In his article ‘India needs to augment it’s Maritime power‘ , Himanil Raina hopes to counter my assertion as presented in ‘India’s dilemmas- A Maritime or Continental power?‘, where I argued in favour of greater spending directed at the Indian Army as opposed to the Navy. He accuses me of not expressing the correct facts whilst himself resolving to present no facts at all. What results is an amorphous and generally incoherent set of polemics that could be insulting, if they weren’t so vaguely infantile. In the spirit of polemics, here are a few of my thoughts on Himanil’s article-
Firstly, it appears curious that Himanil has quoted Zorawar Daulet Singh’s paper ‘Mackinder Vs Mahan’ in support of his maritime argument. This is a paper that is decidedly in support of a ‘Continent First’ approach. It even refers to the Navy’s attempts at controlling SLOCs as a ‘Mahanian Delusion’. As a matter of fact, the conclusion of the paper is subtitled ‘Taming the Mahanians for a Continental-First Geostrategy’. I have the sneaking suspicion that Himanil has not read the articles he so garrulously quotes. Why would you cite an article that negates your overall argument? Perhaps the author is willing to make a strategic blunder for a tactical win. Or maybe he just Googled it and saved some time. However, the reader can expend some of his efforts and read the paper Himanil has misquoted right here – Mackinder Vs Mahan? by Zorawar Daulet Singh
Another facile quotation that he deploys is the 2009 monograph by Gerson and Whiteneck about the role of Naval forces in conflict deterrence. The author must note that the article was about the combined deterrence potential of the US Navy and the US Marine corps. Having neither the strategic priorities of the US, nor an extant marine corps I think this paper has no relevance to the Indian position. The article speaks of ‘power projection without boots on the ground’ (something as American as apple pie), without realizing that boots on the ground are the very basis of geopolitics in the Sub-continent. Pakistan runs Gilgit-Baltistan because it has boots on the ground just as we ‘own’ Siachen because of our physical presence there. In the subcontinent, possession is still nine tenths of the law.
Boldly stating the obvious, Himanil says that the Navy can “strike from the sea by delivering ordnance by ship, air or under the sea or transporting land forces onto enemy territory. Indirect influence may be exercised by shaping the maritime environment by engaging in sea denial, trade warfare or mounting a blockade.” Yes, naval units can be platforms for delivering ordnance, but the vast bulk of our targets can be hit more effectively from land based systems. Why launch cruise missiles at the Karakorum Highway from the Rann of Kachchh, when we can do it from the unsinkable aircraft carrier that is Indian territory? Let’s not let the tail wag the dog. Indeed, the Navy can interdict hostile merchant shipping, but the ground level reality is that SLOCs are international ‘commons’ and that blockading them will antagonize neutral powers. That will lead to a horizontal escalation of conflict- a decidedly unpleasant outcome. In tomorrow’s wars of limited horizons this approach will also take a lot more time to work. And if a blockade does succeed, our opponent may choose to redraw the LAC in his favour. That means land warfare.
And in the land warfare of the Himalayas, the Chinese presently have enormous logistical and geographical advantages. To the east of the LAC, the road network is wider, the terrain is flatter and the weather is better. Our roads famously end 60 or 70 kilometers before the LAC, while theirs do not. As of 2010, only 9 of the proposed 72 border roads on the India-Chinese frontier had been completed. Our artillery is down to a 20 day War Wastage munitions reserve. The Chinese position in Tibet is central enough for them to rapidly switch the axis of assault between Arunachal and Ladakh. This is something our geography does not let us do. Moreover, in true Maskirovka style they can use their superior road infrastructure to amass vast numbers of men and assets rapidly to any vulnerable sector. Given these shortcomings, how would we fare in a contest of strength in the Mountains? Isn’t funding needed here more urgently than in the Indian ocean? Given the expenditure needed in surveillance, communication, command and control, cyber security, the weaponization of aerospace, psychological warfare and a nascent Mountain Strike Corps, can we really afford to project power in the Indian Ocean Region?
If these points weren’t enough, Himanil goes on to declare this gem of an affront to Indian history-
“All of India’s historical landward conquests have only ever led to temporary convulsions before the conqueror was assimilated into India’s general pattern of Local civilization”
May I remind the author that these ‘temporary’ convulsions were periods of anarchy lasting for 30 years on average. The Mughal conquest of North India caused immense instability there between 1526 and 1555. Post Plassey (1756), Bengal fell into a quagmire of chaos, famine and misgovernence till at least 1783. The Delhi Sultanate took at least 50 years to cultivate any semblance of stability after its violent establishment. Historically speaking, these ‘temporary convulsions’ can last up to half a lifetime. The balance of consequences of a defeat on land are not skewed towards the school-boyish fantasies of an ever receptive India happily assimilating generation after generation of invaders into her society. The consequences are strife, chaos and uncertainty.
As a matter of fact the author has so vehemently denounced my historical perspective as the thinking of ‘second generational warfare’ that he has chosen to forsake history completely. He has not given a single historical example in support of his argument. Instead he has quoted an array of articles he hasn’t read, and interspersed them with well worn platitudes. Even if we assume that he is a Mahanian, he must be duly informed that Alfred Thayer Mahan’s own research was upon ‘the Influence of Sea Power Upon History, between the years 1660-1783’ and thus predates most of my own supposedly ‘outdated’ examples. As a matter of fact he quotes James R. Holmes in his rebuttal, perhaps not knowing that the vast bulk of theoreticians he was influenced by were stalwarts of his much derided ‘second generation of warfare’. That is men such as Alfred Wegener and Carl Von Clausewitz, both of whom wrote during the age of ‘the machine gun and indirect fire’.
And speaking of the generational classification of warfare; land armies are the prime movers in any fourth generation conflict. They provide an indispensable role in border security, low intensity combat, anti-terrorism and a plethora of activities that no other service can replicate. They are continuously deployed, carry out an array of operations, underwrite our security and sovereignty, defend borders that are as disputed as they are ambiguous, and can expect higher casualties than any other service. According to Sir Rupert Smith and Samuel P. Huntington, the decisive conflicts of the future will be ‘wars among people’ or ‘fault-line wars’. These are primarily land based security threats emanating from non state actors with varying degrees of support from antagonistic sovereign powers. How does a blue water navy figure in a world where conflict is dominated by non state entities? Even if we assume that the modus of international conflict resolution in the 21st century is inter-state warfare, can we justify the costs? Economies have risen to the fore in the last 60 years without the need for a blue water navy; Indonesia, the Asian Tigers, Brazil, Mexico (Inter alia) come to mind. This is because during the present age, it has been well established that the oceans are international commons; open to trade and navigation. In Mahan’s time of study, this was not; each European power sponsored pirates who privateered off the shipping of rival nations. Back then Navies were essential to keep the sea lanes open to friendly merchant traffic. This is no longer the case.
Let me put things into perspective. It would be great to have both a first rate Army and Navy. But history tells us that with the sole exception of the US, no nation has managed to have both for long. The trade offs are too high. Although 19th century France laboured to maintain sizable land and sea forces, the pecuniary pressure was insurmountable. The Dutch were a world class naval power up till the 18th century, but their vulnerability to land invasions led to them being degraded to the level of a peripheral player. The Soviet Navy under Brezhnev expanded rapidly and drew enough resources from the army to hinder its fighting ability in Afghanistan.
In other words, states choose what kind of powers they must be according to their geographical self perceptions. What sort of geographical self perception do we have? Do we perceive ourselves as a Continental or Maritime power?
Let me answer this from the point of view of the Chinese. The reason the Chinese are building up a Navy is because the leitmotif of Chinese social and political rhetoric since 1949 has been a reunion with Taiwan. It is their core interest and ultimate national aspiration. Yet they only began their Naval expansion (in 2001) once they were firmly confident that their land forces and economy were on firm footing. Similarly, England only expanded into the world’s foremost naval power once it established hegemony over Scotland, Ireland and Wales. The United States only began to build any semblance of a blue water fleet in 1898, after she had become the world’s largest economy. In other words, ‘projecting naval power’ and ‘showing the flag’ are things that nations do after they become economically and militarily secure. These are the symptoms of becoming a mature power and not the means of achieving that status. And that status must first be won on land.