Arming without Aiming
India's Military Modernization
By Stephen P. Cohen Sunil Dasgupta
Brookings Institution Press
Copyright © 2010 Stephen P. Cohen and Sunil Dasgupta
All right reserved.
Chapter One Restraint and Affluence
One of the most remarkable attributes of India as an independent nation has been its longstanding restraint in military strategy. Reticence in the use of force as an instrument of state policy has been the dominant political condition for Indian thinking on the military, including military modernization. From the initial delay in sending troops to defend Kashmir in 1948 to the twenty-four-year hiatus in testing nuclear weapons, India has used force mainly in response to grave provocation and as an unwelcome last resort. The country's greatest strategic success, the victory of 1971, occurred in response to a Pakistan Army crackdown on rebel Bengalis, which killed tens of thousands and forced millions of refugees to flee to India. It is notable that New Delhi did not press its military advantage in the west to resolve the Kashmir problem. Similarly, India's nuclear weapons program, the military capacity that could have transformed India's strategic position, remained in limbo for twenty-four years after India tested its first atomic device in 1974. There are exceptions to Indian restraint as well as questions about whether it was driven by capacity or intention. Of course, Pakistan has never been persuaded of Indian restraint. We discuss these issues below as part of our investigation in this chapter into whether India's new affluence and access to advanced weapons technology will end the pattern of strategic restraint, turning India into a traditional great power with clear strategic objectives and the military means to achieve them.
The answer is not self-evident. India's burgeoning resources will go a long way in reducing the most apparent obstacle to India's strategic ambition: lack of resources. Equally, India's access to Western technology-most importantly from the United States-could transform the Indian armed forces in unprecedented ways, giving the country new instruments of strategic assertion. While there are good reasons to expect a breakthrough, we do not believe it is likely. Military preparation just does not receive the kind of political attention that is necessary to marry military modernization and strategy. India's military modernization suffers from weak planning, individual service-centered doctrines, and disconnect between strategic objectives and the pursuit of new technology. In comparison, other modern states, especially India's primary rivals, Pakistan and China, focus more steadily on developing the military means to deal with their own security concerns.
The bar for change in India is so high that any talk of imminent military transformation is highly premature. Since armed force has not been a central instrument of state policy, the country has not developed the institutional structures necessary to overhaul the mechanisms for generating military power. Notwithstanding India's newfound affluence or new access to military technology, we do not see good reasons to expect dramatic change. Contrary to conventional realist wisdom, wherein threat and affluence drive military posture, we believe that military change in India will be evolutionary, driven by the slow pace of institutional change in the Indian military system. Consequently, India's strategic choices will remain limited. The Indian military system can expand in size; create new agencies, commands, and positions; and purchase new advanced weaponry, but it cannot address the contested demands over retrenchment, coordination, and reconciliation of competing interests.
It is important to emphasize that strategic restraint has not served India poorly thus far, nor will it be an ill-conceived choice for the future. In a region characterized by many conflicts and an uneasy nuclear standoff, restraint is a positive attribute. However, restraint is not seen as a virtue by those who want India to be a great power, a counterbalance to a rising China, and a provider of security in the international system rather than a passive recipient of the order created and managed by others They strongly criticize the lack of political direction, confused military doctrines, dysfunctional civil-military relations, and lack of interest in reforming defense acquisition and policymaking processes. Below, we examine the roots and trajectory of Indian strategic restraint and then the challenges to restraint brought on by the advent of affluence and new technology.
The Development of Restraint
India's weak military policy from independence in 1947 to the war with China in 1962 is evidence of the lower priority given to military matters than to other national concerns. The country was unable to afford ambitious strategic objectives and robust military rearmament. Instead, as the cold war intensified, the national leadership sought gains in the political arena through its policy of nonalignment. As has often been noted, India's position resembled America's strategy of distancing itself from European wars, and Nehru's speeches of the day resembled George Washington's Farewell Address, which cautioned against entangling alliances.
The primary military assignment in the 1950s was international peacekeeping, a function in which the Indian Army excelled. In Korea and later in the Congo, the Indian Army's performance was professional and measured. In the peacekeeping roles of the time-as opposed to contemporary UN Chapter 7 peace enforcement-the Indian Army found the perfect canvas for the expression of its quiet capacity. In national defense, however, the civil-military system, and particularly the political leadership, fell short.
The British Empire had raised a powerful Indian Army, which had fought creditably in the world wars in Europe, North Africa, and Burma, and secured possessions from Hong Kong to Aden; but India's nationalists saw military power as an instrument of oppression, imperialism, and undue financial burden, and most were strongly critical of India's armed forces. The struggle against the British had focused in part on the Raj's use of military power. The success of the nonviolent independence movement buttressed the view that India did not have to raise a strong military to develop effective means of international influence.
Though early Indian nationalists such as Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Gopal Krishna Gokhale saw military service as a means to secure home rule; Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, the two Indian leaders with the greatest influence on the direction of independent India, saw military spending as a burden imposed by the British in defense of their empire. In 1938 Nehru wrote that India did not face any significant military challenge; the only military role he saw for the Indian Army was in suppressing the tribes of the North-West Frontier Province, who were, in any case, too primitive in his view to fight a modern military outside the tribal areas. In general, Nehru agreed with Gandhi that the use of force in political life was inappropriate. The mainstream in the Indian independence struggle was committed to nonviolent strategies. Nehru, in particular, believed that high principles trumped the use of force as an instrument of Indian foreign policy. This thinking was in sharp contrast to that of Nehru's greatest political rival, Subhas Chandra Bose, who had a very different view about the use of force as an instrument of politics. Bose turned to the Germans and Japanese to support his Indian National Army that fought the British during World War II. Had Bose survived the war (he was killed in a 1945 plane crash), India's history would have been very different. There were others who remained in the Congress but expressed strong interest in strategic and military matters, most exceptionally, K. M. Panikkar, the eminent diplomat-scholar, who wrote an important treatise on India's new security situation, especially regarding China and the Indian Ocean.
Despite the ideological preference, the new government did use force repeatedly in the early years. The Indian Army put up a rearguard action to defend Kashmir in 1948-49. The First Kashmir War remains one of India's most intense conflicts; the Indian Army won more Param Vir Chakra medals, the highest military honor in India, in that war than in any other conflict since. Earlier the Indian Army had contributed units to the binational Punjab Boundary Force deployed along the India-Pakistan border in the Punjab. The campaign was unable to stop the ethnic carnage that accompanied partition, and it went down in history as an early example of a catastrophically failed peacekeeping force.
The army deployed at home on three other occasions. In 1948 Nehru ordered the Indian Army to annex the princely states of Hyderabad and Junagadh. In 1955 he asked the Indian Army to conduct a counterinsurgency campaign against the rebel Naga tribesmen in Northeast India, a campaign that has since haunted the region. In 1961 he pushed for the military liberation of Goa from continued Portuguese colonization.
India's nationalist leaders preserved much of the colonial state and its institutions, including the armed forces, police, and civilian bureaucracy. They sought to maintain continuity despite imperfections and contradictions in how the colonial institutions served a new democracy. With respect to the armed forces, the new government allowed continuity within the institution but brought strong political and, in time, bureaucratic supervision. The role of the armed forces in the new nation was limited sharply, control over the armed forces was lodged in the civilian cabinet, and after independence the status of the army was reduced by making the uniformed heads of the navy and air force "commanders in chief." Then in 1955 all three positions of commander in chief were abolished, and the chiefs assumed leadership of their respective staffs.
Continuity in military institutions also meant that the Indian Army remained caste- and ethnolinguistic-based in contradiction to the egalitarian principles of the Indian Constitution. It also meant that the Indian officer corps preserved the tenets of British military professionalism, which, especially since the interwar period, emphasized technology-driven doctrinal innovation. The British inventions of tank warfare and air power revolutionized war. Similarly, India's officer corps sought the best technology available, which in the early decades of independence meant importing from the United Kingdom. In keeping with Western traditions, Indian military officers prioritized security objectives and, unlike Pakistan, avoided involvement in domestic politics.
A three-tiered structure from the colonial period continued to be used in higher defense policymaking. The Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs (CCPA) was the foremost national security authority. The CCPA comprised all senior ministers of the prime minister's cabinet and was responsible for policymaking on a variety of subjects including foreign affairs and defense. The next tier below the CCPA, the Defence Planning Committee (DPC)-previously the Defence Minister Committee-consisted of the cabinet secretary; the prime minister's special secretary; the secretaries of finance, external affairs, planning, defense, defense production, and defense research and development; and the three service chiefs. The Chief of Staff Committee (CSC) was the military component of the third tier. The other half was the Ministry of Defence's (MoD) Defence Coordination and Implementation Committee (DCIC) chaired by the defence secretary. The DCIC coordinated defense production, defense research and development, finances, and the requirements of the services. A version of this arrangement continues to this day.
Despite production, release, and updating of official documents to facilitate the acquisition process (the Defence Procurement Manual and Defence Procurement Procedure), the system continues to be plagued by fundamental structural problems. The Ministry of Finance, which has its own defense wing, has the authority to intervene in specific spending decisions of the Ministry of Defence, often with an eye toward limiting costs. One of the key unresolved problems in the acquisition process, which is almost entirely about importing weapons from advanced industrial societies (the West and the Soviet Union), is an unrealistic and ambiguous policy of offsets (where foreign companies, as part of their bids, commit to source a percentage of the contract in India). However, any leader or bureaucrat advocating lower offsets becomes vulnerable to charges of corruption. India simply lacks civilian expertise in military matters. Few politicians are interested in defense until forced by events. The bureaucracy that functions as the secretariat for the political leaders comprises generalists with little practical knowledge of military matters, but this group lobbies powerfully to preserve its position against military encroachment. Even the Ministry of External Affairs, with the greatest institutional capacity for international relations, has very few people with sound knowledge of military matters. Although the armed services are highly professional and have the necessary expertise, they remain excluded from the high table.
A Fresh Start on Strategy
In military planning, the Indian government initially retained most of the defense plan proposed by Field Marshall Sir Claude Auchinleck, the last British commander in chief of the Indian Army. The plan envisaged a regular army of 200,000 backed by reserve and territorial forces, a twenty-squadron air force, and a naval task force with two aircraft carriers. However, the new strategic reality, the main threat coming overland from Pakistan, intruded once the Kashmir War started, and the Indian government reduced its ambitious plans for the air force and the navy.
To make a fresh start on military and defense affairs, Nehru hired British scientist and Nobel Prize-winning physicist P. M. S. Blackett to advise him on how the Indian state could leverage science for defense. Blackett had been at the center of the Allied war effort. He was privy to Ultra codebreaking, the development of nuclear weapons, and other major military technology programs. In 1946 the United States gave him the Medal of Honor for his service during the war, and in 1948 he won the Nobel Prize for physics for his prewar work. Blackett's 1948 report went beyond the role of science in military affairs to address both India's strategic position and its military spending. It recommended that India limit its military ambitions and pursue a policy of nonalignment with both superpowers to escape a potentially debilitating arms race. He proposed that military spending should not exceed 2 percent of Indian GDP. Blackett also argued against India's acquisition of nuclear and chemical weapons. Instead, he emphasized India's need to develop an industrial and technological base.
Blackett's report resonated in the Indian government and especially with Nehru, a secular modernist who believed entirely in the ability of science to deliver not only economic progress but also social change. He called India's first large dam project, the Bhakra Nangal in Punjab, "a temple of modernity." The Indian government shifted spending priorities and pushed infrastructure for technology development over military readiness. Nehru charged a number of scientists to develop institutions to alter the defense landscape in India. The Cambridge-educated physicist Homi Bhabha was the father of India's nuclear program, and a close friend of Nehru's. Bhabha's home was one of the few places Nehru visited regularly. Daulat Singh Kothari, a Blackett protégé, became the head of the Defence Science Organisation, the precursor to the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). While Indian defense research gathered momentum, India did make some procurement decisions. In the 1950s the Indian Air Force (IAF) ordered Canberra bombers and transport aircraft. The Indian Army's purchase of jeeps precipitated India's first major defense corruption scandal in 1955. British debt, held by the Indian government from the colonial period, paid for the purchases. India also struck its first nuclear deal, buying a nuclear reactor from Canada.
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