By Ali Ahmed
In late September, India’s media reported on a military exercise to be undertaken by one of the country’s three “strike” corps, 21 Corps. Since then, Indian military watchers have encountered only silence on the exercise. This is uncharacteristic of India, on two counts.
One, India has always undertaken such exercises with a flurry of publicity, even if the military details are necessarily kept under wraps. There is sense in publicity in that it reassures the public of a vigilant military; it is good for the government’s image as “strong on defense”; and it sends a deterrence message in the form of military readiness to India’s neighbor, Pakistan. Yet this autumn’s round of exercises is an interesting shift in India’s information strategy.
The silence could well be for a mundane reason: During October the formation moved into an exercise location in the desert sector and is undertaking preliminary training. The exercise proper could build up to its climax in the near future with the relevant publicity and the attendance of high-level officials such as the defense minister and Delhi-based military brass.
Nevertheless, thus far, all that is known is that 21 Corps is on exercise along with the remainder of Southern Command. Even the name of the exercise usually a martial one and sometimes with mythological roots has not reached the public domain yet; and therein is the mystery.
Two, this is the second exercise involving one of India’s strike corps in the same year; the earlier one being held in early summer, in which India exercised 2 Corps, alongside the “pivot” 10 Corps. In effect, two field armies have been exercised this year: South Western Command earlier, of which 10 Corps is part, and now the Southern Command.
Usually, India exercises one strike corps a year. This owes to reasons such as the cropping pattern in exercise areas only allowing a window in early summer along with budget limitations. To exercise a second strike corps in the second seasonal window in late autumn/early winter the same year is a departure that, while indicating more budget availability, also suggests urgency.
Why the silence and possible urgency attending this exercise? It can plausibly be speculated that the lack of publicity so far owes to a statement made by Pakistan’s foreign secretary on the eve of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s visit to the U.S., namely that Pakistan’s tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) have been acquired to deter and if necessary respond to India’s conventional operations.
Since strike corps operations are offensive and have strategic ends, their employment can be expected to flirt with Pakistan’s nuclear thresholds. Pakistan has now publicly acknowledged a low nuclear threshold. Therefore, for strike corps operations it can no longer be business as usual.
From India’s conventional doctrine and exercises, it cannot easily be discerned if India is sufficiently cognizant of the nuclear reality. Its doctrine is of post-Kargil War vintage, though officially adopted after Operation Parakram in 2004. Much water has flown under the nuclear bridge since, including vertical proliferation and the addition of TNW to Pakistan’s arsenal in 2011.
India’s military, in exercising two field armies and two strike crops this year, is indicating that it can activate the border theater, from the semi-developed terrain abutting the northern part of Rajasthan to the desert terrain in the south. Strategically, it is projecting to Pakistan that it is not deterred by TNWs.
Such muscle flexing cannot be seen merely as going about what armies normally do in peace time: train. This could well imply that India has an answer to TNW that enables it to believe that it can persist with conventional operations.
Thus far, India’s declaratory nuclear doctrine has been of “retaliation only” and predicated on deterrence by punishment. However, since this would be a disproportionate response to TNW and could trigger a strategic exchange, it is possible that India’s operational nuclear doctrine has shifted to “proportionate” response or “graduated” deterrence. That way it can provide nuclear cover for conventional operations by employing TNW in retaliation. This has been the thrust of the recent strategic debate in India.
The urgency of two field armies exercising in the same year consequently derives from India’s conveying to Pakistan’s military unmistakably that it continues to have options, even when confronted by a lower nuclear threshold.
At the same time, the accompanying public silence (at the time of writing) surrounding the exercise appears to be intended to keep the focus of both strategic analysts and the international community away from this message intended for Pakistan’s military.
Strategic analysts skeptical of the so-called Cold Start doctrine of 2004 have pointed to the truncation of the crisis response window that quick-off-the-block conventional operations portend as well as the subsequent nuclear dangers. With India’s next edition of the conventional doctrine of 2010 not in the public domain it cannot be critiqued adequately. The manner in which the military exercises unfold will offer clues as to potential nuclear risks. Keeping the lid on this aspect enables the military to go about its business without external scrutiny.
If strategic analysts are unable to blow the whistle for want of evidence, the advantage for India is the lack of alarm in the international community. Even India’s public is kept ignorant of nuclear dangers, allowing its politicians to enjoy the limelight from military prowess while obscuring the dangers.
India’s belief that there is a conventional reply for any mega-terror action from across the border has one positive: It could help deter any Pakistani covert intelligence engagement in any such action. However, the flip side is that should rogue or autonomous elements undertake such action, the two states could be at blows before peace has a chance to intervene.
While both militaries apparently envisage few TNW mushroom clouds, they need to be forewarned that this will only be so if they mutually put in place de-escalatory measures.