The Cause of National Sovereignty
Traditionally, India has sought to preserve her sovereignty and territorial integrity through reliance on political accommodations and harmonious diplomacy. Even in dealing with the duo of our compulsively inimical neighbours – China and Pakistan – the Indian state has chosen, as a matter of principle, to recuse from exercise of pre-emptive military options. Accordingly, it has adopted a consistent minimalist cap on defence expenditure. Given own economic and technological priorities and limitations, that reliance has been wise and laudable.
However, Indian leaders’ hopes of being able to ride through the turbulent waves of military belligerence by accommodative overtures have repeatedly been proved banal. Past experiences have proved that in an ideologically revisionist and militarily aggressive neighbourhood, possession of robust military power is essential for India’s national stability. That lesson has taken rather long to be imbibed by the Indian State even when it has been incessantly tormented by the two inveterately hostile neighbourly powers. Doubtlessly, the tenuous state of India’s minimalist approach to defence (un)preparedness and the impunity it offers to the aggressors has been the foremost factor that has sustained our adversaries’ hostile, militarist pitch. Their inveterate animus has thus prevailed upon them in thrusting four full scale wars, scores of bloody skirmishes and an unending series of internal insurgencies upon us. Barring the military deterrence achieved in the post-1971 decade, that animus continues in various contemporary forms of political, non-kinetic and kinetic warfare.
Presently, allied in their blinkered percept of a progressive India posing existential threat to their regimes, the adversarial duo of China and Pakistan is even more committed to destabilise and disable that ‘threat’ by every instrument of their strategic leverage, military power being the favoured recourse. Thwarting that aggressive pitch with what minimal war-wherewithal our state had so far chosen to prepare its military with, is therefore unlikely to work in the coming days. The necessity for more robust military preparedness intensifies further in light of political and economic objectives of a rising India. But when viewed alongside our national aspiration for socio-economic development, that obligation presents a fiscal paradox.
A Prelude to Defence Preparedness
The government’s recent attention to defence modernisation, even if delayed by some decades, is most prudent. But as the hoary lessons of statecraft tells, even if it requires little to let a defence institution wither, its rebuild needs long time to rejuvenate, synchronise and perfect to the extent that it can successfully grapple with the extremities of warfare. Accordingly, modernisation of the nation’s military organisation and the other key factors of defence preparedness – production and possession of quality hardware of war – would take long years to accomplish. It will, therefore, be long before the effects of regressive defence policies of the past are overcome and competency of military and civil organisations and industries dedicated to national defence are fortified in accordance with India’s rising defence needs.1 Till that happens, India’s defence preparedness would remain but tenuous.
Meanwhile, India’s cause is largely being served by articulation of astute foreign policies in the backdrop of strategic partnerships, military hardware acquisitions and ‘deterrence by denial’. However, that classical approach stands upset by the incongruence of political, economic, technological and military interests amongst the global powers – contradictions of Indo-US, Indo-Russian and Indo-Japanese understandings are some examples. For India’s military deterrence to succeed in the coming days, such contradictions need to be rationalised by tough balancing acts.
Strategic Template in the Neighbourhood
In the contemporary attributes of military posturing and warfare, nations having limited military capability have assumed considerable salience in big power confrontation. Today, geographic smallness matters little, strategic location and proclivity to harness it one way or the other does.2 The multi-dimensional nature of modern-day warfare offers much larger scope to undermine, in active or passive manner, the cause of their larger and more resourceful neighbour. This they can do by allowing one or the other adversary to establish logistics and long-range missile bases, intelligence outposts, campaigning bases and axes of operations from their soil, even offering political support in global forums. That elevates the salience of smaller and militarily diffident parties in prosecution of modern warfare. Schemes to secure minor but strategically disposed players have thus been intensified in recent times. Casting influence over the South Pacific and Indian Ocean Islands – Solomon, Fiji, Sri Lanka and Maldives for example – as well as the smaller South and Central Asian countries, underlines the lesson.3
Our recent experiences with many of our traditionally amenable neighbours – Nepal, Sri Lanka and Maldives, to wit–testify to that lesson. Economic aspirations remain a high-point of inflection in these democracies, aspirations that cannot be met without looking beyond just friendship with India. Their enunciation of certain India-averse decisions should therefore be expected, particularly when there are forces lurking to take advantage. Strategic locations of each of these nations give them significant capabilities in posing second-line military threat to India. That could be a remarkable handicap in modern warfare. Accordingly, optimisation of our defence preparedness has to be measured in that context. Indeed, there is more to India’s defence preparedness than just fortifying against China and its collaborator, Pakistan. We would be wise not allow any kind of overlook on that account.
Certain Adversarial Contexts in the Strategic Template
The matter of India’s security and stability and in consequence her defence preparedness is also sensitised by the following adversarial contexts:
Even if distressed by China’s assertive economic and military domination, the hapless Indo-Pacific nations are inclined to reconcile with their lot for fear of economic and muscular retaliation.4 Similarly, the European nations and numerous other purported ‘beneficiaries of Chinese largesse’ are taciturn in calling-out China to uphold the free and fair global order. That makes it tedious, if not elusive, to build effective security partnerships with like-minded, China-wary nations.
Pretending to be an Islamist ‘flag bearer’, Pakistan manages to curry instant favour from most Muslim nations. It is thus emboldened in targeting India by radicalistic Islamist gang-ups with Turkey, Malaysia and various quasi-state fanatic groups who are intent on spreading the virus of violence and bigotry all over South Asia.5
Ominous consequences of Afghanistan going the Taliban way, or even having a Talibani component in the state administration, are also causes of concern for India’s national security. Overriding religious connections binds these fanatics to Pakistan’s ominous interests, much to the latter’s comfort. Such collaborations cannot be but inimical to India.
Going by the norms of realpolitik, the United States (US), may not be expected to remain favourable towards India forever. After all, besides professing some fledging agreements and collaborations, India will be hard put to offer the kind of strategic inducements that the US desires in return for its partnership.6 Besides, eventual reconciliation with China remains a much sought-after economics-driven prospect among the Western Block nations. Expectedly, these nations would be falling over each other to curry China’s favour if China, even superfluously, mollifies some of their partisan concerns over global freedom and human rights. India, by her policy of seeking unencumbered international relationships, does not fit well into the Western Block’s calculus.
A possible threat to India’s sovereignty also simmers from what China terms as her ‘calculative’ dream of assuming ‘G-2’ status by 2049. Herein, China forging an understanding with America to apportion the continent into respective ‘spheres of influence’, ‘dominance’ actually remains a disconcerting prospect. Being the underdog in Sino-India equation, India has to contend with such political realities.
With an overwhelmingly powerful China and an emboldened Pakistan incessantly targeting India as their marked adversary, India’s future progress is unlikely to be smooth and fair. In her progressive path, India will have to bear with intermittent diplomatic rebuffs, contrived castigations, territorial encroachments, acts of subversion and terrorism. At stages when hostility breaches tolerable limits she will have to be ready to wield military power. The Indian military is slated to be the key responder, by posture or action, in such ever-looming possibilities of crises.
While policy distractions of the past consigned the Indian military institution to atrophy, our sworn adversaries have been relentless in their pursuit to undermine our nationhood. That has obliged the Indian military to perform, when asked summarily to get into the act, from a state of ill-preparedness – as indeed to much extent it still does. But in the contemporary reign of military modernisation and defence technology, sundry tactical improvisations with dated military hardware packaged with just the indomitable military spirit can no more make up for structural deficiencies in the nation’s deserved military power – neither can it keep the ever-stalking wolves away.
Conversely, systemic factors rule that the Indian state’s recent thrust on military modernisation and reforms would need a decade or more to take optimally deterrent effect at the field level. During the intervening period, the burden of defending the nation’s sovereignty and integrity with what war wherewithal it possesses and what little that might be in the pipeline, would continue to rest upon the Indian military for many years to come.
Much is said about India’s formidable conventional military prowess. Without delving into India’s various contingency-specific relativities of power-ratios which has to be a distinct exercise altogether, it may be unequivocally stated that the Indian military is well geared to thwart aggression either in collaborative one-and-a-half front or in conjugative two-front situations. But professional eloquence apart, going purely by the numbers and quality of combat assets, India’s relative war-waging capacity against her ever-poised aggressors, should be a cause of serious concern. The Indian state’s recent realisation of its warranted military prowess notwithstanding, informed assessment indicates that it could take 15 to 20 years, possibly more, to see the fruition of India’s defence modernisation, including upgrade of logistics and industrial infrastructure that would bring our defence preparedness on a par with our security needs.7 Moreover, in a resource constrained nation of competing priorities is quite possible to visualise a return of the political expediency in lowering the fiscal precedence of military necessities. All this while, the two innately India-animus neighbours would continue with military build-up and undeterred more or less, would be poised at the starting blocks for inflicting external aggression and internal subversion upon the Indian nationhood.
Here is a confounding situation which calls for interim resolution till India’s military modernisation bears optimal fruition at the field level. That call necessitates invocation of innovative strategic wisdom that would cover, to the extent feasible, the current limitations of India’s military’s power and do so within such means and methods which are readily marshalled within our currently available indigenous capacities.
These are the realities the custodians of our national defence ought to consider. And as a corollary to the above discussion, it would be logical to highlight certain key stipulations in attending to the nation’s current military deficit.
Stipulations for Harness of Military Power
A nation’s strategic goals have to be reconciled according to its capability to build-up a corresponding level of military power. In India’s case, there is a serious contradiction here. Our economic and technological limitations can hardly support a level of military build-up that would keep the two powerful, ever-aggressive neighbours chastised against military aggression. There is no doubt that the present state of India-China border stalemate is but a temporary political pause for the PLA to prepare for the next round of territorial encroachments, ‘capture’ actually. Designs implicit in China’s territory expansionist strategy are:
One, surreptitious, pre-emptive encroachments along the 4,000-odd km long Indo-Tibet border at PLA’s own time and point(s) of choosing. This strategy has so far brought China nearly 2,000 sq km of territory across the Sino-India Line of Actual Control (LAC) – over and above the 43,500 sq km it has occupied since the 1962 War.
Two, the PLAs well implied threat of infliction of its massive military might should there be any attempt to resist or to recover any of the areas so seized. Massive PLA build-up and chest-thumping claims of unique accomplishments in military exercises and induction of advanced weaponry are clear messages to that end.
The only practical way of guarding against such surprise encroachments for India is to demonstrate a credible ability to evict these encroachments, by force if necessary and be demonstratively prepared to stand up to escalation in hostilities. It is no brainer to understand that neither of these options is achievable for some years to come. Having extended its territorial occupation to a limit without having to engage in any major fight, the PLA is now gearing-up to begin its next venture, whenever it decides. This would be to seize deeper territories across the Sino-India Line of Actual Control (LAC) either by pre-emptive occupations into India’s vast expanses of physically unheld areas or by overwhelming any resistance through deliberately planned and executed military operations. On the other hand, after our spirited responses to the Doklam, Galwan, Depsang and Kailash confrontations, there is little option for the Indian state but to take up the cudgels in a David-Goliath fight. The autarkic ‘Goliath’ in this case is unencumbered from accountability to its people, prudence over casualties or resource limitations. Therefore, irrespective of the heavy penalty China will be obliged to suffer, the final outcome of its aggression should be beyond doubt. Under the circumstances, it is obvious that India is destined for long to the inevitability of having to negotiate through China’s formidable military threats.
As a corollary, the purpose of India’s defence preparedness is to find, within its own limitations, ingenuous ways of keeping the nation’s enemies deterred and if needed, thwart any forms of military aggression. In that kind of paradoxical endeavour when our resources do not match our tasks, there are some stipulations and challenges to tackle.
Stipulation I: Political Commitment. The first stipulation originates from decades of political inattention that has resulted in undermining the foundations of the nation’s defence capability, namely, a politically defined and resource linked national security strategy; astute nurture of the military organisation and its spirit of military enterprise, upgrade of defence research and promotion of indigenous defence industry. The process of catch-up with the contemporary range and level of military pre-requisites would therefore have to be long, vigorous, expensive and long-term. This process would need to be sustained through long-term political commitments, particularly so when successor governments come to face with other compelling demands of democratic governance. Similarly, the usually languid state apparatus would need to turn energetic in accelerating the process of military restructure and modernisation. Having committed to comprehensive defence preparedness, it is to be seen as to how the national leadership carries that intent into the coming years. Doubts do arise on that account by the manner in which the political functionaries show little concern over impairment to national security while lunging for each other’s throats.
Stipulation II: Organisational Integration and Combat Support. The second stipulation is rooted at the fact that the process of induction, structural incorporation and tactical assimilation of the vast range of under-acquisition modern hardware into the large numbers of our service formations would be a time-consuming endeavour. Thus, while carrying the cross of their military pledge, the current generation of military leaders would have to accept that beyond few trickles, not much of modern war-wherewithal is likely to materialise at the field level any time soon. To elevate battle performance of combat forces in the interim, this limitation of front-line weapons and equipment would have to be covered, if partially, with:
Determined pursual of the integration, rationalisation and restructure schemes for the defence organisation as a whole. The purpose is to achieve optimum convergence of all available force-capabilities and shed duplications and redundancies borne out of inter and intra-service compartmentalisation.
Add to the operational flexibility of the field forces by elevating the levels of battle field intelligence, engineering support and logistic flexibility and so offer flexible and timely options to the commanders for assembly, deployment and redeployment of forces and their battle echelons. In that endeavour, the nation’s robust foundations in the domains of engineering, manufacturing and construction, information, surveillance, communication and data processing technology, as well as the transportation networks, have to be harnessed as parallel undertakings of military modernisation.
Stipulation III: Regular-Irregular Operations. Adversity of India’s situation calls upon our military leadership’s adaption to innovative strategies to stalemate the giant adversary’s persistent territorial usurpations and his brandishing the threat military aggression. In that call, adaptation to various forms of irregular warfare – in asymmetric, special, grey zone, guerrilla or hybrid modes – should be a matter of solemn political-military recourse. Furthermore, to stalemate a stronger military power, such adaptations have to go beyond the ambit of localised tactical operations that are aimed simply at facilitating regular conventional operational capabilities, which to some extent all the three services already have. Time has come to elevate that capability to the status of an ‘operation of war’ by its own right. Military history is replete with examples of professionally executed irregular actions in conjunction with regular operations to achieve force multiplication effect and operational flexibility. Irregular operations are also long-sustainable through articulation of tempo and intensity to exhaust stronger adversaries. All three services of the Indian military have to deliberately prepare for irregular operations.
Stipulation IV: User Oversight of Defence Industrial Functions. The fourth stipulation is actuated by our post-independence defence establishment’s propensity to grab exclusive, autonomous control over military-dedicated undertakings, even if that comes at the cost of goal-displacement and duplication. Truly, in upholding the nation’s mandated military objectives, there is no reason for the specific-user dedicated establishments to disavow the principle of unity of authority and accountability. In order to modernise the military in lesser time and cost, the presently stymied system of subjecting defence establishment projects to military oversight needs to be re-instituted. Just as the global powers have been intent on observing that principle, India too has to adopt that policy if she wishes to manage her defence from within the limitations of her resources.
Stipulation V: Military Alliances. With the Indo-Pacific region gaining in strategic focus of big power rivalry, India’s military security is inexorably tied-up – in varying degrees – with the dynamics of military postures adopted by the US, France, Japan, Vietnam and Australia as well as the revisionist powers China and Russia. As discussed under the ‘Strategic Template in the Neighbourhood’ above, the rest of the South East Asian nations, despite having limited military capabilities, can become collectively significant in shaping military confrontations one way or the other. In modern warfare, salience of these apparently small players cannot be overlooked.8 India’s defence policies and military preparedness need to be construed accordingly. Just rhetorical ‘partnerships’, strategic or otherwise, are not enough to stall the Goliath’s arm-twisting.
Stipulation VI: Trumping over Mindsets. Lastly, even if the Indian military has been quite efficient in adapting to changing tactical situations in the field, many of its present-day concerns are rooted in its reluctance to emerge from archaic convictions on matters that have outlived their purpose. Overcoming that kind of orthodoxy, however, is not simple in an unforgiving organisation that stands upon paradoxical foundations of tradition, rigour and modernity. To wit, the first rebuff against upgrade of training curricula in the academies, development of indigenous weaponry, strengthening combat support capabilities and investments on logistic infrastructure came from those who were to be its sole beneficiaries – the operational hierarchy! On matters of defence preparedness therefore, it would be necessary for the military professionals to repudiate the inevitable alarms that would be raised by the prejudices of fixated naysayers. That is the fifth stipulation.
The Indian state is showing signs of curing itself from its long persisting military-averse policies. It has also dawned upon the state that in times to come, possession of a high grade of military deterrence alongside profound defence industrial uplift would be obligatory to sustain India’s economic growth and rising geo-political stature.9 But for the lesson to take effect, the Indian state’s systemic-political-bureaucratic disposition towards the principle of primacy of ‘military necessity’ would have be cleansed of its deep rooted, archaic mindset that continues to be clouded by simplistic notions of ‘powerless peaceful coexistence’ – among habitual aggressors at that! Disavowal of comprehensive defence preparedness in an ever-combative world order which is a sure invitation to peril.
1. That is provided that political priorities of the future do not lead to a policy turn-around.Who knows as to what will become of the current thrust on military build-up if tensions along the Northern, Eastern and Western borders are‘eased’,superficially as before, by the adversaries at their times of convenience, and our political myopia relapses to the old ways of chicanery.
2. Small neighbours are important to either of the adversaries in terms of logistics, long range weaponry, communications, surveillance etc., even political support.
3. The Chinese Foreign Minister’s recent visit is intended at casting spell over the eight small South Pacific Islands. And that has forced Australia and its Western allies to shed their indifference to this region.
4. Southeast as well as South Asian nations have shown their inclination to submit to what economic benefits come their way from Chinese funded projects – even if the benefits be in the short-term and packaged with palpable threat to their sovereignty. That, combined with China’s ever-flexing military muscle deters them in playing down their angst against China’s behaviour.
5. Brazenness of anti-India rhetoric in global for a that intrude into Indian sovereignty are disconcerting. The problem is however deeper: One, such spurious allusions against democratic India are becoming more visible to mislead the mostly gullible world; and two, the host States persuade themselves to exercise double standards in restraining such tirades.
6. Notwithstanding many agreements under the umbrella of ‘strategic partnership’, US’ deferments over provision of concrete defence and technological enablers to India, is significant.
7. That is the time needed to design, set up, experiment, test, conduct field trials, configure production lines, manufacture, induct into the user units, and finally, tactically assimilate the modernisations into the war-waging system. The cycle used to take 20-30 years, with automation and collaboration, it could possibly be reduced.
8. China’s courting South Pacific islands is a pointer.
9. The new trend is observable – inclusion of the military in policy confabulations, and roles assigned to the military in matters of strategic partnerships, development of military-to-military relations and neighbourhood relations. These practices, however, need to be formalised, lest the usual nonchalance returns with passing of the present crises.