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HomeDEFENCEDeterrence: Making China think twice before taking another step forward # 1

Deterrence: Making China think twice before taking another step forward # 1

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“A nation has security when it does not have to sacrifice its legitimate interests to avoid war, and is able, if challenged, to maintain them by war.”   – Walter Lippmann, 1943

The recent turn of events on our Northern Borders and immediate neighborhood have raised more questions than answers. The official information dissemination trickles have led to ambiguities, contradictions, and inconsistencies, obscuring the clarity of conflict situations, conflict resolution, and strategic outcomes. The average countryman thus derives his perceptions viewing endless debates, which may be devoid of on-ground realities. Indeed, as a nation, we need to invest a lot more in the Information domain as a strategic tool of national security. However, what stands as a matter of critical concern and immediate introspection at the operational and strategic level, is the resilience of our conventional deterrence on the Northern Borders. The key question thus being addressed in this article is – “Has deterrence failed on our northern borders resulting in the recent Chinese unprecedented aggressive trans LAC actions”? Or, “Has the dissuasive deterrence held firmly to stymie escalation into a bigger conflict”? Or, “Has the lack of credible deterrence and failure to execute time and place sensitive “Quid Pro Quo” actions, resulting in a compromised conflict de-escalation outcome”? The central theme and reality thus remain that expansionism and revisionism by our adversaries on our borders remain undeterred, which is a matter of concern for the nation.

National Security and Deterrence

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National security is an amalgam of political stability and democratic maturity, human resource optimization, decisive national leadership,  economic resilience, technological competence, indigenous industrial base,  availability of natural resources, and finally a dynamic defence capability leading up to a strong state of art military deterrence. Information warfare and strategic communications remain important tools for conveying this intent. More importantly, the emergence of the multi-domain threat spectrum, escalating internal vulnerabilities and an overarching condition of strategic volatility, under which national security is now required to operate, mandates a nation to invest in credible deterrence against future threats and build up time-sensitive desired capabilities to counter them. This would add resilience to the national security strategy and the responsibility of the state as a net security provider. The bottom line most relevant in the Indian context is that the intentions of our adversaries can change very fast while building our capabilities take a long time. The wise must never be found wanting.

The pendulum of war and peace on our turbulent disputed borders will continue to have its dynamics in terms of competing challenges of gaining ascendancy in the strategic space, time, force, and information domain. The probability of our nuclear-armed neighbors to engage in a decisive full-scale war is low. To achieve their political aims they are likely to exploit a combination of the plethora of options available lower down in the spectrum of conflict. The threat manifestation on our Western and more significantly on our Northern borders recently are witness to the same.

Apache 3

This translates into the imperative of honing our conventional deterrence against the revisionist strategic culture of our adversaries, ranging from brewing proxy war to incremental territorial expansion. Deterrence in the Indian strategic security construct is thus aimed at punitive deterrence (offensive) on the western front and dissuasive to credible deterrence (defensive) on the northern front. Punitive deterrence is based on the premise of assured retribution and making the cost prohibitive than the benefit of proxy war or territorial aggression. Dissuasive deterrence or deterrence by denial aims to deter aggression by convincing an adversary that the aggression would fail to achieve its operational and strategic aims. Thus, the status quo will be construed as a victory by the defender. Credible deterrence in its more dynamic form includes a limited offensive capability for a quid pro quo gain and the dilution of the aggressor’s offensive capacity by forcing him to divert resources to his defense, thereby generating the ability to take the war to the enemy and increasing the political cost of aggression. This would cause strategic embarrassment and de-facto defeat to the aggressor. However, while our deterrence has been repeatedly put to test in the recent past, it has also led to the exposure of strategic and operational voids, vulnerabilities, and response mechanisms, in our deterrence capabilities. These need to be addressed expeditiously before the next round, which may well be around the corner. At the tactical level, the courage and valor of our brave hearts have given the aggressor more than a nightmare.  Deterrence, particularly on our Northern Front, thus needs to keep pace with the realism of evolving geopolitics and emerging threats to national security.

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DETERRENCE: In military parlance, wars are fought to ensure lasting peace, and deterrence is an instrument towards the furtherance of that peace. Today’s changing strategic environment remains volatile and uncertain, but deterrence remains fundamental to national security. However, the application of deterrence concepts and capabilities requires formulation in the context of adversaries’ behavior and strategic culture. There are many concepts and functional aspects of deterrence, but generally, deterrence involves three essential components which are capability, credibility, and communication.

CAPABILITY: Deterrence can only be effective if the threat on which it is based is militarily capable and sufficiently large to deter. Capability is a factor of both tangibles of modernization, technology empowerment, joint force capability, and intangibles include superior strategy, superior tactics, troop morale, battle inoculation, training, and military leadership. Thus it relates to possessing the desired multi-domain military capability to carry out plausible military retaliatory threats, backed by resolute diplomacy and decisive political leadership. Traditional assessments of the capabilities by aggressor are of only limited predictive value unless accompanied by a sound understanding of what the deterrent’s national values and culture, how it perceives the conflict, and how it makes decisions, just to name but a few of the critical variables.  Military capability is also communicated through joint force posturing, operational readiness, technology empowerment, and indigenous warfighting and war endurance capacity. The milder the capability, the more willing and bold the aggressor will be for coercion. In real geopolitics, only strength is respected and weakness exploited. A fact borne by the unprecedented Chinese aggression across the LAC.  Another undisputed fact is that deterrence lies primarily in the cognitive domain. Thus, operational readiness must aim to effectively detect, deny, degrade, and defeat any decisive advantage the aggressor may seek. The ability for “Quid Pro Quo” operations would add teeth to this deterrence capability and thus must be an integral part of our demonstrated capability.  The notion of military victory on our Northern borders, should it escalate into conflict, would thus rest on ensuring the status quo denying China its military and political objectives, while retaining the ability to execute limited offensive operations in selected areas. While the strategy must aim at a credible deterrence, the acme of skill would lie in winning by deterring, without fighting. Negative signaling such as dwindling defense budget, absence of a strong indigenous defense industrial base, operational hollowness and rethink on Mountain Strike Corps, create chinks in deterrence capabilities.


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CREDIBILITY: Relates to declared intent and plausible resolve to protect national interests. It’s a function of decisive political will, agile diplomacy and above all a demonstrated joint force military capability to ensure territorial integrity. It’s beyond the rhetorics of petty party politics, hyper-nationalism, or playing to the domestic galleries. The most important aspect to understand about credibility is that it is not a one-way action, but rather involves a reciprocal relationship between the two players in which perception and actions are crucial operational components. The deterrent, more importantly, the aggressor must believe beyond any doubt that deterrent threats will be carried out. Credibility does not only refer to the initial tactical response – but a deterrent must also be prepared to stay the course once the costs and pressures begin to mount at the operational and strategic level. A lesson we need to learn from the recent stand-off on our Northern Borders.  Thus, a fundamental difference exists between the concepts of deterrence and defense: deterrence seeks to make conflict look bad to the enemy, while defense seeks to make conflict better for oneself by stalling the aggressor. This is the essence and something the Indian establishment would do well to differentiate and arm its deterrence capabilities. Credibility also has a close bonding to commitment. Commitment is political and often put to test especially against a powerful adversary. When a challenge is directed against vital interests of the state, credibility is virtually assured. However, it is where commitment is questioned, that challenges are most likely to occur. A strong political will is required to commit forces and to convince a potential aggressor that the deterrent will carry out a threatened action irrespective of the cost, in the pursuit of preserving its national interest.

COMMUNICATION: It has three key strategic facets. Communication to the adversary of assured retribution where vital interests threaten, communication to the domestic audience of nations resolve to preserve national interests based on the ethos of  “Nation Above All”, and communication to the world community of the nation’s maturity and commitment to global peace, yet firmness to use of force should its national interests be compromised. It thus inherently involves a strategy of politico-diplomatic dissuasion, economic decoupling, and strategic messaging. Communication should include “red lines” considered unacceptable, the response to any of the adversary’s unacceptable actions, and the demonstrated will to carry out the deterrent threat. Thus, the ability to communicate to the potential aggressor that the costs and/or risks of a given course of aggressive action he might take outweigh its benefits, in clear and unambiguous terms, is vital. Yet again the Indian national security establishment would do well to state it as firmly to the Northern adversary, as they do to the Western adversary. While it may be desirable to restrict a potential aggressor’s access to sensitive military information, lack of showcasing abilities may reduce deterrence effectiveness. Thus, plausible communication must showcase military strength, its deployability, employability, and capability.

COERCION: Much of China’s foreign policy and strategic behavior, is built either directly or indirectly around the dual strategy of coercion and inducement. United States recent report on Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China stated: “As China has grown in strength, so has the willingness and capacity of the Chinese Communist Party to employ intimidation and coercion in its attempts to subjugate perceived threats to its interests, towards the furtherance of its strategic objectives”. Tactical actions and belligerence are thus aimed at strategic coercion, be it in the Indo Pacific or the Himalayas. In the context of China’s recent aggressive stance on the Himalayas, the aim is not just tactical “salami-slicing” or incremental territorial expansion. The larger aim is stymieing the rise of India as a regional competitor, it’s global standing, and symbolic reprisal against its recent domestic and foreign policy initiatives, perceived as inimical to China’s national interests and vision.  Keeping the LAC dispute life is thus perceived as leverage by China for its coercive strategy.

COMPLLANCE AND DETERRENCE: Within the realm of strategic coercion, it is important to distinguish between deterrence and compelience, with particular reference to our northern borders. Deterrence and compellence couple demand for inaction and action, respectively, to a threat. Deterrence is easier than compellence, but this relationship is variable and mutually supporting.  Whereas deterrence seeks to dissuade the target from doing something, compellence attempts to make the target change its behavior—for example, to halt aggression, to withdraw from the disputed territory, and accept status quo as existed before the aggression. Thus creating counter friction points like occupying other disputed areas, and politico diplomatic cum economic pressure points, to compel the threat to a desired course of action must be part of the overall deterrence – compellence strategy on our Northern Front. This means making the expected value of continued aggression by China appear worse to its national interests, than the expected value of the status quo.


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Lt Gen A B Shivane, PVSM, AVSM, VSM (Retd)
Lt Gen A B Shivane, PVSM, AVSM, VSM (Retd)
Commissioned in the 7th Light Cavalry, Lt Gen Shivane retired as DG Mechanized Forces. He was thereafter engaged as Consultant with MoD/OFB and authored two books on national security. He is a TEDx speaker and holds COAS Chair of Excellence 2021-2022 at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies. Gen Shivane has been General Officer Commanding of an elite Strike Corps and commanded 50 Armoured regiment during Operation Vijay and Operation Parakram, an independent armoured brigade and the elite Armoured Division. He has also served in counter insurgency operations in Punjab and Jammu & Kashmir and has been on a UN assignment. His other prestigious appointments include AQMG Mountain Division, GSO1 IS (Ops) in Kashmir, Commander Independent Armoured Brigade, BGS Strike Corps, ADG PP, GOC Armored Division and GOC Strike Corps.


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