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  • Writer's pictureThe Red Line

Episode 103. Wargaming: India vs Pakistan

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The potential conflict between India and Pakistan stands at a precipice of alarming complexity, as the two nuclear-armed neighbours navigate a tangled web of historical tensions, territorial disputes, and geopolitical ambitions, and with India's rapidly evolving military capabilities and strategic partnerships, the landscape of South Asian defence dynamics is shifting.

The theoretical pitfalls of a confrontation between these nations would have far-reaching implications, not just for the subcontinent, but for the global order. From cyber warfare to conventional battles, what would a war between India and Pakistan entail? We ask our panel of experts to unpack the scenarios, strategies, and stakes posed by this conflict:


Episode Overview:

Part 1: The Three-Front War (3:01)

  • Chris Clary begins our discussion by noting the unique position India finds itself in; bordering two near-peer adversaries while also placed centrally in the Indian Ocean. This requires a significant defence posture to defend its borders and waters, with extensive personnel requirements.

  • These demands are forcing a modernisation of the Indian military, with significant investments into technology and equipment in the Indian Air Force and Navy.

  • We discuss the Indian Army’s reliance on Russian ground forces equipment, stemming from a long-term partnership with Russian stemming from the Cold War, and the effect on India’s defence procurement since the conflict in Ukraine.

  • Clary points towards the Indian military’s ongoing “identity crisis”, with a debate ongoing between developing nuclear strike capabilities alongside ground strike capabilities and personnel. We discuss India’s so-called “cold start doctrine” which emerged in the wake of India’s sluggish mobilisation in 2001.

  • We highlight India’s attempt to develop a globally competitive domestic defence manufacturing industry, both to ensure sovereign capability as well as growing its economy and strategic relationships, and how those efforts have struggled somewhat compared to other nation’s recent efforts such as Turkey.

  • We discuss the recent move within India’s military doctrine towards theatreisation and the challenges of creating joint capability between its forces across vast and different terrains.

Part 2: Bite and Hold (30:40)

  • Arzan Tarapore begins the second part of our discussion by pointing out that in the last two decades, India’s military has developed an offensive capability in response to Pakistani terror attacks on Indian soil.

  • Key to this has been the failure to mobilise quickly in 2001, which Tarapore explains the causes behind linked to India’s force posture, leading to India being outmanoeuvred diplomatically. We also discuss the concept of joint operations and its incipient status within the Indian military today.

  • We discuss the India-Pakistan border territories and the deceptively few options for incursion into Pakistan. Tarapore points out that India is significantly more likely to pivot away from maximalist attacks moving towards coercive, small scale strategic attacks designed to put pressure on Pakistan.

  • We discuss Pakistan’s red lines around the use of its nuclear weapons and the need for India to tread carefully in order to achieve its desired coercive effect without stumbling into nuclear warfare.

  • We discuss the lessons for India from the Russia-Ukraine conflict, noting that India’s ground forces rely on several assets currently in use in that conflict.

Part 3: Deciding Which Fire to Fight (53:31)

  • Christine Fair begins our final segment by noting that India has attempted to signal that it has pivoted its security focus to China and away from Pakistan. Yet, as she notes, the security presence on the India-Pakistan border remains significant.

  • We discuss India’s significantly larger military and investment into its defence compared to Pakistan. However, Fair points out that the numbers don’t tell the full story, with India’s larger force likely to struggle to mobilise in a timely fashion and Pakistan’s force posture concentration on the Indian border delivering significant advantages.

  • We analyse the constraints upon India’s military created by Russia’s conflict with Ukraine and the flow-on effects upon India’s ability to project power in the Indian Ocean and across the Indo-Pacific.

  • We note the accidental launch of an Indian missile towards Pakistan in 2022 and its communication with Pakistan to prevent escalation demonstrates rational actors.

  • Fair points out that Pakistan’s strategic approach has relied upon asymmetric warfare and non-military attacks on India, and her assertion that Pakistan does not have the luxury of a first strike nuclear capability.


Episode Guests:

Chris Clary

  • Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Albany

  • Nonresident Fellow of the Stimson Center’s South Asia program

  • Previously he was a predoctoral fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University (2014-2015), as well as a Stanton Nuclear Security Predoctoral Fellow at the RAND Corporation (2013-2014)

  • Former Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow in India

Arzan Tarapore

  • Research Scholar at the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) at Stanford University

  • Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute

  • His research focuses on military strategy, Indian defense policy, and Indo-Pacific security issues

  • Previously served for more than a decade in the Australian Defence Department, in a variety of analytic, management, and liaison positions, including a diplomatic posting to the Australian Embassy in Washington, DC

Christine Fair

  • Associate Professor in the Security Studies Program within the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University

  • Previously she served as a senior political scientist with the RAND Corporation

  • Previously a Senior Fellow at West Point's Combating Terrorism Center and a Senior Resident Fellow at the Institute of Defense Studies and Analyses in New Delhi.


The Red Line's India Pakistan Conflict Reading List:

We’ve compiled a list of further reading to better understand the geopolitics of nuclear-armed India and Pakistan.


India's Military Strategy: Countering Pakistan's Challenge

Srinvasan Kalyanaraman

Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army's Way of War

Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power

Robert Kaplan


For episode transcripts, monthly geopolitics Q&A’s, member-only videos and to support the show, check out our Patreon here:

This episode is dedicated to our Patreon member Jason W, Susan Stansy, Phil, Thermato, Ayman Elmasri, and Hue Mann.


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