Limited War

Talk Peace But Remain Prepared

The Statesman | Dec 16, 2000

The Indo-Pakistan conflicts of 1947-48, 1965 and 1971, the Falklands War, the long drawn out lran-lraq conflict, the Soviet intervention in and ignominious withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Gulf War of 1990-91 were all limited wars. Not only does the sudden outbreak of a limited war between India and Pakistan remain a distinct possibility the present situation itself can be classified as an ongoing low intensity limited war.

Clausewitz, the famous German  military thinker, had defined war as “an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will”. War is a state of hostility between nations and is characterised by the use of force. The essence of war is institutionalised conflict between two or more hostile, irreconcilable wills, each trying to impose itself on the other, when significant disagreements cannot be settled through peaceful means such as diplomacy. In practice, war may range from intense clashes between large military forces, backed by a formal declaration of war, to convert hostilities that simmer endlessly just above the threshold of violence.

The nature, costs and consequences of modern wars have substantially changed and the Clausewitzian tenets of territorial conquests and the destruction of the adversary’s military forces have little relevance today. Wars in the future will necessarily be waged with carefully fine tuned objectives. The aim will be the limited capture of the adversary’s territory, to force him to negotiate.

Blood and gore

Traditional military principles and aims, such as the need to launch offensive action to defeat the enemy, are likely to change to limiting military action to inflicting devastating damage on the enemy’s field forces and thus containing him, rather than defeating him comprehensively.

Such destruction will be caused not so much during contact battle but by long range weapons systems such as artillery and surface-to-surface missiles(SSMs) and air to ground strikes by fighter ground attack (FGA) aircraft and attack helicopters.

The 20th century has been without doubt the bloodiest in history. After the advent of the atom bomb, capable of causing horrendous destruction, and its first use in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, it is indeed amazing that the record of blood and gore has not been much worse. Perhaps some basic human instinct for survival stayed the hand that controlled the nuclear trigger. Though war continued to hold its Clausewitzian place as the “continuation of politics by other means”, it gradually dawned on the security establishments of the world’s leading powers that “total”, “absolute”, “general” or “all out” war was no longer possible (though tacit acceptance came much later in the early 1990s) and the half century since the end of World War II witnessed mainly “limited wars.

The Korean conflict that resulted in a stalemate, the defeat of the United States in the Vietnam war. the Arab-Israeli Wars of 1967, 1973 and 1982, the Sino-Indian border conflict of 1962. The Indo-Pakistan conflicts of 1947-48, 1965 and 1971, the Falklands War, the long drawn out lran-lraq conflict, the Soviet intervention in and ignominious withdrawal from Afghanistan (1979-89) and the Gulf War of 1990-91 were all limited wars. Each of these had limited political objectives and military aims and even though these were not achieved in some cases, escalation was avoided.

Today when nations carry out a cost-benefit analysis to determine whether the achievement of national aims is commensurate with the likely costs of waging a major war, prudence invariably dictates that if war is unavoidable, it must remain limited in scope and conduct. While confronting Pakistan army’s nefarious intrusions into the Kargil sector of Jammu and Kashmir in mid-1999, the Indian government had come to the conclusion that though the early eviction of the intruders was a prime necessity it was not in the overall national interest to escalate the conflict to other fronts along the Line of Control and the international border with Pakistan.

Hence, India fought only a limited localised war to evict Pakistani intruders. At the same time, the Indian military planners did not hesitate to use overwhelming artillery firepower and punitive ground, strikes by the Indian Air Force to support the ground offensive Kargil sector.

Simultaneously Pakistan was deterred from escalating the conflict stage managing the movement of the army’s strategic reserve combat squadrons of the IAF towards the western border and the Indian Navy’s Eastern Fleet to the Arabian Sea to present Pakistan with a fait accompli.

Thus, a clear and concise, though limited, national aim was achieved through limited military objectives in a localised conflict that employed maximum available ground and air firepower and succeeded beyond expectations.

Wider Canvas 

A perceptible trend in the regional geo-political situation is that India and most of its neighbours are increasingly taking their bearings from strategic developments along a wider canvas than the local arena alone. The strategic isolation traditionally enjoyed by Southern Asia is steadily disappearing. This will have wider ramifications for India’s national security. As is well known, India has a long-standing territorial and boundary dispute with China.

The Nathu La incident in 1967 and the Wangdung stand off in 1986 illustrate the fragile and tenuous nature of peace along the LAC. The next major incident could possibly lead to a localised border conflict as either Indian patience with Chinese intransigence wears thin or the Chinese view Indian attempts to build infrastructure and develop the border areas as the adoption of an aggressive posture. Though at present the Chinese leadership loses no opportunity to profess China’s peaceful intentions towards India, these could change in future. Hence, in the foreseeable future, a limited border war between the two Asian giants, though improbable, cannot be entirely ruled out.

Despite three wars and the recent Kargil conflict, peace between India and Pakistan is still in the realm of hope rather than practicality as Pakistan continues to engage in a form of “asymmetric warfare’ against India. General Pervez Musharraf’s a Ramzan peace overtures are intended more to placate the West and should not be interpreted as a genuine change of heart. Along the LoC with Pakistan, a “no war-no peace situation (with daily incidents of exchange of fire and occasional artillery duels) will continue to prevail as long as the Indian 47 and Pakistani armies remain locked in eyeball-to-eyeball contact. The situation along the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) at Siachen Glacier is no better and has the potential to get much worse. 


Not only does the sudden outbreak of a limited war between India and Pakistan remain a distinct possibility, in fact, the present situation itself can be classified as an ongoing low intensity limited war. The daily casualties and ammunition expenditure levels would certainly bear out such classification. It can be said without exaggeration that while the nation is at peace, the Army is at war — albeit an undeclared, unrecognised one.

The Indian public has in a sense become inured to the daily loss of life and limb along the LoC, the AGPL and in counter-terrorist operations. However the Kargil conflict conclusively demonstrated that there is a threshold beyond which the nation is not willing to accept either mounting casualties or the capture of additional territory by Pakistan in J&K, whether under the guise of mujahideen activities or by direct ground action. Hence, any future attempts by the army controlled Pakistan leadership to raise the ante in J&K through the Taliban or other disparate Islamist terrorist organisations, are likely to result in exceeding India’s limits of tolerance and India may resort to escalating the conflict to higher levels, including the opening of a new front in the plains sector along the international boundary in Punjab, Rajasthan or Gujarat to relieve pressure on J&K. As the casus belli exists already, the seeds of limited war can germinate any time.

Hence, in the Indian context, limited war in future is likely to be a point somewhere midway on a continuum that encompasses the present conflict along the LoC and the AGPL with Pakistan, as also Pakistan’s ongoing proxy war, and possible hostilities along the LAC with China, on one end, with large-scale conventional conflict on the other end. Since it is likely to spin out of ongoing conflicts on land, it will be pre-dominantly a land battle. Gaining, occupying and holding territory and evicting the enemy from any Indian territory occupied by him will remain important military objectives.