National security: Strategic deterrence in the Indian context (Part II of two-part series)

Our goal is to achieve punitive and credible deterrence capability against Pakistan and China respectively. While it will be a challenge, India has the capabilities and capacities to fight a two-front war and ensuring a stalemate, which will be a strategic victory, with grave consequences to the aggressors, writes Lt Gen P R Kumar (retd)  for South Asia Monitor 

Lt Gen P R Kumar (retd) Aug 03, 2020

‘You can distill deterrence down to two factors: capability and will,” Chris Gibson, a US combat veteran, politician, and author.In Part I (that ran on SAM on July 27) we saw the enduring and timeless nature of deterrence as a state policy, as also the changes in scope, dimensions, and domains, where deterrence is more effective at the strategic and existential level rather than at a tactical level. Some nations led by statesmen/strong leaders have always been ingenious and creative enough to gain their objectives by operating below the red lines of the adversary’s deterrent action. 

In Part II, we will examine the contours and strategic compulsions of deterrence as applicable to India.

Nations have their vision and aspirations and want to find their legitimate place amongst the comity of nations. India the ancient, proud civilization too aspires for the same and destined by its geography, size, population, resources, and history to be a great power in the world order, for which deterrence is an essential ingredient. While we understand the universal dictum of the British statesman, who served twice as prime minister in the mid-19th century, Lord Palmerston (John Henry Temple) “in international relations, there are no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests” it is also no secret that our adversaries in the near future is collusive China and Pakistan.  

China’s concept of local wars under modern high technology conditions envision “a localized, short duration and high-intensity conflict using technologically advanced weapons for both conventional and asymmetric combat, including the much-hyped ‘three warfare’s’ strategy of media, psychological and legal. Pakistan leaders feel that, ‘one way to prevent the early use of nuclear weapons is for a conventional capability (they feel tactical nuclear weapons are conventional) to be good enough to deny the adversary valuable strategic assets and maintain a stalemate for a reasonable time, assuming that the conventional pause would give the parties at war and the international community enough time to defuse tensions and negotiate peace.’ Adequate space, thus, exists for a limited conventional war in the India-China-Pakistan (all three nuclear weapon states) context. The world’s first limited conventional conflict between two overt nuclear powers – USSR and China took place in 1969. This conflict could have led to the use of nuclear weapons, but after two weeks of clashes, the conflict petered out. The Kargil war of 1999 between India and Pakistan demonstrated the application of the limited war between two nuclear power countries wherein India evicted Pakistani intrusions exercising strategic military restraint.

Deterrent determinants

Glen Snyder, an important scholar of international relations theory and security studies, who was professor emeritus of political science at the University of North Carolina, US has explained that “power values are of three major kinds: strategic, deterrent and political; strategic value is a function of the war-making potential; deterrent value is an attribute primarily of the act of responding to aggression, and political value is the effect of a response, and of its direct consequences, on the alignment or attitudes of adversaries”. It implies that power values are extrinsic and their value lies in their contribution to intrinsic values. Deterrent value amounts to establishing and maintaining a reputation. Extrapolating these values, the various determinants in the Indian context can be clubbed as follows:- 

 *Strategic value determinants include geography, economic strength, population, natural resources, and strategic culture. 

 *Deterrent value determinants comprise nuclear, military and technological capability. 

 *Political value determinants comprise foreign policy and diplomacy including international alliances/partnerships, leadership, smart power, and Indian diaspora. 

Threat assessment and concomitant deterrence

It is quite obvious that India’s power values (CNP) are on the ascendant and all three values will accelerate post-COVID-19, and based on our firm and resolute response to China’s current aggressive posturing and deployment along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Naturally, India needs to build deterrence capabilities commensurate to its stature in Asia and the World, especially against known and envisaged threats, including the low probability of facing a two-front challenge. Probability of China using the maritime zone in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) or even using territories of our immediate neighbours cannot be ruled out. Here, to our deterrent potency will come into play based on which our attackers and other neighbours will respond. Our strategic balancing with the rest of the world by bilateral and multilateral alliances/partnerships with the US, Russia, Australia, Japan in multi-domain verticals (political, diplomatic, economic, trade, HADR and importantly military) will impact the adversary decision-makers’ perception and political will; the potentially long-lasting, harmful post-conflict multi-domain effects of taking on India. Allied and partner contributions to the joint fight are significant. For example, in the case of an all-out war, the US, Japan, and Australia could provide India peripheral security, fly additional combat and support sorties, supplement naval presence, stage forward specialized special and manoeuver forces, provide surge logistics capability including the supply of critical and destructive weapon and munitions systems, supplement ISR inputs, to name just a few.

They could, however, stay short of providing ‘kinetic support’. These actions contribute significantly to deterrence, force protection, and overall operational success. Even when the military the intervention of any of our strategic partners including the US is very tenuous at best, we must realise the unique potency of US and allies combined global strike capabilities: their nuclear and armed forces contribute uniquely and fundamentally to deterrence, through their ability to threaten to impose costs and deny benefits to an adversary in an exceedingly rapid and devastating manner (the practice of imposing trade sanctions if the adversary does not cooperate is a deterrent operation that has met with mixed success). Reacting to recent Chinese aggression along our LAC, actions of the US to deploy two aircraft carrier groups in the South China Sea, and thinning of troops from the Philippines ostensibly to be employed elsewhere (India), and statement of kinetic support emanating from the White House is significant. Many other countries have openly supported India like Australia, France, Germany. The above is a clear manifestation of Indian deterrence capabilities using all three determinants stated above. China and Russia possess such strike capabilities and even the US feels threatened and insecure. Knowing our main adversaries, they can and will operate with and through proxies, and attempt to achieve their strategic and operational goals below the threshold of armed conflict. 

Security threat for India

India faces the full spectrum of security threats across domains; proxy, hybrid, sub-conventional or low-intensity conflict (LIC), 4G, conventional (localized to full), nuclear including the newer domains of space, cyber, water, resources (entire gamut), especially from collusive and collaborative partners China and Pakistan, with some other neighbouring nations joining in. We have a rather tenuous cease-fire agreement with Pakistan from November 2003 (renewed in 2018) which in the last five years has been broken more often than not. That Pakistan is conducting a state-sponsored proxy war since the late 80s is now internationally accepted. Pakistan’s strategic aim is to carry out destabilising activities in India is short of war. Pakistan controls the violence levels in Jammu and Kashmir and mixes it with agitational tactics and exploitative socio-political maneuverings. Pakistan's acts of terrorism have spread pan India. From a policy of strategic restraint, India is beginning to propagate and practice a more aggressive strategy to raise the cost for Pakistan. Pakistan has a (some say deliberately ambiguous and irrational) undeclared nuclear policy aimed specifically at India, with the fastest-growing insecure, nuclear arsenal and is developing tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) to close the conventional war space with India, as per its perception. Pakistan's nuclear architecture is aimed at providing full-spectrum deterrence and prevent second-strike capability to India. We need to ask ourselves, ‘will war stop Pakistan from continuing proxy war and make a weak Pakistan both militarily and economically a more dangerous neighbour than before the war’. The now permanent, strategic collusive with China has brought in a whole new equation, with much more expanded assistance in multi-domain expected from China in case of an Indo-Pak war. 

A worrying aspect is an increasing degree of inter-operability between China and Pakistan in soft and hard power (military and non-military) spheres that are being generated. This will be played out in any future conflict. The equations are changing. Even if China does not intervene militarily, unlike the earlier four wars China will carry out more focussed, effective but non-military MDW, and mobilise her forces (simulate/indulge in some border activities) along the LAC along with its PLAAF (PLA Air Force) and PLAN (PLA Navy), preventing our repositioning of forces (Army and Navy) from the northern to the western borders, diluting our offensive capacity and capability prohibitively. We should be wary of the China-Russia strategic and security partnership mainly to counter the US and its western allies. On top of the strategic encirclement (both continental and maritime) of India by China, Russia is also increasing strategic mating with Pakistan, and the Russia-China-Pakistan triangle is getting involved exclusively (except for Iran) with Afghanistan. While India enjoys a special relationship with Russia, the faltering USA, and rising China, coupled with few immediate neighbours like Nepal, Myanmar toeing the Chinese line, create a clear and present danger and serious strategic and security ramifications for India. 

The Indian political and military leadership carries out regular net assessment exercises regarding potential adversaries, and constantly review the deterrent capabilities which need to be put in place against potential adversaries especially against a probably the two-and-a half-front threat against a collusive China-Pakistan. For a likely scenario for a two-and-a-half front war read the links given in the end-notes. 

In relation to Pakistan, we face a peculiar problem of whom to deter! If Pakistan suffers significant conventional losses or loss of territory, they may assess that escalating the conflict by employing weapons of mass destruction, could recapture the initiative or drive policymakers to the negotiation table to end the conflict on more favourable terms. Pakistan may also use tactical nuclear weapons if presented an appropriate target contributing to the attainment of op or strategic objectives. This brings us to the strategic nuclear dilemma (faced by the major powers against each other like the US, China, and Russia) that India should not risk escalation for Pakistan to reach a perceived “use it or lose it” situation. India, therefore, must conduct a very effective influence campaign against Pakistan and to the world, about the dangers of employing WMD, minimise vulnerabilities and demonstrate the ability to continue operations if attacked. If deterrence fails to preclude a tactical weapon of mass destruction or disruption attack, our influence operations must ensure the isolation of Pakistan internationally and regionally. The option of exercising our stated nuclear policy is constant. When it comes to non-state actors and terrorist organisations, it’s a different ball game. They differ in their susceptibility to our efforts to credibly threaten cost imposition. They have different goals/objectives, different values, and they employ different means to achieve them. Since India does not believe in using a hammer to kill a fly which is why planning and preparing for deterrence operations against specific targets (nation, non-state actors like corporates, agencies, terrorist organisations, or even individuals) is important. A terrorist organisation relies on the following for its survival; organisation’s leadership strata and commander; its military capability for carrying out terrorist attacks; its economic and financial support base; and the network of alliances with other organisations and states that provide support in the form of arms and financing. India must achieve deterrence by demonstrating our will to use military force to inflict damage on these assets. Our army has identified the same, and turned pro-active, but been only partially successful in following this deterrence concept in entirety.

China is a past master and strong advocate of ‘unrestricted warfare’ in which deterrence forms a key component, and Beijing is currently engaging India in competition 24X7 to ensure our CNP, strategic growth and space remain confined and restricted. In addition, China is increasingly discarding the rules-based international system, and conventional defined norms of international behaviour and its opaque strategic thinking and decision making make deterrence more difficult. Recently President Xi Jinping asked the PLA to prepare for war, and if China sees its rise plateauing or starting to decline, it might strike rather than wait. These proclamations should be taken very seriously by our leaders, and deterrence measures must be planned and put in place both military and non-military. While focussing on China and Pakistan we must not ignore other nations (friends or adversaries alike) and also address non-state actors on equal priority. 

Nuclear deterrence

Both China and India has been responsible, mature nuclear powers and both proclaim a no first use (NFU) policy. Recently, there are a plethora of articles emerging from China (official and unofficial), questioning NFU, or providing different interpretations, creating a sense of ambiguity. As an emerging nuclear power that is still striving to attain a robust second-strike capability, India needs to act expeditiously as we are dangerously behind the big three (US, China, Russia) in research and development and application of niche technologies. Our nuclear policy (NFU, massive retaliation if attacked by NBCW) has stood the test of time. There is talk of urgent review which may not be a bad idea for creating ambiguity, but ‘there is nothing in the present doctrine that prevents India from responding to a nuclear attack.

Main ingredients of India’s military deterrent capability

We need to carry out a more realistic threat assessment of a probable two-and-a-half front conflict scenario, leading to ‘theatrisation’, and fresh realignment, redeployment and repositioning of forces, with a stronger bias towards our northern borders. This act, will in itself send a strong military and deterrent message and may prevent any misadventure, as also strengthen our defensive and offensive response. Other pivotal military deterrents would be a credible nuclear triad with second-strike capability (China has it and Pakistan claims full spectrum capability); strategic military/security alliances; capabilities of conventional ICBM/IRBM missile and rocket artillery; strategic lift; robust C5I2SRT (command, control, communications, computers, cyber, intelligence and information, surveillance, reconnaissance, and targeting); BMD (ballistic missile defence); domination of IOR; and limited offensive multi-domain capabilities to provide credible deterrence and punitive deterrence against China and Pakistan respectively.

Our goal is to achieve punitive and credible deterrence capability against Pakistan and China respectively. While it will be a challenge, India has the capabilities and capacities to fight a two-front war and ensuring a stalemate, which will be a strategic victory, with grave consequences to the aggressors. We have now entered the complex world of multi and cross-domain competition and deterrence which needs to be developed and synergised at the apex level; PM/PMO – Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) – NSA – Ministries – Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) - Service Chiefs and concerned agencies involved. At the military sphere, once the political directive (National Security Strategy) has been promulgated, strategic military deterrence will be planned and coordinated by the CDS and service chiefs, strategic at services headquarters, operational by theatre commanders. 

Deterrence building is happening independently and intrinsically by all domain holders but it needs to get institutionalised, especially the non-military domains. If the US intervention to retain global supremacy and protect a liberal rules-based world order is not considered hegemonistic, India too needs to think, prepare, plan and execute a strategy to dominate its area of influence and interest. Even if we develop adequate multi-domain deterrence capabilities, a key ingredient is - reputation (willingness to use deterrence arsenal including military, when nations sovereignty and integrity is challenged; a la Israel) to use it when national security is at stake. Admittedly our current deterrence value has not prevented nations from impinging on our security with tactical manoeuvers. I am sure we will show our steel when it comes to existential and strategic issues. 

This truly is a defining moment in India’s history where we face a direct threat from China and Pakistan and some neighbouring countries. This is the time to stand tall, proclaim our red lines and show credible intent, resolve and wherewithal to use our multi-domain deterrent capabilities especially the military to ensure that red lines stated (LAC positions as on Apr 2020) if crossed will be restored by all means at our disposal. Concurrently India needs to further build deterrence capabilities and our reputation, national resolve, and will to fight if necessary. In a sense ‘deterrence has become a victim of its own success’. India must rethink its deterrence strategy in changing the geo-political and strategic environments including the psychology of decision making. Even with diminishing returns enhanced multi-domain ‘deterrence’ becomes the first priority for India.  “I don’t believe in war, I believe in the principle of deterrence,” Bashar al-Assad, President of Syria.

(The writer, an Indian Army veteran, was Director-General of Military Operations. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at


Determinants of Deterrence in India, Chapter !, accessed on 07 Jun 20; Link -

US Field Manual: Deterrence Operations Joint Operating Concept, Version 2.0, Dec 2006

Lowy Institute, Australia, Power Index; Link-

South Asia Monitor "India must prepare for a multi-domain war"

South Asia Monitor, "India-China standoff: Need to be prepared for two-and-half front war (Part III of three-part series)"

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