Exercise (Ex) Sanghe Shakti, advertised as the first large scale exercise by India's Army since the standoff with Pakistan in Op Parakram of 2002, has thankfully not been over-hyped in the press. The exercise was carried out in the peak of summer after the rabi crop was cut. Press reports have it that 20000 troops were involved including those of India's premier 'strike corps'. It appears the military was allowed to go about its business without the usual Indo-Pak exchange of rhetoric attending the issue as had become a ritual since the infamous Ex Brasstacks of the mid Eighties.

Ex Brasstacks had ended up in a hasty deployment of the Army on the borders called Operation Trident, a crisis eventually defused by General Zia's resort to 'cricket diplomacy'. The legacy of Brasstacks has been in the nuclear backdrop that has since attended all such large scale outings of both armies. In 1989, Pakistan countered with its exercise, 'Ex Zarb-e-Momin' (Sword of the Believer). This eventuated in 1990 in the first nuclear crisis of the subcontinent. It also witnessed the first American attempt to cool tempers with the Gates mission, named after the then Deputy National Security Advisor Robert Gates, to both capitals. In the last such grand exercise, Ex Poorna Vijay, carried out in peak summer 2001, India demonstrated its capability to fight in a nuclear environment, giving it the self confidence to invite the then President Musharraf, till then persona non grata for his role in the Kargil episode, over to Agra.

As to why the nuclear deterrent, articulated as covering all weapons of mass destruction, would not hold with respect to chemical weapons - the lesser of the fears, and weapons of mass destruction nonetheless - is not explained.

 •  Of nukes and counter-nukes
 •  Second strike and false security

That Ex Sanghe Shakti was concluded in the plains of Punjab without much ado indicates the determination of both governments to keep temperatures below the now usual levels of the summer campaign in Kashmir. However, this positive highlight should not cloud the questionable premises of Ex Sanghe Shakti.

Shaky grounds

One, the apprehension appears to be that Pakistan may resort to chemical weapons instead of nuclear weapons. Ex Sanghe Shakti culminated in a chemical attack decontamination drill beamed into drawing rooms to demonstrate the Army's prowess in continuing an engagement with Pakistan even after chemical weapons may have made their battle field appearance. The apprehension is misplaced; in harbouring it, the Army is surely in a denial mode, wishing away the nuclear weapons so assiduously fore-grounded by Pakistan. It believes nuclear weapons deter nuclear weapons. As to why the same deterrent, articulated as covering all weapons of mass destruction, would not hold with respect to chemical weapons the lesser of the fears, and weapons of mass destruction nonetheless - is not explained.

Two, Ex Sanghe Shakti was to showcase Indian readiness for a short war. A lesson from India Op Parakram experience has been that if international war prevention pressure is to be preempted then the war would require to be swiftly launched. The duration of the resulting war would be short given the manner the international community would be energised to end it. Therefore maximum destruction of the adversary's military muscle or capture of territory is to be accomplished in the shortest time. The efficacy of these aims is worth interrogation.

Territorial war aims are of little consequence in today's world order. The Kargil war ended up reinforcing the legitimacy of the Line of Control (LOC). While a belligerent state may get away with capture of territory across it in the next round, as was done in the conversion of the line from being the ceasefire line (CFL) to LOC in the Simla Agreement of 1972, the return of territory in Punjab, the area of the exercise, is but a sure thing.

Perhaps then, the armoured thrusts of India's strike corps exercised in Ex Sanghe Shakti were looking to contend with Pakistan's reserves and in the process destroy them. This would involve Pakistan courting Indian forces in its own territory – an action Pakistan may not like to risk, especially on its own territory where the collateral damage would prove prohibitive.

Pakistan, however, may fight on ground of its own choosing elsewhere along the border, adding to avoidable damage, blood spilt and the duration of the conflict. Therefore it is likely that once Indian forces get into Pakistan they may be surprised in not finding the might of Pakistan Army confronting them. They may then end up coping with the Iraq style tactics of resident jehadis and a climatic refugee situation.

The incidence of the culturally loaded 'Shakti' in the name of the exercise raises also makes the premise of a short war shaky. Such naming mirrors Pakistan's like propensity for such religio-cultural symbolism; witness the names it gives its exercises such as Zarb e Momin (Sword of the Believers) and operations such as Operation Badr for its Kargil effort, named after a famous battle in early Muslim history. If anything, the latent emotions - that such Freudian slips are evidence of - when sparked off may belie the expectations of a short, cathartic, war leading up to a better peace.

Three, a theoretical premise is that preparedness enhances deterrence. However, South Asia is a live problem area with a brittle peace. The region has witnessed one war, one near war and an ongoing proxy war over the last decade. This makes the new fangled offensive doctrine that takes the war to the enemy camp at the very outset itself, practiced in the exercise, dangerous. The Army's hope is that those doing the watching Islamabad's General Head Quarters (GHQ) get the message on India's preparedness and resolve. This would wean them away from banking on jehadis to deliver up Kashmir.

The contrary is more likely. GHQ planners would prefer to think up other ways to tackle India's military power. They have already succeeded in tying India's Army down in Siachen since the Eighties, in Kashmir through the Nineties and ironically also in Kargil since their unceremonious exit. After the 1971 war, India gave itself a Northern Command. After Kargil, another Corps to guard the heights was created. After Op Parakram, another two commands have been created. In effect, even as India has responded with conventional buildup, there has been no let up in its security problematic. The conclusion is that, taken holistically, India's reflexive conventional muscle building and flexing are not necessarily benign for national security.

Not out of the woods yet

With its war plans tested via Ex Sanghe Shakti, the Army may argue for the real thing at the next free lancing jehadi group's dastardly provocation. It would be too late then to contend that the test itself was delusional. The terrorist attack at Ayodhya indicates that we are not out of the woods as yet to permit the Army to experiment with hazardous routes as these to help traverse the times.

Recognising that we are at the end of the Clausewitzian age - in which the military had a political purpose – would help end the belief in military solutions. The sense in the doctrines of 'defensive defence' that were discussed in peacenik circles of the mid-nineties, needs to be revisited once again. Only then could Ex Sanghe Shakti be known to history as the last grand manoeuvre on the historically war afflicted plains of Punjab.