort of wars should India be prepared for?
Though we must learn from others’ wars, our politico-strategic framework must keep the Indian context in mind. This context will determine the constellation of several dynamic forces that could come into play, like leadership decision-making, unique technological products and actions of multiple external actors.
At the fundamental level comes the element of geography. India’s geography forms a crucial layer in its conflict landscape. The internal physical terrain provides resources that can be potentially harvested for development, progress, and security. Since all required resources are unavailable within India’s geographical realm, trade – involving the exchange and movement of goods, services, and people – becomes an abiding imperative for development and security.
Externally, a country’s geography decides its strategic neighbourhood. Technology and rapidly improving connectivity are constantly collapsing distances and expanding the scope of this strategic neighbourhood notion. In terms of proximity, India has continental and maritime boundaries with China, Nepal, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan. National boundaries and connected disputes of varying intensity – all of which impact the movement of goods, services, and people – have led to conflicts with China and Pakistan getting militarised. Additionally, the safety of connectivity avenues to sources of political, economic, technological, and social imperatives is a cause of security concern due to continuing territorial and maritime disputes and piracy involving non-State actors. The potential for war lies in contested geographic spaces such as land, air, sea, space, and cyberspace.
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Wars India must prepare to fight
War is organised violence applied to achieve political purposes. And this objective nature does not change, no matter the type of war. War, however, must not be confused with warfare. The latter talks about the methods used in the application of violence and shapes the character of war, which often changes, driven mostly by human agency and technology.
War must be viewed as a state of the relationship between political entities that could be State or non-State actors. In war, violence is the predominant means of communication. It can also be accompanied by channels of dialogue, which could either be diplomatic or conducted through other means.
In the author’s view, India must be prepared to fight three wars: nuclear war, conventional war, and unconventional war.
India’s nuclear doctrine perceives that its nuclear arsenal would deter its nuclear-armed adversaries. They are believed to be political weapons that would not serve a military purpose. It is thought that if India has enough weapons to survive a first strike and still retaliate punitively to cause unacceptable damage, it should be able to deter any nuclear adversary besides preventing atomic blackmail.
In all probability, nuclear war is expected to transpire from an ongoing conventional or non-conventional war that escalates due to misjudgement, miscommunication and misperception of the parties involved. The possibility of escalation would be the main factor in deterring the use of nuclear weapons and preventing any conventional or non-conventional war from escalating to the nuclear realm.
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Though the Russia-Ukraine War has highlighted the world’s return to large-scale conventional war, it must also be noted that a nuclear-armed Russia invaded a non-nuclear Ukraine. But it is not a relevant lesson for India as, in our context, any war likely to occur would only be between nuclear-powered adversaries.
When fought under the nuclear shadow, conventional wars are inevitably limited in terms of feasible political objectives. The scope, intensity and duration are also curtailed. The importance of the issues at stake would probably determine the risks that political leaders would take to expand the scope of conventional war in aspects relating to intensity and geography.
The China-India context
For several reasons, a large-scale conventional war is unlikely on the northern border and in the China-India context. First, capturing large chunks of the claimed territory is unnecessary to fulfil China’s political objective of getting India to expend its resources and stymie its growth toward becoming a global maritime power that could pose a strategic threat to China, because peninsular India, like a sword, juts out into the Indian Ocean through which China’s crucial resources such as energy transit.
Second, a conventional war would require China to invest extensive resources into launching large-scale offensives. Presuming they succeed in capturing territory across the Himalayas, it would be difficult to hold on to them and would certainly be at the cost of its use of force over Taiwan.
Third, a large-scale offensive might trigger the alert of nuclear weapons. It can open the possibility, however remote, of nuclear weapons being used – not so much after thorough deliberation but due to misjudgement and accidental reasons.
The type of war is likely to be constrained in scale, scope, and goals. Territorial capture in calculated doses and India’s reaction would shape its course.
The Indo-Pacific maritime domain could also be India’s war zone. Its purpose for war would be to use force when necessary and protect the sea lines of communications. It is also where common interests with the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) and other partners can foster cooperation to keep the Indo-Pacific free and open for trade and security.
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Conventional war in the India-Pakistan context
In the case of India and Pakistan, a conventional war in the continental and maritime domains could result from India’s reaction to a terrorist attack. But here too, the nuclear shadow would come into play and pose the threat of escalation, thus limiting it to below the ‘alerting of nuclear weapons’ and containing the war. The possibility of nuclear use—however remote—would limit both the intensity and duration of the war.
There is a possibility that India will have to fight wars simultaneously with both China and Pakistan. But it does not alter the type of conventional war India has to undertake.
The non-conventional war is distinguished from the conventional war by the fact that capture and holding of ground is not the primary purpose.
Instead, the goal is to inflict damage and destruction, and attrite India’s will to force it to concede political demands. In this realm, counter-insurgency abetted by adversaries is the main type of war that India must be prepared for. Such wars are of long duration, as experienced in Jammu & Kashmir and the Northeast.
Nuclear, conventional and non-conventional war must be viewed as layers that constitute war and blend in varying degrees into each other. They are connected and could be occurring within the same war. For India, these types not only sit atop one another, but the presence of a nuclear shadow is perennial. Ultimately, what matters are the limitations imposed on achieving political objectives. This is the central point that must be noted.
The profusion of American buzzwords like Grey Zone, Multi-domain and Hybrid warfare must not distract us from limitations imposed by the truism that all types of war between nuclear powers cannot escape the nuclear shadow.
Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon (retd) is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution; former military adviser, National Security Council Secretariat. He tweets @prakashmenon51. Views are personal.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)