Written by Arka Biswas.

Tensions along the Line of Control (LoC) between India and Pakistan have increased since the mutilated bodies of two Indian army soldiers were found on May 01, 2017. While Indian army officials blamed the Pakistani army for the inhumane act, the Pakistani army denied any role in it. Following the incident, the Indian army and government in New Delhi issued warnings that “appropriate” action would be taken against Pakistan, resulting in growing speculations of India conducting another surgical strike (following the first officially acknowledged series of such strikes conducted in September 2016). As the Pakistani army prepares its defenses against prospective surgical strikes, experts have warned against the risks that surgical strikes could escalate, leading to the collapse of nuclear deterrence in South Asia.

…surgical strikes strengthen deterrence-stability in South Asia

What were objectives with which India conducted surgical strikes last year and were those objectives met? On the other hand, how do these strikes affect nuclear deterrence and broader deterrence-stability between India and Pakistan? This essay studies the implications of surgical strikes on deterrence-stability in South Asia and on the resultant status-quo between India and Pakistan. It concludes that by not adversely affecting nuclear deterrence and by simultaneously re-balancing the resultant status-quo between India and Pakistan, surgical strikes strengthen deterrence-stability in South Asia.

Deterrence-Stability in South Asia

Proliferation pessimists and empirical analysts studying South Asia conclude that nuclear proliferation in South Asia is highly destabilizing with dangers of nuclear exchange and war being real. Noting Kashmir as the root of all issues, these experts argue that even a terrorist attack could spiral into a major war between the two South Asian neighbours with possibilities of nuclear exchange.

In the same vein, Paul Kapur argues that the presence of nuclear weapons has allowed Pakistan, a revisionist power vis-à-vis the Kashmir issue, to continue to prod India, a status-quo power, through use of terrorists as state proxies, secure in the knowledge that India will not retaliate. Kapur finds the resultant status-quo highly unstable, arguing that further prodding by Pakistan could indeed result in a military retaliation by India, with the risk of conflict escalating to an all-out nuclear war.

On the other hand, Sumit Ganguly, while agreeing that the resultant status-quo is in Pakistan’s favour, argues that India’s highly restrained behavior in the two conflicts with Pakistan in 1999 and 2001-02, post-overt nuclearisation, captures how the presence of nuclear weapons have diminished prospects of a major conventional war and nuclear exchange between the two.

Study of these assessments lead to two conclusions. First, nuclear deterrence has not collapsed in South Asia as yet. Second, the resultant status-quo is in Pakistan’s favour as it continues to prod India, while India struggles to develop a military strategy which allows it to militarily respond without the danger of the breakdown of nuclear deterrence. The future of deterrence-stability in South Asia thus rests on what India’s military response to Pakistan’s sub-conventional war would be and whether that could lead to the collapse of nuclear deterrence.

To understand how the Indian surgical strikes affect deterrence-stability and the resultant status-quo, it becomes important to understand the nature of these strikes, as conducted in September 2016, as well as the objectives with which India conducted these strikes.

Nature of Surgical Strikes and Impact on Deterrence-Stability

As per the press briefing of the then Indian Army’s Director General of Military Operation (DGMO), Ranbir Singh and detailed media reports, surgical strikes were conducted in the early morning of September 28, 2016. Details of operations suggest that these strikes were well below the level of a conventional conflict with no movement of the infantry and armoured divisions of the regular army – even below the levels of low-scale conventional attack conceived under the Indian Army’s Cold Start doctrine. These strikes, however, were conducted by personnel of the regular armed forces and were sanctioned by the Indian government, thus making them distinct from sub-conventional war – the latter usually involves use of non-state actors. These strikes therefore capture a new space of conflict. Even though similar strikes have reportedly been conducted by India in the past, what makes the surgical strikes of September 2016 distinct is New Delhi’s political ownership of them.

Due to their levels well below that of a low-scale conventional attack, surgical strikes do not directly challenge Pakistan’s commitment to use tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) under its policy of full-spectrum deterrence – Pakistan’s TNWs and full-spectrum deterrence policy have been developed specifically to respond to India’s Cold Start doctrine. That the surgical strikes were stealth operations and were highly controlled in  their nature was further stressed by the Indian Army’s DGMO at their official pronouncement. Thus, Indian surgical strikes of September 2016 did not adversely affect pre-existing nuclear deterrence.

Objectives of Surgical Strikes and Impact on Status-Quo

How do these strikes affect the status-quo between India and Pakistan? The answer to that lies in understanding the objectives with which India conducted these strikes and whether those objectives were met.

The primary objective of surgical strikes was to eliminate terrorist bases and camps in Pakistani-occupied territories near the LoC where, according to intelligence reports, terrorists were gathering in large numbers to infiltrate into India and target cities. Based on DGMO’s press briefing, media reports and details of Indian Army’s gallantry awards given in January 2017, the primary objective was certainly met.

While these strikes were officially showcased as pre-emptive attacks, political claims made over the success of these strikes capture their projection as tools of military response to Pakistan’s sub-conventional war. Four objectives can be deduced; to inflict real damage on Pakistan; assuage Indian domestic public anger; hurt Pakistan’s international reputation further; and deter Pakistan’s sub-conventional war.

Surgical strikes did inflict damage on Pakistan but it was minimal owing to the controlled nature and very low scale of the strikes. They, however, served the objective of assuaging Indian domestic public anger. Pressure on the Modi-led government in New Delhi to militarily respond to Pakistan was high, especially in the aftermath of the Uri terror attack. That India successfully conducted surgical strikes against Pakistan was later showcased by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as its achievement in its campaigns for various state assembly elections. BJP won most of these state assembly elections, in particular in India’s most populous state – Uttar Pradesh, with huge margins, capturing in part how India’s masses accepted its government’s narration of the surgical strikes as a response to Pakistan’s sub-conventional war.  Despite Pakistan’s denial, responses from the governments of the US, UK, Russia, China, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, among others illustrate how even the international community bought India’s narrative on having conducted surgical strikes, hurting Pakistan’s international reputation further.

On deterring Pakistan’s sub-conventional war, Indian surgical strikes failed. Pakistan’s denial, accompanied by minimal real damage inflicted by these strikes are unlikely to lead to any change in its policy of using terrorists as state-proxies. Unsurprisingly, in early November 2016, Chief of Jamma-ud-Dawah, Hafiz Saeed, accused by India of having planned the Mumbai terror attack of 2008, announced that jihadists would conduct surgical strikes in Jammu and Kashmir.

Thus, though Indian surgical strikes of September 2016 did not inflict significant real damage on Pakistan and failed in deterring it from using terrorists as state-proxies, it certainly allowed India to showcase its ability to militarily respond to Pakistan, more importantly to its own public.

Surgical strikes strengthen deterrence-stability

As Sumit Ganguly notes, while nuclear deterrence holds, the resultant status-quo makes India grapple “with an effort to forge a new military doctrine and strategy to enable it to respond to Pakistani needling while containing the possibilities of conflict escalation, especially to the nuclear level.”

Indian surgical strikes, owing to their nature and scale, render possibilities of collapse of nuclear deterrence negligible. These strikes at the same time allow India to militarily respond to Pakistan, even as it fails to deter Pakistan’s sub-conventional war. By offering India a military response, especially in the eyes of its public, surgical strikes re-balance the status-quo, which earlier was in Pakistan’s favour. These strikes thus strengthen deterrence-stability.

It is too early to conclude that India would employ these strikes as its modus-operandi in responding to Pakistan’s sub-conventional war. It remains to be seen whether India would (claim to) conduct surgical strikes after every instance of a major attack by terrorists based out of Pakistan or if these strikes would be conducted periodically when pressure on New Delhi to militarily retaliate is high. India’s ability to conduct these strikes in future will be challenged by Pakistani defenses as well, which must have been revamped after September 2016.

Arka Biswas is an Associate Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation and is currently working at the Strategic Studies Programme. He tweets @b_aurko. Initial assessment of this analysis was presented by the author at a closed-door discussion jointly organized by the RAND Corporation and Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA). A detailed study has been published by the Observer Research Foundation, available here. Image credit: CC by KKoshy/Flickr.

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