“If the wind will not serve, take to the oars” — Latin Proverb
Hard Realities of Military Orientation
India’s strategically envisioned community is conscious of the fact that the citizenry of a ‘new India’ aspires to wriggle free of the ever-inimical neighbourhood powers’ relentless hammering at our nationhood. Accordingly, a conscious Indian state has recently adopted many policy initiatives to build-up India’s defence preparedness. However, even after the Indian State’s past political policy disorientations on matters of national defence are righted – if and when these are – when it comes to the fruition of such policies at the cutting edge, it will still take many more years of sustained application before the nation’s military power is strengthened to the level of deterrence desired. Therefore, till India achieves enough political and economic clout, builds up a modern defence industry and restructures its military institution according to the modern tenets of military theology, there is very little – apart from political – diplomatic hedging backed with somewhat modest military response – that the Indian State can do to thwart determined aggression from those inimical forces who remain intent on undermining her integrity. The nation’s immediate future, therefore, is burdened with survival under that vulnerability.
There are stark indications that the nation’s unforgiving adversaries are in no mood the wait for the Indian military to gear up – they just await suitable opportunity and manner to strike. Would therefore the nation’s defence forces, having destined themselves by their severe oath and noble military culture, let such debility distract them from their commitment to defend the nation – regardless? Would the Indian military wait for the State’s newfound concern over national defence to translate into its operational empowerment while the potential aggressors keep building up? Isn’t the military leadership traditionally known to uphold its oath to the national cause by devising innovative strategies to wriggle out of such straitjacket situations? Hasn’t the Indian military been doing exactly that so far and that against the Indian State’s irrational nonchalance?
With the anti-India nexus gaining ground, the confrontationist situation turns more severe by the day…
But with the anti-India nexus gaining ground, the confrontationist situation turns more severe by the day. It, therefore, requires more ingenuity on the part of the military to do what it can within its own sphere of competences, this time with ‘willing’ political support, to contain its operational debilities. Actually, military history proves and the ‘great captains’ of warfare know that it is possible for a nation of modest means to nurture its military institution to a level when its forces, even when, under resource deprivation, are capable of not only restraining a powerful aggressor, but actually crippling, if not defeating, him in the traditional sense.
Obviously, any strategic recourse of that kind requires the right ideological, politico-strategic and military orientation to engineer the most optimum application of national resources to that purpose. The first two aspects of policy re-orientation having been discussed in the previous issue of the Indian Defence Review, the instant discussion is devoted to the military part of that undertaking. We may examine the issue beginning with a review of the present situation.
A nation’s military power is founded upon two pillars: one, the force-structure and two, its defence research and industry. Against the first one, a skeptical State policy of renouncing the possession of credible military force had been adopted early into our independence. Next, it was the policy of ill-advised weakening of the second pillar, adopted in mid-1950s that led to giving up the freedom of indigenous and timely build-up of the needed military industry. Resultantly, even if we still have a fairly competent military force, we can neither sustain nor modernise it to the contemporary levels of capabilities that India needs to protect her expanding spheres of national interests. Truly, to be able to fulfil that need, we have to wait for our so-far stifled defence technological research and industrialisation, the very foundations of military power, to catch up with the modern standards. Even if pursued with full vigour, that catching up, as we understand, cannot be accomplished in just few years.
Taking 1990 as the datum, for three generations, our strategic community, both military and civilian, kept hoping that due realisation of backing-up our democratic nation-building in a hostile neighbourhood with deterrent military power was about to dawn upon the polity. That hope went on to expect relief from the shackles of archaic defence management procedures so as to make it practical to get the best out of whatever nation and societal level investments remain committed to the cause of national defence. A somewhat balanced fiscal support to fill gaps in force-structuring and the blood and sweat shed in defence of the nation was also expected. But elaborate representations, reports and recommendations made to the top political leadership notwithstanding, that dream remained just that. Obviously, our defence preparedness remained in half-cock, inconclusive.
Similarly, being trapped between two ever-hostile neighbours, the State needed sustainable measures for defence preparedness whereas the option of meeting that need indigenously had been foregone long back by our wayward policies on defence research and industry. What little scope was left open to keep up with the military necessities through import and collaboration, even that was narrowed by unaffordable import costs and the advanced countries’ technology denial regimes. In this scenario, successive government’s policy expediency boiled down to hollow rhetoric of providing ‘all that the military requires’ and over-ambitious expectations from the defence research and industrial sectors to deliver, in good time, state-of-the-art combat hardware. Ironically, what bits of intermittent upgrades did find way into an emasculating body-military, these had been triggered in response to aggression and even that had been limited just to a minimalist scale!
Decades of procedural and fiscal strangulation has led to the military’s rising hollowness of hardware inventory, obsolescence of holdings of armaments, ammunition, spares and combat support equipment…
By late 1990s, the Indian defence forces had been afflicted by a severe state of hollowness – weaponry went without ammunition, worn out equipment went un-replaced, war reserves hit the bottom, and even the soldiery’s rather Spartan service conditions fell to neglect. On its part, the national leadership failed to take cognisance of the fact that partially non-battle worthy military is, on the one hand, a serious resource drain, and on the other, a dangerous compromise with national security. The situation obliged the military to keep its solemn oath by trading hardware shortages with the lives of their soldiers, sailors and airmen. Apart from deficiencies in combat wherewithal, archaic intelligence capability, curtailed training and field exercises, deficiency of training and protective equipment as also fatal failure of weapons, equipment and ammunition are some cases in point. These shortcomings were often highlighted during operations in Kargil, counter-insurgency and training exercises when after some hullabaloo, the inconvenient facts were re-buried.
Decades of procedural and fiscal strangulation has led to the military’s rising hollowness of hardware inventory, obsolescence of holdings of armaments, ammunition, spares and combat support equipment, depleting fleet of under-armed ships, accident-prone aircraft, lame command and control systems, a slumbering defence research, and an outdated military industry – an example of ‘comprehensive hollowness’, to wit. All this while, the military has been meeting its mandate by the dint of its hoary spirit of ‘carry on regardless’ while continuing to hope for the ‘manna’ to fall – a so-far failed hope which can materialise only when pursued by the State with due vigour. India’s military deterrence thus stood compromised, just as the adversaries having scaled their objectives of military power building, came out to prowl. Kargil, proxy war, countrywide terrorist mayhems, territorial encroachments, arrogation of illegally occupied territories and conspiracies of jehad export, are all but the ominous fallout of that deterrence debility. It may not be far off the mark to wonder if the recent display of arrogance from the immediate neighbours stem from the same debility in India’s military prowess.
There is much to learn from the above narration in the current leadership’s endeavour to re-orientate our defence planning.
Missing the State’s Message
Arguably, the State’s letting an otherwise top-class military to be ‘hollowed’ out by deficiencies and obsolescence of its war wherewithal, even at the loss of the nation’s once formidable military deterrence against habitually aggressive enemies at the door could have triggered a new cognisance among the nation’s strategic community. The State’s conscious policy of overlooking the need for optimisation of defence preparedness – even if caused by a combination of governing compulsion and strategic disorientation – could thus have been identified as a ‘reality to live with’. In other words, the State’s long overlook of the declining efficiency of the nation’s defence capability could have brought home an implied message to our military hierarchy – India’s democratically mandated governments stood compelled to commit the nation’s resources to the sole cause of socio-economic uplift even at the cost of defence preparedness.
India’s defence planners felt little compulsion in finding due congruence between the State’s security challenges, democratic responsibilities, fiscal priorities and industrial capacity…
The message could be jarring to our national conscience but there could be no dispute over the elected representatives’ right to make that choice. But even while submitting to that political compulsion, the usual expediency of ascribing the debilitation of the Indian military solely to inadequate fiscal capacity the State may not be fully justified. In fact, even when constrained by fiscal inadequacy, much of the hollowness in the military machine could have been attended to, even within a shoe-string budget, but for the disoriented State policies on defence and the stranglehold of archaic, regressive systemic processes, such policies have instituted that leave no initiative at the hands of professionals. A gloomy implication of that message was also that, in contrast to what strategically conscious nations ensure in consultation with their military professionals, our political leadership had failed to adopt innovative measures to attenuate the adverse fallouts of their political compellence upon the nation’s defence preparedness.
In its wake, cognisance of that message could have energised the nation’s military leadership to adopt professionally conceived initiatives to cover such parts of the disabilities which could be managed within the resources dispensable – and convince the State leadership to participate in that venture. For example, the military could be left free to carry out functional level re-organisations in tune with the times rather than leaving these, with no time stipulation, for a nonplussed ministry to ‘sanction’. Rather than persisting with trade unionism, the ministry could let the military decide if a moribund set up needed to be folded up; instead it could let the military raise new units to be in tune with the requirements of modern warfare. Similarly, the military could have the leeway to fulfil its needs outside the monopoly of the bureaucratic loop, and the obsolete, inefficient and entrenched public and few favoured private enterprises. In short, the State could let the military fight the enemy with what it had, instead of imposing the additional burden of systemic ineffectiveness on it.
Admittedly, all that would not have been any easy venture to undertake, probably impossible, when the policy makers were liable to look at such in-house professional initiatives with suspicion and disapproval. Besides, a deep-rooted political-bureaucratic inhibition against possession of military power – India has been almost apologetic in this regard – might have discouraged the military from restructuring by itself in a manner as to limit the debilities within whatever limited scope it could in-house and what could still be affordable. However, all that is but a thought in hindsight and besides the lessons to imbibe, useless at this stage.
Facts of Realism
With that stark message overlooked in hopeful anticipation of fruition of the governments’ intermittent assurances of emancipation, the military hierarchy prevented themselves from reading the writing on the wall, “In the foreseeable future, fiscal and technological shortfalls would continue to stall any substantial recovery from our military ‘hollowness’; and in consequence, standard, orthodox methods of applying military forces in combat would have to remain in half-cock.” That lesson could have been drawn conclusively after even the most defence conscious Vajpayee Government could not change the course of military downslide.
As a result, India’s defence planners felt little compulsion in finding due congruence between the State’s security challenges, democratic responsibilities, fiscal priorities and industrial capacity, and gel these with the nation’s intrinsic strengths to innovate extraordinary and asymmetric strategic options in fulfilment of their mandate within the constraints of combat power resources. Indeed, such age-proven parallel recourses had been found by militaries in the past, and with much success. Our own case of strategising in the aftermath of 1962 aggression is a close example. What we discuss here is a profound transformational strategic innovation according to ‘Indian Characteristics’, to borrow the Chinese term1.
Taken in by the deceptive political assurances and hoping for materialisation of due operational empowerment, our military leadership had been preparing for battles of huge legions wielding top-line hardware – on the lines of major military powers. On the ground, however, it has found itself saddled with obsolescent organisational and force-structures that were way behind the requirements of modern, multi-spectral warfare, with little prospect of catching up with the huge and ever-mounting shortfalls of command, control, combat and combat support wherewithal any time soon. It, therefore, occurs form hindsight experience that time has come for our military leadership to open its eyes to the hard realities of the State’s fiscal compellence, industrial limitations and continuation of an inefficient system of defence management. They could then reconcile to the obvious fact that notwithstanding the diversionary rhetoric of the military being ‘fully prepared to defend’ et al, those at the helm would remain obliged to concede, if in helplessness, to the detriment of the nation’s defence preparedness to an extent that even Lilliputians would thumb noses at India.
With the State caught in a time-cost-systemic bind, innovative military minds have to work overtime to keep predatory forces deterred…
Pioneering a Way
Uncertain manoeuvers at the international stage, combined with their domestic and economic challenges have kept our two potential, if not ever-active, aggressors relatively quiet for the past couple of years. But suppression of their predatory urges will not last long; neither will their steady military muscle-building be meant for “promoting peace”. Military aggression in various forms should be expected to materialise in the immediate future – much before the Indian state can deliver on its promise of structural, organisational and procedural modernisation of its military. That indeed is a situation for the military leadership to rise to the occasion and take up the cudgels of ‘holding the fort’, so to say. Thus, during that interim period, which could last for two decades or more, innovative, implementable military strategies would have to be found to meet the nation’s mandate.
No doubt, as evidenced by its robust response to territorial encroachments, terrorist aggressions and insurgencies, India’s military hierarchy has so far been at its strategic best. But extempore tactical improvisations to overcome formidable terrain and enemy – as seen during the Kargil conflict and on day-to-day counter-insurgency, in making-do with condemned and discarded inventories as in Operation Parakram, in pooling of weaponry and equipment for even local operations such as those in Kargil, Doklam, Uri and Balakot, and such ‘out-of-the-hat’ magic – may not be expected to work every time; not against such committed enemies as we have. Therefore, with the State caught in a time-cost-systemic bind, innovative military minds have to work overtime to keep predatory forces deterred, and to that purpose demonstrate credible deterrence across the entire spectrum of new-age warfare.
Additionally, the State has to conceive new avenues of military diplomacy to channelise the opportunist machinations of our global partners – the United States, Japan, Russia, Indonesia, to wit – to own benefits. Obviously, to do all that with a national defence organisation that fails most determinants of a modern military, a polity which cannot but be wary of defence expenses, its defence technology and industry trailing far behind, and all these topped by a growingly impoverished defence budget, the Indian military will have to commit hard in raising its level of strategic innovations, and so uphold its mandate as best as it can under the circumstances.
Taking Up the Cudgels
And to do so, the native military intellect has to be tapped to adapt to extra-ordinary strategic innovations by overcoming systemic inertia, political nonchalance, bureaucratic indifference, and last but not the least, the fraternity of fixated naysayers. No doubt, having already adapted to first class counter-insurgency and somewhat exacting ground, sea and air territorial defence capabilities, the military can do some more. To reiterate some well-articulated key imperatives, it can, as much as it can from within the tri-service competence, undertake to:
- Upscale to more intimate inter-services ‘jointness’ and so cut off redundancies in operational assets, whatever little that be
- Accelerate the transition to truly joint tri-service logistics
- Expand and upgrade joint-services Special Operations capabilities – the option of applying Special Forces being increasingly turned more practical in the contemporary conflicts
- Tap India’s considerable indigenous transportation and communication capabilities to enhance ground, sea and air mobility for speedy force-deployment and redeployment at successive points of force-application and so achieve operational flexibility with less resources
- Tap native electronic, industrial and human resource skills to achieve frontline command, control and information warfare capabilities
- Consolidate on combined-arms force-structures to find dispensable redundancies within each service, and redeploy these redundancies to raise the needed but stuck-up capabilities
Further, rising above orthodox reservations, the military can press on with innovative thinking and professional debates among its in and out-of-uniform fraternity to find strategies to do more with less. Raising its intellectual stake, the military can rid itself of the stale notions of ‘teeth and tail’ when, in modern warfare, stronger ‘tail’ dictates the lethality of ‘teeth’. Then, when possession of combat support systems determines the measure of operational flexibility in modern warfare, the military could rescue itself from its habitual lower prioritisation of such assets. Some of the military’s fixations are ludicrous in any case – like the Army’s orthodoxy over science education and technological assimilation at the combatant’s level, the Navy’s tall trans-oceanic aspirations and Air Force’s oafish protestations over ‘losing flexibility’ should the apex military headquarters be merged with joint structures! Rising above afflictions to turf-addiction, the military can foster true jointness and discard its top heavy and virtually unemployed, if not obstructive, hierarchy at a time when ‘small is efficient’. Above all, within its available resources, the military can further rigourise its standards of physical, tactical and scientific training and so raise its professional superiority to more formidable levels.
Thrust on Strategic Imperatives
Goaded by the new generation of political and military leadership, re-orientation processes in matters of military management are already underway, but these might yet need to be raised to the desired scale and timeliness. The test is in accepting that: one, budgetary provision of ‘three percent of GDP’ for defence would remain elusive in the foreseeable future; two, sustained push in implementation of defence reforms would need to be maintained to overcome an ever-cynical, inhibited State machinery and three, own defence forces’ possession of the trappings of Western militaries would not materialise any time in the reckoning. The Indian military leadership, therefore, must adopt a solemn mission to devise parallel and complementary answers to its conventional liabilities through purposeful venture into the wider horizons of various forms of strategic possibilities.
It is in this context that the salience of doctrinal as well as executive focus on Special Forces’ operations, disruption, deception and intelligence led information warfare, forging across-the-border capabilities and engineering covert lethal and non-lethal operations, to cover, if to some extent, the Indian defence forces’ conventional hollowness becomes a high point of strategising. Indeed, for the present, there may not be any option for the military, but to cover its conventional shortcomings through equally professional, extra-ordinary, unorthodox and ‘irregular’ means.
Cause of Military Innovation
All of the above described measures require infusion of more technology and funds, dearth of which is the cause bellie for the present discussion in the first place. It is to manage that limitation that our strategic discourse must lead to a recourse to military innovations to find unorthodox solutions to the challenges of Indian defence. Further, innovations work only up to a ceiling; thereafter innovating minds have to probe for adaptation to alternate dimensions of operations to create favourable conventional asymmetry. It is here, therefore, that alongside conventional means, recourse to unconventional, irregular and diplomatic-military shadow warfare strategies become mandatory for the Indian military. To recall, that recourse had been adopted albeit to a limited scale, in the aftermath of 1962 debacle and that had kept the aggressor quiet for over three decades. Indeed, afflicted by limited resources, many militaries have successfully adopted that recourse over the centuries past. In the contemporary context, Vietnam’s Viet Minh and Russia’s ‘Little Green men’ are examples of boosting conventional muscle with irregular employment of regular forces.
Even if fraught with sceptic resistance, the essence of some of these measures could be discussed and debated more deeply. Further, the object of such debate being to find strategically innovative measures to cover the nation’s military debility till the State’s investments on military power rise as commensurate to the threats, these must be shaped by the intellectual attributes of military profession – the eternal key factor in winning wars. Indeed, profound discussions to delve into intellectual exploration and aimed at strategising for defence preparedness under the current dispensation of military inadequacies, is called for.
Pushed by ominous prospects of aggression whenever it suits our innately hostile neighbours, the Indian State has recently set on course many measures to resuscitate India’s body-military. But it will take years, more likely decades, of sustained efforts before the nation’s want of military competence as commensurate to its aspirations would be met. In the meantime, answers to the preservation of the nation’s military security within the resources at hand has to be found by the strategic community, both military professionals and civilian experts. That would be a formidable challenge that the hoary military culture beacons them to grapple with.
- Phyrrhus’ war on Romans (279 BC), Anglo–Spanish War (1570), Shivaji’s Deccan War (1650-1700), Anglo-Indian Wars of 18th Century, Napoleon’s wars, Afghan Wars of 19th Century, to quote just a few. More recently, Gallipoli (1915), Indo-China (1945-53), Vietnam (1965-74), Afghanistan (1980-1989) – the list is endless. In a recent study, it is found that in the past century, as many as fifty percent wars have been won by forces inferior in resources.
China’s PLA, accepting the US’ overwhelming military superiority, has focused on making the latter’s application of military power in the confines of its backyard prohibitively costly against doubtful gains; Pakistan Army’s ingenuous proxy war has kept five-times superior India’s integrity on tenterhooks for over three decades; and Russian military’s green uniformed, insignia-less regiments have, thumbing nose at the formidably superior Western Powers, have taken over parts of Ukraine and Crimea. Military history is replete with such examples, including those of India’s past.