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Shashank Mishra asked: What is the difference between 'defensive offence' and 'offensive defence'?

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  • Ali Ahmed replies: At a lecture at Sastra University in February 2014, the National Security Adviser (NSA), Ajit Doval, who was then heading a New Delhi-based think tank, characterised strategic doctrine into three modes: defensive, defensive offence and offence. Elaborating on these three modes of engaging an adversary – Pakistan – he made a case for shifting from a defensive mode to defensive offence.

    The defensive, which India preferred through a strategic doctrine of strategic restraint, had the limitation of lack of positive results and being status quoist. The offence on the other hand was unmindful of the nuclear threshold. This left India with the strategic doctrinal choice of ‘defensive offence’.

    The offence component of defensive offence is to carry the fight to the enemy through means such as exploiting internal contradictions, international isolation, etc. It has a deterrent objective of sensitising the adversary, best illustrated by Doval’s dramatic phrasing: ‘You do one Mumbai, you lose Baluchistan.’ This, to Doval, kept out the nuclear dimension and therefore worth a gear shift for India.

    Since Doval went on to be appointed the NSA in the new government soon after this speech in which he advocated the gear shift, it can be inferred that defensive offence best describes India’s strategic doctrine of today.

    An illustration of its operation is in the recent India-Pakistan crisis in which India responded to the February 14 Pulwama terror attack that killed 44 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) troopers with an aerial surgical strike on February 26, targeting the training facility of the perpetrators within mainland Pakistan at Balakot. That India did not militarily counter Pakistan’s aerial riposte to the Balakot strike through its air attack on military positions in Naushera sector of the Line of Control is indicative of India’s defensive/deterrent intent, but through offensive means (defensive offence).

    ‘Offensive defence’ is similar, though differently worded. The term has been linked to Pakistan’s strategic doctrine dating to the post-Zia period. Pakistan, known to have limited strategic depth, was loath to lose territory to Indian offensives based on India’s strike corps. It therefore adopted a doctrine of offensive defence in carrying the war preemptively to the enemy, India, taking advantage of the mobilisation differential in its favour. With an overall defensive purpose, the offensive is to force the larger foe on the back-foot at the outset by seizing the initiative.

    Its doctrinal evolution, after being posed with the challenge of India’s ‘cold start’ doctrine, has reinforced its offensive defence doctrine, now named ‘comprehensive response’. It is permissive of counter-offensive ripostes and is the conventional complement to the move to ‘full spectrum deterrence’ in its nuclear doctrine.

    Strategic doctrine has been conceptualised variously. In some versions, the modes of a strategic posture are: defence, deterrence, offence and compellence, with each mode having subdivisions, such as deterrence which could be of two types: defensive deterrence (deterrence by denial) and offensive deterrence (deterrence by punishment).

    The choice of strategic doctrine is a prerequisite for a government as it informs its actions in preserving, creating and securing the conditions of security for the state. The strategic doctrine is usually in the form of an official national strategic review document that sets the aims and parameters for the follow-on doctrines of the instruments of state, such as joint military doctrine and service-specific doctrines.

    For more on the subject, please refer to the following:

    Shri Ajit Kumar Doval’s Lecture at Sastra University, February 21, 2014.

    Ryan French, “Deterrence Adrift?: Mapping Conflict and Escalation in South Asia”, Strategic Studies Quarterly, 10 (1), Spring 2016, pp. 106-137.

    Col. (Dr.) Ali Ahmed (Retd.) is an independent strategic analyst. He was earlier Research Fellow at IDSA.

    Posted on March 14, 2019