If India’s military has to become lean and mean to fight and win the battles of the future, military reforms and fiscal conservatism would have to go together.
Much has been made in recent months of a supposed lack of funding for the military. This is not something new. Virtually, every government in independent India has been accused of this at some point during its tenure. World over, there is not a single military, not even the US military (whose defence budget dwarfs the next 10 high defence spenders), that does not complain about a paucity of funds. Yet, what we find in recent history is that the most innovative approaches to national defence come not from overfunded fat militaries, but rather those facing a cash crunch. Sweden and Taiwan, for example, are countries that have faced serious threats on their borders (Russia and China respectively) and managed a robust defence at relatively low cost. Sweden especially used technology at a very early stage, going from having the world’s third largest air force in the 1950s to a much smaller but more lethal force in the 1980s. France, lacking a proximate threat, similarly made the best of defence cuts by innovative solutions to their expeditionary capabilities.
Today, France polices a high threat, Islamic State-infested area, twice the size of India, in difficult Saharan terrain, with a mere 3,000 troops. In effect, such examples are the fiscal conservative’s dream come true. The question, however, is, do any of these examples apply to India? What is India’s threat environment? What are the institutional imperatives that aid or prevent reforms? What are the socio-economic factors that promote or hold back change? If these ground factors don’t align with other nations, what is the path forward?
Definitional And Cognitive Issues
The first issue India faces is that we have never been able to define our threats clearly and unambiguously. Starting from Nehruvian times, this has been a persistent problem, but has never been modified, not even by Jawaharlal Nehru’s most trenchant critics. The problem is that our enemies have been clear for quite some time — China and Pakistan. Yet, for either fear or reticence, we are unable to articulate such thoughts and try to pass off the resultant confusion as “strategic ambiguity”.
Similarly, for a country that has faced the maximum damage in sheer numbers from Islamic extremism, India’s knowledge of the contours of Islam is non-existent. To this date, we have the shockingly-unsustainable argument about Indian Muslims being peaceful due to Sufism, ignoring the extremist tendencies and violent history of Sufism itself. This canard was propagated by none other than Prime Minister Narendra Modi as late as April last year when he claimed “India will be pushed to darkness” without Sufi culture, an insult to other denominations of Islam such as Shiism and the Kharijites that have done no harm to us in modern times. Our tactile knowledge of Pakistan on the other hand, is superb, but lacking data and primary source research, comes off as unacademic churlishness. Indeed, we must ask ourselves why it takes a Western researcher, Christine Fair, to add empirical data and freely available Urdu source material to add academic veracity to our assessments of Pakistan.
Finally, we have an issue with the military leadership itself. On repeated occasions, when being asked what is the threat and what is the problem set, successive chiefs of various branches of the armed forces have said “nothing specific”. Similarly, when we count friends, to this day, even in private, distrust of the United States is all pervasive, despite decades of confidence building. This weakens our ability to operate jointly with our friends and avoid duplication of scarce resources.
This then presents the first obstacle to defence reforms in India – if we cannot diplomatically or academically identify, leave alone study a threat, how are we meant to fight it? Political indecision on this score is compounded by bureaucratic, all of which filters down to the military. In short, when it comes to military reforms, we face three levels of what might be termed schizophrenia – political, bureaucratic and military.
Clearly, then, the need is for a new clear narrative, not burdened by the schizophrenia of the past masquerading around as profundity. Here then, is the military situation. At the high end, you need to fight a two-front war involving both China and Pakistan. At the low end, you need to be able to launch a punitive strike against Pakistan while having sufficient conventional superiority to deter a similar counter strike, as this will lead to cycles of escalation. There is no room for “nothing specific” here. It is a specific problem set, where, if you solve the high end, you have all the capabilities you require for the low end and the entire range in between.
It is also important here to understand that you cannot task such a force with sub-conventional warfare — internal security and counter insurgency duties. Modern war is about moving fast, though frequent political confusion means militaries are forced to do crowd control duties like in Iraq, Libya, Syria or Afghanistan. These are two diametrically opposite requirements. A military campaign requires younger “berserkers” who identify targets and shoot. Counter insurgency and crowd control, where not shooting can yield greater results, require much more mature, jaded soldiers. When you make the same soldier do both duties, you end up with disasters with soldiers able to do neither. For example, in Kashmir, soldier fatigue is high. Confusing signals on when to exercise restraint and when not to, and the absence of legal protections combined with scapegoating mean a constant erosion of training and lack of faith in the state.
Separating these two, for the military to deal exclusively with conventional warfare and paramilitary forces to deal exclusively with sub-conventional threats makes sense from a personnel, economic, logistics and strategic point of view. There is also the element of fatigue involved here. Stretching and fatiguing conventional forces can be exceptionally dangerous, with precious skill sets lost in the dreariness of a long drawn out domestic campaign.
Although, the economic aspect here is equally interesting. Separating the “ground control” component (that is to say the holding of hostile land as a bargaining chip, urban operations, crowd control etc), from the ones of conventional military can yield impressive results. It means you can downsize an army and make it a lean, mean fighting machine suited for high impact, high returns on investment operations. This does mean that the political class loses one option: ground control, but it also means you can’t blindly be waltzed into a trap like we were in Sri Lanka, or the Americans were made to in Iraq and Afghanistan. The most important economic aspect of such a clinical division of labour, like all division of labour, is that with such specialisation, you can target your financial resources precisely to the desired effects. Mentally, too, the separation of these roles enables a military to be given a more focussed set of objectives, leading to greater fiscal prudence and greater accountability.
On the conventional side then, what exactly is the threat we face? For some reason, assessments of India and China, side by side, always measure the totality of both country’s armed forces. Realistically, however, the Indian military will never face the full force of China for one simple reason, that China has problem borders across its periphery and has to keep resources diverted there. No single country on China’s periphery plans to take on the whole of China’s military might, but simply fight off the maximum possible localised concentration while inflicting maximum damage.
There are two models to this — the developed country strategy and the developing country strategy. The developed countries have adopted a threefold strategy. First, all either have open (Japan, Korea) or recessed (Singapore, Taiwan) alliances with the US, which even if it doesn’t come to their aid, will create enough of a diversion (as during the 1996 Taiwan straits crisis) to draw away Chinese forces. The second is that they all maintain less reliance on ground forces, preferring their navies and air forces to do much of the job (granting that they are all separated by the sea from China, which they see as their primary threat). Third, they maintain a frontline fleet of just one or two types, with weapons standardised across all air and sea platforms and avoid excessive customisation to allow for obtaining spare parts and supplies in the open market rapidly and cheaply. The developing countries, for example Vietnam, for lack of a highly developed workforce and technology, rely on manpower, but they too are reducing their logistics footprint with great faith in asymmetric jungle warfare to thwart a technologically and numerically superior Chinese force. The similarity, however, is in asymmetricity. Technologically-developed countries are using technologically-asymmetric approaches while underdeveloped countries are using tactical asymmetry.
This brings us to India. India’s aversion to alliances is well-known, so benefitting from one others’ strengths is out of the question. Geographically, we have the Himalayas, which reach their highest elevation across the India-China border. On the India side, the descent to sea level is fairly rapid. On the Chinese side, the vast Tibet Plateau of around 2.5 million square kilometres and average elevation of 4,500 metres severely complicates logistics. If one considers an army approach, the advantage lies with China, which commands the heights and has a superlative rail system supplying its frontlines, which have excellent roads leading up to the border. On the Indian side, the lack of serious high altitude rails is compounded by atrocious border roads.
The geography is also complicated. Technically, the Himalayas here are three parallel ranges, the high Himadri, the middle Himachal and lower Shivaliks, but in practice as in Aksai Chin, this can mean upto seven separate parallel ranges starting from the Shivaliks, progressing onto the Dhauladar, Pir Panjal, Himadri, Zanskar, Ladakh and Karakoram ranges. This means you have to contend with seven different elevations and six deep valleys in between. In the east, while the three parallel ranges hold, you have the logistics complication of the narrow Siliguri corridor and the crisscrossing of the intersecting north-south ridges of the Arakan range, complicating both north-south and east-west movement. In short, while both countries face severe geographic challenges on this border, the Chinese have largely overcome theirs through not just infrastructure, but also sufficient economic capacity in Tibet to justify the infrastructure. India, on the other hand, faces not just a greater problem, but also lacks infrastructure and business case to make such infrastructure viable.
Yet, when we look at the same situation from the air, the picture changes completely. The seven difficult parallel ranges on the ground for India translate into a rapid transition from near sea level to high altitude within 200 km, a few minutes for a supersonic fighter. Moreover, the vast depth of the Tibet plateau for China means severe high altitude restrictions for air power on its side. As a simple example, during my trip to Tibet in 2017, in the wide body Airbus A330, an extraordinarily capable plane, almost one-fourth of the plane had to be left empty at the back. This was not for lack of demand but due to the rigours of landing at such elevations. The weight restrictions become far greater on high performance aircraft such as fighters, limiting both range and payload significantly. Importantly, India can deploy air power year round, whereas China can effectively do so only in summer.
Optimally, then, any normal country would prioritise an air response to a ground response on this front. Surprisingly, the unsustainable increase in infantry and the raising of new mountain strike formations means that not only are we doubling down on a ground response, but that the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) number crunch is not being dealt with rapidly. If the air force is being forced to absorb several aircraft types, it will result in a fragmented and incoherent air force, with severe logistical complications. As of now, plans involve the IAF to have between five and seven different types of aircraft (depending on who you read) well into 2030 and beyond, while even the richest countries cannot afford more than two types.
At sea, the picture is no better. Perhaps, the best example of this is the launch of the Chinese Type 055 Destroyer. Each one of these ships has more vertical launch tubes (and hence missiles) than the entire Indian eastern fleet combined. Moreover, fitted out with a normal complement of anti-aircraft missiles, each of these boats would have enough missiles and then some to deal with the entire maritime air strike assets we can throw at them. Yet, much of the naval budget gets diverted to white elephants like upto possibly three different types of aircraft carriers, with three different aircraft types, all with significantly shorter ranges than their Chinese equivalents (one type of carrier, with one standardised plane type).
Despite the hue and cry over Chinese nuclear submarines in the Indian Ocean, the ship-based, anti-submarine helicopter wing has been neglected completely, and future submarine orders are being delayed by the need for India-specific modifications that involve massive redesign and multiplied costs. In short, our response to the Chinese navy is anything but asymmetric. It is almost an one-is-to-one prestige race, rather than any clearly thought out asymmetry at work, and this, despite the Chinese having much deeper pockets.
The net situation with China is that we have a severe land disadvantage, an air advantage, and a quantitatively superior Chinese navy. This is compounded by the massive infrastructural and economic imbalance between India and China (whose economy is five times the size of India’s with cash reserves at 1.5 times the size of the entire Indian economy). Yet, despite eschewing alliances and their advantages, in every single case, we are choosing the worst possible option — prioritising a compromised ground position over an exploitable air position; at that, choosing a ground uphill battle with badly equipped troops and tenuous supply lines, a heavily-fragmented and logistically incoherent air response, and a symmetric naval response, with no signs of major industrialisation on the horizon.
On the Pakistan front, the situation is somewhat different. Unlike a quiet China border, the Pakistan border, especially in Kashmir, is a conduit for infiltration and resultant attacks. Frequently, as during 2001, such attacks can lead to rapid escalation and the possibility of war. The problem set here is threefold. First, how to prevent infiltration (paramilitary forces can deal with insurgencies but not deterring infiltration as it involves cross border activity); second, how to carry out meaningful punitive actions in response to the failure of counter infiltration; and finally, third, the possibility of an all out or even limited war.
In the air and at sea, what suffices for China, is more than adequate for Pakistan. The problem set, however, differs when it comes to ground responses. India’s responses since the 1980s, have been to threaten Pakistan with massive armoured strikes, variously morphing from the Sundarji doctrine to the on-again-off-again “cold start”. This made eminent sense in the 1980s and possibly into the 1990s. However, as the battles of Grozny in 1994 and 1996 (which the Chechens won) and 1999 (Russian victory), and Western experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as Syria and Yemen show, armour, these days, can be decisively beaten by infantry. This has been a long shift and back — like a pendulum, since almost 3,300 years, starting at the battle of Kadesh in 1274 BC — between cavalry and infantry, with trends reversing in the span of decades.
While much of India’s obsession has been directed at Pakistan’s tactical nuclear weapons, intended ostensibly to blunt Indian armoured thrusts, what seems to have passed unnoticed is Pakistan’s massive build-up of tens of thousands of anti-tank missiles at every level. These asymmetric tools of war, when mated with correct tactics more than nuclear weapons, pose a grave threat to Indian armour plans.
Yet, unlike China, where almost all ground based options seem futile, the answer on the Pakistan border, lies partially at least on largely discarding massed armour. Borrowing from the French experience in the Sahara, this involves a full utilisation of network centric warfare, with light and fast-moving vehicles and a dismounting infantry approach. This was presaged in the 1994-96 and 1999 battles of Grozny. Chechen rebels decimated Russian tanks in 1994-96, while in 1999, the Russians turned the tide and massively reduced their own casualties, opting for mobile infantry centric approaches.
If Grozny showed the utility of such an approach in urban theatres then Mali, Syria and Yemen show the relevance of this model in arid uninhabited areas. Much of this approach depends on firepower rather than the obsolete “cover fire” preferred by antiquated armies. That is to say, in the past, artillery shelling would keep much of the opposing force hunkered down while armour or infantry slowly and painfully eliminated targets one by one. This is no longer the case. Today, precision munitions mean that artillery is able to reliably hit and take out even well-hunkered targets with great accuracy. Infantry then deals with residual resistance if at all.
A shift to such modes of ground warfare, assisted by a meaningful and coherent attack helicopter force, means that the requisite precision artillery would also be effective in the counter infiltration role. Such artillery would suppress cover fire laid down by Pakistan, and instead of the meaningless and futile volleys that currently take place, it would involve actually taking out opposing artillery batteries. This, then, leaves the question of how does one carry out meaningful punitive retaliation — a task best left to longer range missiles and aircraft, which maximise effects and reduce risks.
The Socio-Economic Angle
Earlier in this article, it was stated that there are two models of defence against a much bigger and richer neighbour, the advanced technology asymmetry or the human intensive asymmetry. India has neither chosen alliances to reduce its security burden, nor has it chosen asymmetry, adopting both large numbers and expensive technologies. All of this presumes, of course, that India as it claims, is an extremely advanced country in human terms and a rich one with large pockets. Sadly, this is simply not the case. As study upon study has shown, India’s education system is in shambles, the quality education available in India’s cities was quickly swamped and destroyed by the massive rural to urban migrations that happened in the wake of the 1991 economic reforms and 95 per cent of India’s engineers are stuck with cognitive issues and are unable to problem solve.
This is a serious issue, not just because of the fact that the indigenous research and development (R&D) system gets saturated with products of a system that inherently incentivises rote over problem solving, but also the fact that Indian labour laws and the lack of active “sticks” means quality control simply cannot be exercised. The education problem also severely affects the absorption of technology by the armed forces. One of the reasons advanced countries can downsize but become much more efficient, is because technology is seen as an enabler that empowers every soldier to problem solve and devolves command decisions to them. Moreover, these soldiers also have a much more tactile feel for technology. Growing up in a developed country, the average blue collar workforce that forms the bulk of the fighting force, would have access to toys like PlayStation or Xbox, allowing them at an early age to process large quantities of information, and learn independent tactical decision-making, combined with an education system that values problem solving and initiative.
As such, by some estimates, almost 80 per cent of the training and conditioning costs are absorbed by the state education system and society. In India, only families that are fairly well to do and ones that at best contribute to the officer class can afford such luxuries. This means a late life absorption of technology for the average soldier which is a painful and cumbersome process that goes against his/her natural conditioning as one has to process vast amounts of up-to-date information and translate this into increased tactical and situational awareness and then have state sanction for greater freedom of action. In India, needless to say, controls are tight, technology viewed not as an enabler but rather as a control mechanism, quality training is virtually non-existent, standards and procedures and legal protections for soldiers lax and human resource practices abysmal, to say the least.
In The End. . .
The source of India’s defence woes is poor human capital across the board and has little to do with technology. A crippled education system and lack of prioritisation of humans has produced systems where there is a lack of serious scholarship, or indeed life training. You have a lack of military knowledge in a bureaucracy and political class, compounded by substandard engineering and a woefully inadequate military leadership, all of whom are products of India’s obsession with investing in technology over investment in humans. In every situation we have confronted so far in this essay, security elements of foreign policy (bureaucracy), defence economics (political and bureaucratic) and military responses (military leadership), all either lack clarity or coherence. Nothing is more alarming than the fact that indigenisation plans are made without properly audited industrial and human resource surveys of India (which to date have not been produced save as superficial accounting exercises).
Thankfully, the solution to these problems neither involves major disruption or indeed major costs. What it does involve is shifting the budgetary focus from technology and industry to human beings. Sending a few hundred engineers, officers, and economists, to work closely and exercise regularly and in earnest (rather than the staged theatrical events that are Malabar Yuddh Abhyas) with friendly forces annually and return to create the kernel of “train the trainer programmes” costs far less than expensive white elephant purchases, interminable committees with regurgitated recommendations, new defence universities staffed by the same fossils and peddling the same agendas and syllabi, and policy shockingly bereft of academic rigour, knowledge of industrial ecosystems and supply chains and relevant best practices abroad. India, today, has the same per capita income as Israel did in the 1960s.
Yet, Israel’s focus, which was entirely on humans, produced a generation that created the technological revolution there. Ultimately, what India’s leadership needs to understand is that across the board failure means human failure and no defence procurement procedure, industrial expansion plan, indigenisation slogan, or anti-corruption drives can solve that. Only investment in real human education can.