George K. Tanham, a famous American military historian once said, “India doesn’t have a strategic culture.” In other words, India doesn’t have a strategy to project its power beyond the confines of the subcontinent. This shows a defensive realism on the part of Indian policymakers.
India had succumbed to numerous invasions from its northwest before it was colonized by the British for more than two centuries. The inability of Indian policymakers to understand what is happening around them in the world and formulate policies in accordance has been lacking since the days of Alexander the Great. Even if the Arthashastra, an ancient Indian text on statecraft, economic policy and military strategy was written in the wake of Alexander’s invasion, the art of successful statecraft was forgotten by subsequent Indian rulers.
Things have changed in recent years. India today is a nuclear weapons state; it has acquired great power status and aspires to permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council.
If India is just not rising but already had risen as President Barack Obama professed in his speech before the Indian Parliament last month, the country has a responsibility to project its power beyond South Asia.
For that to happen, India needs a blueprint. In statecraft, that is called strategy and if implemented, a strategic doctrine. Countries as China, the United Kingdom and the United States have national strategies and white papers which guide their military doctrines. Military doctrine is key to successful military planning and weapons procurement. It makes a country’s actions more predictable while the strategic debate will revolve around the strategic doctrine.
India clearly lacks such an articulated doctrine and this has left both policymakers and the military wandering on a path that leads nowhere. Top level strategists in India have to start thinking about their country’s future and its defense.
India claims that its military doctrine has moved to a “proactive” and “offensive” approach in recent decades. The Indian Army doctrine released in 2004 has popularly been dubbed as “Cold Start.” Though officially the army denies it, India does have plans to attack Pakistan and occupy the country with minimal civilian losses. Indeed, last month, while Obama toured the region, Pakistan said that it was because of the Cold Start doctrine that it needs to keep troops stationed on the western frontier which thus cannot engage in combating the Taliban along the Afghan border.
India’s contentious doctrine was framed after the India-Pakistan military standoff in the wake of the terrorist attacks against the Indian Parliament in December 2001. The army immediately mobilized under the code named “Operation Parakram” but the international community intervened to stop Indian troops from advancing into Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. India then understood the need for a strategy which could produce swift results in penetrating Pakistan before any intervention from the international community, including the United States, could prevent it.
With this in mind, India framed the Indian Army Doctrine 2004. The Army Doctrine is updated every five years and has two parts. The first is accessible and declassified while the second is kept secret. Pakistan claims that these classified plans entail Cold Start.
Then there is a classified Joint Warfare Doctrine which was formulated in 2006 and includes the doctrine of the three services of army, navy and air force. The air force has its own doctrine which, too, is classified, however the Naval Doctrine, or Maritime Doctrine, is not.
Then there is a subconventional warfare doctrine for responding to terror provocations emanating from Pakistan, prescribing the use of “surgical strikes” and action on the Line of Control in Kahsmir.
With respect to China, India doesn’t have any concrete plans even if both political and military planners are worried about the possibility of having to wage a war on two fronts against both China and Pakistan. Logically, a two front strategy would first involve making thrusts into Pakistan in accordance with Cold Start to quickly shift the war effort to the eastern Himalayas facing China.
India claims to have attainted the necessary nuclear deterrence however its Draft Nuclear Doctrine of 1999 calls for the use of conventional forces before deploying atomic weapons. Against this background, one can understand a point made by American political scientist John J. Mearsheimer in The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (2001). He believes that great powers are feared not because of their nuclear weapons but because of their ability to project their armed forces beyond their borders. Mearsheimer cites the example of the Soviet Union and forces the argument that it was the Red Army that was feared in the Western Europe, not so much the Soviets’ nuclear arsenal. Indian policymakers needs to understand this and can’t sit with the fact that India clearly lacks a doctrine that ignores the worst-case scenario of a two front war.
One country that used to be in a similar position was early twentieth century Germany. Like India, it faced the prospect of a two front war, against both France and Russia. The famous Schlieffen Plan called for the quick elimination of France before venturing into the Russian heartland. But the military strategy was not backed up with sound German politics and diplomacy. That is another key lesson India must learn.
Unfortunately, the political establishment’s response to the army’s initiative has been limited. It should pursue a “whole of government approach” to balance diplomacy, the relative weight of the three armed services and conventional capability versus strategic deterrence.
If India intends to play a greater political role in the Asia Pacific, it has to fully exploit the advantages of its continental and maritime geography and prepare for the worst-case scenario. A good first step would be appointing a Chief of Defense Staff as recommended by the Group of Ministers. Although a decade has passed since that recommendation, politicians in India have so far refrained from creating the position. A Chief of Defense Staff would ensure greater cooperation among the armed services, the bureaucracy and the political leadership however, especially in times of crisis. In general, a paradigm shift has to occur in India’s strategic thinking from defensive realism to offensive realism.