Military & Aerospace

Time and Opportunity for Radical Rethink on Defence!
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 21 Jun , 2019

It has been a long standing demand/suggestion of many military thinkers like late Lt. General Eric A. Vas and Maj. Gen. Keshav Pendse, that defence and security issues should be part of the planning commission agenda. It is widely accepted that economic development and national security are two wheels of national well-being. Yet all these years this reasonable demand fell on deaf ears. The new government under Narendra Modi has rectified this lacuna by including national security among the subjects of deliberations in Niti Ayog, the official think tank of the government. But according to all indicators in public domain, this re think is more ‘instrumental’ in terms of reduction of manpower or expenditure rationalization. This fails to appreciate the radical changes that have taken place in India’s defence capabilities as well as threats.

In its first term, the Modi government had prioritized economic and governance issues, it is hoped that in its second term it will pay attention to course correction in security policies and strategies.

Democracy in which a periodic peaceful change of governments take place is meant to facilitate course correction on policies. Unfortunately for India, the real change only occurred in 2014 when a party with a radically different view point came to power. Reader may remember that in 2012, much like Don Quixote, some worthies in a Delhi think tank brought out a new version of Nehruvian policies, ‘Non Alignment 2.0’. In its first term, the Modi government had prioritized economic and governance issues, it is hoped that in its second term it will pay attention to course correction in security policies and strategies.

Indian military/strategic thinking is coloured with our past experience. While right from the early days of independence in 1947, India has been engaged with Pakistan in Kashmir. The political leadership of the time however never believed that Pakistan posed a military threat to India. As a consequence, the military was kept on a tight budgetary leash. The situation saw a radical change in 1962 when India clashed with China on the Himalayan border. In all subsequent years while military planners were concerned with the ‘immediate’ Pakistan threat, China was regarded as a more serious and long term threat.

The roots of this thinking lie in events of November 1962. On 19 Nov 1962 (US State Depart Top Secret Signal no 2167 of 19 Nov 1962) Prime Minister Nehru wrote to American President seeking American military help. To fully understand this catastrophic event and its impact on the Indian establishment, (that remained under the influence of Nehru right till 2014) it is worthwhile to quote verbatim from extracts of that fateful letter.

“Bomdila has fallen and retreating forces have been trapped between Sela and Bomdila………a serious threat has developed to our Digboi oil fields in Assam. With the advance of Chinese in massive strength, the entire Brahmaputra valley is seriously threatened and unless something is done immediately to stem the tide the whole of Assam, Tripura, Manipur and Nagaland would also pass into Chinese hands.

The situation is desperate and comprehensive assistance is needed if Chinese are to be prevented from taking over whole of Eastern India.

The Chinese have poised massive forces in Chumbi valley between Sikkim and Bhutan and another invasion from that direction appears imminent. Our forces further North West in UP, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh are also threatened.

The situation is desperate and comprehensive assistance is needed if Chinese are to be prevented from taking over whole of Eastern India.”

Later on in the letter Nehru went on to ask 12 squadrons of supersonic fighters and two squadrons of B-47 bombers, manned and operated by the Americans. In the end Nehru emphasized that it was question of survival of India.

For all practical purposes India’s Non Alignment policy died on that day. Comprehensive study of 1962 conflict by this author has however clearly established that at the worst only a company strength of Chinese army reached Indian post ‘Chako’ on the foothills. The Chinese were over stretched in Towang area and neither had any intent nor capability to reach Brahmaputra valley, leave alone far off Tripura. Himalayas were and are a great barrier to any land invasion even in 21st century. The lightly armed Chinese forces could have never withstood Indian armour and heavy weapons if they were to advance from Chumbi valley.

Despite the daunting geography and difficulties of mounting operations across the mighty Himalayas, this notion of Chinese land threat is deeply ingrained in Indian psyche.

The 21st century reality is that on the Indo-Tibetan border there are really no worthwhile strategic targets for either side. !962 like situation can and will never be repeated. There exists the nuclear missile threat to India from medium range Chinese missiles stationed in Tibet. But with Indian acquisition of Agni-V intermediate range missiles tipped with nukes, major Chinese cities are within Indian range. There is also a developing naval deterrent based on nuclear submarines from Indian side.

The direct Chinese threat today, at its worst, is of limited skirmishes on the border. Like seen at Doklam crisis last year it is a case of jostling for local advantage rather than any grand strategic move. India has finally shown awareness of the reality of late and has scrapped the hair brained scheme of raising an offensive corps on Chinese border.

While the nuclear deterrence makes a 1971 like conventional conflict unlikely, border skirmishes and terrorism will continue for foreseeable future.

The real Chinese threat is posed though its proxy, Pakistan. For Pakistan opposition to India is an existential requirement. This is further reinforced by the ‘Gazawa E Hind’ (conquest of India) that is a duty of a pious Muslim since it finds mention in Hadith (sayings) of the Prophet. Kashmir is a symptom and not cause of Indo-Pak problems. Keeping Pakistan destabilized is the only feasible strategy for India. Given Pakistan’s geographical vulnerabilities, its strategic areas are within 150 km of border with India, it has adopted a nuclear posture of first strike. This mandates that India monitor Pak nukes 24×7 and be ready to pre-empt it.

While the nuclear deterrence makes a 1971 like conventional conflict unlikely, border skirmishes and terrorism will continue for foreseeable future. Our priority has to be to maintain superiority punishment both in numerical as well as technological terms.

On the surface, the Indo-Pak situation resembles the Cold war era when the US supplied arms to Pakistan to create artificial parity between India and Pakistan. But here is a crucial difference, during the cold war era, arms aid to Pakistan was NOT specifically directed against India. It was a price US paid to get Pak as hired gun to do its bidding in Middle East. India was co-lateral damage. Whereas now the Pakistani proxy is being propped up by China to specifically target India.  Pakistan is an enthusiastic partner in crime.

The two decades since 1972 when US-China détente came into existence, right up to 1992 demise of Soviet Union, US and China both propped up Pakistan and helped it become nuclear power to balance a Pro Soviet India. The US may yet rue the day as according to Graham T. Allison, a Harvard professor, the terrorist nuke that is likely to be used against US will have a distinctly made in Pak label.

Given this strategic scenario Indian posture ought to be based on the following, in order of importance,

  • Counter city deterrence against China.
  • Constant vigil on Pak nukes and capability to pre-empt.
  • Material and technical superiority on LOC (line of control) and LAC (line of Actual control) to come up on top in border skirmishes.
  • Conventional forces with NBC protection only as a follow up forces of occupation vis a vis Pakistan post nuclear strike.

Note that conventional armed forces to fight 1971 like conflict is the least likely scenario. The Indian defence posture and expenditure needs to reflect this new reality.

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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 Joint Director War History Division, Min of Defence. Currently co-ordinator of Pune based think tank 'Inpad' that is affiliated with Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.

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