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Napoleon is rumoured to have advised that nations must learn to ignore the pinpricks of war if they were to avoid the cannon shots there were sure to follow, but the Emperor had no answer to Fourth Generation Warfare either, nor did he know of nuclear deterrence. In the realm of tactics more than strategy, 4GW has been used fairly adeptly in recent years by terrorist groups and rogue states against militarily superior opponents. In Kashmir, where India and Pakistan stand nuclear eyeball to nuclear eyeball in some of the most inhospitable terrain in the world, these unconventional tactics combined with geography, weather, and the fear of nuclear escalation has been enervating India for the past three decades in what feels like a death by a thousand cuts.

On January 8, the Indian Army reported the beheading of one soldier and the mutilation of another (later denied) in the Mendhar sector of Jammu & Kashmir, a good 500 to 600 metres inside the Indian side of the Line of Control. To be fair, this is hardly a one-sided story, but the level of brutality from across the border – and its regularity – has created a micro-storm among some circles. Unfortunately, the usual din of ignorant jingoism, vacuous pacifism, and banal statements from Raisina Hill have predictably scuttled any intelligent discussion of border security.

The constant harassment by Pakistan from behind a nuclear shield has left Indian planners struggling for a response. A military response is feared for the escalation to nuclear retaliation it may provoke, and yet, Delhi’s indecision has only created more mourning families in India. It is beyond the scope of this post to consider a full spectrum of responses – political, economic, social, military, and covert – India has at its disposal. While all options must work simultaneously in their operative domains, the military option needs to be the focus on the border. This is not to advocate punitive military thrusts into enemy territory to destroy the terrorist infrastructure – Delhi’s hesitation to decapitate Pakistan’s nascent nuclear programme in the early 1980s has severely circumscribed its options. Although larger military operations must also be planned and trained for, they are options of the last resort and there is ample choice before then.

Conventional warfare under the shadow of the mushroom cloud is a limited type of war – both sides must be mindful of the opponent’s nuclear red lines. The reason that the Inter Services Intelligence and the Pakistani Army is so successful at needling India is precisely because their strategy is predicated on small action, big impact. Retaliation with heavy artillery, let alone air strikes would not only appear overkill but may also trip the nuclear limit. The response must also be measured and low-key. There are two parts to this: possessing a stronger defensive lines (to raise the enemy’s cost of raids into India), and the ability to conduct punishing raids with more ease.

The fundamental problem with the Indian Armed Forces is a lack of an esprit de corps. Administration after administration has demanded blood in exchange for insipid politics, uninspired leadership, corrupt procurement, and sub-standard equipment. Another problem is that the military is, at its core, a secretive organisation subject to limited oversight, and that too from political and bureaucratic masters of dubious competence. This makes them almost impervious to outside scrutiny and the imposition of efficiency and transparency from without.

Despite our claims of patriotism, the fact remains that Indian troops have made home of some very difficult terrain with sub-standard equipment. For example, defensive bunkers along the LoC have a prescribed quality of cement and thickness of bulletproof shields for their construction. However, many have been found with thinner shields and inferior construction material, making them more vulnerable to penetration and collapse due to enemy fire. Bulletproof vests provided them have often been found to provide insufficient cover (note the difference between this and this) and even defective; night vision equipment, jammers, and scanners are scarce, sometimes as few as three or four for a battalion, and when present, not always functional. Even beyond combat equipment, Indian soldiers regularly complain about leaky raincoats, uncomfortable boots that are not warm enough, and even poor-tasting meal rations.

The Indian Army’s troop rotation is not effective – units deployed in front line positions are, in theory, to be rotated with units in the rear to give soldiers a chance to recuperate and unwind from the stress of living in the enemy’s rifle scope. In practice, the use of the Army for domestic peacekeeping has meant little de-stressing as is evidenced from guns being turned on fellow soldiers occasionally. Even applying for leave is a convoluted process that is not devoid of inter-personal politics; unlike many armies that forge a feeling of unity among its soldiers, the burden of language and region still abounds in the Indian Armed Forces. Batmen – soldiers seconded to senior officers as aides – have often complained of being used as personal servants than as aides.

If India wants to have an effective response against constant Pakistani pinpricks, it must focus its energy on less glamorous issues such as logistics and morale before posturing over grand strategy. Though Indian mountain warfare training is supposed to be comparable to some of the world’s best, units must be supplied with sufficient quantities of good equipment. The concept of batmen must be abolished as it has been in the Air Force and the Navy, and proper attention needs to be paid to solving logistical problems. It is unbecoming for one of the world’s largest armies to station troops in difficult terrain for decades and all the while complain about conditions without doing much to ameliorate the circumstances. If metalled roads are difficult to maintain, perhaps rack-and-pinion railways might work; if high altitude restricts take off-loads, more flights and air lifts need to be scheduled. It is simply unacceptable as a long-term strategy to deploy soldiers into areas which cannot be sufficiently defended and supported.

Given the nuclear circumstances on the subcontinent, the only defence against pinpricks is a thimble and the ability to prick back. In the microcosm of a border post, staring across no-man’s-land at the enemy, it is not grand strategy that matters but logistics. New Delhi lacks coherent doctrines on a variety of topics, and it is no surprise that it is flummoxed on the problem of cross-border raids, be it by Pakistani regulars or irregulars. While politicians work up the nerve to address the Pakistani contagion, a little attention to logistics might just keep a few more of our boys alive.

This post appeared on Tehelka Blogs on January 11, 2013.