Michael KreponDeterrence and Escalation Control

One theme in the Stimson Center’s Escalation Control and the Nuclear Option in South Asia (2004) is that deterrence is an abstract notion that sometimes fails real world tests. Crisis management and escalation control then become paramount, as was the case during the limited war in 1999 between Pakistan and India after Northern Light Infantry troops crossed the Kashmir divide in the heights above Kargil.

Kargil was one of four crises between India and Pakistan from 1990 to 2008 in which the United States served as the essential crisis manager. Washington’s well-used playbook is all about preventing the outbreak of hostilities. There is no reliable playbook for escalation control once a crisis transitions to hostilities between nuclear-armed states.

The subject of escalation control in limited warfare received considerable attention during the Cold War. Here’s a shoebox sampler of quotes:

“Although undesired escalation obviously does not occur all the time, the danger is always present. The room for misunderstanding, the pressure to act before the other side has seized the initiative, the role of unexpected defeats or unanticipated opportunities, all are sufficiently great – and interacting – so that it is rare that decision-makers can confidently predict the end point of the trajectory which an initial resort to violence starts.” — Robert Jervis, The Illogic of American Nuclear Strategy (1984).

“While not incurring a serious risk of an immediate all-out response, and while causing some physical attrition of the enemy’s power to move on the ground, tactical reprisals would still serve the bargaining function by demonstrating a willingness to “up the ante” and to continue doing so until the other side agreed to settle the war…Reprisals against forces, especially tactical forces, allow us to demonstrate this possible intent at minimum provocation and at minimum initial damage to our own economy and population.” — Glenn Snyder, Deterrence and Defense (1961).

“The curtailing of our taste for unequivocal victory is one of the prices we pay to keep the physical violence, and thus the costs and penalties, from going beyond the level of the tolerable.” — Bernard Brodie, Strategy in the Missile Age (1959).

“[Limited war is] part of a general ‘strategy of conflict’ in which adversaries would bargain with each other through the medium of graduated military responses, within the boundaries of contrived mutual restraints, in order to achieve a negotiated settlement short of mutual destruction.” — Robert Osgood, Limited War Revisited (1979).

Two of the best thinkers in the U.S. strategic firmament, Robert Osgood (Limited War: The Challenge to American Strategy, 1958) and Bernard Brodie (Escalation and the Nuclear Option, 1966), tried to make the case for limited wars below and even across the nuclear threshold. Both were wise enough to have had second thoughts. The conduct of a limited war between nuclear-armed adversaries calls to mind Oliver Hardy’s complaint to Stan Laurel: “another fine mess you’ve gotten me into.” Getting out of this mess presumed that, despite their differences, adversaries could remain on the same page – a questionable assumption if they have stumbled into war or have engaged in combat because of irreconcilable differences.

In Limited War Revisited (1979), Professor Osgood acknowledged the weakness of his earlier analysis: “One trouble with all strategies of local war in Europe is that the Soviet Union has shown virtually no inclination to be a partner to them.” While U.S. strategists were hypothesizing rungs for the escalation control ladder, it turned out that the Soviet General Staff was planning for a blitzkrieg accompanied by a large number of nuclear detonations across Europe. This cautionary note now applies to India and Pakistan.


  1. Mark Gubrud (History)

    The Cold War was marked by “proxy wars” sometimes involving personnel of both superpowers, as well as gunfights between spies, shootdowns of spyplanes, bumping and sometimes sinking of submarines. But, as far as I know, it was never the case that U.S. and Soviet regular military forces were engaged with each other in large-scale combat across a front line or with specific conflicting territorial objectives.

    This, I would suggest, is the threshold which was never crossed and beyond which it would have been very difficult to control escalation. It seems to me that in such a situation the question of preemption would have very quickly arisen, within a psychological context of apocalyptic panic.

    I’m not familiar enough with what happened in the Kargil war, but my impression has been that Indian forces engaged irregulars who were the clear aggressors. They may have been backed by Pakistan and Pakistani military forces may have come under Indian fire and vice versa, but the two sides never engaged in heavy conventional combat. Someone please correct me if I have got this completely wrong. But if not, then Kargil does not stand as a counterexample to the hypothesis that heavy combat between the regular military forces of two nuclear armed states is highly likely to escalate to nuclear war.

    The China-Russia border war may be another dubious case, but I know even less of that. China certainly was no match for the USSR in nuclear weapons, and was undergoing domestic upheaval. I suspect that the “war” could be classified more as a skirmish.

    • John Schilling (History)

      The Kargil war of 1999 and the Sino-Soviet war of 1969 are the two examples we have of nuclear powers waging unambiguous direct combat, fortunately without escalation. As far as the Kargils are concerned, the aggressors were the Northern Light Infantry, , an organization that bears approximately the same relationship to Pakistan as the Alaska Army National Guard does to the United States.

      In both cases, I believe three factors combined to make escalation highly unlikely.

      First, the wars were fought over objectives whose intrinsic value clearly did not justify either total or nuclear warfare. Small bits of disputed territory whose only strategic value was the ability to interdict the easiest supply lines to slightly larger bits of disputed territory.

      Second, the wars were fought within clear and obvious bounds, in this case geographic. A high mountain valley in India/Pakistan, a river island in Russia/China. Substantial escalation thus requires deliberate decision, not merely an overeager second lieutenant not stopping to read a map when pursuing a routed enemy force.

      And finally, all parties were content to wage war via direct combat in the defined war zone, rather than e.g. deep interdection against enemy reinforcements arriving from the heartland.

      One can imagine other conflicts where a similar dynamic would hold. If Argentina had posessed nuclear weapons in 1982, the Falklands War might nontheless have remained conventional.

      NATO vs the Warsaw Pact over central Europe, not so much, and likewise an Indo/Pakistant conflict over Kashmir as a whole.

    • The Launch Bunker (History)

      The presence of Nuclear Weapons can, themselves,control the escalation of a conflict. Most notably, the air war over Vietnam was limited due to the presence of Soviet advisers. Policy planners feared that soviet casualties during US bombings may result in a Soviet response. If the Soviets didn’t possess Nuclear Weapons, I doubt that the United States would have been so hesitant to destroy Sam’s and MIG Airfields.

  2. krepon (History)

    John & Mark:

    Peter Lavoy has edited and contributed to what will probably be the definitive book on Kargil: Asymmetric Warfare in South Asia: The Causes and Consequences of the Kargil Conflict (Cambridge University Press, 2009). Peter and his buddies gained significant access to the small group that planned this misadventure.

    As for India’s decision making during Kargil, I’d recommend Paul Kapur’s, Dangerous Deterrent: Nuclear Weapons, Proliferation and Conflict in South Asia (Stanford University Press, 2007), which is also informed by interviews with senior officials.

    Bottom line (at least for me): this was a very chancey limited war. Had Indian forces been unable to dislodge the NLI, or had the Pakistan Army leadership decided to reinforce their NLI surrogates, esclataion control could have been extremely difficult.


  3. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    What happens to escalation control when two nuclear armed nations with small conventional forces and limited battlefield in which to retreat? Perhaps as nuclear power proliferates we might think of the kind of flow diagrams imagined for NATO vs the WP being compressed from weeks into hours. If the prospect of a weeks long conventional war kept the academics and military planning boards of the industrial world busy for 40 years without the ability to come to a definitive solution of how to act under the stress of war, then think of how inadequate a nation who’s people are eating grass so their military can support a nuclear arsenal will approach the problem.

  4. John Bragg (History)

    There is plenty of literature on nuclear strategy on the American side. There is a lot less on how nuclear strategy worked on the Soviet side.

    How far into the weeds did the Soviets get in terms of nuclear warfighting, second strikes, escalation control and intrawar deterrence?

    Or was a lot of what we saw as strategy-driven technologies were more interest-group-driven, pork-barrel in American terminology?

  5. krepon (History)

    From Vipin Narang at MIT, who is writing a book on deterrence and nuclear postures in South Asia:

    For those that might have missed this comforting development yesterday, India’s DRDO announced the successful test of a 150-km battlefield support missile, the Prahaar. The DRDO press release on the Prahaar test claims:

    “The missile capable of carrying different types of warheads, operates as battle field support system to the Indian Army… The missile with a pay load of 200 kg has a fast reaction time, which is essential for the battle field tactical missile. The missile is launched from a Road Mobile System, which can carry six missiles at a time and can be fired in salvo mode in all directions covering the entire azimuth plane.

    The missile system is developed to provide Indian Army a cost effective, quick reaction, all weather, all terrain, high accurate battle field support tactical system. The development of missile is carried out by the DRDO scientists in a short span of less than two years.”

    There is no evidence that India’s SFC wants a piece of this, and nothing to suggest that this will be assigned anything but a conventional role. But this capability in conjunction with Pakistan’s development of the 60-km Hatf IX (Nasr) which was designed for theater nuclear use as a “shoot and scoot” system are not sanguine developments for India-Pakistan crisis stability. The increasing blurriness of conventional and nuclear systems is poising the Subcontinent for potentially catastrophic misperceptions and miscalculations during future militarized crises that could outpace escalation control efforts.

    Video of the test launch available here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iwNGmbuTWBo.

  6. Paul Kapur (History)

    I agree with Michael Krepon’s view of Kargil – it was indeed a risky limited war. Despite Pakistan’s nuclear capability, the Indians appear to have been prepared to expand the conflict across the Line of Control (LoC) separating Indian from Pakistani Kashmir if their efforts to eject intruding forces had proven unsuccessful. Although this would have been less provocative than attacking Pakistan across the international border, it would nonetheless have been a significant and dangerous escalation. The Indians ultimately did not violate the LoC, but their forbearance was due primarily to the fact that their limited military efforts were succeeding. They had not ruled out expansion of the Kargil conflict.

  7. V. Siddhartha (History)

    Some weeks after Pakistan tested Nasr, retired Air Marshal T. M. Asthana, who was the first Commander of India’s Strategic Forces Command, gave this interview:

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