After Uri India’s military reviews the “escalation ladder” - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Tuesday 20 September 2016

After Uri India’s military reviews the “escalation ladder”

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 21st Sept 2016

Escalation ladder for cross border operations (explanatory text below)

Weapons & Equipment
Counter retaliation
Diplomatic messaging

Strike without physically crossing LoC
Terrorist camps and control centres
Recce assets & BDA*, artillery, Smerch, Brahmos missiles
Restraint: striking terrorist infrastruc-ture only
Alerting own troops to guard against retaliation
India showing restraint by attacking non-state actors
Pak army posts that support infiltration

As above

Pak Army included in terror infra

As above
Declare that Pak Army is central to terrorism
Pak army posts & HQs in rear areas

As above
Pak Army institutional role

As above

As above

Strikes across LoC, but without holding  ground

Air strikes on forward camps/posts
Recce & BDA, strike fighters, attack heptrs, SAR** units

Escalation to use of air power
Deployment of national air defence, including ground units

No intent to escalate beyond air strikes
Air strikes on army depth units, HQs, infrastructure

As above
Intent to punish all involved in terrorism
As above, IAF combat patrols

As above
Forward unit raids across LoC, Special Forces (SF) raids in depth
SF units, C-130J aircraft & heptrs, artillery, SAR assets
Escalation to use of ground troops
High alert in own posts, guarding of rear against any riposte
No intent to hold ground or escalate to full-scale offensive

Strikes across LoC, with ground being held
Shallow attacks on pre-identified vulnerable enclaves
Forward units with heavy fire support, backed up by reserves
Major escalation to capture of territory
Vulnerable posts, areas beefed up, including on China border
Diplomatic deflecting, e.g. “Will have to confirm”.
Larger attack to occupy pre-identified territory
Reserve units from back-up formation, fire support
As above
As above. Will probably trigger Pak nuclear threat
Demand for guarantees of ending terrorism

Crossing international border
Air strikes across border and SF ops
Full scale mobilisation for war, including air force & navy
Starting of full-scale war
Trigger Pak air strikes, counter attacks, and nuclear threat
Intense pressure to stop war, threats from China
Shallow incursions by holding formations
As above
As above
As above
As above
Deep strikes into Pakistan by tanks of strike corps; naval blockade and air operations
As above
Full scale war
Intensified nuclear threats, with demonstration strike of TNW possible
As above

*    Battle damage assessment resources
**  Search and rescue for aircraft, personnel shot down


The strike by jihadi militants on Sunday on an army camp near Uri, in which 18 soldiers were killed and 29 injured, has inflamed tensions along the Line of Control (LoC). On Tuesday, the army shot down eight Pakistani militants after intercepting a 15-strong group that was discovered infiltrating from Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK).

With public opinion and the media aroused, and with Prime Minister Narendra Modi vowing to punish those responsible; and the army’s top operations officer declaring the military would retaliate at a time and place of its choosing, both sides of the LoC are bracing for what might come.

New Delhi has pinned the attack on the Lashkar-e-Toiba, a militia controlled by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), a wing of the Pakistani Army. Home Minister Rajnath Singh has declared Pakistan a “terrorist state” and the Indian Army, already grappling with public turmoil in the Kashmir Valley, is evaluating options to extract revenge for Uri.

Pakistan presents an easy target for an Indian diplomatic offensive against its terror-friendly ways, in western capitals and multilateral forums. However, a calibrated military riposte would need more careful consideration.

Business Standard has discussed India’s options with senior officers close to the planning process. All of them agree the army can easily initiate retaliation. But, thereafter, there would be two sides in the game. Escalation would be both inevitable and unpredictable.

India’s first option is to retaliate through fires (the effect of weapons) without Indian forces physically crossing the LoC. This would involve “fire assaults” on targets across the border, using artillery, missiles, and multi-barrel rocket launchers and Brahmos cruise missiles for deeper-lying targets. A fire assault involves suddenly opening up intense fire with massed weapons on an unsuspecting and carefully chosen target, catching people in the open and inflicting heavy casualties.

Besides weapons, all trans-LoC retaliation would require reconnaissance assets, including satellites, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and electronic warfare (EW) units to identify suitable targets and carry out battle damage assessment (BDA) after a strike. The BDA would determine whether the target had been adequately punished, or whether it needs to be struck again.

Depending upon Pakistan’s response, fire assaults could be escalated through three stages – first targeting terrorist infrastructure, then forward Pakistan Army posts that facilitated infiltration and, finally, Pakistani headquarters (HQs) and installations in the rear.

Each operational level would send a specific signal and require tailor-made diplomatic messaging to manage international opinion. To absorb the inevitable retaliation, the Indian military would need to anticipate and plan appropriately.

In keeping with the theory of “escalation dominance”, the military would seek to dominate each step of the escalation ladder. This would discourage Pakistan from escalating the exchange.

The next level of escalation would involve physically moving troops --- first aircraft and then, if necessary, ground forces --- to attack across the LoC. To manage the risks, India would signal a purely punitive intent, with no intention to actually hold ground across the LoC. Naturally, aircraft and troops that cross the LoC carry the risk of being captured. India’s military would pre-position “search and rescue” (SAR) units and casualty evacuation (casevac) detachments, equipped with helicopters, to retrieve personnel shot down across the LoC, injured ground soldiers and the bodies of those killed.

The third level of escalation would involve the capture and occupation of territory across the LoC, such as vulnerable pockets where the border protrudes into India, or enclaves on the Indian side of a river or stream. This would be a significant escalation and a violation of the Shimla Agreement, which prohibits either side from changing the status quo. Deeper attacks would require India to mobilise reserves, including fire support assets, as well as the air force.

Longstanding intelligence and military assessments indicate that any Indian capture of significant Pakistani territory would trigger a nuclear threat from that country.

The final level of escalation involves Indian offensive operations across the settled international boundary between India and Pakistan --- the so-called Radcliffe Line. In the 1965 war this was done only belatedly by India, when it became clear that the fighting in J&K, i.e. on what is today called the LoC, was not going favourably for India. Today, an Indian large-scale attack across the international boundary would almost certainly trip the Pakistan Army’s nuclear threshold, eliciting a threat to use nuclear weapons. Several Indian strategic planners insist a Pakistani threat would be a bluff. However, the diplomatic pressure on New Delhi would be intense, and it remains unlikely that India’s leadership would successfully resist it. 


  1. In the above chart you make no mention of using our naval assets to strike Pakistani naval/fishing vessels.This is in fact the best option.Even if civilians die so be it.

  2. The best option is this is great oppertunity to destroy all nuclear reactors and nuclear enrichment facilities by brahmos and other missiles and destroy all infrastucture like power plants and water facilities without crossing a single inch of land in Pakistan. Whole Pakistan would be dark and without water and they would feel the pinch that they have done something horribly wrong. Destroy all the bridges and important road points between China and Pakistan and do a naval blockade so no ship can get in or out to Pakistan.they have a very large underground strategic oil reserve , bomb it with deep penetration bomb so that those oil reserves burn for months. The punishment be so severe that financially Pakistan is broken down and in no position to go to war. Nuclear weapons cannot be used as the world would get angry and wipe them out if they dare to use nuclear weapons. Pakistan would try to attack with planes and missiles which can be shot down and they would not have any finencial support to fight full scale war. The success of this mission rests on speed complete in less than an hour. Spray all the fields with chemicals to destroy the opium harvest so that the main source of money is cut and Pakistani army is seriously hampered. Use Mossad style raids on the international sponsors of the hawala money send to Kashmiri that they are killed.expel the embassy personal including Abdul basit and downgrade the embassy staff to five people.when you give a big slap without crossing the LOC the world would be relived that the nuclear bombs for terrorists have stopped and I would Evan open the dam gates to flood the tunnel so that nuclear bombs hidden in tunnel get flooded and lost.

  3. POK is Indian territory, and reclaimining it should not be legally incorrect. There can be no LOC in this case. Pakistan cannot be allowed to enjoy its fruits of aggression by continuing to hold POK.With China having Great stakes worth billions of $s in the area, India must take that into consideration, and be ready for an all out war on two fronts.Even on International border the line must be crossed to thin out the Pak Army.
    The factor of Indian Politicians frittering away the gains of war later, as they have been doing every time, ever since 1947,should also be considered.With the Punjabi clout i all spheres in Pak, an internal revolt must be engineered, at a later date.

  4. Well put across ajai- sk

  5. I dont know why India shouts out so much! It was incapable to defend its citizens, its bureaucrats and even military - in 65, 90s, 99, 01, 02, 05-06, 08, 15-16. The only India PM who had balls was Indira Gandhi, the rest are all talk!

    Personally, I think we should retire our military, at least baniyaas might be able to save money!

  6. Great analysis. Suhasini Haider from The Hindu had shared following analysis from Perkovich-Dalton, which is also very insightful -



  8. Dear Sir,

    The way the escalation ladder has been outlined, the troops, targets, objectives therein is a smart way of of creating and saving the known large LOBs more likely to end up with Bhoop Sing on LoC as the fourth stage of escalation will never reach due to the mighty scare of nuclear holocaust. Does the Israeli escalation ladder also work that way ? I do not think so. If India has to strike back, then why only LoC? In striking back, the sanctity of International border has no meaning. At least the Pakies have not kept confined terrorism to J&K. Is there a guarantee that conflicts and war on LoC will not invite Pakistan using Tactical Nukes ?

    Shallow objectives, terrorist infrastructures, important military target do exist near the international border which would inflict more pain on Pakistanis then rolling down a Nangi Tekari in barren hills. Do the Indian military planners have imagination to go and sit over objectives like Sulemanki headworks or Faqirwali headworks on international border or get into Kasur or Mangla? Indian military planners have self serving mental blocks created and crafted cleverly by long line of LOBs to save themselves and push themselves into last option of the so called escalation ladder.

    Modi and India has no time for such snakes and ladders. Tell us what can be done straight away .... can Indian Army walk straight across Hussainiwala into Pakistani Punjab ? or Can Indian Navy straight away bomb Karachi into hell ? Can IAF reduce Muridke into rubbles ? That is retaliation and not that Nurra kusti as outlined by you.

  9. Another 'Uri' and the 1 row and 1 column would increase in the table.That's it.Looking at the detailed plans we have made over the years, India would have defeated both china and Pakistan by now.Sadly, Plans alone do not do anything on their own. We need courage on acting on those plans.

  10. “No Battle Plan Survives Contact With the Enemy” as said by Helmuth von Moltke. Foolish to think that Pak will not do a one up after the initial Indian strike. Over the past few years, Pak have really closed the gap in terms of advanced assets, & have a larger set of standoff weapon capability not to mention superiority in some very basic "bread & butter" areas such as artillery. If India attacks posts across LOC, without crossing the border & Pak retaliates by attacking a Brahmos regiment or an airbase with standoff weapons then what next? There is no way this will not escalate into a full war.

  11. Can we request for Patriot missiles from the USA or Israel to thwart and intercept any missile that may be fired by the Pakis (just in case) deep can their missiles can reach in India and what should be our counter attack to contain it? thanks.

  12. But one thing u overlooked is that for conducting precision strikes with minimum collateral damage, u need sound intelligence.
    1) what general perception among analysts suggest is that we lack Humint resources to carry out such strikes.
    2) for airstrikes u will hav to enter heavily gaurded airspace, which would require either rocket attacks at concerned SAM batteries or fighters to fly SEAD/DEAD missions. success of SEAD mission is very uncertain, as there is highprobability of interception. Hitting air defences will be considered as escalatory, and may result in unexpected level of retaliation. If cruise missiles are used for attacks, there is a risk that pak forces may consider (or pretend) it a nuclear warhead. Any attempt to capture territory may result in use of tactical nukes.

  13. Pretty sensible. Only, would believe it when I see it. If so, will congratulate them, after admonishing them for delayed action. Should this contingency planning not have been done beforehand? More at

  14. We simply have no capability and intelligence about targets.India has to develop covert unit to carry out such operations.

  15. Why is no TV debate discussing the option of stopping/ reducing the flow of Indus water to Pakistan by unilaterally abrogating it, as suggested by Brahma Challaney?

  16. Dear Editor,

    While the escalation ladder was an excellently written piece and one that is very detailed and thought provoking, I think it must not be shared in the public forum.

    There is no point in publishing such an article as most Indians are clueless about the nuances of military conflict and prefer a simplistic narrative which their govts provide them from media bytes.

    I would like to make one contribution in the list of options and that is of what is in the media known as a targeted killing. Either by way of Human elements, ballistics, projectiles or by way of other types of ordnance.

    In my humble opinion, coming out with a small list of Individuals on a National Kill List or in more diplomatic terms a 'Wanted Dead or Alive list'. which may include Military Generals and Terror leaders.

    What this does is instill a sense of 'kill him but spare me' behavior in the enemy, and when coerced enough, (by way of killing one or two on the list) one can even offer bounty and citizen ship to the informants and their family which leads to kill or capture.

    Also for people on that list who are on the list a credible personal threat will affect their overt presence and in turn the leadership of the organization.

    Killing a few individuals will not provoke much of an escalation, certainly not a conventional one, let alone a Pakistani nuclear, one that we seem to have so much unquestionable faith in.


  17. In fact, my suggestion is initially NOT TO abrogate, but to dilly dally with delivering water from the Indus River, like Karnataka has been doing for years (sorry, no offence meant, mentioned only for effect!). It will hurt Pakistan very, very badly. Let them approach all courts, tribunals or whatever, and we can keep exhausting them for decades. That's how ineffective legal systems are everywhere, and more so in teethless organisations like the UN. And use abrogation of the treaty as the last resort, after manuy years of exhausting them, and if they still don't mend their ways. Threat is more powerful than execution. Like in Chess, for those who know Chess.

  18. Anon, you are absolutely correct: the prospect of counter-escalation is what stops us, and for a short war the Western front balance is much more even than might be thought. Long term we'd win, but no Indian leader has the stamina for a 1-2 year war.

    Suren, well said.

    Ganesan, an excellent point, I am wondering that since this would be the first time water war will be waged in a major way, it would be a big escalation in terms of the world scene. we need to think through the implications. Not to get me wrong: I am all for cutting the water, but we will have to be very strong in the face of worldwide condemnation.

    Unknown, you hit the nail accurately. We are all talk and no action. Mrs Gandhi being the honorable exception.

  19. Strategic thinking most often than not is non-linear. So, why should it always be about the Army and the Airforce and why not the Navy?

    So in my opinion this is how it should be played; Indian government should not cross the LoC let alone IB. It should target terrorists and also the supporting PA units clinically but put up a grand display on television and media. This will appease the Indian public that's hooked to the soap operas.

    However, the real signalling to Pakistan should come from the Indian Navy. It is in this domain that India has an overwhelming superiority. IN should tail and sink one of PN submarines. Although this will be acted out away from the public gaze, that is fuelled by jingoism, it will extract a higher price on the Paki establishment and send them a strong signal. And we will be denying Pakis or the international community fodder for reaction or exaggeration.

    Remember in this day and age of media mania; bigger the spectacle bigger the reaction, no spectacle no reaction.

  20. Dear Ajaiji,

    There are two factors in Indian Military Planning which need to be jettisoned as wisely and as quickly as possible. Both seem to have more of MEA stamps ingrained into their psyche rather than military logic imprinted on those.

    First is the indian idea of the so called escalation ladder. Have not we learned enough lesson from our past conflicts such as 1962, 1965 and Kargil that we committed grave mistakes in not employing our airpower ab initio due to the false notions of escalation. Take it a little further and now people clutch on nuclear straws. Our govts, bureaucrats and IAF quietly took a refuse to it at times at the perils of the nation.

    The NATO - WARSAW model of escalation in an nuclear conditions and for war fighting was quite different involving different situation and parameters. Those 28 ladder would not apply to us. If such models really worked, then South Koreans would be half dead by now or the Japanese would have committed Harakiri!!

    Secondly, our false idea of International border Vs LoC. If we do not insist on and demand that the LoC be treated as inviolable for the purpose of wars and conflicts, what rights do we have to make any noise about it and demand from Pakistan that it respect LoC. Why shout from rooftops on infiltration. Inviolability of LoC was the central theme on which India conducted her military campaign in Kargil. We do say POK is ours but that does not mean LoC has no status. This line of arguments suits Pakistan more than India.

    If that is so, how sound can that escalation ladder model be as has been presented. India capturing Hajipir, Forward Kahuta or Kotali will not be retaliated is someone's misplaced imagination in Delhi. How would India react to Naushera or Rajouri on LoC being captured ??

    Conflicts across LoC will not have international reaction is also contrary to what happened during 1947-48, 1965 and during Kargil. Both sides could not or were not allowed to retain major chunks of territory at conflict resolution. So what pain had been inflicted ??

    Does India need to respect the International border and seek someone's permission when Mumbai, Indian Parliament or Pathankot is attacked ?

    Areas across LoC could be Indian objectives to keep for long but that should not prevent India initiating a conflict across International border to begin with or to start with and to exploit Pakistani vulnerability across International border. If there are any lessons of 1965 War, it is that Pakistan needs to be attacked across International border. Military strategy adopted by Pakistan during Brasstacks was a clear reflection on Pakistani mindset on their vulnerability. Pakistan has already spread the area of conflict from Tripura to Bombay to Uri. Do we need to remain confined to LoC? Then let MEA conduct the military operations via diplomacy and our worthy Generals and Air Marshall sit at home. Then they are not required.

    I was a little dismayed to hear some of them on TV Channels. Instead, Mr Parthasarthy was more articulate on military aspects of orchestration of the military response.

  21. I have a question-What kind of lax security practices does the Indian Army practice 6 kms away from International border, with a Intelligence warning on infiltration that made this kind of attack (4 terrorists killed 19 soldiers) successfull. Reality is Army was sleeping peacefully in the camp and the "security" on a border army camp is not even as secure as a gated community in an Indian city where security guards ask ID proof before letting anyone in.

    Shame on Indian guys are just as "chalta-hai" as rest of India!!

  22. So ever since Modi and Doval duo are in the capital, you and your likes have gone radio silent. Regardless of India goes for an offensive shot or medium, you're ilk in south block jas started drooling on the financial prospects. You don't have to admit it; your tweets make it pretty evident. You've never been good at whatever you've done so far, have you?

  23. With due respect we must understand where we are and how we got ourselves. Our primary strategic adversary is China. Pakistan is a tactical enemy. Post Independence, we have been led by idealist thinkers whose romantic ideals have come to hurt us. Nehru's idealism vis a vis kashmir, china,economy,defense,foreign policy has hurt us. Our economy being poor limits our influence in our own region opposed to china. It also limits our defense modernization.The fact that nehru wished a place in permanent 5 members be given to china as opposed to India and defeat in 1962 with our only allies being non aligned countries who chose to be non aligned on this issue as well are evidence to failure of such idealistic thinking.

  24. In kashmir, we allowed autonomy as opposed to making it part of India. This is not strategic move but a stupid move born of idealism that a muslim populace contiguous with the border of pakistan on one side and India on other will choose to be part of India. As a consequence, pakistan exploited this weak integration of kashmir with India and tried again and again to flare the region up through islamisation of kashmir, making it difficult for India to ensure its security and thereby beef up military presence which unfortunately led an escalation which hurt Kashmiris as a consequence of being in a battlezone. The constant army presence, the news of soldiers commiting terrible deeds and the afspa denying opportunity for justice. For past 30 yrs, pakistan escalated the issue in kashmir and after 9/11, in order to avoid 2 front wars, used useful idiots on Indian side to promote aman ki asha until the americans left. Now it is back to trying to control afghanistan and take kashmir. The sequence is somewhat similar as well, popular street mobs as fuel, occasional terrorists as fire.

  25. All talk of escalation ladder etc is partly nonsense. Because it doesnt take into account our strategic goals of better economy/ effects on our polity and our place with our strategic adversary that is china. India being a democracy, politics doesnt ensure stability in decision making and the mood of the people may turn very quickly.
    It is time for us to stop the dreams of the enemy first, make kashmir a full state and Integrate with India. Change the demography of kashmir. There ends the biggest weak spot on Indian side. Kashmirirs no longer are innocent victims in this anymore. There is now a significant support for islamists and terrorists. They are no longer satisfied with autonomy. A demographic shift will accomplish our goals.Or lets cut and leave them free.

    As far as retaliation is concerned, we should realize ours is a civilian govt who wishes to deliver better economy to us through foreign investment, terrorism is not good for business or politicians. Pakistan can take many more hits as loss of civilians never stopped their army from pursuing its goals. We must decide what kinds of loss shall prick pakistan the most short of war. CPEC is a good start. Chinese pakistan corridor is the weakness that can be exploited. Pakistan now relies more on china for its economy. It hopes to better its economy through china and perhaps central asian countries. attacks in CPEC/economy and near to families of top officials of pak army are the only losses that shall deliver the pricks which might compel them to give up on their path. Our attacks must drive them to come to us. Other option is in supporting free baluchistan as an alibi to couch our actions under moral rhetoric. Moral rhetoric is necessary even in carrying out a covert option. Other options is in targeting ex-patriots belonging to pak army.economic pressure, denying access to indian market to china and pakistan.

    Trying to get them to peace is in harassing the enemy in places which makes the losses very personal to those who rule pakistan who are the army. Even killing low level soldiers will not hurt the bosses in pakistan to change their ways either.

    All the while India must grow and that means our entire internal security infrastructure must be overhauled. Or for now, support baluchistan freedom internationally through diplomacy in a peaceful way, wait till Indian economy reaches 10 trillion dollars to engage tactically. Meanwhile, change kashmir demography. Also the cost of terrorists is cheaper than that of soldiers, soldiers guard/patrol same area, terrorists pick their spots and time to attack. So battle between conventional forces vs terrorists is very costly.
    Thank you.

  26. your escalation ladder analysis was right...india did corss loc without holding ground last night.


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