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DJ reproduces an article by THOMAS E RICKS
in THE WALL STREET JOURNAL about possible wargame
scenarios, scaring US military

The Wall Street Journal
June 24, 1998

WASHINGTON - There’s a reason that the escalating nuclear competition between India and Pakistan worries the US military more than most proliferation problems: Most times the US military has ‘wargamed’ a nuclearized subcontinent, the exercise ends with the players ‘launching’ nuclear weapons.

A mock war in the Asian subcontinent is one of the most common games played by senior US military officers and other government officials. The usual scenario for a new India-Pakistan clash begins with the two nations at a crisis point over Kashmir. India, worried that Pakistan could move tanks and armoured personnel carriers east from the border city of Lahore and cut off the Indian-held part of Kashmir, pre-emptively attacks to secure its corridor to that disputed region, pushing deep into Pakistani territory. The Pakistanis, driven backward and fearful of losing their nuclear arsenal, launch a nuclear strike against the Indian force.

Usually, says Sam Gardiner, a retired Air Force strategist who has run about 25 such games for the Pentagon and other military-planning centers, the escalation to nuclear weapons happens within the first 12 ‘days’ of the war game.

‘It’s a scary scenario’, says Col. Mike Pasquarett, director of operations and gaming at the US Army War College’s Center for Strategic Leadership, which ran a war game involving the Indian subcontinent this spring.

Testing strategies

The purpose of these games, which are generally run in seminar form with a group of senior officers and government officials gathered around a table, generally isn’t to sort out prospective winners and losers, but to test strategies and decision-making procedures. The goal also is to draw lessons, usually about the implications of a policy or about what sort of forces are needed. For example, if the US came to believe that the Indian subcontinent is the region which it is most likely to fight, then it would have to rethink the Army’s reliance on the Abrams tank, which at 68 tons is too heavy to move overseas quickly in great numbers.

‘The games are a way of actually making people think about the long term,’ says Stephen Rosen, a Harvard University expert on India’s military who has participated in some subcontinental war games sponsored by the US government.

Mr. Gardiner frequently runs his subcontinent games in two rounds. After the first game ends with a nuclear exchange, he’ll reset the game clock. Using the same players he asks them to consider what they should do differently. The war again begins with a crisis in Kashmir, and again the Indians move first. But in this round they are encouraged to recognize that in the last game they had boxed in Pakistan and forced it to resort to nuclear weapons. In round two, the Indian side generally tries to launch a lighting strike to destroy the Pakistani nuclear stockpile, using some combination of commandos and air strikes. Could the Indians really carry that off? ‘Probably not,’ says Mr. Gardiner, ‘but they believe they could.’

Unintended Consequences

The overriding US interest in the subcontinent is preventing a nuclear war, so in some games US military officers have been asked to think about how to use force to stop a nuclear exchange. Here the games tend to illustrate the law of unintended consequences. The problem is that such intervention inevitably enmeshes the US in the dispute. To stop an Indian attack is effectively to side with Pakistan. Alternatively, if the US seeks to neutralize both nations’ nuclear weapons, then it have sided with India, which enjoys superiority in conventional military power. Many veterans of subcontinent wargames conclude that the only workable US intervention would be one that comes before hostilities begin, such as a threat that the US will use air strikes to stop any military force that tries to cross the border. But intervention largely is a nightmare for the US military. One variation on the basic scenario played several times at the US Army War College involves a US peacekeeping force being caught in the middle between India and Pakistan. In this scenario, set in the year 2010, the US has helped bring a temporary peace to Kashmir by promising to put a light infantry division on the ground there. But this move has the unintended effect of cementing the status quo and comes to be interpreted by Pakistan as hostile.

As tensions increase on the subcontinent, Pakistan moves to isolate the US peace-keepers. It puts long-range artillery pieces parallel to the Indian corridor to Kashmir, cutting that road. Then it places guerrillas with Stinger antiaircraft missiles near Kashmiri airports, making it risky for the US to fly out its two brigades of peace-keepers. A US C-17 military cargo jet attempting to resupply the US force is shot down, presumably by the Pakistani guerrillas operating in the area.

The war begins when an Indian force chasing the guerrillas runs into the Pakistani military. Pakistani and Indian airstrikes follow, and then attacks on military airfields in both countries. This leads to an Indian attack against Lahore and as usual to the Pakistani decision to use nuclear weapons. Pakistan then counterattacks across the corridor to Kashmir, cutting off an attempt by the US peace-keepers to break out to the south.

To try to relieve its beleaguered peace-keepers, the US military lands at Bombay, India, behind an Indian screening force. Pakistan retaliates by inviting Iran to come to its aid. Iran does so with a vengeance, crossing Pakistan to hit the Indian screening force in the Thar Desert and blocking the US advance. When a second US rescue force tries to land on the western Pakistani shore which would cut the Iranian force’s supply line - Iran nukes it. The game ends there.

Another variant of this game was played recently to test the ability of the US military to get to the scene with sufficient firepower to make a difference. This scenario was expressly non-nuclear. But the results shocked US military officers who played the game, because none of the US military’s current ‘heavy’ divisions that is, those that rely mainly on tanks and other armoured vehicles could get to the subcontinent in time to have an effect on the war. ‘It was ugly. There were a lot of long faces coming out of that game,’ says one Army officer who participated.

Experts on proliferation tend to find the Pentagon’s sub-continental war games credible but somewhat narrow. Scott Sagan, the co-director of Stanford’s Center for International Security and Arms Control, frets that the scenarios may not focus sufficiently on the risk of unintentional nuclear detonations. If one country accidentally blows off a nuclear warhead on one of its military bases, he notes, it probably won’t have adequate surveillance intelligence to tell if it has been pre-emptively attacked. So it may falsely ‘retaliate’ against the other country.