This is a seminal book, with 25 contributions, all Indian except two from U.S.A. and one each from Australia, New Zealand and UK, excellently put together by Harsh Pant. It is mandatory reading for uniformed and civil personnel dealing with Indian defence, and for foreign friends and adversaries alike, who will study it to their great benefit.
India faces a multitude of internal and external threats. Apart from Pakistan as the more immediate one, there is competition from China, dealing with terror strikes from non- state actors, fighting insurgencies without alienating the civil population, and the nuclearisation of India and Pakistan that requires India to launch limited military action below the nuclear threshold. There is no substitute for strategic thinking and institutional effectiveness, without which there can be neither military muscle nor protection of strategic interests. In India there is no holistic vision and changes of government have not resolved these problems. The army’s post- 2002 ‘Cold Start’ designed for decisive limited strikes within two days against Pakistan found little support from the other two services or the government. Overall, there is a failure of political will to tackle a persisting policy paralysis.
This book uncovers an unhappy picture. Since Nehru’s days the socialist-economic pacifist view and tight hierarchical bureaucratic control has held primacy over defence growth, revealing “the distance that separates the politico-bureaucratic leadership and the military leadership … the only nuclear power where the military functions outside the government”. Our civilians will not entrust nuclear weapons to military control, defence management systems are not functioning well, there are tensions in civil-military affairs, acrimony between the three services, disputes between the prime minister’s office, the external affairs and defence ministries, and lack of strategic planning.
The concept of autonomous services led to the lack of unified precepts. Both civil and military circles oppose this fundamental requirement, unlike the U.S.A., U.K. and other nations where a unified command is mandated by law. There have been dozens of ‘doctrines’ promulgated but without any clarity, even of the nuclear doctrine. Each service has developed its own ‘doctrine’ without coordination or reference to other two, and the civilian bureaucracy has no interest in diluting its authority. Reforms suggested by expert reports are never implemented, delayed or partially implemented. The government must enunciate the guidance and the military must formulate the doctrine, which has to be in conjunction with the nuclear doctrine. This has not happened.
The military needs to adapt to the new concepts of technological warfare, which call for modernisation, but there is no significant change in the operating systems. The manpower-intensive prioritisation of defence over offence remains, though the 1998 nuclear tests and Kargil revealed the lack of cuttingedge technology and changed deterrent calculations. The gulf between the scientists and the military is entrenched, and Indian leaders see the nuclear weapon as political and not military. The threat from Pakistan and China is addressed mainly with conventional weapons, and it is unknown if the army deploys warheads and missiles together. Perhaps our scientists and engineers have more control over nuclear weapons than the political leaders, which raises serious doubts about the credibility value of our deterrent. India has never declared a space policy, and official claims to have an effective anti-ballistic missile shield are met with scepticism.
The Indian ‘teeth to tail’ ratio is one of worst among modern militaries. The army has a shortage of officers, and the navy’s force structure falls “woefully short” of the desired level. There are no integrated theatre commands even after Mumbai in 2008. There is no roadmap for indigenous production, expediting decisions, synergy between local producers, foreign suppliers and private sector. It is unlikely that India can emerge as a hegemon in the near future, and primacy in the Indian Ocean is only “aspirational”.
The two-front question is not with Pakistan and China, but the internal and external scenario. The Chinese threat is seen as conventional, and India has no wish to enter an arms race with China. Internally, India confronts a hybrid threat from Indian militants, foreign militants and Pakistani intelligence services. It only recently accepted that its citizens could be home-grown terrorists acting on their own and not for Pakistan, while the decline in violence from Maoists is no permanent victory. Intelligence agencies have a shortage of appropriate human talent; the police are inadequate structurally and ideologically, class riven and feudalistic. Despite having one of the oldest and largest federal police and paramilitary forces, India is unable to deploy them effectively.
With the second largest standing military force and one of biggest defence budgets, India aims to assert its political and military profile in South Asia and the Indian Ocean. Yet it faces critical shortages; the army may not be able to sustain a full-fledged war for 20 days, ground-based air defence systems are obsolescent and the submarine fleet is depleted. India continues to import 70 percent of requirements at an annual outlay of $8 billion in spite of cumbersome contract procedures. Relations with USA and Europe are growing, with diversification away from Russia, but arms acquisition is ad hoc and vendor-adversarial, and the performance of indigenous manufacturing is “abysmal”. In the 1980s the defence budget- to – GDP ratio was below two percent and will not be significantly different in future. The provision for capital expenditure is usually unspent due to bureaucratic caution and checks and balances which the military view as an “inattentive and ossified civil polity”. Thus procurement becomes “arming without aiming”.
There are few flaws in this book; there is no list of abbreviations despite a plethora of acronyms on every page, and with so many contributions there is some inevitable duplication. But Pant has achieved remarkable success in presenting a highly informed, skilled and comprehensive picture. We are left to sadly conclude that defence reform and modernisation, like the economy, will only happen “incrementally” and in homeopathic doses, which is just not good enough.
Krishnan Srinivasan was Indian Foreign Secretary and Deputy Secretary-General of the Commonwealth. He has published books and regular columns in newspapers and journals on international relations. This review was first published in The Telegraph on 6 May 2016