Rethinking Deterrence in an age of International Anarchy
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 04 Feb , 2024

Nothing signified the current international anarchy more than the exchange of missiles and air attacks between Iran and Pakistan on 16th and 18 January 2024. Even a rag tag bunch like Houthi rebels are targeting commercial shipping in Red Sea. Earlier in last year Hamas, the ruling group in Gaza strip in the Middle East, launched a surprise attack on Israel. These are all signs of the breakdown of world system that was based on certain rules of international behaviour, implicit or explicit. These were enforced by the dominant powers acting under the cover of the UN Security council. That era seems to have ended even earlier when the US acted outside the UN mandate in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Libya and Russia followed suit with attack on Ukraine.

The international anarchy one witnesses today is the direct consequence of emergence of a multipolar world. Precisely at the time when the UN was needed to be pro-active, it is frozen in time and reflects the power balance of 1945. These defects of the world state system did not lead to global anarchy in the later half of the 20th century as the dominance of Super Powers during the Cold War (roughly 1945 to 1990) as they laid down ‘Red Lines’ and limited conflicts. The smaller powers, generally dependent on the arms supply from either, were forced to comply with their diktat.

Along with decline of US power and demise of Soviet Union, diffusion of technology has made even small powers independent of great powers in terms of military hardware. Could one have imagined even a few years ago that Iran or Turkey would be supplying weapons to Russia or Ukraine?

In the post WW II era establishment of UN (a global institute to preserve peace), world trade and spread of democracy were expected to get the world rid of armed conflicts. In 21st century, having tried all these approaches, world seems to be teetering on the edge of a nuclear abyss. The intellectual deficit is due to the failure to adopt the tool of historical analysis. Instead, prominent place has been occupied by economic, political (power politics) and weapon dialectic. History to establish what, how and why, could provide a better compass for policy making and navigating through the situation of multipolarity. Sadly, in the Indian context, this history deficit is the historical truth. There seems to have been very little attempt at the academic or policy making level to rectify this.

In the Indian context, for a very long time the mantra was ‘future conflicts are going to be short, sharp engagements. Sooner than later the UN and Super Power intervention will bring a halt to active conflicts and a UN imposed cease fire. We have to grab enough territory to act as a bargaining chip’.Based on this (unproven) understanding, for a very long-time conventional superiority was thought to be a ‘deterrent’ to war. A major reason why the basic military strategy is defensive.

In 21st century, most, if not all these premises have been overturned. Small powers, insurgent and terrorist groups have acquired an autonomy of action that was unthinkable even a decade ago. In this changed situation defence, particularly of the air space, has acquired added importance. Merely possessing retaliatory power is no longer sufficient.

Defensive systems are both difficult and more expensive than retaliatory weapons. Countries like India have no choice but to increase its defence expenditure to cope with global anarchy and multipolar world.

The failure of Israeli “iron Dome’ anti-missile system as well as colossal intelligence failure of Mossad to rightly analyse the intelligence inputs led to the 7 October 2023 attack by Hamas. Israel’s deterrent of active retaliation and air defence, both failed.

The threat faced by India is not in a very different than that confronting Israel. We have to concentrate our efforts on directed energy or beam weapons to get to a better air defence. Intelligence gathering as well as analysis has been our weak spot since the Kargil conflict. Our new structure of national security apparatus was tested during the crisis with China in 2020-21, on the balance it seems to have stood the test of time. However, it would be fatal to rest on our laurels as the coming year 2024 is going to severely test it.

Close to 60 countries have elections this year. In an election year, the leaders are under pressure to react to any perceived threat to national security. Not doing so would be politically suicidal. In this scenario, an over-reaction or a cycle of action-reaction can lead to spread of conflict. India must play a role of ‘fire fighter’ in international diplomacy. This is not out of any charity but due to the fact that any major international conflict can derail our economic recovery in an inter-connected world.

While the PM did advise the Russian President that this is “not an era of war” but wars are only increasing in number if not size and intensity. Arms manufacturers have a major role in enabling non-state actors and drug cartels and criminal gangs to make it big.

For India to play its rightful global role, internal peace and accommodation is sine qua non. Revivalism cannot be allowed to degenerate to revanchism. 

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Col Anil Athale

Former infantry soldier who was head of War History division, Min of Def, Research fellowships including Fulbright, Kennedy Centre, IDSA, USI and Philosophical Society. 30 years research of conflicts in Kashmir, NE, Ireland, Sri Lanka and South Africa. Author of 7 books on military history.

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