India: Gearing Up for National Defence
Lt Gen Gautam Banerjee, Editor, VIF
Covenant of Defence Modernisation

In a welcome change from the past, particularly in the post-Doklam 2017 period, the nation is witnessing a coalescence of sensitivities on matters of national defence. This is a welcome attitudinal change in the State’s past policy of strategic reticence in the face of incessant acts of hostilities perpetrated against the Indian nationhood by the duo of powerful and irrepressibly India-animus neighbours.

Arguably, given our limitations of national power, that strategic reticence might have been a prudent option which we had justified by romancing with peacenik nationalism. Presently however when the world seems to be on fire as never in the post-World War II era, that option remains feasible no more. The nation’s rising political, geographical and economical significance in the ever-expanding arena of global dog-fighthas imposed upon India a pivotal prominence in the global geo-political order. That prominence, catalysed by incessant acts of aggression from our compulsive adversaries has brought about the Indian State’s recent focus at the competency, or inadequacy, of its defence preparedness. Thus, there is observable an attitudinal focus on building-up the nation’s comprehensive military deterrence.

The government’s well-intentioned programme of defence modernisation promises to change India’s under-dog situation for the better -for the sake of the nation and its soldiery. But for that to happen, the first imperative would be to identify the roots of the fault-lines that have led to our in-optimal defence preparedness in the first place, and attend to the remedial stipulations thereof on priority. To elaborate, while the government’s pursuit must be to upgrade and modernise the military’s hard power capabilities -in terms of structure, personnel, armaments and logistics – conscious efforts must be made to stay clear of the said roots of the fault-lines of current military debility. Indeed, that kind of conceptual focus is fundamental to true and cost-efficient uplift of the quality of the nation’s hard military power.

This paper argues this matter in the following sequence:-

  1. Ideating Defence Policy;
  2. Roots of Military Deficits;
  3. Marking the Malignant Roots;
  4. Government’s Recent Endeavours;
  5. Stipulation for building Effective and Affordable Military Power.
Ideating Future Defence Policy

India’s successive custodians of national defence had gambled on noble orations on ethics and peaceful demeanour to softenthe neighbourhood virulence. Further, in their hopeful estimation, the nation’smilitary preparedness could be pegged at a level that might be ‘adequate’ to whistle-up a marginally extant military just to stalemate Pakistan’s military aggression and stalling her from winning outright the fruits of her aggression, and nothing beyond. On the China front it was just confined to occasional border policing and no more, the rest being left for diplomacy to deal with. Notably, all these notions prevailed even while China and Pakistan had been at readiness to draw their swords!

India’s future defence policy is needed to be ideated around the geographical, political and cultural realities that ingrain two of our immediate neighbours with irrepressible India-animus culture. Both view Indian nationhood as anexistential threat to that of theirs, and are innately militarist in thought and action. The need for such ideation is further exacerbated by the two adversaries joining-up in more or less indelible alliance. As such, India’s peaceful overtures would not be enough to pacify the adversarial bellicosity. That is a situation wherein even as India avoids getting drawn into an armed conflict, the aggressors would remain ever poised to impose it in covert or overt manner as it might suit them. Indeed, India’s defence policy has to ideate along these realistic lines.

Five Roots of Military Deficits

Barring the post-1971 War decade-and-a-half, the Indian State has been unable to project the necessary level of military deterrence, demonstrated in terms of armaments, munitions, war equipment and logistics, upon its habitually persistent enemies. The result is that:-

One, predatory aspirations of our incurably hostile adversaries continue to bloat into acts of military hostility; and, two, all this while our large, highly trained and motivated military keeps struggling to fulfil its mandate with a deficient and obsolescent war-structure, and is thus thwarted from offering optimum service to the nation.

There is another aspect to the ideology of national defence. In an intense and ultimate ‘calling’ wherein the capacity to think, move and operate deeper, stronger and faster to get better of an equally professional, well prepared and spirited enemy decides between a country’s victory or defeat and life or death of its soldiery and citizenry, the military’s pining for best affordable war-winning capabilities has to be valued, and honoured as such. Universal cognition of that reality covenants the State to provide to its soldiers, sailors and airmen (hereafter referred to as ‘soldiery’) with what best war-wherewithal it can find and fund while expecting them to commit to extraordinary conditions of deprivations and bloody sacrifices in the nation’s defence.

In either count, the situation for the Indian military has been less than satisfactory. Apart from mouthing glorifying eulogies of its soldiery, the Indian State has been unable, even unenthused, in building upon a practical and perceptible military deterrence, or in complying with its own part of the abovementioned universal state-soldier covenant.[1] To qualify further, even if de-prioritisation of defence preparedness had to be accepted in light of the nation’s economic and technological limitations, the impending military debility could still be better managed within our extant capacities. That kind of adversity management, however, would have called for the governments of the day to articulate sagacious defence policies in consultation with the military professionals, rather than drawing wool over hoary strategic wisdom and running-down the military institution. But pre-ordained by ill-conceived attitude of military averseness, the nation’s past leadership failed to subscribe to such sagacity. The resultant de-prioritisation and regressive defence policies combined to impair the nation’s defence preparedness, much to the nation’s eventual loss.

Treating the Malignant Roots of Military Deficit

The nation having achieved a fair degree of all-round advancements over the recent past, it is right time to treat the malignant roots of the nation’s military deficits. Redressals of such malignancy would help vitalisethe nation’s military power potential.

Root I: Skewed Defence Decision-making

In its military power-averse thinking, the first mis-step India’s post-independence defence planners had taken was to banish military professionals from the defence decision making hierarchy. It did not occur to them that no matter the excellence of their political and bureaucratic wisdom, true assessment of military imperatives could come only from those who have actually waded through the cognitive and corporeal minefield. They had thus purged themselves of their institutionalised right of access to uncensored professional military confabulations and advice.

Tentative steps have been taken to ameliorate this policy disorientation and vitalise the nation’s jaded higher defence structure. Institution of the Chief of Defence Staff and Department of Military Affairs are the most visible examples of such steps - there are many more. But the malignance of this debility remains to be undone yet. Indeed, there are many more steps to follow at the successive echelons of organisational walls within the hierarchy of national defence. As usual, there would be questions, reservations, and constructive as well as prejudicial suggestions to realign or even divert the process. Notably, many of these diversions could prove to be relevant during the learning curve.

Consequently, given the inexorable purpose of gearing up for national defence, the political leadership’s direct inter-face with military professionals has to be invigorated. Within ruling parameters, professional opinion, and not ‘ready consensus of convenience’, must be the decisive factor in any future defence decision making.

Root 2: Overlook of the Concept of ‘Military Necessity’

Much to the contradiction of the hoary imperatives of ‘military necessity’, the managers of national defence have scored another self-goal by the imposition of routine civil administrative, judicial and fiscal parameters over the defence-dedicated ventures of the State. Thus, the legally provided exclusive provisions and special exceptions in management of military requirements are either neutralised or disregarded altogether. Indeed, there are instances galore of various departments ignoring the provision for obtaining military inputs over strategically sensitive matters, just as there are the cases of overlook of the provisions for priority allocation of national resources like transportation and industrial capacities. Similarly, there are observable instances of overlooking the provisions for priority settlement of legal issues and grant of financial dispensations. Most disconcertedly, ill-conceived and downrightly disastrous attempts have been attempted to dilute the stringent stipulations of military service and the military law. In short, it has become usual for the courts and civil administration to distract from taking cognisance of the hoary imperatives of military necessity.

On the pretext of misplaced enthusiasm for ‘indigenisation and democratisation’, such malignancies tend to equalise the exceptional ‘calling’ of national defence with routine management of civil matters. Stagnation of military priorities has become endemic thus. Robust measures are therefore needed to resuscitate the concept of military necessity, should the State be intent on catching up with the accumulated lag in the nation’s defence preparedness. In pursuing such measures, professional military administration, duly supported by a responsive political leadership, has to play a catalyticrole.

Root 3: Dilution of the Concept of ‘Military Lien’

The third self-goal was scored when the principle of the military’s user lien over dedicated defence-production undertakings - the Defence Research & Development Organisation, Defence Estates, and Ordnance Factories etc. –was decisively, and ignorantly, tampered with.[2] In so doing, duly invested military participation in apex level management of the defence-dedicated undertakings was stymied on the misplaced notions of ‘departmental autonomy’ and ‘civilian control’. It is as if such notions were more crucial than the purpose of affordable, competent defence preparedness. That flawed notion has created a developer-user chasm, conceding to the bureaucrats, scientists and auditors equipped with military insight but superfluously, the competency to decide as to what weaponry and equipment the military must do with, and in what time span.

Much of the stultified performances of the defence-dedicated organisations are the direct consequences of the said policy disorientation. Having gone deep-rooted, these disorientations would need much effort to remedy against divisive civil-military pretences. By implication, intended or not, this self-goal has also led to inefficient military exploitation of dual-use civil infrastructural projects, much to the wastefulness over national resources.

In recent years, the defence-dedicated undertakings are being tested on their performance and fiscal accountability, and with the slogan of ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’, the response has been encouraging. At the other end, however, barring some examples, particularly from the Navy, stymie of duly invested military participation in defence industrial decision making has prevented the either party from gaining the requisite level of cross-experience. That in turn has led to enfeeblement of decisive interface between the military and the defence industrial undertakings over the years. The military’s inadequate techno-industrial understanding is thus reflected in user-producer differences -in respect of indigenous tanks, guns, combat aircraft etc. for example. It will therefore take many years before the military can regain its domain capacity to guide and contribute to the design and product effectiveness of these undertakings. For that, as was the case in the past and is in practice in advanced countries, embedding military professionalsat design as well as decision making level in the defence undertakings would be imperative.

Root 4: Propagation of Misplaced ‘Theories’ and Cliché’s

Centrality of Conventional Power. One frequently comes across defence opinion as well as policy makers deluding themselves and the intelligentsia at-large by propagating a notion that with the advent of information warfare, hybrid warfare, drone warfare, cyber warfare, missile warfare, space warfare, etc. the centrality of conventional war somewhat been equalised. And therefore, inadequacies in conventional defence preparedness could be somewhat compensated with these forms of warfare. Nothing can be further than the truth. One suspects that this trend is but a solacing distraction from our inability to fast-track our conventional military build-up against the lurking predators.

Adjuncts of Conventional Warfare. The fact is that the sole purpose of undertaking the excruciating venture of war is to force the enemy to change his policies, and peripheral modes of warfare as information, cyber, missile or drone operations, are not known to have achieved that end. Indeed, conventional war preparedness is the foundation of every military venture – be it campaigns, tactical operations, skirmish actions, intelligence based strikes, sabotage-subversion operations etc. - and the other forms of warfare are but its adjuncts. Any distraction from that truth among the defence policy makers would be catastrophic.

Aspirations versus Resources. Then there are the experts who quote various percentages of GDP, affordability, burden of defence expenditure etc. to justify limitations of our military preparedness. The truth however, is that the enemy is not impressed by such logic, and that own military preparedness has to be a function of the enemy’s preparedness. Therefore, if the nation cannot afford to impose formidable military deterrence upon its adversaries, then we have to be prepared to scale our nationalist aspirations down and bear the consequences, good or bad.

Root 5: Romantic Precept of Military Culture

So far, the Indian military has been upholding its promise of defending the nation even when in wanting of the requisite modern era war wherewithal. In that vigour, it has traded extreme deprivations and high casualties to thwart inimical forces from pushing back the nation’s frontiers and destabilise its sovereign coherence. Ironically, in that process, the military’s dependability and valour has so much obscured our polity’s notions that it is usual to attribute its stoicism mainly to the virtues of soldierly culture, and leave the matter of modernising the war-waging structure at a dead-end. Imperatives of modern defence planning – organisational reform, capability enhancement, logistic consolidation, defence industrialisation and diplomacy etc. –had thus mostly been glossed over, and pended in wait for the next crisis to blow up. The result had been that even when the salience of defence preparedness came to be appreciated, that failed to translate, in desired measures, into provision of war wherewithal for the military to deter aggression, and when needed, to fight more efficiently.

That the Indian military culture has by and large delivered well so far is no reason that similar would be the case in the modern era warfare. In the prevailing dispensation, the polity’s bet on its military’s ingrained culture to make-do with what limited hardware of war the State makes available to it, for it to fight with the pledge of ‘regardless unto victory at any cost’, would not be enough to meet the challenges of nation’s defence. Ever-accelerating advancements in military technology have changed the old equation between man and material. So have changed the forms of warfare when operational deficiencies need more than just the invocation of soldierly culture to cover up. As such, in order to preserve against military-centric revisionist powers, the Indian State has to do more, both in structural as well as material terms, to empower its military institution.

Fallouts of Military Deficit

Needless to state, there have been debilitating fallouts of abovementioned policy aberrations; here, we may touch upon the most grievous ones.

Budgetary Woes. Starvation level defence budget and Pakistan-centric approach had caused de-prioritisation of China-specific defence preparedness. Resultantly, development of Himalayan border infrastructure and high-altitude-plateau warfare weapons and equipment – which are no priority for the global arms industry to invest upon and therefore needed to be developed indigenously – had been left overlooked. Till the present, the Indian military has been coping with these deficiencies by expedient, on-spot improvisations at the cost of avoidable personnel and hardware casualties.

Stagnation of Military Industry. Two, Second World War vintage and scales of military hardware was persisted with in the post-independence era when a fairly competent World War II defence industry was made to stagnate on matters of technological uplift and marketing competition. Seven decades of obsolescence ensures that a catch up with the contemporary military industry that is strong enough to support a modern military structure would need a long and costly race.

Stymieing of Military Enterprise. Nurture of military ingenuity and adoption of table-turning stratagem requires syncretic coordination between the political and military leadership. Conversely, in the post-1990 era, national level defence decision makers, as if embarrassed by the much celebrated Kautilyan concepts, have been rather persistent in withholding, if not outright resisting, their participation in profound strategising for national defence. Such political de-focus of national defence had perhaps dis-incentivised the defence professionals – both military and civil - from delving into parallel innovations at the strategic and logistic levels. Besides, the state of ‘hollowness’ that was caused over a quarter century of budgetary inadequacy, and which led to capping of their war waging capability just to reactionary defence and counter-insurgency, had subdued the military fraternity’s quest for opening their minds to innovative strategic options – as indeed, excessive defensive mindedness does. The process of devising pioneering means and methods of curing India’s sworn enemies of their compelling aggression was therefore more or less stymied.

Sensible entreaties from the nation’s strategic community notwithstanding, successive governments found expediency in sticking, even reinforcing such regressive defence policies. Even an outstanding military success of the 1971 War could not change that regressive trend. Truly, the political, organisational, fiscal and technological limitations that India’s military has to cope with today are rooted at our regressive defence policies of the post-independent era. Contemporary defence policy makers may take note.
The present Government’s adoption of a vigorous defence policy permits a break-out from that strategic cocoon for the Indian military to impose adverse - and affordable - asymmetry upon India’s enemies. India’s defence planning and military preparedness ought to be shaped accordingly.

Government’s Recent Endeavour

The government’s well intended road map for the impending defence modernisation promises to change the existing situation for the better - for the good of the nation and its soldiery. But astute re-orientation and modernisation of India’s jaded defence structure will have to be a time-consuming and fiscal-balancing undertaking. It will therefore take many years of sustained efforts before comprehensive and quantum uplift of the Indian military’s war waging structure finds its true fruition at the field level. Meanwhile, in projecting adequate military deterrence andorganising national defence during these years of military encumbrance, there are two stipulations to be acted upon:-

One, the State will have to, with due to alacrity, invigorate the cause – not just the process - of defence modernisation by retracing from its past policy aberrations that have led to the above discussed military deficits in the first place.

Two, in the coming decade or more, the Indian military will have to deter aggression with what instruments of war – men and material – it possesses, and what little more it can manage to acquire. As a corollary, the military will have to continue to invoke its traditional spirit of material improvisation, tactical innovation and spiritual determination to elevate its combat performance.[3]

Conclusion

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 her rising geo-political stature.[4] 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 deeply rooted archaic mindset that continues to be clouded by simplistic notions of peaceful coexistence (among habitual aggressors!) and disavowal of comprehensive defence preparedness (in an ever-combative world order!) of our idealist past.

It is encouraging to see that the system of defence management is being turned responsive towards the nation’s strategic imperatives in the modern world. This development has to be sustained by the defence-military bureaucracy by the invocation of astute long-term planning and progress of all-round modernisation schemes - both in terms of military as well as defence technological-industrial modernisations.

But while that long-term process is nurtured with due alacrity, the intermediate-term menace against our national integrity, as devised by two powerful aggressors-in-collusion, will still need to be controlled. To reiterate, disruption of the adversary’s designs within our existing resources requires the nation’s political-military leadership to invoke distinctive strategic as well as tactical asymmetries in own favour.

War should be avoided for reasons of peaceful socio-economic development, and that cannot be done just by preaching peace and harmony, from a position of military hollowness, to a cut-throat world order.

Endnotes:

[1]Hindsight lamentations on that account notwithstanding, it may be admitted that the State’s fore-stated inability or unwillingness had not been without compelling reasons as rooted in situations prevailing at the times.
[2] This act has had far-deprecating consequences. Military professionals are no more active at the decision-making levels, and their following generations have lost out in developing as military-scientists. The military too iscomplicit in this sordid matter, refusing to depute competent and motivated lot to that purpose.
[3]Manifestation of that destiny was seen during the Kargil War of 1999. Standing-up to China’s aggressive activities in Eastern Ladakh since May 2020 is the latest example.
[4]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.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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