New Delhi: Should the Indian army’s land warfare doctrine read, in part, like a complaint? Well, it does. An excerpt published in the press says, “A concerted effort is being made by our adversaries to shrink the space for conventional wars through prosecution of unconventional operations at the lower end of the spectrum, and threats of early and irrational use of nuclear weapons at the other.”

The obvious question to ask is: Irrational to whom? Not Pakistan, which is making the threat. If the threat was irrational, it would not be making it. No one makes irrational nuclear threats. Taking the argument to the next level, it is apparent that the Indian army considers the Pakistan nuclear threat irrational. The question that follows is: How has the army determined the threat to be irrational? Does it believe the Pakistani deterrent to be bogus and incapable of producing Armageddon? Highly unlikely. What then? Is the army of the opinion that Pakistan must only make conventional war threats for which the doctrine purportedly has solutions?

If you read the land warfare doctrine closely and literally, it leads to these and more absurdities. And a doctrine which leads to absurd conclusions is plainly not worth calling a doctrine. The army cannot be blamed. Armies seldom produce thinkers. The fault lies in refusing to think and plan holistically. The doctrine has references to air and naval elements. It looks like a token nod to jointness. How long can the farce of standalone doctrines for the three services continue when national security threats come in mixed and multiple forms? The army puts itself in the forefront of fighting Pakistan’s terrorism, for instance. Then what about 26/11? Didn’t the lack of naval preparedness for counterterrorism show?

It is in a sense laughable to devote paragraph after paragraph to conventional war-fighting capabilities when the elephant in the room is Pakistan’s deterrent. No one will like this said bluntly. Pakistan’s deterrent has deterred India from prosecuting a conventional war with Pakistan. The conventional military peak, so to speak, was reached during Operation Parakram. Had Indian forces crossed the frontier, the Pakistani nuclear bogey would have exploded. This writer respects the late prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee’s judgements greatly and would desist from pointing accusing fingers at him. Nevertheless, the fact remains that Pakistan sharpened its nuclear playbook to a hard offensive point thereafter. Idle talk of cold start on this side further compelled the Pakistanis to double down on a theatre nuclear war-fighting programme. The current army chief’s first of several unguarded public statements also alluded to cold start. So if the Pakistanis respond to an external stimulus, how is that irrational? One man’s meat (no pun intended) conceivably could be another man’s poison. And even while speaking of irrationality, the doctrine makes the ritualistic pronouncement about integrated battle groups that in a dual use role operate in a limited nuclear war scenario, itself a discredited relic of the nineteen-fifties in the dawn of the Nuclear Age. So who is spreading irrationality?

Armies across the world dislike nuclear weapons because they are not under their control (barring Pakistan), hog defence budgets (usually undeclared), and remain unusable. When nations have a mix of nuclear and non-nuclear adversaries like the United States and NATO Europe, it is understandable that conventional capabilities are addressed. All the same, the big picture is never lost. The national security strategy of the United States, for example, is a comprehensive document that addresses the totality of threats faced by the country. India, however, has two principal adversaries, both neighbours and both nuclear powers. How is it rational to duck the nuclear question, lament that rival sides do not do so as well, and then cram paragraphs about conventional capabilities with all the worn jargons and buzz words of the trade? Meanwhile, the nuclear doctrine, such as one India possesses, still speaks inflexibly of “maximum retaliation” for a nuclear first strike.

The harsh reality is that war with Pakistan or China or both will turn eventually nuclear. Adversaries will explore and expand conventional spaces falling below the threshold of conflict and India must counter them as and when the need arises. But calling adversaries irrational doesn’t assist. Irrationality has no solution or none at least that India possesses. Ignoring the role of deterrent weapons in the region indeed leads to irrational and incoherent conclusions. And there is something else quite beyond military minds. Geo-economics has come to dominate the world. India’s future is tied to managing the peace in the subcontinent for growth and prosperity of South Asia as a whole. Towards that politico-economic objective ought all strategic planning and thought to be directed.