Approved for public release; distribution is unlimited.
Document created: 1 September 2008
Air & Space Power Journal - Fall 2008
Senior Leader Perspectives
Air Commodore Tariq Mahmud Ashraf, Pakistan Air Force, Retired*
The overt nuclearization of India and Pakistan in May 1998 drastically altered the military landscape of South Asia. Military planners on both sides now had to grapple with the additional strategic doctrinal dilemmas and considerations of deterrence, first use of nuclear weapons, counterforce versus countervalue targeting, nuclear thresholds, and so forth.
Conventional imbalance in the military domain has been a constant, defining characteristic of South Asian defence dynamics ever since India and Pakistan achieved independence in 1947. Understandably, the greater size, population, and resources of India have enabled its military to stay ahead in conventional might, with Pakistan continuing to play the "catch-up" game. Needless to say, apart from the resources available to them, the military potential of both countries has also been shaped significantly by what their respective superpower allies or other friendly countries have been willing to provide them in terms of military wherewithal.
One irrefutable legacy that the Indian and Pakistani militaries retained from the British colonials was their rigid adherence to and unshakeable belief in the somewhat outdated tenets of continental warfare. This led both countries to adopt army-centric military doctrines and resulted in the diversion of more resources towards their respective armies, to the neglect of their navies and air forces. This proved truer in the case of Pakistan, where the army has ruled the country for almost half of its total existence.
The chronic inferiority in the conventional military realm that Pakistan has continued to face led its army to a doctrine of "Strategic Defence and Tactical Offence." Although Pakistan undoubtedly has remained militarily inferior to India, one must realize that Indian conventional military superiority has never reached a stage where one would categorize it as having a "decisive edge" over the Pakistani military. The truth of the indecisive nature of this conventional military imbalance was borne out by the indecisive stalemates that occurred during the wars of 1948 and 1965.1
The situation that I have depicted in the preceding paragraphs remained valid until the conduct of nuclear tests by India and Pakistan in May 1998, an epochal event that drastically altered the South Asian military scene. First of all, one needs to understand the essential motivation that drove Pakistan and India to go nuclear. In my reckoning, Pakistan's basic objective in its quest to acquire nuclear military capability has always been the desire to be able to counter India's conventional superiority. India's motivation involved, among other things, its desire to emerge as a regional/global power, the need to balance China, and, of course, the wish to gain a decisive military advantage over Pakistan, which India had failed to achieve in the conventional realm. From this it flows that although Pakistan has designed its nuclear arsenal primarily to deter the launching of a conventional attack by India, India is likely to employ nuclear weapons for the projection of political power and to obviate the chances of any other country's employing nuclear weapons against it. Elaborating on Pakistan's nuclear posture, two commentators write that "nuclear weapons are perceived in Pakistan as an instrument to countervail a manifest conventional inferiority." Explaining further, they describe how the Pakistani nuclear posture is strikingly similar to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) doctrine of extended deterrence during the Cold War. This doctrine also made constant reference to the possible use of nuclear weapons to countervail conventional inferiority vis-à-vis the Warsaw Pact military forces; furthermore, it refused to issue any no-first-use declaration. In fact, NATO has not issued any such declaration to this day and remains ambiguous on this matter, just as Pakistan has opted to do.2
In any military conflict between two nuclear-armed adversaries such as India and Pakistan, one could safely conclude that the chances are much higher of the conventionally weaker country (Pakistan) opting to use nuclear weapons first. This is precisely why India has disavowed first use in its draft nuclear doctrine; Pakistan, however, continues to maintain a semblance of ambiguity regarding its first-use posture while simultaneously continuing to imply that such employment remains a possibility.
Since any future South Asian conflict would start in the conventional realm before escalating to nuclear dimensions, and because Pakistan is the more likely of the two adversaries to opt for the first use of nuclear weapons, it is vital for us to study the possible course of events that could make Pakistan move up the conflict-escalation ladder by opting to go nuclear. In my opinion, one could better describe this decision point-commonly referred to as the "nuclear threshold"-as the "nuclear-escalation threshold."
Because of Pakistan's continuing nuclear ambiguity, we have heard little discussion of such key issues as what its nuclear-escalation threshold actually means. One significant exception to the silence of the Pakistani leadership on this matter occurred when a group of Italian journalists interviewed Lt Gen Khalid Kidwai, the director general of Pakistan's Strategic Plans Division. In a marked departure from earlier statements and interviews, which ignored this vital subject, General Kidwai outlined the limits of Pakistan's nuclear-escalation threshold:
It is well known that Pakistan does not have a "No First Use Policy." Pakistani nuclear weapons will be used, according to Gen. Kidwai, only "if the very existence of Pakistan as a state is at stake." This has been detailed by Gen. Kidwai as follows:
"Nuclear weapons are aimed solely at India. In case that deterrence fails, they will be used if
a. India attacks Pakistan and conquers a large part of its territory (space threshold)
b. India destroys a large part either of its land or air forces (military threshold)
c. India proceeds to the economic strangling of Pakistan (economic strangling)
d. India pushes Pakistan into political destabilization or creates a large scale internal subversion in Pakistan (domestic destabilization)"3
Since domestic destabilization and economic strangulation are not relevant to the subject of this discussion, I will focus on the space and military thresholds. Regarding the territorial or space threshold, I have previously written the following:
In conventional terms, the occurrence of any of the following events could warrant Pakistan resorting to the nuclear option:
Penetration of Indian forces beyond a certain defined line or crossing of a river.
Imminent capture of an important Pakistani city like Lahore or Sialkot. . . .
Indian crossing of Line of Control . . . to a level that it threatens Pakistan's control over Azad Kashmir.4
Although the denial of Pakistani territory to the Indian military would jointly fall into the domain of the Pakistan Army and the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), the former would bear primary responsibility for it, with the latter operating essentially in a supportive role.
At this stage, we would do well to conduct a brief comparative overview of the respective armies and air forces of India and Pakistan since these two military arms would play a major role in determining the outcome of any conventional war between those countries. Regarding the two armies, the Indian Army has a better-than two-to-one advantage in personnel, armour, and artillery. It has always been an accepted fact amongst military strategists and practitioners that in order to ensure success, a land force on the offensive must have a three-to-one advantage in numbers over the defending force since the latter operates from well-dug-in and reinforced positions generally located in terrain very familiar to its personnel. The Indian Army does not by itself possess this decisive advantage over the Pakistan Army. If it were to operate jointly with the might of the Indian Air Force (IAF), however, the balance does definitely tilt in favour of the Indians.
Salient comparative aspects of the IAF and PAF show that the former enjoys almost a 2.6:1 advantage in combat aircraft, purely in numerical terms (see table).5 However, the IAF's exclusive possession of beyond visual range (BVR) weapons and air-to-air refuelling capability, as well as superiority in unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), further accentuates its advantage. This edge would increase further once the IAF inducts the Phalcon airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) platforms that it has contracted to acquire from Israel. The PAF has been able to induct a few UAVs but has still not finalized any plans for the induction of an AEW platform despite having evaluated the Swedish Erieye system. If one also factors into the equation the number of combat aircraft operated by the opposing navies, the disparity increases even further.
|Table. Comparison of IAF and PAF combat assets and potential|
The IAF's technological edge is also evidenced by the disproportionately large number of high-technology combat aircraft that it possesses vis-à-vis the PAF.6 This qualitative advantage has shifted to the IAF because of its unrestricted access to Russian and Israeli technology while Pakistan has been denied any additional aviation assets other than a handful of upgraded F-16 aircraft from the United States. China, Pakistan's main provider of military aircraft, does not currently produce any combat aircraft comparable to the Western high-technology variety. Although this ratio might improve slightly after the initially ordered batch of 24 F-16C/D aircraft enters service (Pakistan has taken delivery of the first two aircraft), the IAF will again gain the edge with the induction of an additional 126 advanced combat aircraft that it is in the process of acquiring from the West. The most significant disparity lies in the number of high-technology combat platforms that the two air forces possess. Although the IAF has a 2.6:1 advantage in overall numbers, its advantage in high-tech aircraft exceeds a factor of 4.1:1, which will probably continue to grow as more Su-30 MKI aircraft and the additional 126 advanced combat aircraft join the IAF and enter operational service.
The IAF has a large fleet of transport aircraft that bestows significant military-airlift capability. Its advantage of over 10:1 in this area gives the IAF a strategic level of airlift capability, but one could best describe the PAF as having only modest airlift potential. Viewed from the perspective of the IAF's substantially greater pool of trained manpower, India's enormous air-transport potential adds significantly to the flexibility of operational mobility in terms of rapid deployment and redeployment.
The IAF possesses more than twice as many total aircraft as the PAF, as well as a 3.78:1 advantage in manpower. The freedom of being able to deploy operational assets at a greater number of operating locations is an obvious corollary of this edge. Having illustrated the gross imbalance that exists between the two air forces, I now move on to the implications that imbalance would have in any future conventional war between India and Pakistan.
To a great extent, modern land warfare depends upon establishing a favourable air situation over the battlefield, which entails the friendly air force's fully supporting its own army while simultaneously preventing the adversary air force from interfering with its operations. The IAF-versus-PAF comparison indicates that the IAF is much more capable of achieving a favourable air situation over the area of the land battle, so it can contribute significantly to the success of an Indian land offensive. Moreover, the strong IAF, with its exclusive access to AEW aircraft and BVR missiles, could neutralize the PAF by mounting a concerted counterair-operations campaign against the latter.7 Adequate neutralization of the PAF would absolutely open the path to an Indian victory on the ground, and the offensive formations of the Indian Army would be virtually unstoppable. This could well create a state of affairs, mentioned above, in which, as General Kidwai put it, "the very existence of Pakistan as a state is at stake."
An analysis of the comparative strengths of the Indian and Pakistani militaries clearly identifies the air force as the weakest link in Pakistan's military-especially when compared directly with the much more powerful and better equipped IAF. One must not underestimate the significance of this weakest link since the destruction of the PAF emerges as the quickest way to make Pakistan contemplate the undesirable escalatory step of turning a conventional, limited war into a nuclear holocaust.
This conclusion has lessons not only for Pakistan's government but also for the major global powers. The Pakistani government must embark on a crash program to suitably reequip its air force, but the major global powers must also understand that enhancing the level of stability in South Asia requires that Pakistan's nuclear-escalation threshold be raised and not allowed to drop any further. As I have indicated, the means for doing so lie in strengthening this weakest link in Pakistan's military chain.
As the Kargil conflict of 1999 demonstrated, the advent of nuclear weapons in South Asia has not rendered limited conventional wars in the region impossible. In fact, as Michael Krepon argues in his discussion of the stability-instability paradox, small-scale, limited conventional conflicts might even become more frequent in South Asia.8 All international and regional measures aimed at promoting and achieving nuclear stability in South Asia must focus on ensuring that the nuclear-escalation threshold of the militarily weaker country-Pakistan-does not drop. Consequently, the global community must remain alert to any weaknesses emerging in Pakistan's conventional military wherewithal vis-à-vis India and address these immediately lest a limited conventional conflict in South Asia turn into a nuclear holocaust with terrifying consequences, not only for the region but also for the entire world.
In this context, one must concentrate specifically on the serious imbalance between the air forces of the two countries since the weak air force currently fielded by Pakistan might well prove to be its Achilles' heel by becoming the prime reason for escalating a limited conflict to the nuclear dimension. Paradoxically, therefore, it appears to be in India's national interest to downplay the increasing strength and potential of its air force so as to preclude a further lowering of Pakistan's perceived nuclear-escalation threshold.
*I am thankful to Dr. Rodney Jones, president of Policy Architects International, Reston, Virginia, for his invaluable support and help in collecting data for this article.
[Feedback? Email the Editor ]
1. I have intentionally not included the 1971 war here since it was more of a civil war for the Pakistani military. Although it did result in the fall of East Pakistan, the situation on the western borders at the end of the war was once again a stalemate, with neither side making significant gains.
2. Paolo Cotta-Ramusino and Maurizio Martellini, "Nuclear Safety, Nuclear Stability and Nuclear Strategy in Pakistan" (Como, Italy: Landau Network-Centro Volta, 21 January 2002), , n11, http://www.mi.infn.it/~landnet/Doc/pakistan.pdf.
3. Ibid., . Readers should note that General Kidwai mentions the destruction of Pakistan's army and air force but makes no mention of Pakistan's navy.
4. Air Commodore Tariq Mahmud Ashraf, Aerospace Power: The Emerging Strategic Dimension (Peshawar, Pakistan: Pakistan Air Force Book Club, 2002), 152, http://www.pakdef.info/aeropowerfinal.pdf.
5. In terms of pure numbers, the advantage that the IAF has enjoyed over the PAF has gradually been narrowing. According to The Story of the Pakistan Air Force: A Saga of Courage and Honour (Islamabad, Pakistan: Shaheen Foundation, 2000), 469, the IAF enjoyed an almost five-to-one superiority in strength over the PAF during the 1971 war, with the PAF having only 22 percent of the IAF's strength.
6. The combat aircraft included in the category of high-tech aircraft include the IAF's Su-30, Mirage 2000, and MiG-29, while the only PAF platform that merits inclusion in this category is the F-16. See Anthony H. Cordesman and Martin Kleiber, "The Asian Conventional Military Balance in 2006: The South Asian Military Balance," working draft (Washington, DC.: Centre for Strategic and International Studies, 26 June 2006), http://www .csis.org/media/csis/pubs/060626_asia_balance_south .pdf; and Rodney W. Jones, Conventional Military Imbalance and Strategic Stability in South Asia, SASSU [South Asian Strategic Stability Unit], Research Paper no. 1 (United Kingdom: University of Bradford, Department of Peace Studies, March 2005), 15, 29-33, http://www.policyarchitects .org/pdf/Conventional_imbalance_RJones.pdf.
7. The IAF would retain exclusive possession of AEW capabilities until the PAF inducts a similar platform. However, the IAF's advantage in BVR missiles might not remain once the PAF inducts the additional batch of 24 F-16C/D aircraft since they are reportedly capable of using advanced medium-range air-to-air missiles (included in the total delivered package).
8. Michael Krepon, "The Stability-Instability Paradox, Misperception, and Escalation Control in South Asia," in Escalation Control and the Nuclear Option in South Asia, ed. Michael Krepon, Rodney W. Jones, and Ziad Haider (Washington, DC: Henry L. Stimson Center, November 2004), 1-24, http://www.stimson.org/pub.cfm?ID=191.
Air Commodore Tariq Mahmud Ashraf, Pakistan Air Force, Retired (BSc, Peshawar; BSc, Karachi; MSc, Islamabad), is the author of one book on air and space power as well as numerous articles and papers. He served as the assistant chief of Air Staff (Operations) during the 2001–2 military standoff between India and Pakistan. A distinguished graduate of the RAF Advanced Staff Course, he has also served on the faculty of Pakistan National Defence College.
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University
[ Home Page | Feedback? Email the Editor]