Yudh Abhyas

The American national security bureaucracy has invested tremendously in India in recent times. Designating India as a “major defense partner” in 2016, then-defense secretary Ashton Carter noted this would allow “the United States and India to cooperate…in a way that we do only with our closest and most long-standing allies.” India’s prominence in the latest National Security Strategy, the rechristening of the U.S. Pacific Command as the Indo-Pacific Command, as well as two new U.S.-India military agreements all reflect the Pentagon’s hope that a rising India will be a natural counterweight to a revisionist China.

And the Pentagon does have a point.India’s economy will soon be larger than that of the United Kingdom. Relativeto China, India’s demographic profile is better poised to sustain economic growth. Its military expenditure isthe fifth largest in the world and the country isnow closer to acquiring a functional nuclear triad.

That said, India’s national securitypolicies contain unresolved dilemmas that create challenges for both itsposture and what the country can do with—and for—the United States. Five themesemerge upon a closer look at India’s defense policy: a persistent mismatchbetween India’s capability and threat environment; a small military-industrialecosystem that affects domestic defense production; blurred lines betweeninternal and external security priorities; weak coordination structures; andfinally, poor communication and signaling strategies.

Mismatch Between Capability and Threat Environment

India’s external security environment is unique in that it faces two geographically contiguous nuclear-armed adversaries, China and Pakistan. India’s disputed land borders with both only exacerbate this significant security challenge. To meet these challenges, in budget year 2018-19 India’s defense budget was a meager 1.49 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). And much of that does little to improve capability.  India spends more money on ex-military personnel than it does on acquiring new weapons. In budget year 2018-19, salaries and pensions consumed 54.5 percent of total defense spending, while new weapons accounted for only 18 percent. In comparison, over roughly the same period, the U.S. Department of Defense allocated about 22.8 percent of its budget to military personnel costs. The result has been a steady relative decline of India’s military capabilities against that of China’s and Pakistan’s put together over the last decade.

The United States might have to reconsider its two-decades-old assumption that a strong India will help protect American hegemony by serving as a countervailing weight to China. If India’s defense capabilities continue to fall behind that of China’s, a disappointed Washington might lose interest in India.

Budgetary pathologies also shapeIndia’s military outlook and readiness. The army’s share of the defense budgetis the highest among the services and the navy’s remains the smallest; laconicanalysts have termed the Indian navy the “Cinderella service.” Consequently, India’s abilityto project power remains limited and the country’s commitment to a “free and open Indo-Pacific” is largelyrhetorical. Within the army’s budgetary allocations, the share of manpowerexpenditure is overwhelmingly spent on new weapons, spare parts, andstockpiles. In 2018, the auditor noted that 40 percent of India’s ammunition stock would not lastfor more than ten days of warfare. However, the budgetary tilt towards thearmy’s manpower is unlikely to be corrected soon for electoral reasons. As oneexample, Uttar Pradesh, “the highest-represented state in current[2009 data] army recruitment” also makes up for almost 16 percent of all seats inthe lower house of India’s parliament. Any dramatic attempt to right-size theIndian Army will be politically very expensive.

Small Military Industrial Ecosystem

An ineffective indigenous defensemanufacturing and research & development base is another serious weakness.India is the world’s largest defense importer. Moreover, it is highly dependenton a single source–in the years 2013-2017, 62 percent of India’s defense imports came fromRussia alone. (In comparison, during the same period, the United Statesaccounted for 15 percent of India’s weapons imports.) Rarely have countriesaspiring to become “leading powers” depended on others for their arms.India’s reliance on foreign (especially Russian) arms complicates its foreign policy. Yet any attempt todramatically reduce Indian dependence on Russian weaponry will likely meetstiff opposition within the government given the illogical yet abiding viewthat deep relations with Russia contribute to India’s “strategic autonomy.

Despite early promises by the current Modi government tobuild a domestic defense-industrial base for both internal consumption andexport, foreign investment in India’s private defense sector remains meagre. The country’s elusive quest to domesticallymanufacture medium multi-role combat aircraft (potentially with foreignpartners) at a time when the Indian Air Force’s squadron strength is at its lowest in over a decade illustrates thisweakness and its consequences. Nonetheless, persistent political controversies deter domestic firms fromentering the defense manufacturing market.

A related lacuna in India’s defense posture is a weak military research and development ecosystem. India’s research is mostly concentrated in the state-run Defense Research & Development Organization (DRDO), a lumbering behemoth with 50 laboratories under its control. A legacy of India’s past as a centrally-planned economy, the DRDO has “persistently over-promised and under-delivered.” Bureaucratic rigidity continues to impede greater involvement of non-government organizations in defense research and development. While India’s military leadership has highlighted the need to leverage next-generation technologies such as artificial intelligence and big data, the country has yet to create a DARPA-style agency to develop the innovative, asymmetric capabilities required to compete with China. Even India’s closest defense partners—Russia, the United States, and Israel—are unlikely to share closely held technology. Therefore, unless the country’s political establishment finds a way to channel India’s strong civilian scientific and technical base towards defense innovation, the country is almost certain to fall behind China, which has managed to do so.

Blurred Lines Between Internal and External Security

A further complication in India’sdefense policy is the blurred line between the country’s internal and externalsecurity. A product of disputed borders with Pakistan (and to a lesser extent,China), multiple insurgencies—especially in Indian-administeredKashmir—continue to sap military resources and shape priorities. Terroristattacks in the country emanating from Pakistan, such as the horrific 2008 attack in Mumbai, have caused India to simultaneouslyattempt to deal with terrorism, insurgency, and external threats. Each of theseobjectives demand distinct resources and force structures, straining India’salready limited national security budget.

The Indian government’s extensivefocus on counterterrorism and counterinsurgency continues to shape the securitybureaucracy as well as military doctrines. First, in 2016, Prime Minister Modiignored customary practice for high-level appointments to appoint LieutenantGeneral Bipin Rawat as India’s army chief. As a former deputy chief of theIndian army wrote at that time, Rawat’s reputation as acounterinsurgency expert led to his selection over other candidates. Second,the blurring of external and internal security has also meant that two of the five Indian national security advisors todate have been former chiefs of the domestic intelligence service. It isdifficult to imagine a similar trend between the directors of the FederalBureau of Investigation and the National Security Council in the U.S. system.Finally, the Indian Army’s 2019 Land Warfare Doctrine reflects an ongoing preoccupation with “hybrid war” in Kashmir.

Interestingly, this blurring ofdomestic and external security has not translated to national security coming tothe forefront as an important issue in Indian domestic politics, save foroccasional election-time rhetoric around Pakistan and Kashmir. But as new research demonstrates, Indian politicians have littleelectoral incentive to promote defense and foreign policy goals that areconsidered a part of elite rather than mass politics.

Weak Coordination Structures

India continues to lack effective coordination mechanisms to promote jointness and interoperability among the three armed services. The foremost example of this problem is the lack of a chief of defense staff (CDS), akin to the American Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. While successive government committees have highlighted the need for a single point of military advice to the political leadership—and the Modi government expressed an early interest in creating such a position—persistent patterns of civil-military relations have prevented action. Absent an appointed CDS, the existing Integrated Defense Staff Headquarters (headed by a rotating Chairman of Chiefs of Staff Committee) is a largely ineffective institution.

The lack of jointness within the Indian military, a function of weak inter-service coordination structures, limits the achievable level of interoperability between the militaries of the United States and India.

The lack of a formal unified defensemanagement structure has given greater power to the office of the primeminister, skewing civil-military relations. Decisions on India’s key nationalsecurity matters have always rested with the prime minister and a close circle ofadvisors, a more centralized power structure than in the United States. Forexample, India’s military decisions in the run-up to its disastrous clash withChina in 1962 were mostly taken by then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehruand his defense minister (neither of whom had any military experience) alongwith a few army officers. Prime Minister Modi’s 2018 defense reforms proposals have reinforced thispattern, by empowering the civilian national security advisor to act as a “de-facto CDS.”

Poor Strategic Communications and Signaling

While strategic communications and signaling are sometimes an afterthought of a nation’s defense posture, they are critical elements within democracies. While the Indian polity at large is capable of calibrating its strategic communications in moments of crisis—the Indian media’s collective restraint during the 2017 India-China standoff being a case in point—the Indian government’s failure to produce a public national security strategy (NSS), despite three past attempts, is a lost opportunity to sensitize the public to national security goals, justify defense spending, and reassure international partners through an articulation of India’s long-term strategic commitments.

But whether this is as much due tobureaucratic indifference as it is a manifestation of India’s long-standingposture of strategic autonomy and ambiguity – of treating all partners on aneven keel without revealing any preference – can be debated. What is clear isthe damage the absence of such a document has done to the overall defenseplanning process. For one, when India released a Joint Doctrine of the IndianArmed Forces in 2017, it quickly became clear that it did not flow from anytop-level politically-sanctioned strategy document. Instead it became, as observersnoted, a substitute for it. This would have been almostpalatable had the doctrine not imposed an army-centric posture on the three services andneglected force projection questions – without political clearance.

In the absence of clear policystatements, observers are forced to parse through often elliptical writings byformer government officials for clues as to India’s strategic direction.The on-going debate about India’s commitment to a nuclear no firstuse posture is a case in point. While India remains the only country in theworld with a publicly-available written nuclear doctrine thatspells out the circumstances under which it might use nuclear weapons, thatdocument is widely seen as incredible by many experts. Contradictory off-the-cuff remarks from a serving defense ministeronly raised the already serious doubts about India’s no first use pledge. Theapparently unintentional confusion surrounding India’s nuclear postureillustrates how much improvement is required in its strategic signaling.

Implications for the United States

These five persistent problems withIndia’s defense policy have three implications for the United States. First,the United States might have to reconsider its two-decades-old assumption thata strong India will help protect American hegemony by serving as a countervailingweight to China. If India’s defense capabilities continue to fall behind thatof China’s, a disappointed Washington might lose interest in India. Second, the lack ofjointness within the Indian military, a function of weak inter-servicecoordination structures, limits the achievable level of interoperabilitybetween the militaries of the United States and India. The Indian military wouldface serious difficulties if required to coordinate joint force operations withAmerican forces in a contingency. Finally, absent a public Indian strategydocument that commits the country to certain objectives, there will belingering suspicions inside the Pentagon and elsewhere about the overalldirection of India’s grand strategy and the United States place in it.

Editor’s Note: A version of this piece originally appeared in WAR ROOM, the online journal of the U.S. Army War College, and has been republished with permission from the editors.


Image 1: U.S. Indo-Pacific Command via Flickr

Image 2: Antônio Milena via Wikimedia Commons

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