That India faces a two-front war is now a well-established description of her threat perception. To contest or defeat this threat, military thinkers and strategists have enunciated a broad military strategy against both the adversaries- Credible Deterrence against China on our northern borders and Punitive Deterrence against Pakistan on our Western borders. To the uninitiated, it would be important to define Deterrence and these two deterrent strategies before unfurling the rest of the paper.
Deterrence is defined as the action of discouraging an action or event by instilling doubt or fear of consequence by the deterring power to the deterred power. This threat of reprisal or dissuasion by the deterring power can be too costly for the adversary or its outcomes are unlikely to result in any significant advantage or benefit to the adversary being deterred. It’s also important to understand the difference between deterrence and compellence. While deterrence is the threat to use force, compellence is about the actual use of force.
Deterrence is usually of two types – Deterrence by Punishment and Deterrence by Denial. Deterrence-by-denial relies on convincing the opponent that it is unlikely to attain its immediate objectives at a reasonable cost, whereas deterrence-by-punishment presents the threat of great harm which will be imposed after the opponent has engaged in unwanted behaviour.
This paper looks at Deterrence by Punishment as a successful method of forcing Pakistan to roll back its strategy of ‘death by a thousand cuts’, colloquially known as ‘jihad’ or freedom struggle for the support of Kashmiri independence. This strategy, authored by the radical Gen Mohammed Zia-ul-Haque, has been successful in dissuading and even deterring India from launching a conventional attack on Pakistan by its ambiguous nuclear policy which eschews No First Use (NFU) while professing the use of Tactical Nuclear Weapons (TNWs) to deter India. This worked till India decided to call the bluff post-Uri in 2016 and then Balakote in 2019.
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Learning from Balakote
The Indian resolve to compel Pakistan to review its policy of supporting terrorism in the Union Territory of Jammu & Kashmir (UT of J&K) was evident in the predawn attack on Pakistan-based terror camps in Balakote on 26 March 2019. The significance of the second offensive across the Line of Control after a successful ‘surgical strike’ by Indian commandos in 2016 was not lost to Pakistan. The Balakote strike, well inside Pakistan sovereign territory, as opposed to disputed Pakistan, Occupied Kashmir (POK) was a clear message that India was no longer deterred by the threat of Pakistan’s TNWs or its ambiguous nuclear policy. It also demonstrated Indian resolve to call out Pakistan’s bluff despite being a known nuclear power.
But aside from the use of airpower, a big takeaway from Balakote was the capability to punish Pakistan by fire. Hither-to-fore the LC has been hammered by tit-for-tat artillery duels over decades, with no permanent settlement except claims of moral domination by the armies and casualties to settled populations in the proximity of the LC. After Balakote, India has crossed the Rubicon and that envelope has been exceeded.
The Role of Long-Range Vectors (LRVS)
Pakistan lacks strategic depth. Its geography places it at a disadvantage with its East to West depth varying from 200 km in POK to about 600 km at the maximum in the Desert sector of Rajasthan. In the areas of POK, particularly opposite the Kashmir valley, the depth affords the use of Long-Range vectors as low-cost, effective, and precision instruments of force. LRVs are of two types, missiles, and rockets. While missiles are extremely accurate and carry varying payloads from 500kg to 1000kg of TNT, their employment signals a significant escalation and will of the user to raise the bar in the escalation ladder.
Missiles also afford deniability, often concealing their point of origin, but significantly enhance the risk of miscalculation. Their employment could compel the adversary to respond in equal measure thereby lowering the threshold of escalation to all-out or even nuclear war, a scenario which could result in catastrophic consequences for both nuclear-armed powers.
Rockets, on the other hand, are conventional weapons of modern artilleries, which are area target weapons with the capability to saturate and cause destruction over large swathes of land. They are cheaper, easy to produce, and cause immense damage to men and materials. Most importantly, being conventional artillery weapons, they indicate a lower level of escalation in a confrontation between adversaries.
Rocket Technology has seen a leap in accuracy and range since it first came into service in large numbers in World War II. The modern Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) is a highly mobile, vehicle (tracked or wheeled) based system with sophisticated, self-loading, and self-aiming systems that are controlled by fire control computers making the entire weapon system fully automated. The deterrence value lies in its range. Modern MLRS have ranged from 20-300 km. This long-range option has the ability to threaten large targets over extended ranges without raising the ante or escalation beyond normal artillery duels. More importantly, its range and devastating capability can deter an adversary by fire.
LRVs vs Air Power
Let’s analyse the Balakote strike from a cost-benefit angle. Balakote was approximately 70 km inside Pak territory and beyond the boundaries of POK. The use of 16 combat aircraft(each Mirage 2000 cost approximately Rs 195 Cr plus Rs 167 Cr as an upgrade) plus the Spice 2000 bombs and Crystal Maze missiles could conservatively put the cost of the package at approximately Rs 6000 Cr not counting the incalculable cost of lives of the pilots. Aside from the package, there were other AWACs and support aircraft in the air to cater for any Pak Air Force retaliation.
On the other hand, the cost of an attack by LRVs would make an interesting comparison. The indigenously made Pinaka MLRS has a range of 75 km and one launcher fires 12 x 214mm rockets in one salvo in 44 seconds. The cost of one Pinaka launcher is approximately Rs 22-23 Cr and one battery of six launchers can neutralize an area target one km by one km.
Thus, it would be fair to assume that the terror camp at Balakote could have been destroyed by one salvo of 72 rockets with the entire package costing approximately 200 Cr including the cost of the rockets. Even if a second salvo was fired, the cost escalation at the extreme would be 270-275 Cr, assuming the cost of one rocket to be 1 Cr. Thus, an LRV attack by fire would risk a fraction of the cost as compared to an attack by air.
Military thinkers may argue that the use of airpower sends a powerful message, and its employment signals an intent to escalate. While there is merit in this argument, the response by the Pak Air Force almost immediately put the onus of escalation back into the hands of India. It is not the intention here to argue the events that unfolded in this incident, but it may be prudent to look at the merits of deterrence by fire employing LRVs, especially rockets.
Third Move Advantage
In the case of Pakistan, its rocket inventory is poor and the total holding of LRVs is an abysmal 36 Chinese made A 100 Rocket launchers. One launcher fires 10x300mm rockets to a max range of 100kms. These are deployed as MBRL Batteries in the Pak Army and one Corps is likely to have one MBRL Battery of six launchers. Therefore, in terms of numbers, scale, and cost, the Pak Army is still woefully inadequate in its rocket arsenal.
The biggest advantage that LRVs afford is to keep the level of escalation low and restricted to the domain of an extended artillery duel. This provides the initiator the third move advantage in the escalation ladder. It is an established fact that Pakistan will retaliate, as it did in Balakote, to ensure parity in effects. But seldom, if never, has the escalation crossed beyond the tit- for- tat into the third move. A third move signals a clear and unambiguous intent to escalate. In the event of an LRV rocket attack, India would still retain the third move advantage of employing missiles and air should Pakistan respond to a punitive attack on a terror camp in the future.
Aside from this LRVs also have a devastating impact at the target end. With multiple types of warheads, LRVs are an ideal media weapon as the sound and effect of TNT leaves little to imagination sending an effective and impactful message to the adversary. In the case of Balakote, while the IAF achieved its aim with impunity, the lack of PSDA was played up by DGISPR to obfuscate the entire strike.
Finally, modern LRVs like the Chinese PHL-03 (300kms range) or the US M-142 HIMARS (300km range) are redefining the modern battlefield. As wars are increasingly getting localized and restricted in space and time, costly tactical missile systems with lesser ranges (100-290 km) are losing favour. LRVs are prying open the conventional battlespace and causing a dilemma to nations like Pakistan and North Korea which depend on a military strategy of lowering nuclear thresholds and the threat of TNWs and nuclear weapons to deter their adversaries.
The arrival of LRVs and their enhanced ranges, precision, and automation is increasingly becoming the weapon of choice of modern militaries. In the Indian context, aside from missiles, LRVs are an ideal weapon system to successfully deter a two-front war.
It is time to look at LRVS as the future deterrent against both adversaries.
Courtesy: Maj Gen Mandip Singh, SM, VSM (Retd)