by Lt Gen. Rakesh Sharma (Retd)

Half a century ago, the Indian armed forces’ campaign with the Mukti Bahini (guerrilla resistance movement in East Pakistan) led to the dismemberment of Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh. It decimated the war-waging potential of the Pakistan Army, whose 93,000 personnel were taken as prisoners of war. In all metrics of warfare, this was an exceptional and decisive military victory that should have ensured a politically favourable post-war settlement for the long term.

The victory should have buried the intemperate words of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in the UN Security Council on September 22, 1965: “We will wage a war for a thousand years (against India)” Shortly after the 1972 Shimla Agreement, Bhutto came up with “we (Pakistan) will eat grass, even go hungry, but we will get one of our own (atom bomb)…. We have no other choice!” His doctrine of bleeding India by “inflicting a thousand cuts” was vigorously pursued in Punjab and later in Jammu and Kashmir. It is apparent, in hindsight, that even a decisive military win, like in 1971, could not be translated into a strategic victory over Pakistan.

Termination of war used to have several metrics to indicate victory, such as the armed forces of one side capitulating and laying down arms, destruction of war-waging potential and capture of enemy territory. Capturing enemy territory was most often taken as a valid military objective to set conditions for political capitulation. Victory was measured by the consequent deposing of the other side’s political system or hierarchy, called regime change.

Warfare has always been evolutionary. The sprint in military technologies has placed warfare on a decisive threshold to transit into new modernity. Future wars will also have asymmetric battle space that will include cyber, social, economic, informational and psychological domains. They may not necessarily involve physical combat or destruction or even direct engagement between the armed forces. Evolving technologies will significantly define how conventional wars will be fought. Machines will make life-and-death engagement decisions, with or without human interface.

Fast forward to the 21st century. India has adversarial relations and disputed borders with Pakistan and China. India was a hair’s breadth away from a conventional war with Pakistan in the aftermath of the attack on Parliament in December 2001. Last summer, Chinese expansionist designs in eastern Ladakh had the potential of escalation with the quantum of forces arrayed. With the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) knocking at our door, the concept of ‘victory’ needs to be revisited.

A grey zone exists between peace and war, where the aggressor attempts to achieve its objectives below the threshold of warfare. One can fall back on the ubiquitous Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu saying, “The epitome of martial excellence isn’t winning every battle but winning without fighting.” It implies putting an opponent at such a massive disadvantage that war-fighting is unnecessary and the national objectives can be met without bloodshed.

In the standoff in eastern Ladakh, China’s playbook of demonstrating overwhelming force, subterfuge, or using cyber or informational warfare did not undermine India or push the Indian military into a disadvantageous situation. India has immense resilience and capacity to bear hardships—the nation has the psychological and the military physical will to stand firm. The nation, hence, contested brinkmanship, the notion of ‘winning without fighting’, coercion and intimidation. Military coercion focused on threat and infliction of enough pain can never deter or coerce the Indian armed forces. ‘Winning without fighting’, for India, is just a cliché!

It is repeatedly said that conventional wars are passé. The argument is fraught with grave dangers. This century has witnessed how conventional wars can end up as protracted engagements. With the US forces set to leave Afghanistan, it is being asked if the aims of their two-decades-long war were achieved and if the withdrawal will now bring lasting peace.

What will be the end state of a conventional war, and what does victory imply? Questions like these seek answers. Armed conflicts may involve urban warfare, will certainly be highly lethal and, despite the use of precision weaponry, inflict collateral damage and lead to high human casualties. However, the salience of kinetic wars or the conflagrations across the Line of Control (LoC) and International Border (IB) with Pakistan and the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China, the pressure on territory cannot be obviated due to the nature of the dispute. The Indian armed forces are well grounded, trained and experienced in kinetic conventional warfare.

Contextually, 21st century victories will not be based on the metrics of territory captured and destruction of the war-waging potential of the enemy. Indeed, borders cannot be redrawn by force; any ingress will have to face the massive weight of lethal, precision weaponry. Territory will invariably be bartered in post-war political negotiations. Prospective conventional wars will be fluid and extremely complicated as they will, more often than not, take surprising twists and turns. At the war-termination stage, different conclusions will have to be drawn, with newer definitions of winning or losing. Even if there is tactical or operational military victory, it may not guarantee operational or strategic results. Victory will invariably remain imprecise and the end state may not even seem a victory. It must also be appreciated that an adversary, come what may, will not be able to claim any ‘victory’ against India—territorial or otherwise.

Before any war begins, it is hence important to contemplate and define the minimum-maximum end states and follow them through. It is also essential that our armed forces plan towards achieving clear indicators of tactical and strategic advantages/ successes as an essential metric of war fighting, at all stages of war. The politico-bureaucratic establishment needs to be involved in bringing in sophistication in military strategies, based on logical, conceivable scenarios and response options thereof, and in formulation of war-termination strategic advantages. The days of wars ending in crisp, clear-cut military victories are over.