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What Might an India-Pakistan War Look Like?

By Christopher Clary

Christopher Clary
Christopher Clary is a PhD candidate in political science at MIT.

TOWARD THE END of his presidency, Bill Clinton argued that Kashmir, the territory disputed by India and Pakistan, was 'the most dangerous place in the world.'1 Clinton's second term saw India and Pakistan undergo reciprocal tests of nuclear weapons in 1998, followed in 1999 by the Kargil war, the first conflict between nuclear weapons states since the Ussuri River clashes between the Soviet Union and China in 1969. In the years since Clinton expressed his concern about danger on the subcontinent, India and Pakistan have had two serious military crises provoked by terrorist attacks on Indian soil. On December 13, 2001, terrorists attacked the Indian Parliament building, prompting the first full mobilization of the Indian Army since 1971. More recently, a multi-day terrorist rampage in the Indian city of Mumbai beginning on November 26, 2008, led to widespread speculation that Indian leaders might resort to punitive strikes against Pakistan in retaliation. In both crises, Bush administration officials were intensely concerned that a conventional conflict could "get out of hand" leading to inadvertent conventional or nuclear escalation. Pakistan has refused to rule out the use of nuclear weapons to prevent a conventional military defeat. Therefore, India has sought to develop military options that can cause Pakistan political pain without risking nuclear escalation.2 Conventional wisdom suggests that India has gained sufficient conventional superiority to fight and win a limited war, but the reality is that India is unlikely to be able to both achieve its political aims and prevent dangerous escalation.

Pakistan's military leadership has suggested that Indian seizure of substantial Pakistani territory or Indian destruction of substantial portions of the Pakistan Army or Air Force in conflict would be possible triggers for Pakistani use of nuclear weapons.3 As a consequence, India has sought to find ways to fight Pakistan without crossing these redlines. Raw numbers suggest and extant analyses have concluded that India's conventional edge is substantial and growing, increasing the likelihood that India would use military options in response to the most likely provocation: a terrorist attack inside India linked to Pakistan. Walter Ladwig, in a 2007 analysis, worried that "as the Indian Army enhances its ability to achieve a quick decision against Pakistan," Indian politicians would be more inclined to employ force to achieve political ends.4 Ladwig's work, along with others, has examined doctrinal innovation by the Indian Army, which has sought to develop limited options to be used for punitive or coercive objectives against Pakistan without leading to a full scale war.

While India is developing limited options, my analysis suggests India's military advantage over Pakistan is much less substantial than is commonly believed. This means the outcomes over limited military campaigns are uncertain, with some chance they will not achieve India's political objectives. Such limited military campaigns are also risky, because if they are unsuccessful with limited force, there will be strong pressures for combatants to escalate and attempt to achieve more decisive political results. The remainder of this piece will provide short reviews of the current military balance at sea, air, and land, and examine what this balance implies for the ability of India to achieve political ends with limited military force.

India's substantial quantitative and qualitative naval superiority is unlikely to be an important factor in a short, limited war. India has twelve frigates to Pakistan's six, an aging aircraft carrier and ten destroyers where Pakistan has none, twenty corvettes with anti-ship missiles compared to Pakistan's six smaller missile boats, and fourteen diesel-electric submarines compared to Pakistan's five (excluding Pakistan's midget subs).6 But the question is not which navy would win a maritime war, but rather whether the Indian Navy could beat its Pakistani counterpart so decisively and quickly that it might alter the strategic situation on land. Past India-Pakistan conflicts have been brief. Large-scale fighting lasted one month in 1965, two weeks in 1971, and two months in the 1999 Kargil conflict. As a result, the Indian Navy played a limited role in earlier Indo-Pakistani conflicts and this pattern seems likely to persist.

Most analyses do not account adequately for how difficult it would be for the navy to have a substantial impact in a short period of time. Establishing even a partial blockade takes time, and it takes even more time for that blockade to cause shortages on land that are noticeable. As the British strategist Julian Corbett noted in 1911, "it is almost impossible that a war can be decided by naval action alone. Unaided, naval pressure can only work by a process of exhaustion. Its effects must always be slow…."7 Meanwhile, over the last decade, Pakistan has increased its ability to resist a blockade. In addition to the main commercial port of Karachi, Pakistan has opened up new ports further west in Ormara and Gwadar and built road infrastructure to distribute goods from those ports to Pakistan's heartland. To close off these ports to neutral shipping could prove particularly difficult since Gwadar and the edge of Pakistani waters are very close to the Gulf of Oman, host to the international shipping lanes for vessels exiting the Persian Gulf. A loose blockade far from shore would minimize risks from Pakistan's land-based countermeasures but also increase risks of creating a political incident with neutral vessels. Even if India were to be successful in establishing a blockade, new overland routes to China are likely to further protect Pakistan from strangulation from the sea. While the navy is not irrelevant, there are strong reasons to be skeptical that the naval balance has tilted in such a way as to affect strategic outcomes in a limited India-Pakistan conflict.

The air balance between India and Pakistan is also thought to heavily favor the larger and more technologically sophisticated Indian Air Force. While India has a qualitative and quantitative advantage, the air capabilities gap narrowed rather than widened in the last decade. The Pakistan Air Force has undergone substantial modernization since 2001, when Pakistan exited from a decade of US-imposed sanctions. With purchases from US, European, and Chinese vendors, Pakistan has both dramatically increased the number of modern fighter aircraft with beyond-visual-range capability as well as new airborne early warning and control aircraft. Meanwhile, India's fighter modernization effort has been languid over the last decade. India's largest fighter procurement effort—the purchase of 126 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft—began in 2001 and has been slowed considerably by cumbersome defense procurement rules designed to avoid the appearance of corruption. While over the course of a prolonged conflict, there is little doubt that the Indian Air Force would win an air superiority battle, that battle would be hard fought and take time. The longer the fight for air supremacy, the longer it is before the Indian Air Force can focus on supporting ground forces in the event of substantial army-to-army clashes. More limited air strikes against "terrorist training camps" might be attractive to decision-makers in Delhi, but they are poor targets as the camps are likely to be empty following any large-scale terrorist attack on India. Further, such air strikes create the risk of tit-for-tat dynamics where Pakistan feels compelled to give back in kind to demonstrate an ability to protect its territory from India. If the Pakistan Air Force perceives that it cannot successfully use airpower in a reprisal raid following an Indian air strike, Pakistan may use conventionally armed cruise and ballistic missiles. India's air and missile defenses would not be able to stop a missile attack and might not be able to prevent a Pakistani air strike—thus, breaking an escalatory spiral of dueling air or missile strikes would prove daunting.

The ground forces balance has received the most attention from outside observers, in large part because the Indian Army has publicized its efforts at doctrinal innovation, most often referred to under the "Cold Start" moniker. However, India's ground superiority is unlikely to be sufficient to achieve a quick victory. After the December 13, 2001 terrorist attack on the Indian parliament, the Indian Army was embarrassed by political criticisms that the mobilization to the Indo-Pakistani border took too long to complete. The army worked to speed up mobilization timelines and allow for Indian Army actions against Pakistan prior to a cumbersome full-scale mobilization. The principal difficulty with limited ground options is that they prevent India from taking advantage of its main advantage: its larger ground forces. Simply put, if India chooses to employ only a portion of its army, Pakistan would choose to employ a larger portion of its own forces to stop the attack and perhaps open up other fronts on terrain favorable to Pakistan. Relatedly, because Pakistan's population centers are close the border, it is easier for the Pakistan Army to maintain most of its land forces near the border than it is for India to do likewise. The net result of both factors is that India may have difficulty mobilizing more quickly than Pakistan. Therefore, even a limited ground attack could quickly escalate to being a full-scale clash between armies, with all the incumbent risks.

The net result of this analysis is to conclude that India's limited military options against Pakistan are risky and uncertain. Pakistan has options to respond to limited Indian moves, making counter-escalation likely. At least in the near-term, Pakistan appears to have configured its forces in such a way as to deny India "victory on the cheap." Therefore, India might well have to fight a full-scale war that could destroy large segments of Pakistan's army to achieve its political aims, which would approach Pakistan's stated nuclear redlines. Such a conclusion should induce caution among Indian political elites who are considering military options to punish or coerce Pakistan in a future crisis. In the event of a future terrorist attack in India blamed on Pakistan, Indian leaders are likely to have few good options and outside observers should remain intensely concerned of the dangers of escalation between these two nuclear-armed states.


1 Jonathan Marcus, "Analysis: The World's Most Dangerous Place?" BBC News, March 23, 2000,; John Lancaster, "Kashmir Crisis Was Defused on Brink of War; As US Reviews Showdown, Nuclear Danger Looms Large," Washington Post, July 26, 1999.

2 Polly Nayak and Michael Krepon, US Crisis Management in South Asia's Twin Peaks Crisis, report no. 57 (Washington, DC: The Henry L. Stimson Center, September 2006) and Polly Nayak and Michael Krepon, The Unfinished Crisis: U.S. Crisis Management after the 2008 Mumbai Attacks (Washington, DC: The Henry L. Stimson Center, February 2012).

3 Paolo Cotta-Ramusino and Maurizio Martellini, "Nuclear Safety, Nuclear Stability, and Nuclear Strategy in Pakistan: A Concise Report by Landau Network–Centro Volta," Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs (January 14, 2002),

4 Walter Ladwig, "A Cold Start for Hot Wars? The Indian Army's New Limited War Doctrine," International Security 32, no. 2 (Winter 2007-2008): 158-90.

5 International Institute for Strategic Studies, Military Balance (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2011), 239.

6 The most substantial role the Indian Navy has played in past conflicts was preventing West Pakistan from using sea routes to reinforce East Pakistan, a scenario unlikely to appear again since East Pakistan is now the independent state of Bangladesh.

7 Sir Julian Stafford Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, new ed. (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co.: 1918), 11-12.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology