Small Wars Journal

South Asia: Unrestricted Conventional Warfare

Sun, 08/25/2019 - 2:59pm

South Asia: Unrestricted Conventional Warfare

Mangesh Sawant


The February Indian air strikes in Pakistan has completely changed the dynamics of Pakistan’s strategy of supporting and sponsoring terrorism against India as unconventional warfare and being protected by the threat of first use nuclear attack doctrine. It has also transformed India’s defensive and cautious strategy of strategic restraint. Nuclear deterrence is no longer an impediment in South Asia. Rather nuclear deterrence is dependent on various factors like geography, conventional weapon systems and preemptive strikes against the adversary. Capabilities alone are not enough as intentions are crucial in launching a nuclear attack. Pakistan is constrained in various ways and it cannot launch a conventional war. It was unable defend its territory against the Indian attack. Neither was it able to launch a nuclear attack under its first strike nuclear attack doctrine. Pakistan is aware of India’s 4th and 5th generation conventional strike capabilities and its superiority in second strike nuclear capacity.

Pakistan knows that the cost imposed by India in a second nuclear strike outweighs the benefits gained through a first nuclear strike. Pakistan’s age-old strategy of waging unrestricted hybrid warfare under the nuclear umbrella without any retaliation from India is over. Now India has started unrestricted warfare with conventional capabilities. India has proved that strategic stability is not guaranteed by nuclear deterrence. Conventional superiority overwhelms nuclear deterrence in South Asia. It’s the age of unrestricted warfare for technologically advanced militaries in conventional warfare environment with nuclear armed adversaries. This is the new normal.

End of Nuclear Deterrence and the Age of Unrestricted Conventional Warfare in South Asia

Since the last two decades and even after the Indian air strikes in Pakistan, newspapers around the world have been flashing titles like South Asia: The most dangerous place on earth, a nuclear hotspot and during his presidency Bill Clinton was concerned about South Asia as a nuclear flashpoint. Fear mongering is being advocated by many analysts by stating that if a nuclear war had to start in the world it would be in South Asia. Numerous authors, studies, magazines and organizations have been churning out reports of a potential threat of a nuclear war between India and Pakistan. Every scenario being played by many institutions about a war in South Asia is leading to a nuclear conflict. Nuclear deterrence theories and MAD have been much discussed in relation to South Asia.

Classical warfare strategies have been followed by nearly every country. The differentiating factor remains the type of governing systems. Democracies have been practicing Clausewitz while dictatorships and one-party systems have been practicing Sun Tzu. Pakistan has been following Sun Tzu’s art of warfare which is exemplified by concealment, unconventional warfare, unrestricted warfare, deception and manipulation. India has been following the Clausewitz strategy which is characterized by restricted and classical conventional warfare. Today Pakistan is the only country in the world which has fused the unconventional and hybrid warfare strategy with a nuclear deterrence doctrine of first strike. Pakistan has been sponsoring and fomenting terrorism in India since the last 3 decades. India has not penalized Pakistan due to the threat of nuclear retaliation to an Indian conventional attack. 

During the Kargil conflict air strikes were not conducted by the Indian Air Force (IAF) inside Pakistan territory.  Former IAF air chief Tipnis was even hesitant to use air power against the mujahedeen and Pakistani soldiers from NLI who were ensconced on Indian territory in the Kargil area.[i] Later after the 26/11 terrorist attacks former IAF Air Chief Marshal Fali Major had presented a military plan to the then PM Manmohan Singh for conducting retaliatory air strikes on Pakistani military and terrorist infrastructure. But again the government of the day turned down the plan due to the threat of nuclear attack by Pakistan.[ii]

The air strikes authorized by PM Narendra Modi’s government and conducted by the IAF on the three terrorist camps in Pakistan completely transformed India’s cautious defensive strategy.[iii] This is the first time in the history of military and warfare that a nuclear armed country has launched air strikes on another nuclear armed country. Thus India crossed the nuclear deterrence threshold and negated Pakistan’s nuclear threats. Pakistan’s strategy of attacking India through unconventional warfare and not provoking a response from India due to the nuclear threat has fallen flat.

Today Pakistan is bereft of a strategy as its nuclear threat has withered away and its Army knows that entire Pakistan is under the conventional as well as Indian nuclear military attack coverage. This invalidates the nuclear deterrence theory and the MAD. The theory is not sacrosanct anymore but works under certain conditions like when the two adversaries are equally armed or the aggressor is more armed than the other nation.

After the air strikes the conventional deterrence has prevented the nuclear threat as there is no nuclear weapons parity between India and Pakistan with India being powerful in terms of military capability both in terms of conventional and nuclear weapons systems. Thus, MAD is ineffectual in the sub-continent. Deterrence worked during the cold war as both the adversaries were armed in terms of nuclear weapons and delivery platforms. Soviet Union and the US had advanced military capability to destroy each other in a nuclear conflict. The arms buildup between the Soviet Union and the US led to the realization of nuclear annihilation having ramifications across the world. This threat led to both the nations signing the START and SALT agreements.

Nuclear deterrence theory and MAD will not work in South Asia due to the following:

The quality of weapons delivery platforms is important for the delivery of nuclear weapons. Technologically Pakistan’s weapons are antiquated and inferior. Most of its weapons systems are imported from China which reverse engineers them from Russian weapon systems.[iv] The Chinese weapons systems are not tested in any battles or wars. In an era of 4th and 5th generation warfare Pakistan still operates the 1st and the 2nd generation of combat aircrafts, naval ships and army weapons systems. India has inducted state of the art 4th generation weapons systems like SU 30 MK1, T 90 tanks, Vikramaditya aircraft carrier, nuclear attack submarine INS Arihant and ICBMs. Technologically advanced weapons will be used by India in conventional warfare to wipe out Pakistan’s military establishments and nuclear facilities in a preemptive strike. The quantity and lethality of conventional weapons in the arsenal is crucial to project the destructive capabilities on the adversary. Pakistan lacks in this aspect as its weapon systems are antiquated and this is the reason it has resorted to the strategy of unconventional warfare through terrorism. Therefore, in South Asia the conventional superiority of India outweighs the nuclear weapons systems capability and empty threats of Pakistan.

MAD is only possible if there is parity in nuclear bombs and weapon systems. MAD is not possible in South Asia due to the overwhelming Indian nuclear second-strike capability and superior conventional weapon systems.

In warfare the geographical size of the adversaries should also be taken into consideration. Pakistan is a small country and lacks geographical depth. Pakistan’s missile, naval and air bases and storage facilities are in close proximity to the international border with India thus making Pakistan’s military including nuclear weapons systems vulnerable. India’s geographical depth makes a Pakistani first strike nuclear doctrine less practical and ineffective. Pakistan’s weapons systems cannot cover entire India, but India’s missiles and fighter aircrafts will cover entire Pakistan. India follows the no first use doctrine and commands a massive second-strike capability.[v] The ability of Pakistan to annihilate India through a first or a second strike is not possible. If Pakistan uses the nuclear weapons India may suffer casualties in a major city but considering India’s geographical size Pakistan cannot obliterate India. This is not the case if India launches a 2nd strike nuclear attack on Pakistan. The ability of Pakistan’s army to defend Pakistan from an Indian 2nd nuclear strike is virtually nil. Pakistan will be destroyed and wiped off the map.

Pakistan’s military is not professional as mentioned by the noted military historian Ayesha Jalal as the military top brass is engaged in businesses from farming to logistics.[vi] The focus is on individual or group business interests instead of battle preparedness to fight a conventional war.

India can always conduct a preemptive strike on the nuclear infrastructure facilities in Pakistan. India can obliterate the entire Pakistani nuclear establishments including the command and control system and missile and storage facilities.

Pakistan air defenses are poor as it could not detect the US forces as they entered Pakistani territory and assassinated Osama bin Laden and exited Pakistan. Again, Pakistan did not detect and could not respond when India conducted air strikes on terrorist camps deep inside Pakistani territory. Thus, India has demonstrated its preemptive air strike capability to destroy Pakistan’s nuclear infrastructure and systems without any challenge from PAF.

The threat to Pakistan is the conventional preemptive strikes by India on its nuclear arsenal which will obliterate its ability to launch a first nuclear strike. This has been displayed by the precision air strikes on terrorist facilities deep inside in Pakistan.

Due to international pressure Pakistan will not start a nuclear war. US, European and other countries have directly or indirectly supported the Indian air strikes and have blamed Pakistan for sponsoring terrorism. After the air strikes Pakistan was diplomatically marginalized by even its closest friends in the Middle East. There is growing awareness in the world community regarding Pakistan harboring terrorist organizations on its soil and sponsoring attacks in India. It has been a measured, matured and a realistic response from the international community. Unlike Russia and US Pakistan is a small nuclear power constrained by relative technological backwardness and external diplomatic pressure. For the international community its business as usual as the focus is on Brexit, North Korea and China as events in South Asia have taken a back seat.

Capabilities and intentions are crucial for a nuclear strike. Both are complimentary to each other. In Pakistan’s case they have the capabilities but intentions to attack India using nuclear weapons are lacking due to various factors like antiquated weapon systems and lack of conventional weapons parity. The survivability factor for Pakistan after the first strike is a major concern for the Pakistan Army. India will launch a counter attack and the ability of Pakistan to survive this attack as a civilization is very low. Pakistan’s army generals know that the Pakistan army will cease to exist if they launch a nuclear strike on any Indian city. They can’t sacrifice Pakistan at the expense of their own survival.

India is building the indigenous Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) system to thwart off incoming conventional and nuclear missiles. It has ordered the Russian made S 400 missile systems. This will further negate Pakistan’s ballistic missiles delivery systems. Pakistan does not have a BMD and is vulnerable to an Indian ICBM strike.

India has many conventional options like naval blockade, preemptive strikes and cold start doctrine to negate a Pakistani nuclear attack.[vii] The Indian air strikes will have a debilitating effect on Pakistan’s strategy of unconventional warfare protected by nuclear deterrence

Pakistan under the nuclear umbrella was targeting India with impunity through hybrid warfare supported by various terrorist organizations. This line has been blown to pieces after the air strikes. Now Pakistan is vulnerable as IAF fighters entered Pakistani airspace with impunity and carried out air strikes.

Pakistan will take into consideration the above-mentioned intricacies into its calculus before deploying nuclear weapons against India.

Theoretically deterrence worked during the cold war but practically it has failed in South Asia after India’s air strikes deep inside Pakistan. Pakistan has a first strike nuclear doctrine, claiming its nuclear option is its shield against India’s superiority in conventional military capability. This is the first time that a nuclear armed country has launched air strikes against a nuclear adversary with impunity. Pakistan knows that the cost imposed by India in a second nuclear strike outweighs the benefits gained through a first nuclear strike. India has proved that strategic stability is not guaranteed by nuclear deterrence.

This is a black swan event for the proponents of the nuclear deterrence theory and Pakistan’s Army in which three decades of fighting an unconventional warfare under a nuclear umbrella is over. Pakistan is vulnerable to India’s retaliation and it knows it can’t win a conventional war with India. But it also can’t launch a nuclear strike and as such the first strike doctrine of Pakistan’s army is demolished. What India has also done with the airstrikes is to call Pakistan’s nuclear bluff. The air strikes demolished three conventionally accepted doctrines by the world community. First India’s policy of strategic restraint has been abolished. Secondly Pakistan’s age old strategy of hiding behind the nuclear threat and launching terrorist attacks in India without any retaliation from India is over. Thirdly Pakistan’s blackmailing of the international community by pressuring US and European nations to be involved on the pretext that South Asia is a powder keg of nuclear weapons and that the sub-continent is on the threshold of a nuclear conflict has not worked. Pakistan thought it can wage unrestricted warfare under the nuclear umbrella. After the Indian air strikes this policy has ended and now India has started unrestricted warfare with conventional capabilities. India has amalgamated Sun Tzu and Clausewitz by projecting its intentions in unrestricted warfare by launching air strikes in Pakistan. The deterrence factor of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons has been nullified. The game for Pakistan has changed as after the air strikes nuclear weapons are not a tool of war prevention but a tool of complete annihilation.

Small nuclear powers like Pakistan and North Korea resort to belligerent posturing and blackmailing the international community by threatening to use nuclear weapons under the doctrine of first nuclear strike. But there is a tacit understanding between the politicians and the military in both countries about the power of conventional war, preemptive strikes and total nuclear annihilation by India and the US. It’s the age of unrestricted warfare for technologically advanced militaries in conventional warfare environment with nuclear armed adversaries. This is the new normal.

End Notes

[i] Kargil Controversy: An IAF Response, By Air Marshal RS Bedi,

[ii] IAF wanted to take Revenge of 26/11 but UPA govt blocked the Surgical Strikes,

[iii]  India confirms air strikes inside Pakistan,

[iv] Chinese theft of sensitive US military technology is still a ‘huge problem,’ says defense analyst, Jeff Daniels,

[v] India and the Policy of No First Use of Nuclear Weapons,

[vi]  Military Inc.: Inside Pakistan's Military Economy, Ayesha Siddiqa,

[vii]  Cold Start Doctrine,


Categories: India - Pakistan - Kashmir

About the Author(s)

Mangesh Sawant, an alumnus of Columbia University's masters program where he concentrated in international security policy, is a subject-matter expert on military, security and defense matters. Mangesh has 16 years of experience in military strategy and tactics, weapons systems analysis, studying warfare, conducting research, policy analysis and formulation, developing case studies and lessons learned and incorporating global best practices. He conceived, designed and developed counter-terrorism, physical security and critical infrastructure protection and transportation security training programs for law enforcement agencies, corporations and universities.



Sat, 09/25/2021 - 8:03am

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