Nuclear Battlefield: Quandaries in Deployment Patterns

Are conventional patterns of deployment obsolete in a nuclear environment or is there the need of devising a dual-purpose defensive posture? Asks Maj Gen. VK Madhok (Retd) in this article.


Nuclear Battlefield: Quandaries in Deployment Patterns

(Editor's Note: This article is based off of a recent letter written by Maj Gen. VK Madhok (Retd) and addressed to the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) along with the Higher Defence Organisations (HDO) with suggestions pertaining to India's deployment patterns in a nuclear set up.)

Dilemma of Conventional Deployment

A serious problem which is likely to confront the military and the political hierarchies of Third World countries in the next decades—if not earlier, would concern the patterns of deployment their armed forces should follow on a nuclear battlefield. Whether the conventional tactical doctrines their forces have inherited and are so used to, as well as trained in would suffice or would these become obsolete in a nuclear environment?

Should they continue with conventional pat­terns of deployment or also train to fight a nuclear war or is there a possibility of having a dual-purpose defensive posture which would meet conventional as well as nuclear threats?

To take a simple illustration, so far as the land forces are concerned, the current and past military doctrines all over the world emphasize a numerical superiority of 3 to 1 while attacking. Further, an attacker is required to concentrate be­fore launching an attack.

The Chinese went a step further by laying down a superiority of 6 or even 7 to 1 in attack. With the availability of precision guided weapons and intense fire power in future, the need for numerical superiority would be consi­derably reduced although not eliminated even on a conven­tional battlefield. But a nuclear environment does not support this theory at all, as any concentration prior to an attack along with numerical superiority would be suicidal if not disas­trous.

The Nuclear Battlefield

"Should we continue with conventional pat­terns of deployment or also train to fight a nuclear war or is there a possibility of having a dual-purpose defensive posture which would meet both conventional and nuclear threats?"
Nuclear mushroom cloud; Artist Rendition

Three characteristics distinguish the nuclear battlefield:

Defence is mobile, the battlefield is vast and troops under the NATO doctrine are dispersed. Also, the battlefield is not as we perceive it today in the conventional sense. The targets will be cities and industrial centres, silos housing missiles, under-ground command centres and so on.

So far as the nu­clear weapons are concerned, these are now packed into short range tactical missiles, air-defence warheads, artillery shells, anti-submarine depth chargers, sea-skimming anti-ship mis­siles, suit-case sized demolition charges and so on. Conven­tional war under a nuclear threat will therefore be quite diffe­rent from the one to which one is used to.

A Difficult Choice

It is a difficult choice when a conventional army must fight against a nuclear power. It is even more difficult when an army which has nuclear weapons at its disposal or the po­tential to use them but has no option but to respond with a gradual escalation from a conventional to a nuclear war.

So far as conventional choice in a nuclear scenario is concerned, it lies between accepting military ineffectiveness by employ­ing standard military formations which have been dispersed as if nuclear weapons might be used or court disaster by concen­trating such forces: Besides, there cannot be a continuous frontline in a nuclear conflict. In case there is one, it would be purely symbolic. As otherwise, it would lead to easy detec­tion.

To avoid easy detection, mobile defence and stealth take the place of static defence. At the same time, there are conflic­ting views on dispersal and concentration. Thus, leading to a difficult choice indeed regarding the posture to be adopted.

Major Considerations

"The battlefield is not as we perceive it today in the conventional sense. The targets will be cities and industrial centres, silos housing missiles, under-ground command centres and so on."
Grable atomic test, fired off from an atomic cannon: File Photo

A defending country with a conventional army needs to take note of some major aspects when preparing for a nuclear environment. If the defender keeps his defences concentrated, then he becomes an easy nuclear target and a casualty. On the other hand, if he disperses too much (a necessity in a nuclear environment) then he could be an easy target for a strong con­ventional attack!

Also, the availability of nuclear weapons need not necessarily deter an attacker from a conventional attack. As with the availability of precision guided conven­tional weapons and target acquisition techniques, a conven­tional war can be as destructive as a nuclear one.

When both sides possess nuclear weapons, there would always remain a danger of a conventional war turning nuclear. The conflict between Iran-Iraq is a case in point, where che­mical weapons and missiles have been used on a lavish scale in a so-called conventional war and the future is yet to unfold itself.

A defender would therefore need to consider deploy­ment for a nuclear war, otherwise the attacker would have the advantage of choice of weapons, to destroy a defender. Then the latter will not be in a position to use his nuclear weapons. An attacker in a nuclear war has much to gain if he starts the war with a nuclear deployment because then he is in a position to use his nuclear weapons.

Contrarily, in case a conventional defender adopts a nu­clear posture it will need to be as strong numerically as the attacker. Else it would be at the decline and cost of his own fire power, increase in enemy's flexibility coupled with the fact that both sides are equally exposed.

Emerging Concept of Rear Attack

"By attacking the enemy at his rear, one denies him the use of his nuclear weapons. Besides, it gives greater freedom of move­ment to our troops compared to an attack from the front."
US Army personnel training for MCBM enviorns; File Photo

A new philosophy of ‘Rear Attack’ has been taking shape in the Western countries for launching an attack against a nu­clear enemy. Since the Second World War the routine attacks always used to be launched from the front and then subse­quently branched-off into a number of routes before reaching the rear.

In these days of hyper-mobility, with air transport and perfect air landing techniques of a very high order if an air landing can be made to succeed why cannot an attack start from the rear to the front instead of the other way round!?

This is a concept of particular relevance in a nuclear scenario. By attacking the enemy at his rear, one denies him the use of his nuclear weapons. Besides, it gives greater freedom of move­ment to our troops compared to an attack from the front. Therefore, sufficient grounds exist to deliberate on measures to achieve this concept.

Ultimately the question as to whether these or any other deployment patterns which allow a defender to fight a conven­tional war in a conventional way and also suit the require­ments of a nuclear war and largely maintain the defenders' advantage over the attacker needs a great deal of deliberation and defies any easy 'Quickfix’ solution.

Former United States Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger's opinion was to have a reserve deployed for nuclear war in the combat zone. That is, the troops in front should be deployed for a conventional war and those in reserve for a nuclear war —in other words, a concentrated front, and a dispersed rear.

There seem to be many disadvantages in this proposal and this dual deployment has very little to commend it.

So far, the overall conclusion seems to be that while it may be possible to restructure organizations and have better means of transportation for dispersal and concentration, there is no defensive deployment which would suit both conventional and a nuclear war. A conventional deployment would invite nu­clear disaster and a dispersed deployment would deprive a de­fence of its traditional advantages.

Maj Gen. VK Madhok is a product of the 1st Course JSW/NDA and was commissioned into the 3 GR. He was the BGS HQ Southern Command and the COS at HQ 4 Corps. He retired as the ADG (TA). He lives in Pune. The author can be reached on Email: majgenvkmadhok@gmail.com

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