‘With whom will we fight? Where will we fight? What is the character of the war that we will fight? How will we fight?’— Jiang Zemin1
The phrase ‘way of war’ was popularized by the 1973 classic “The American Way of War,” written by military historian Dr. Russell Weigley. Many books and written pieces followed, making claims and counter-claims on the characteristics of the American way of war. Different sets of attributes were put forth, and some narratives went on to hyphenate the American way of war with that of continental Europe, terming these as the Western way of war, tracing its origin to the Greek wars of yore.
The way of war may be understood as the country’s approach to war and how the use of military force is coordinated with political, social, and economic imperatives. The phrase is about the views and expectations of the military and the political leadership on war and their respective roles.
Each country or region develops its own unique approach to warfare, or ‘way of war’. The most important influence on the government and the military’s approach to war is culture’2. In this context, ‘culture’ may be understood as the essence distilled from the country’s past experiences, myths and stories, society’s values and beliefs, and geopolitics.
The way of war differs from military strategy. ‘Way of war’ is more of a concept or a set of precepts on the approach to war, while strategy relates to the actual employment of the military force at a given time and place to achieve clearly identified objectives. As Liddell Hart says, strategy ‘…is the art of distributing and applying military means to fulfil the ends of policy”3. Military strategy seeks inspiration from the country’s way of war.
A country’s way of war evolves with the passage of time, aligning itself with societal, geopolitical, and technological changes. Analysing the assumptions, beliefs, and precepts that undergird the way of war is necessary to ensure that these remain relevant.
Why Study Way of War?
The subject of “way of war” is not just an academic pursuit but has implications for policymaking and the military4. It highlights the assumptions about how the country views war and approaches the use of force. The way of war impacts strategic planning, budget allocations, acquisitions, and military operations. For example, if the way of war prioritizes ‘minimising casualties’, the military may possibly follow the plan adopted during the Persian War of 1991 and emphasize the use of air power or drones to attack and destroy enemy’s defences, before ground forces move in. The Air Force may require suitable assets to fulfil this requirement, which will have implications for budget allocation. Clarity on the way of war is thus the first step in the formulation of national defence strategy or policy.
As brought out earlier, the way of war is influenced by many assumptions and legacies. Over time, some of these may not remain relevant in light of geopolitical and technological changes. Identifying the ideas that shape the way of war would help in assessing their relevance and, if needed, modifying or leaving them out.
It may be pertinent to mention that the structure of the military is affected by the ‘way of war’ since structure emerges from the philosophy of operations. The structure has to align with the way of war and not the other way around. This aspect may need consideration as the Indian military proceeds with the transition to a theatre command structure.
In the Indian context, there are limited writings and discussions on its way of war. There is definitely a need to think through long-held beliefs, compulsions, assumptions, values, and military culture in the context of the emerging environment. This will also aid in outlining the precepts to guide policymaking and military doctrine.
Features of the American Way of War
Before we discuss India’s way of war, it would help to briefly trace out the thought process among the serving officers, veterans, and defence analysts on the American way of war. Broadly, the American or Western way of war was about short but decisive clashes between armies. Guerrilla warfare or retreat are assumed to be cowardly, and an honourable way is to directly confront the enemy; sounds more like self-aggrandisement.5
Various points and counterpoints on the American way of war were discussed and ideas evolved over time to the traditional dependence on overwhelming force, mass, firepower, and concentration, stemming from a strong industrial base. This approach of the second world war then coalesced around the so-called Powell doctrine6 that wars should be fought only for vital interests with decisive force and with clear political objectives. The Persian War of 1991 saw a more definitive illustration of the American way of war, with airpower dominating with parallel attacks and ground forces just mopping up the decimated enemy positions. Max Boot, a leading advocate of the American way of war, believed it was based on precision firepower, psychological paralysis of the enemy leadership, jointness, minimising casualties and special forces.7 The more recent addition to these characteristics is gaining information dominance and exploiting cyberspace. As we observe, the characteristics of the American way of war changed with the passage of time and changes in the grammar of warfare. The way of war is thus not static but dynamic in nature, responding to changing political environments, new technologies, and social compulsions.
One disconcerting feature of Indian military history is the lack of military innovation. A Hindu warrior wielding a sword, spear, or bow charged and fought in exactly the same manner in 1500–1600 AD, as his predecessors had done three centuries before Christ.
Another major revelation emerging from the discussions is the American inability to turn military victories into strategic success. This was true of major campaigns as well as small wars. This phenomenon was persistently observed in Vietnam, the Iraq War of 2003 and Afghanistan, as well as in the interventions in Syria, Libya, Somalia, and many other countries. In most cases, the military achieved its objectives, but these objectives did not further the achievement of the political ends for which the wars were waged. This was largely attributed to the bifurcation where military professionals concentrate on winning battles, while policymakers or the civilian establishment focuses on diplomacy and political management before and after the war. But the consensus was that the American way of war fails to translate military victories, whether in conventional or small wars, into strategic success. In short, the American way of war does not think through the tortuous process of converting military victories into strategic success. It is thus not an American way of war but a ‘way of battle’8. This aspect may be relevant in the Indian context.
The Indian Narrative
The Indian narrative on its way of war is somewhat of a mixed bag. Indian civilization, after its zenith in the first millennium CE, faced a tortuous second millennium when it was invaded, plundered, and finally colonized. India’s ancient and even medieval military history, though interesting, has little to do with the post-independence Army and its thinking. Today’s professional military was created by the East India Company and the British to protect their suzerainty over India and adjoining regions. The Indian military took part in the first and second world wars as allied troops and rendered yeoman service by fighting gallantly for an alien cause. It was therefore, natural that after independence the Indian way of war would retain the legacy of the pre-independence period.
To understand the post-independence Indian way of war, there is a need to appreciate some salient features of the political and military’s ethos that shaped the thought process. There are also certain beliefs, which crystallized after independence and impacted the military’s outlook, deployment, budgeting, and planning. Outlining these would identify the precepts that guide the Indian way of war. A country’s way of war evolves with the passage of time, aligning itself with societal, geopolitical, and technological changes. Analysing the assumptions, beliefs, and precepts that undergird the way of war is necessary to ensure that these remain relevant.
Features of the Indian Way of War
Indian Warriors’ Traditions. Any military’s foundation rests on the quality of its manpower. Indian warriors’ traditions can be traced to the scriptures, epics, and stories woven around the wars of yore. These are the sources of the warrior’s traditions of valour, steadfastness, self-sacrifice, loyalty, and courage. These attributes are legendary and have been displayed on numerous occasions, such as the battle of Saragarhi, two world wars, Rezang-La, Kargil, and the recent bloody scuffle at Galwan. The steadfastness of the Indian soldier has stood the test of time and has been relied upon to overcome insurmountable odds. Kargil was a standing example of warriors undertaking the arduous task of dislodging enemy forces perched on mountain tops, disregarding the dangers, and accepting enormous loss of life. This attribute forms a bulwark of the Indian way of war.
The terror attacks on Parliament followed in 2001, and the excessively long mobilization time during Op Parakram gave Pakistan adequate time to beef up its defences and provided an opportunity for external pressures to intervene.
Magnanimity. A facet observed repeatedly in the past is the display of magnanimity and forgiveness towards the defeated. The generosity of Prithviraj Chauhan in pardoning Mohammed Ghori is well known, as is how Ghori repaid the debt by blinding and killing Prithviraj after the second battle of Tarain. This loss opened up India to foreign invaders. This feature of magnanimity was on display after the Indo-Pak wars of 1965 and more particularly in 1971, when Pakistan was let off very lightly without seeking just recompense. India’s magnanimity has rarely been reciprocated by its adversaries. Indian Army in response to Chinese incursions in Ladakh and its reluctance to negotiate captured features on the Kailash range dominating Chinese garrison at Moldo and the Spanggur gap. These were, however, vacated to progress negotiations. Did this magnanimity garner the required leverage during negotiations, or was it the continuation of historical large-heartedness? Only time will reveal as negotiations continue, even three years down the line. This aspect is something that may need a relook.
Military Innovation. One disconcerting feature of Indian military history is the lack of military innovation. A Hindu warrior wielding a sword, spear, or bow charged and fought in exactly the same manner in 1500–1600 AD, as his predecessors had done three centuries before Christ.9 Nothing illustrates this better than the fact that the ‘elephant troop’ which formed the core element of the army with which Porus challenged Alexander, retained its eminence in battles even 2000 years later. Babur was confronted with these during the first battle of Panipat. A little later, the inadvertent killing of Hemu, mounted on his favorite elephant, led to Humayun re-establishing Mughal supremacy in Delhi10. This characteristic is disquieting and requires the military to avoid complacency and be proactive. Recently, after the face-off with China in East Ladakh, the Army rebalanced its forces by dual-tasking one of the strike corps facing Pakistan to reorient and move to build up forces facing China.11 It has been acknowledged for some time that China, not Pakistan, is the primary threat. However, it took a face-off to prod the Army to rebalance its forces. The need to be proactive is quite obvious. Crisis situations have on many occasions forced innovations, as during the Kargil War. Innovation should become a habit instead of being an episodic event during crises.
Territorial Integrity. One political compulsion that took root after independence was not ceding any territory to an adversary — not even an inch. This compulsion resulted in the occupation of militarily indefensible forward positions in 1962, leading to a rout in the war that followed. However, even today, the belief in not losing even an inch of territory is firmly entrenched in the Indian mind. This compulsion to not cede any territory requires the military to physically man the long border to prevent incursions. This is a manpower-intensive task, adding to the other manpower-intensive role of counterinsurgency. Both of these roles have forced India to maintain a large standing army.
Strategic Restraint. One persistent characteristic of post-independence India is the strategic restraint displayed in the face of extreme provocation. This translates into avoiding actions or retaliation that can lead to armed conflict. In short, India believes in ‘war prevention’, or avoiding actions that lead to an armed conflict. This restraint was possibly inspired by India’s non-violent freedom struggle and post-independence perception of being a weak state, riddled with fissiparous tendencies. The recent instances of restraint include the lack of any retaliation following the 26/11 mayhem in Mumbai and also the fact that the responses to PLA incursions in East Ladakh were highly calibrated to avoid escalation. Recently, India retaliated after the Uri terrorist attacks and launched an air strike at the JeM bastion in Balakot after the Pulwama terror attack. However, these two instances have yet to make an appreciable dent in the Indian reputation for self-restraint. The consequence of such a belief is that the Indian military is reactive instead of proactive. The initiative thus lies with the adversaries, resulting in the Indian military being surprised on many occasions, the latest being the Chinese incursion in East Ladakh. Does this characteristic require a relook?
Separation of roles. An unsaid understanding emerged after the disastrous 1962 Indo-China war between the political/bureaucratic combine and the military. This related to the feeling that the defeat was the result of political interference in operational matters. The unsaid understanding is that while budgetary control is exercised by civilians, the armed forces retain autonomy in purely military matters12. This sounds similar to the division of roles between the US armed forces and the bureaucracy there. Such a state, while suited to a democracy, can lead to a mismatch between the options that the military offers and what the political establishment desires. This aspect does merit attention.
Would the enhanced military capabilities and organizational changes drive the Indian way of war from being defensive to a more proactive stance?
Indian Army’s Preponderance. Indian military has all along been dominated by the Army because it is by far the largest of the three services, and threats have historically arisen along the land borders. Its relatively large size and the nature of the threats resulted in the approach to war being oriented towards land warfare. This orientation may need a relook in view of the increasing impact of air and sea power in confronting known threats.
Counterinsurgency. Moving on to the impact of geopolitics on the Indian way of war. The eighties witnessed an important occurrence when an outsized gorilla forced itself into the room in the form of insurgency in some border states. Countering this was a mission the Army couldn’t refuse, since it was the only force capable of ensuring India’s integrity. The Indian Army got involved in counterinsurgency operations in Punjab even as it was already undertaking similar operations in the North East. The insurgencies across India varied in form, causes, and approaches adopted by the insurgents. In some states, it was ethnic; in others, it was religious; and in some, it was a struggle for independence. Subsequently, terrorism and insurgency spread to the Kashmir valley, and the Indian Army got sucked into the valley as well. By 1998, over 40% of the infantry were involved in counter-insurgency operations.13 This involvement of the Army in counter-insurgency operations continues to this day and is expected to remain the Army’s mission for some time to come. The Indian military would therefore have to consider this as part of its tasks, along with the primary one of guarding against external threats.
The Nuclear Backdrop. Late nineties and early years of the 21st century were tumultuous periods. India’s nuclear tests in 1998, followed by those of Pakistan, resulted in both declaring themselves nuclear weapon states. Kargil intrusions followed, and the decisive Indian response to vacate the aggression validated the possibility of conducting a limited war under the nuclear overhang. The terror attacks on Parliament followed in 2001, and the excessively long mobilization time during OP Parakram gave Pakistan adequate time to beef up its defences and provided an opportunity for external pressures to intervene. These developments in a span of barely a decade turned the entire security environment on its head, requiring the Indian military to adapt to the emerging geopolitical and security challenges. The strategy of a decisive victory against Pakistan through a sledgehammer blow was no longer viable. Instead, retaliation would need to focus on swift, shallow incursions without risking a nuclear escalation. This approach called ‘Cold Start Doctrine’ was thought of. However, it is not known if the required organizational changes to implement and test the concept have been completed.
The Indian Way of War
The above discussions reveal a number of factors, both cultural and geopolitical, that shaped India’s way of war. The attributes of the prevailing Indian way of war may be summarized as given below.
- India’s military faces a spectrum of security threats ranging from counterinsurgency, grey zone warfare and cyber warfare, to limited conventional war below the nuclear overhang. (Nuclear war is not part of the current discussion.)
- India’s approach or way of war is based on conflict prevention, necessitating a high degree of strategic restraint.
- Adversaries hold the initiative to choose the time, place, and level of provocation. This places the Indian military on the backfoot, forcing it to redouble its efforts to recoup losses.
- India’s responses to any provocation or incursion are highly calibrated and proportionate to the military challenge, avoiding escalation or crossing an adversary’s red lines. These responses have to be politically acceptable.
- India’s way of war is founded on the steadfastness and spirit of its warriors and an implicit faith in their ability to overcome any challenge.
- Crises inspire India’s military to think of innovative solutions.
An analysis of the above features reveals that some features may require to be reviewed in light of the emerging circumstances. These are:–
- The way of war is inherently defensive in nature, with the adversary holding all the cards. The Indian military has to overcome the initial setback and fight to retrieve the situation.
- The military’s retaliation has to be politically acceptable and timely. The military is thus required to provide appropriate options to cover contingencies and be ready to execute them before the adversary is fully alerted.
- India’s reputation as a weak and soft state invites provocations. Changes in perceptions and reputations require time to cultivate. A few isolated instances may not dent the perception, which requires persistence and follow-up.
- Military innovation is an episodic happening and must become part of the normal functioning of the armed forces.
The Prelude to the Future: The New Indian Way of War
As mentioned earlier, a country’s way of war evolves, and India’s approach to war would also undergo changes due to major initiatives underway. Some of the important initiatives are:–
- An organizational transformation to integrated theatre commands is underway to bring in operational synergy. This is a work in progress that should fructify in the coming years.
- The appointment of CDS and the creation of DMA auger well for improved coordination between the MoD and the military. This should facilitate the identification of options for a quick response to provocations.
- Major weapon systems are being inducted, such as UAVs, aircraft, helicopters, submarines, and a variety of surface vessels. UAVs such as MQ-9Bs and Heron Mk 2 being inducted would enable better monitoring of enemy activities in the border regions thereby reducing the likelihood of being surprised.
- There is a concerted move to shift away from dependence on foreign arms to setting up arms production within the country. (This initiative is an important step considering the lessons emerging from Ukraine about prolonged wars turning into attritional engagements, requiring an unending supply of arms and weapons.)
All the above initiatives would strengthen the Indian military and enhance its effectiveness. It would also facilitate an effective response to provocations.
The questions which need to be answered are: Would the enhanced military capabilities and organizational changes drive the Indian way of war from being defensive to a more proactive stance? Would India move beyond strategic restraint and conflict prevention to a more aggressive posture? Ultimately, will India be able to move beyond the perception of being a weak and soft state, hesitant to respond to provocations?
The coming years should hopefully bring in appropriate changes in India’s way of war in keeping with its size and stature.
Jhang Wannian, quoted by Manish Tiwari, How and Why China’s Army Modernized Itself, Indian Express, Hyderabad, June 2, 2023, newindianexpress.com
Christopher Coker, Is There a Western Way of War? Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies, https://fhs.brage.unit.no/fhs-xmlui/bitstream/handle/11250/99617/IFSInfo0104.pdf, page 7.
Liddell Hart, B. H. Strategy, London: Faber, 1967 (2nd rev. ed.), p. 321
Antulio J. Echevarria II, Toward an American Way of War, US Army War College, March 2004, /tardir/tiffs/a421512.tiff (dtic.mil.), page v.
Victor Davis Hanson, Greek Hoplites and the Western Way of War, https://sites.psu.edu/sarahreeseeportfolioeng202a/greek-hoplites-and-thewestern-way-of-war/
Antulio J. Echevarria II, Toward an American Way of War, US Army War College, March 2004, Page 7.
Max Boot, The New American Way of War, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 82, No. 4 (July–August, 2003), pp. 41–58.
Antulio J. Echevarria II, Toward an American Way of War, US Army War College, March 2004, /tardir/tiffs/a421512.tiff (dtic.mil), page 7.
AK Tiwari, “Indian experience in RMA,” Indian Defence Review, Vo 18(1), (Jan/Mar 2003), p. 68.
R Prasannan, “Historic Blunders,” The Week magazine, 30 January 2005, 34–48.
Sneh Alex Philip, China in focus, Army’s Strike Corps units reach Ladakh as part of’rebalance’ strategy, 23 July 2021, https://theprint.in/defence/china-in-focus-armys-strike-corps-units-reach-ladakh-as-part-of-rebalance-strategy/701028/#google_vignette
Christopher Clary, Personalities, Organizations, and Doctrine in the Indian Military, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14736489.2018.1415283, Page 3.
Steven I. Wilkinson, Army and Nation, Permanent Black, 2017 Ed., Page 144.