India, Pakistan, the Bomb and “limited war”

By: Bill The Butcher

Back one day in May 1998, I came home from work to find people in a state of considerable excitement. The Indian government of the time (led by the Hindunazi Bharatiya Janata Party, BJP) had just announced that it had simultaneously tested three nuclear bombs under the sands of the Thar Desert, at the Pokaran test site near the village of Khetolai. One of these had even been a thermonuclear bomb with a yield, they said, of 45 kilotons (For those not in the know, that translates to an energy yield equivalent to 45000 tonnes of TNT, very small by thermonuclear bomb standards).

Even as crowds of wildly cheering people took to the streets, bursting crackers and distributing sweets, two days later the government announced a further two nuclear tests, both of these in the mini-nuke (sub-kiloton) range. And as the US government (of Bill Clinton, later to be greeted like a visiting deity in Delhi) slapped economic sanctions on India, various Hindunazi politicians openly dared Pakistan to fight a war (one said –I’m sorry, but I don’t recall this particular clown’s name – “We’re ready for a war with Pakistan. They should just let us know the place and the time.”)

Now, it wasn’t exactly a secret that India and Pakistan both had nuclear arsenals; India had already tested a so-called “peaceful” nuclear device (meant for “mining” purposes, yeah, right) in May 1974. What was new was that India had – quite deliberately – tested some of these stockpiled warheads, at a time when there wasn’t really a legitimate reason to do so. Though the Hindunazi regime made a half-assed attempt to point to China as a threat requiring the tests, the obvious reason was political.

A few days later, when the Pakistanis responded with a series of their own tests, there seemed to be a developing nuclear détente between the two sides. It looked to be a mirror image of the Mutual Assured Destruction that had kept the peace –however imperfectly – between the US and the USSR through the Cold War. Some of us doubted that, though. These naysayers, like yours truly, suspected that all this open possession of nuclear arsenals had done was embolden the weaker side (Pakistan) to engage in fairly adventurous activity since it could be assured of being able to get away with whatever it wished.

A year later, we were proved dramatically right when Pakistan sent troops across the disputed Kashmir border in Kargil, triggering a brief conflict which ended with a Pakistani withdrawal and an Indian “victory” – even though at least one strategic mountain on the Indian side remained in Pakistani hands. It seemed as if the possession of nuclear arsenals would – by rendering a general war impossible – increase the likelihood of small-scale conflict. And when in December 2001, after an attack on the Indian parliament by jihadist terrorists, the Indian government sent troops to the border but made no move to actually begin a war, it seemed all but assured: there would be no direct war.

Through the next few years, then, while there were no direct clashes, both sides scrambled for the favour of the Americans, who were heavily involved in Afghanistan, and fought a dirty little covert war by aiding and abetting each other’s separatists, in Kashmir and Balochistan respectively. But there was always the “nuclear threat” hanging over the subcontinent, a “nuclear threat” which was patently bogus for several reasons. The Mutual Assured Destruction paradigm worked for the US and USSR but was never going to work for India and Pakistan for the following reasons:

First, a nuclear arsenal, to be an effective deterrent, should be deliverable. Your H-bombs aren’t going to make anyone tremble in their shoes if you can’t reliably explode them over the enemy target. The operative word is “reliably”. You might have hundreds of missiles and bomber planes, but if those missiles are liable to fall apart in flight and those bombers are going to be shot out of the sky like clay pigeons, there’s not much “reliability” in your ability to deliver your weapon.

At the same time, if you’ve got your delivery system in place, you still don’t have any deterrent ability if your nukes can’t be depended on to explode as and when you want and deliver the yield you need them to deliver. A dud nuke is a dud deterrent.

In this context, I’d like to mention a few things:

1. While I don’t know in depth about Pakistan’s delivery systems (except the usual Indian claim that all Pakistani missiles are repainted North Korean models), the Indian missile delivery system is great on paper but seems to be in a perpetual state of being “tested”; the latest test (two days ago) of the Agni II intermediate-range missile, which was allegedly inducted into the forces five years ago, failed. This isn’t the first Agni launch to fail in recent times; far from it. I have a feeling that if you keep having to test something, and it keeps failing, you aren’t exactly confident of your delivery systems.

2. In recent times, some Indian nuclear scientists have echoed Western doubts about India’s 1998 tests; specifically, whether the thermonuclear bomb was successful at all and if the reported yields were exaggerated. While there are strong arguments on both sides and I can’t – not being a nuclear scientist – say anything about that, I would not be the slightest bit surprised (knowing India’s past record) if the test claims were indeed falsified. In fact I’d be astonished if they weren’t. And even if the establishment lies through its teeth to the great and trusting public about the validity of the arsenal, it isn’t fooling either itself or those who really matter – its rivals across the border. The Indian nuclear arsenal may be effective, for all I know; but reliable, it ain’t.

Then, secondly, a nuclear deterrent is only effective if there’s a real threat of its being used. Even if the Indian deterrent was reliable and reliably deliverable, it would be useless for the following reasons:

1. The countries are too damned close together. This isn’t a trivial problem. Most Pakistani cities are only a short distance, relatively speaking, from the border. Depending on the season, the winds blow either from west to east (in winter) or east to west (in summer). So, in winter, fallout from Indian bombs exploded over Pakistan would be blown back into India, and – in summer – Pakistan would get its own bomb’s radiation blown back over its own territory. While Pakistan might compensate by bombing targets deeper inside India, we wouldn’t have that luxury. So for at least half the year we’d be poisoning ourselves by nuking Pakistan.

2. As I wrote here, the centres of Indian economic and political power are all concentrated in North and West India, specifically in Delhi and Bombay (Mumbai). Therefore a nuclear exchange would wipe out the Indian economic and political establishment. Make no mistake about this – the elite do not wish to commit literal, economic or political suicide. Therefore there will be no nuclear exchange – whatever the provocation.

3. Pakistan is now a vital state to the United States because of the ongoing and failing occupation of Afghanistan. Since the US now has virtually complete control over Indian decision-making, and will learn of any “secret” Indian decisions virtually as soon as they are made, it will move fast and hard to stop any ideas of an Indian nuclear strike.

4. Indian Muslims are electorally significant to the non-Hindunazi parties. A very large number of them have relatives across the border, and won’t relish the idea of those relatives being incinerated under a mushroom cloud. I admit it’s a minor reason, but it’s still a reason.

5. And since the countries are so very close together, the flight times of missiles will be very short and it will be almost impossible to counter them by some kind of anti-missile shield. Therefore, the cities are virtual pushovers.

You’ll notice that in all this I am talking primarily of India use of nukes on Pakistan and not vice-versa; that’s because I’m assuming Pakistan has no intention, as the weaker nation, of committing suicide by launching a nuclear war. Only in case of an all-out war where the existence of its nuclear arsenal is under threat is it likely to be the first to launch nukes.

All in all, we can dismiss the possibility of a nuclear war.

Therefore, what of the options for a non-nuclear war? The other points I mentioned in my December 2008 blog are still valid; there won’t be a conventional all-out war. As a matter of fact, in the last year the Pakistani military situation has improved with the induction of Chinese J 10 fighters, while India’s military has degraded further; the navy and the air force, especially, have been worst hit. The former no longer has a functional aircraft carrier; its flagship, INS Viraat, a pile of floating junk awaiting retirement, has an air group of ten 1980s-vintage Sea Harrier fighters which are now grounded after a series of crashes. The Air Force has also grounded its entire fleet of primary trainers for similar reasons. It still has no effective radars or modern anti-aircraft missiles, there’s still no replacement for the aging MiG 21 and Jaguar aircraft, and there doesn’t seem to be any likelihood of the indigenous Light Combat Aircraft Tejas ever entering production, years after it was officially inducted into the air force. The army – short of artillery and even body armour – is better off in comparison but still far from being fit to fight an all-out conventional war.

Besides, there’s clear evidence that the government isn’t planning a full conventional war. The evidence is clear in the government’s own statement that military acquisitions will have a political component; in effect, they will be made in order to please certain sections/nations and not because they are required or are effective. This argues most strongly against any plans for a conventional conflict.

In any case, a conventional war can’t be fought to a decisive victory because in that case it will escalate to a nuclear conflict, with Pakistan protecting its own existence by any means possible. For the reasons I mentioned, there won’t, can’t, be a nuclear war. So there won’t be a full-scale conventional war either.

No, you can breathe easy; there won’t be a nuclear war and there won’t be a non-nuclear conventional war.

So we get back to a comment made by Indian Army Chief General Deepak kapoor recently where he said that the forces were preparing for a “limited war”. What is a limited war?

I’ll admit to being hopelessly confused by the statement made by the Indian army chief. No military in its right mind plans for a “limited war”; it’s nonsense, because just as it takes two hands to clap, a war requires (at least) two participants. If you want a “limited” war, you’re assuming that the enemy side is in tacit agreement to limit the war to your terms. It’s an extremely dangerous assumption because your opponents may not think the same way as you. The Pakistanis attempted a limited war in 1965 when they infiltrated thousands of troops into Indian occupied Kashmir in an effort to foment a popular rebellion. India retaliated by striking back across the international border and almost captured Lahore.

Therefore, when a general says he’s planning for a “limited war”, it has to be seen as either a pressure tactic or as an officer talking through his hat, not at all an unusual situation. What limits would he be talking about, in any case? In the India-Pakistan situation, there’s little that can be done to restrict the area of combat unless one side virtually fights with one hand tied behind its back, as Pakistan did in Kargil in 1999.

No, there won’t be a limited war either.

What there will be, on the other hand, will be what we already have: India training and funding terrorist forces in Balochistan and trying to establish as much control over Afghanistan as possible by means of economic assistance, and Pakistan aiding and abetting rebels in Kashmir, home-grown Indian jihadists and disaffected Muslims, and by countering India in Afghanistan by covertly aiding the Afghan Taliban. It’s a slow-motion war; most unlikely ever to end in a victory for either side, designed more to cause bloodletting than anything else.

It is, of course, possible that with increased desertification and global-warming induced droughts, India might cut off river waters to Pakistan (all major Pakistani rivers originate in Indian territory) – but that isn’t likely, simply because it might result in all-out war, which India can’t fight for the reasons already mentioned.

No, there won’t be a big shooting war; just small, localized clashes and a cold war that will go on and on and on.

If that’s a limited war, then General Kapoor wasn’t talking through his uniform cap.