A Monthly Journal of the IDSA
Dynamics of Limited War
By Jasjit Singh *
Military history would indicate that some of the wars of the 20th century have been "total" in all respects, the most notable being the World War II. But the overwhelming majority of wars have been limited, with the limitation operating in transparent or in obscure ways. The superpowers fought over 300 wars (since 1945) across the globe. But they were all limited, conditioned essentially to the goal of avoiding a direct clash due to the dangers of escalation to nuclear weapons and the consequent serious risks of mutual assured destruction (MAD). Proxy wars in developing countries have been the most common phenomena although other ways of breaking out of such limitations have been sought by many countries. Among these, use of terrorism across borders has been the most frequent which has grown in scope and effect as, to paraphrase Clausewitz, an "extension of war by other means." Pakistan's senior military officers have been propagating the doctrinal base of the use of terror interpreted as sanctioned by the Holy Quran as the means of "total" war. 1 But this paper is restricted to the field of conventional war, with war itself being defined as a continuing contest between armed forces of states. The aim is to explore the dynamics that affect such wars in our own context and environment, especially in placing limits on the conduct of war. Similarly peace keeping, enforcement and related operations, important in themselves, are not included in the framework of current examination.
It is necessary for purposes of our discussion to define what we mean by limited war. The context is of regular military operations by a state against regular military of another state. The distinction which would define limited war, especially affecting developing countries, is the aim, scope and extent to which conventional military forces are employed against those of another state.
Transmutation of War
The nature of war has been undergoing some basic changes during recent decades, and this provides the pointer to the type of wars we are likely o experience in the 21st century. Territorial wars in the past were fought for (human and mineral) resources where the industrially superior states (mostly of Europe) controlled military technology and this also helped them to control populations. The de-colonisation process, starting in the middle of 20th century, ensured that populations could no longer be kept under control against their will. Advances in technology and globalisation of economic activity have also made the earlier necessity of human and natural resources less critical since the locus of power shifted in favour of trade, technology and financial control. The only resource base which might trigger armed conflict at the level of an inter-state war in the coming decades is that of oil and gas. In fact, this was the central reason for the last real territorial war in 1990-91 when Iraq invaded Kuwait to annex it.
Nuclear weapons have limited the aim, scope and extent of war among states that possess such capabilities (and their allies) because of the tremendously destructive potential of such weapons. 2 As Martin Creveld writes, "From Central Europe to Kashmir, and from the Middle East to Korea, nuclear weapons are making it impossible for large sovereign territorial units, or states, to fight each other in earnest without running the risk of mutual suicide." 3 Total and unlimited conventional war has been relegated to the backyard of history since the age of imperial colonies, which was a major factor making war a global phenomenon, has long passed away. States simply do not have the means to conduct a total war, unless they use nuclear weapons. And this would result in MAD, nullifying any possible political goal for which it might have been started.
But modern states are also increasingly vulnerable even to conventional war. A conventional weapon attack on nuclear power stations, for example, could result in a hundred Chernobyls in Europe. It may be recalled that the accident in the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal (which resulted in 3,000 dead and over 5,000 injured in December 1984) could be replicated by a 500-kg conventional High Explosive (HE) warhead. The potential damage of conventional war may be judged from the fact that nearly two million tonnes of chemicals are abroad in transit or storage at any one time in Europe. While fire-bombing caused much of the damage to the cities in the World War II, asphyxiation is likely to be the major cause of casualties of conventional attacks of tomorrow in society that relies so extensively on synthetics.
Modern precision guided weapons make it possible to execute damage of the scale carried out during the strategic bombing campaign in World War II with a fraction of the earlier air effort. It is not merely that the highly organised, industrially developed states would be so vulnerable to conventional warfare. The developing states are even more vulnerable because of the few high value assets they possess which have been acquired through investment of scarce resources. The case of Iraq, where development has been set back perhaps more than three decades, first by Iranian air attacks and later by the US-led coalition air campaign is a prime example.
If nuclear war and total global war are no longer viable propositions as an extension of politics by other means, the only choice available to states to use destructive force for political purposes is through limited conventional war, sub-conventional war with military type weapons, and the use of coercive military force without necessarily resulting in war. The overall result has been a reducing potential of war down to limited wars, and from that point an expansion of opportunities for limited wars, sub-conventional wars and use of force without war as shown in Table 1.
Factors Limiting War
It can be argued that any modern war would remain limited unless consciously expanded to a total war. On the other hand, a total war would involve the substantive use of nuclear weapons, terrorism, and/or other attempts to affect the survival of a state. The important point is to try and assess the factors that result in limiting war so that the true dimension of the nature of limitations and their impact can be understood and factored into policy. These could be briefly summed up in the following paragraphs.
These are obviously the most crucial and over-riding since employment of military power normally serves a political purpose. By definition, political goals in a limited war will have to be curtailed and, therefore, very carefully defined. As the goals keep narrowing, the scope for error keeps increasing.
Some examples from the Kargil War may be helpful to illustrate the points. If Pakistan had undertaken the aggression across the Line of Control in Ladakh in 1998 with a limited political objective, then it was obvious that the scope for error would be high. The purpose of military operations would not result in internationalisation (if that was the goal) of the Kashmir issue beyond what has existed. Or if the establishment of a bridgehead across the Line of Control was to seek negotiated cease-fire along an altered line, this depended entirely on Indian willingness to accept the change. This was obviously unlikely. But if the goal (as this author believes) was larger than that to spread into the Indus and Shyok valleys with hard-core militants while Pakistan Army held the dominating heights overseeing Srinagar-Leh road, then its future depended entirely on the nature and extent of Indian military-political response. And here Pakistan made its more fundamental errors of assumptions. Such errors may not have an over-riding impact in a full-scale war (even of short duration) since failure in one area could be compensated by success in another. But in limited war the margin of error reduces tremendously, and the victor would normally have taken care to make the least mistakes.
The political factors may be classified into the following elements with each singly or collectively affecting a particular situation:
Capturing and occupation of territory used to be the most important political objective in earlier times, essentially, since control of territory used to imply control over human and material resources. This, in fact, was the strongest motivation for the colonial wars and imperial rule. However territory has lost its value as the aim of wars for a variety of reasons. De-colonisation and the dramatically enhanced political consciousness of peoples makes it extremely difficult to hold populations under subjugation against their will, especially, when an activist international community would inevitably be an important influence. Globalisation of economy and means of production have dramatically reduced the necessity to physically occupy territories as used to happen till mid-20th century. The only resource base tied to territory that could trigger a war now is the hydrocarbon resource. But territory has not eliminated itself from the political aims of war. In fact territory would continue to be an important objective for military action in relation to at least three purposes:
Salami-slicing of the adversary's territory where each slice does not attract a major response, and yet the process over a time would result in gains of territory. China's strategy of salami slicing during the 1950s on our northern frontiers is a typical example which led Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to describe this as a Chinese concept of "mobile frontiers." It is possible that Pakistan attempted the salami-slicing goal in Kargil last year.
The second possibility is that of occupation of the adversary's territory to use it as a negotiating chip. India's occupation of Pakistan's territory in 1965 and 1971 wars falls into this category.
Occupation of territory may also be undertaken for demonstration and psychological goals which may convey signals of victory in war, and also as demonstration to other elements like the militants and insurgents. The occupation of symbolic places or territory would be a prime target in such cases. Such signals by the occupying force may also be meant entirely for domestic audience.
The international community, especially the Organisation of Economically Developed Countries (OECD) countries have been projecting South Asia as a nuclear flash-point. It is generally believed that the international community would adopt an activist position in case of a war in this region and try to put pressure for controlling and terminating it. By the same logic, the UN becomes an active agency in trying to limit the war as indeed it did in 1965 and 1971. Similarly, lack of support or even sanctions and other punitive actions by the great powers (as happened in 1965, equating the aggressor and the victim) could be a significant factor in imposing limitations on a war.
Economic factors are likely to constitute a major factor in placing limitations on a war because they play a major role in the building of capabilities. Restrictions on funds for defence would lead to lowered preparedness which in turn would result in limiting the ability of the country to apply military power. In fact, adequate military power may simply not be there if un-preparedness has become endemic. The constraints that our army faced in 1962 is but one example. It can also be argued that Pakistan Air Force was forced to stay out of harm's way during the Kargil War since it had failed to keep up its modernisation owing to a of reducing defence budget since the early 1990s. This situation had been forced on Pakistan because of the economic mess that the country's leaders had placed it in.
Human resources can place severe limitations on a country's ability to prosecute a war. Perhaps the most important of these is the question of casualties in war, both, one's own as well as that of the adversary, not to talk of collateral ones. Most democracies are increasingly sensitive about casualties in war, and India is no exception. This can place a severe limitation on the way a war has to be fought.
There are a number of military imperatives that define the limitations on war. These are briefly discussed in the succeeding paragraphs.
The most important limitation on war is due to the presence and impact of nuclear weapons in the environment where military power is sought to be applied. The scale and nature of destruction caused by nuclear weapons, and the reality that there is not credible defence against such weapons creates conditions where either the likely use of such weapons is controlled (and, ideally, eliminated) or the countries concerned risk a nuclear holocaust. In a situation of nuclear asymmetry, of course, the imbalance in this capability would almost completely constrain the non-nuclear state from fighting a nuclear-armed one. The degree to which this factor affects two nuclear armed states is dictated by:
A number of factors now impinge on the employment of military for political purposes. The most important of these is the limitation that military power itself has to face and hence the political goals have to be tailored to such limits. The main imperatives affecting military power may be summed up as follows:
The issue of defining victory in a limited war poses unique challenges. By the very definition, another country cannot be captured. Nor would it be possible to destroy the military power of the adversary in its totality in a limited war as noted earlier. Hence, the historical concept of victory would not apply in the case of limited wars. How shall we then seek victory in such wars? Since only a part of the military power of a country would be applied in a limited war, the question of annihilation of the adversary does not constitute an option unless war is expanded to a full-scale conflict. It needs to be remembered that any expansion of a limited war, for whatever reasons, closer to a full-scale war also shifts it closer to the nuclear threshold
A limited war is more likely to result in a standoff or stalemate between two warring states since the level of destruction itself has to be carefully controlled. Clausewitz' dictum of targeting the will of the nation and destruction of its military power, therefore, can be fulfilled only partially. This is also a reason for some countries seeking to conduct an asymmetric war by using the weapon of terror. 6 The problem is that as war starts to move down the intensity spectrum, victory and defeat shift more into political and psychological dimensions. And, between a bigger country and a smaller country, a standoff in a limited war is likely to create the image of the smaller country having won. And, perceptions are as important as reality. The Sino-Vietnam War is an example. A bigger country, on the other hand, must be seen to unambiguously defeat the smaller country to obtain the conclusion of victory. Thus it becomes important to find ways and means to ensure the type of dominance in limited war that would qualify as victory.
The foregoing discussion would lead to the conclusion that the importance of the strategic (politico-military) doctrine is much higher in the case of limited wars than those that are full-scale, leave alone total wars.
The central driving force for planning for defence, whether articulated in specific documentation or not, remains the strategic doctrine for defence that a country adopts. The world at large, and India in particular, is already in the midst of a major revolution - that of rising expectations, aggravated by the information revolution where the increasing gap between expectations (and aspirations) and satisfaction (and actuality) constitutes the biggest factor of instability. India's primary strategic priority and goal must continue to remain the rapid and well-managed socio-economic development. This requires a stable and durable environment of peace and security at global, regional, national, and societal levels. The strategic doctrine for national security will naturally have to be anchored in this framework.
The twin goals of credible and affordable defence capability really grow out of the national strategic doctrine. But we have not clearly articulated our strategic doctrine so far, even 52 years after independence. The Estimates Committee of the parliament had expressed its unhappiness at the absence of a clearly spelt out doctrine for India's defence. 7 Subsequent examination by the Standing Committee of Defence of the parliament had also been critical of this shortcoming. 8 The broad guidelines for defence planning, in fact, raise more questions than they answer. 9 In the absence of a well established doctrine, there is a strong tendency to simply keep on building on the existing force levels and structures in what can only be described as an add-on strategy. Inevitably, such an approach also tends to be highly reactive to changes in the security environment and the potential adversary's force postures. An overall defensive philosophy only tends to reinforce this reactive characteristic. This would create serious handicaps in a limited war.
Lack of articulation of the strategic doctrine operates against the building and sustaining of a national consensus on defence policies. This might have worked earlier because the looming threats, comparatively easily perceived, during the first three decades of our independent existence created their own dynamics of consensus. The Cold War itself permitted a high level of autonomy and flexibility. Our own security could be structured on the basis of the certainty and predictability inherent in the Cold War dynamics. Even more important, we had access to sources of military equipment and technology at (political and economic) costs that were affordable. This had resulted in an average of 3.1 percent of the national GDP being devoted to defence during the quarter century since 1962. The parameters governing these factors have altered in fundamental ways; and this itself requires a close scrutiny of the strategic doctrine, especially for the future.
India's primary strategic objective, of necessity, must continuously seek durable peace and security so that socio-economic growth and development can be pursued without adverse impulses. The prevention of war and removal of the threat of war become important constituents in such a strategic framework. This would necessitate measures that not only reduce the risk of war and conflict, but in reality include even attempts to understand and reduce the threat perceptions of potential adversaries. In essence, there is a fundamental need to move from the classical paradigm of competitive security towards a co-operative model of inter-state security. 10 Necessary precautions would, obviously, have to remain in place to cater for a potential adversary pursuing its own objectives and strategies. Thus deterrence would have to be a central factor in the doctrine, while détente (at the ideal level) and strategic stability (as the optimum framework) are pursued vigorously in a sustained way. The strategic doctrine should be able to synthesise these two divergent, and even conflicting, demands on national strategy formulation.
It is not necessary in the present study to go into a detailed examination of the issues involved. Suffice it to say that two broad alternative doctrines could be adopted in the context of our fundamental strategic and national interests:
A strategic doctrine along one of the above lines, (or for that matter any other doctrine) also needs to be supported by an appropriate strategy-political, techno-economic, and military, to achieve the objectives flowing out of the strategic doctrine. The important thing is that the national strategy must seek to expand future options, retain a high level of flexibility for future needs and contingencies, and remain affordable and cost-effective. Even a cursory examination would reveal that we need, at the very earliest, to move from the existing reactive, add-on, strategy to a choice based strategy that looks at alternatives.
Between the above two options, the latter doctrine (of war prevention) will serve our basic national interests much better. In fact, India had practically, if not formally, adopted the doctrine of war prevention from the very beginning. The holding back of military force during the 1947-48 conflict, the Panchsheel agreement of 1954, the Tashkent Declaration of 1966, the Simla Agreement of 1972, etc., are all evidence of attempts to apply the war prevention doctrine. But its most visible manifestation came in early 1990 when a resolute policy was put into practice to ensure that the escalating irregular proxy war in Jammu and Kashmir, besides the sustained one in Punjab, would not erupt into a regular war as indeed did happen in 1947, 1965, and (with some changes) in 1971. 11
Deterrence will remain more critical in the conventional dimension in any war prevention strategy, although deterrence in the nuclear arena will inevitably possess a more apocalyptic dimension. Deterrence will require a capability that is qualitatively and quantitatively superior to that of our likely adversaries. But in the context of affordability it is necessary to note that India maintained a level of spending at an average of 3.1 per cent of the GDP for nearly thirty years. During these decades, India's economic growth and human development indices kept improving steadily, even if not so dramatically. This level of spending also provided a capability which provided military victories in 1965 as well as the one which was almost dramatic, in 1971. But above all, this capability provided the deterrence against foreign adventure, and the visible effect has been that unlike the earlier era, no war has been launched on us since 1965. This is the practical demonstration of success of deterrence over three decades with a 3.1 per cent investment of the GDP in defence.
It is possible to hypothesise, therefore, that an investment of this order will continue to be affordable for us into the 21st century. The question that we also need to consider is whether this level will be adequate, more or less, for a credible capability in relation to the environment that it seeks to secure the country against. The major factors that had kept the costs of defence low were:
However, all these factors have undergone drastic changes in the recent years. At the same time the defence capability must now take into account the implications of Pakistan having acquired nuclear weapons since 1987 thus adding to the nuclearisation since 1964 when China went nuclear. At one level, the issue of nuclear deterrence has to be addressed. But the nuclearisation has also imposed the imperatives of limited war on the conventional scenario which was not a factor earlier, at least, in respect of Pakistan. China's defence modernisation programme is opening options for it in the conventional field that were not really available as the Sino-Vietnam war and the 1986-87 Sumdurong Chu incidents showed. In addition, the recession and retrenchment in global defence industry is now raising the costs of weapons and equipment. Although a higher level would be affordable in economic terms, politically it may be difficult to achieve in spite of the parliament's Standing Committee of Defence having recommended increasing the defence budget to four per cent of the GDP. 12 Thus around 3.1 per cent of the GDP might be a reasonable planning figure.
The conclusion is inevitable that if India has to maintain a credible and affordable defence capability, some fundamental decisions are required to be taken. The longer it takes to come to grips with the issues involved the more difficult and costly will the decisions be. On the other hand, the changes taking place also offer an opportunity to make some fundamental changes so that we have a more affordable and credible defence capability to meet future challenges.
Defence through Deterrence
The strategic priority and core security interest of India will continue to remain the prevention of war. As it is, the probability of war in the foreseeable future is low. But if it does take place, its impact is likely to be far greater than that of earlier wars. It also needs to be noted that the next war, if and when it takes place, is most likely to be a limited war because of the nuclear factor operating in relation to both our major neighbours. Deterrence would play a major role in preventing war as well as fighting a limited war.
Deterrence may be achieved by denial or through punishment (or a combination of both). All components of military power are capable of providing deterrence through denial, especially if close co-ordination between the three services is achieved. However, it is in the punishment dimension that the individual components of military power start to have different capabilities and roles.
The land forces are simply irreplaceable in terms of deterrence by denial. But they have very little capability to provide deterrence through punishment except through destruction of the adversary's land forces. But in a limited war such a situation may not be possible without the risk of escalation across the nuclear threshold. This also raises the question of escalation control which is so critical in a limited war between countries possessing nuclear weapons. Once engaged in combat, land forces cannot be disengaged unless one side or the other concedes defeat, or a cease-fire is agreed upon. Consequently, escalation control is poor where land forces are employed.
In our context, we also need to consider the scenario where land forces strike inside the territory of the adversary after deterrence has failed and war has been initiated. There would be a high risk of a threat of escalation across the nuclear threshold if a deeper strike takes place although the actual depth for that threshold would be a function of the importance of the area where the intrusion was taking place. The threshold in barren desert area would naturally be higher than, say, populated areas of Punjab. The issue that defence planners will have to come to terms with is the actual scenario where if a nuclear threat is held out it should be treated as credible.
On the other hand, naval forces would provide a balanced set of capabilities for deterrence both by denial as well as by punishment. Similarly, naval forces possess a significant capability in terms of escalation control. This attribute, in fact, had been invaluable in the "gun-boat diplomacy." The ability to engage and disengage at will had provided naval power the ability to select the place and time of benefit to it for waging war, and this was a major factor in ensuring that the most successful colonial powers were, in fact, maritime states. But naval forces are restricted to the maritime environment which may not be of direct value in dealing with a war, say, in the high Himalayas. This limits the scope of utility of naval power for deterrence.
Air power, especially combat air power, intrinsically possesses attributes which provide it with deterrence through denial as well as punishment. Aircrafts can fly across national boundaries and geographical barriers to hit targets deep inside hostile territory. Highly calibrated escalation as well as disengagement control is possible with the use of air power. This would be a great asset in a limited war.
Hypothetically, what might have been our choices if the Indian Army had not been able to take the key heights in the Kargil War by end-June of 1999? Our tactical situation would have been extremely difficult and embarrassing to say the least. The question that must be considered here is: what would our options under these circumstances be, and what would be the implications of those options? The following theoretical scenarios would have had to be considered:
Surprise and Response
One of the most important characteristics of limited war is the factor of surprise since its achievement could make a material difference to the outcome of the war. Land forces have intrinsic friction which results in a greater time for response with requisite firepower. This could be crucial in limited war, forcing a possible escalation with its consequent implications. However, air power has the attributes to respond rapidly with firepower and mobility to cope with almost all situations where the adversary may have achieved strategic or tactical surprise. But, it is equally important to ensure that air power is suitably geared for such tasks.
In conclusion, therefore, the deterrence attributes of the components of military power especially in the context of limited war may be summed up as follows:
|Service||Deterrence by Denial||Deterrence by Punishment|
Conventional Deterrence and Force Modernisation
Conventional deterrence, relegated by the nuclear weapons states in pursuit of their nuclear theology, has continued to play a crucial role in modern times. 13 Global trend indicates that most countries will increasingly seek to avoid war as we have seen it; and deterrence that rests on accurate long range strike capabilities, whether conventional and/or nuclear armed will be a key factor in war prevention. At the same time, the preferred method of employing military power for political purpose will centre on the use of force that does not lead to continued armed conflict. This, coincidentally, requires similar capabilities: high-technology long-range "surgical" accurate strikes, which are best undertaken by (and in many cases, only by) air power and naval forces. The very nature of such capabilities is such that defence against them will need to rely on similar capabilities for deterrence in future. Strategically, air power will assume increasing importance in the coming years, especially in limited conventional wars. During the Cold War, air power was the primary vehicle for strategic nuclear deterrence to avert war. In the years ahead, air (and missile) power will be the central tool for conventional deterrence, as well as controlled punitive strikes for coercive diplomacy. Naval power in this regard, would play a close second.
It is, therefore, not surprising that Asian countries from Israel to Japan are already placing greater emphasis on stronger air forces (including missile capabilities) and naval forces. China's military modernisation and arms acquisition programme relies heavily on upgrading its air and naval capabilities, besides long-range nuclear delivery systems. Given the nature of its relationship with China, Pakistan will receive the spin-off benefits of this modernisation in terms mostly of air power capabilities in the coming decade. In spite of a substantive cut back in defence posture worldwide, the US decided to create a new naval fleet (with powerful integral combat air power) after the end of the Cold War. In the process, power projection dynamics are changing from the traditional means and goals related to territorial wars to functional power projection with capabilities that can strike accurately at long distances, even if staying power remains limited. Sensor technologies provide an important additional dimension in enhancing reconnaissance, surveillance, and target acquisition capabilities while precision guidance of striking power adds greater accuracy and lethality at long ranges.
Note 1: Brig. SK Malik, The Quranic Concept of War, (Lahore: WajidAlis, 1979), with a foreward by General Zia ul-Haq, then Chief Martial Law Administrator strongly recommending the interpretation. Back.
Note 4: Organised and controlled by intelligence agencies (like CIA and ISI) or groups created for this purpose.
Note 5: For example, Mujahideen groups aided and abetted by intelligence agencies.
Note 6: This is the central theme of the interpretation of the Holy Quran by Brigadier SK Malik of Pakistan Army (see note above) where the use of terror as a weapon and making war total are deeply linked. Back.
Note 10: For a conceptual analysis and principles of co-operative security, see Jasjit Singh, " Co-operative Security: Paradigm Change for International Peace and Security in the 21st Century", paper presented at CSCAP Workshop on Comprehensive Security, Kuala Lumpur, August 28-29, 1995. Back.