Can Pakistan Army deliver on Imran’s threats?

Pakistan’s ability to spin propaganda as effective psychological warfare may project a much higher capability than actually exists.

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan has warned the world that the deteriorating condition in South Asia over the Jammu and Kashmir issue could mean nuclear war; then hurriedly he made some amends by declaring Pakistan would not be the first to use nuclear weapons. Anyone who knows anything about the use of nuclear weapons will tell you a couple of things. First, that these are not weapons of war fighting but rather of war prevention; actually through the notion of deterrence. Second, that a situation of desperation, when one nation may pull the nuclear trigger, would hypothetically be under extraordinary conditions reached when an existential threat looms, a military disgrace is on the cards or a major national security concern is anticipated. All this emanates from actions involving conventional war. India has demonstrated that it can adopt progressive conventional responses in proactive mode in retaliation to high-profile acts executed by Pakistan-sponsored irregular elements. The situation now is one in which Pakistan may under internal pressure and due to its inability to cultivate favourable international opinion, can execute an action which may cross the threshold of India’s tolerance, which too has been lowered by public pressure and recent decisive actions after the Uri and Pulwama outrages. It could be an operation at the Line of Control, a major IED or suicide-oriented intrusion into a camp with mass casualties in the hinterland or even a high-profile terrorist act elsewhere in India. With a lower threshold of tolerance in India, Pakistan could go wrong in judging the Indian response. That is how a conventional showdown could be triggered.

In such a contingency, what is the capability of the Pakistan Army to fight conventionally? The Pakistan Army is approximately half the size of the Indian Army, but its deployable strength is near matching due to India’s compulsion of securing the long border with China. In J&K, India has a larger deployment, but a part of that is employed on the counter-terror grid. Both countries have large armed police and paramilitaries with Pakistan’s Frontier Corps having been blooded fairly well due to the turbulent security situation along Pakistan’s western border with Afghanistan. An independent international rating company (Global Firepower), which comprehensively studies the strengths and capabilities of major armed forces, pegs the Pakistani capability at a power rating of 0.2798, where 0.0000 is considered a perfect score. The Indian armed forces, on the other hand, are rated at 0.1065, which is 2.6 times better, but this does not cater for the Chinese threat or other deployments. Indian analysts usually desire that a 1.7: 1 differential in capability in favour of India is necessary for India to end any conflict situation in a favourable position. Extrapolating these figures, which are based upon mathematical modelling, India appears to be in a favourable position. However, war is never about prescriptions and mathematics; it’s about surprise, deception, leadership, risk ability, morale, training and logistics. None of this can be clearly quantified. The outcome of war, therefore, remains as unpredictable as war itself.

From a practical angle, the withered Pakistani economy cannot support a high intensity war after the expenditure of the stocks that remain with the armed forces at all times. The General Staff reserves of 15 days do not cater for ammunition, whose expenditure is contingent upon operational situations and length of engagements. Its energy capacity is limited to about 12 days of stocks at the national level. An effective Indian naval blockade may strangulate energy replenishment, although the land routes to Iran will remain open. If the war is to extend, adequate replenishments will still be a major challenge. Pakistan will depend on Chinese support to force Indian dual-use formations to remain deployed at the northern and eastern borders. A level of risk will always need to be taken by India to ensure balanced deployment. The Indian Air Force is fully capable of handling the Pakistan air threat. Air power is the total military capability of a nation for the use of aircraft and missiles. With the depletion of numbers in the IAF’s combat squadrons, the edge that the IAF enjoys is now down to around 1.4:1. PAF pilots are well-trained, with battle experience and high morale, but the equipment they fly, except the US-made F-16s, are mostly of Chinese origin and are qualitatively lower than the IAF, despite the latter’s ageing fleet of MiG-21s, even though upgraded. Munitions wise, the IAF has a decided edge.

The much-publicised shortage of ammunition holding in the Indian Army has been largely made up in the past two years by resorting to a more delegated and empowered system of procurement and will no longer be a constraint.

Pakistan’s ability to spin propaganda as effective psychological warfare may project a much higher capability than actually exists. In reality it is unlikely to initiate conflict in the conventional domain. If its acts of hybrid war draw it into an armed standoff with India, it will threaten to fall back on the nuclear option with the potential employment of tactical nuclear weapons on proactively employed Indian battle groups (despite Imran Khan’s recent statement). However, it rarely seems mindful of the fact that it will be battling a nation equally armed with nuclear weapons, which may respond with massive retaliation as a second strike. On the million-dollar question of Pakistan’s capability to defend Pakistan-occupied Kashmir in the event of a war being restricted to only the J&K theatre, Pakistan will have to take severe risk elsewhere to push additional forces into PoK should India decide to go for it. The use of tactical nukes there, if at all in desperation, may be more for demonstration than effect. The likelihood of the employment of nukes in a territory it lays claims to may be extremely low.

Lastly, the perception in India that the Pakistani armed forces are a pushover is as misplaced as the Pakistani perception was about the Indian armed forces in 1965, when Ayub Khan launched Operation Gibraltar in J&K. Pakistan’s forces under arms are professional and competent. It will never be a cakewalk for India in our attempt to defeat them, although we outnumber them, have deeper resources to support war and a more competent military capability. What will remain to India’s advantage will be our capacity to wage a longer war with a choice of restricting it to a theatre or to extend it to a larger conflagration. An outcome of all-out or limited conventional war will invariably be in India’s favour, although the nation must never take that for granted.

Syed Ata Hasnain, a retired lieutenant-general, is a former commander of the Srinagar-based 15 Corps. He is also associated with the Vivekananda International Foundation and the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.

This article was originally posted by The Asian Age. It was posted here with the author's permission.

Photo Credit: ANI