Col. (retd.) David O. Smith’s The Wellington Experience: A Study of Attitudes and Values Within the Indian Army provides a critical assessment of the ethos and organizational culture of the Indian Army imparted by the Defence Services Staff College (DSSC), Wellington. Smith’s methodology involves structured interviews with 26 U.S. military personnel who studied at the DSSC between 1979-2017. Smith then discusses what these observations reveal about the Indian army’s perceptions on areas including external and internal threats, civil-military relations, and nuclear issues. By analyzing perceptions in each of these lines of inquiry, Smith draws several conclusions for policymakers — with a main takeaway that “the implications of these findings are mostly negative for South Asian regional stability.”
Although the methodology for the study relies on the observations of a small representation of the student body, Smith’s work provides an important insight into an external view of India’s professional military education (PME). This perspective is important for highlighting areas of potential refinement of the PME process and provides scope for debates on India’s strategic priorities that merit further exploration going forward.
Indo-U.S. Relations: Towards a Strategic Partnership?
Discussions of the India-U.S. relationship takes on a central role in Smith’s study and ultimate conclusions for policymakers. Smith’s observations from student perceptions on this relationship lead him to what he refers to as one of the most surprising findings of the study—the continual mistrust of the United States from Indian officers. Much of this wariness stems from the U.S.-Pakistan relationship and the 1971 USS Enterprise incident, which is still perceived as nuclear intimidation and remains unpardonable. This mistrust, and other areas of potential friction like imbalanced bilateral trade, H-1B visa programs, and India’s plans to import Russian S-400 air defense systems contribute to one of Smith’s core takeaways for U.S. policymakers that the United States and India are “unlikely to become genuine strategic partners.”
India holds a prominent place in the global political order and irrespective of the strategic convergences between [India and the United States], India will define its military equations with other nations independently.
However, it is important not to underestimate the lengths that the U.S.-India strategic partnership has gone in the past fifteen years alone. Indo-U.S. relations have shown remarkable continuity since their “major breakthrough” with the India-U.S. joint statement on global partnership and civil-nuclear cooperation in 2005. As indicated by the declassified “U.S. Strategic Framework for Indo-Pacific” in 2020, common interests in the Asia-Pacific region and cooperation have only expanded since. However, despite the defense cooperation, Smith expresses skepticism of India’s success in the event of a future war with Pakistan or China—and cautions that the United States could be dragged into a future conflict with China’s involvement. Although Smith’s unease is justified, policymakers should be careful of assuming that India would expect the United States to intervene given the apparent strategic complications in South Asia. India holds a prominent place in the global political order and irrespective of the strategic convergences between the two countries, India will define its military equations with other nations independently.
Smith’s conclusion about the gaps in the strategic relationship, however, rightly highlight the extent that both nations need to invest and recalibrate bilateral relations. The burgeoning defense trade has enhanced bilateral ties, but it does not guarantee broader cooperation. Despite the dynamism in Indo-U.S. ties, there are inherent friction points in the relationship, such as concerns in the United States about India’s fiscal policy and India-Russia ties. However, policymakers should not dismiss the potential continue building on this strategic relationship. The United States is a preferred partner in the Indo-Pacific region and these concerns may be addressed through mutually satisfying economic agenda and bilateral trade and diplomatic channels. Simultaneously, Washington, can improve bilateral ties in non-traditional security issues like vaccine development for global health, energy and climate change, and technology cooperation.
Evaluating Threats: Pakistan and China
The main impetus for U.S.-India strategic cooperation is the perception of converging fears over China’s rise. Smith rightly affirms, however, that while India perceives China as a “major security threat” it is also “reluctant to characterize [China] as an enemy.” The primary strategic game in South Asia is more economic than military and despite the “irritants” in the Sino-Indian relationship, India has much to gain from its economic relationship with China and — although this outcome seems increasingly unlikely — has genuine stakes in resolving the border issue. This can help facilitate Sino-Indian border trade and open opportunities for a larger trading bloc in South and Southeast Asia. However aspirational, such initiatives cannot be premised upon perceiving China as an “enemy.” The perseverance towards continuing Sino-Indian border dialogues indicates the hopes of reaching an amicable solution. It is a sound policy for India to manage relations with China rather than enter an openly conflictual relationship. Nonetheless, with strong political leaders, recent military conflagration, and inflamed public opinion on both sides, future India-China ties are likely be characterized by “antagonistic cooperation.”
Concerning relations with Pakistan, Smith highlights India’s increasing hostility towards Pakistan in “every generation of the study.” This is for two main reasons: first, Pakistan’s rapidly growing nuclear program, which includes so-called tactical nuclear weapons directed at India in the event of a future war. Second, is “accumulated outrage” over Pakistan-sponsored proxy groups that have targeted India. Smith rightly opines that Pakistan is a tactical threat and not a strategic one. Pakistan’s domestic turmoil makes it an unstable state, which is not what India wants on its border. However, the recent Ladakh standoff has heightened India’s concerns over a “two-front” conflict with Pakistan and China colluding against India with combined force. An effective military is one that is demonstrably equipped with pragmatism and adequate survivable resources to deter any military challenge within its external security environment. To that extent, India must be prepared with its combat capability, border management, and systematic recalibration of civil-military relations for developing effective strategies.
When discussing internal security threats, Smith notes that the Indian military has “yet to completely quell” any of its insurgencies. Arguably, India has neutralized many of the threats emerging from its internal security environment including the Khalistan issue, the Mizoram insurgency, and the Naga conflict. While it is important to understand the military’s perceptions towards internal security issues, many of these threats such as the Naxalite movement are largely being addressed by state agencies with sparse coordination between the state agencies and the Army on the “intelligence” front. The Army is the force of last resort in any democracy including India.
Smith categorizes the conflict in Kashmir as one of India’s insurgencies and notes that it has been “going strong after 30 years, and in the past three years has become greatly reinvigorated.” However, the Kashmir conflict can no longer be characterized as an insurgency—while there may be an element of domestic militancy, it is largely Pakistan that has waged a guerrilla war in Kashmir to achieve its foreign policy objectives. Pakistan’s strategic use of violent non-state actors to promote its national security goals is the “centerpiece of a sophisticated asymmetric warfare campaign,” which is destabilizing regional peace and security. A challenging terrain, a like-minded local population, and the ready availability of weapons and equipment provide the requisite preconditions to Pakistan to successfully sponsor proxy war in Kashmir. Unfortunately, this is thwarting the restoration of normalcy in the region. The Indian Army’s priority is to curtail violence, particularly through strict countermeasures against hardline militants, so that the political process can begin, which is the cardinal objective of its counterinsurgency doctrine.
Smith’s claims that since 2016 the Indian Army has “pointedly ignored” the winning hearts and minds approach in Kashmir and elsewhere is largely flawed. With the revocation of Article 370, the Army has intensified outreach efforts like Operation Sadbhavna and Mission Reach Out in Kashmir, focused on providing essential commodities to locals and continuing the Civic Action Program. It cannot be denied that India’s counterinsurgency operations have imposed costs on civilians, but this is not unique to Kashmir and is witnessed in any intractable combat zone. It is becoming increasingly difficult for the Army to conduct counterinsurgency operations without collateral damage. A political solution will lay the foundation for meeting the aspirations of Kashmir’s diverse population. The Indian Army and security forces are persevering towards this objective. However, this is a long-drawn process as it involves winning a perception battle vis-à-vis the locals and employing means to strengthen the trust factor. It would also require curtailment of terrorist activities to let peace prevail in Kashmir.
The State and its Institutions
Among Smith’s main conclusions regarding the DSSC is that its students are “consistently apolitical.” Despite this, Smith notes that it is paradoxical that the Indian Army while exhibiting a “minor role in national defense and foreign policy decision-making,” exercises influence in some policy areas like J&K. Another example is the Indian Army’s decisive role in the demilitarization of the Siachen Glacier.
On the Kashmir issue, the Army plays a dominant role in facilitating civic, administrative, and security goals. Unlike Pakistan, India’s democratic structure has never experienced a military coup where a tight civilian control over the military exists. While this arrangement may have its own limitations, the Indian armed forces adhere to a model of objective control where politicians define the strategic aims, and the armed forces achieve them with least obstruction. Post-2014, however, civil-military relations seem to be shifting in the Indian polity with Modi selecting a Chief of Army Staff, General Bipin Rawat, who was more vocal about his political views. It is critical to consistently evaluate the military’s role in any democracy as a single institution influencing debates of national security will usher in partisan politics. At present, however, there is limited evidence that the Indian Army identifies with a political ideology or upholds any political party and the armed forces refrain from interfering in India’s politics.
Smith reiterates India’s doctrinal assumption that “Pakistan will employ nuclear (and chemical) weapons in a future war,” however, notes that the Indian Army “appears unconcerned” about Pakistan’s use of tactical nuclear weapons citing that nuclear use is rarely played out in wargaming exercises. However, this point misses the mark. India’s nuclear strategy is strengthened by a mature understanding of its deterrence capability, which deflects any alarmist Cold War syndrome. South Asia has survived India-Pakistan nuclear crises in 1999, 2001-2002, post-2008, 2016 and 2019. As a responsible nuclear nation, India believes in strengthening its nuclear capability while refraining from any unreasonable arms-race of the Cold War period.
Additionally, India’s doctrinal position is clear: India will adhere to a No First Use (NFU) stance but nuclear misadventure will be responded to with “punitive retaliation with nuclear weapons to inflict damage unacceptable to the aggressor.” Observers have questioned India’s commitment to NFU, with critics noting that India’s nuclear doctrine may allow for preemptive nuclear use. However, any “imminent use” of TNWs by Pakistan in a future war with India would inherently constitute crossing India’s declared nuclear redlines, which would effectively leave India with the option of a “comprehensive first-strike.” This cannot be interpreted as a shift towards a counterforce strategy, and is certainly not a guiding principle of India’s nuclear doctrine. The primary purpose of India’s nuclear weapons is deterring blackmail, threat, or use of nuclear weapons by an adversary. Any nuclear offense against India will be deemed as a first strike, which then leaves it with the option of nuclear retaliation – this is the essence of India’s NFU policy, which has maintained deterrence stability in the region. The recent signals towards a review of India’s NFU policy generated intense debate from informed experts at various levels, both in India and abroad. These debates constitute the need to reiterate India’s doctrinal stance on the NFU policy. Any deviation from the NFU policy would usher in strategic instability in the India-Pakistan dyad.
Any “imminent use” of TNWs by Pakistan in a future war with India would inherently constitute crossing India’s declared nuclear redlines, which would effectively leave India with the option of a “comprehensive first-strike.” This cannot be interpreted as a shift towards a counterforce strategy, and is certainly not a guiding principle of India’s nuclear doctrine.
Smith also observes that the Indian army is “totally unprepared” to retaliate in a nuclear, biological, and chemical environment. His conclusion is mainly drawn from the lack of equipment, such as survival artillery and protection suits. However, India is making advances in this regard. Chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) training in India has significantly advanced from a military-related concept to a disaster-level response training of the first responders. The DRDO has developed a number of products and technologies like Permeable Suit Mk V for defense against CBRN agents. Though a more integrated and comprehensive approach is required to “objectively improve the training scenario,” the future of CBRN training is bright in India.
The perspectives and values of any military in the world are matters of crucial importance as they have the potential to signal a country’s direction in terms of foreign policy and domestic affairs. By highlighting perceptions across several crucial areas, Smith’s volume is able to trace the changes in the Indian army’s view on core strategic issues. Since 2014, India has experienced several policy changes within its external, internal, institutional, and strategic spheres in keeping with its civil-military relations, national interests, and sovereignty. The volume has its limitations, however, has significant potential to spark meaningful debate on some of the core issues raised by the author.
Editor’s Note: This article is part of the South Asian Voices series: “Reviewing the Quetta and Wellington Experience,” in which SAV contributors discuss Col. (retd.) David Smith’s two books The Quetta Experience: A Study of Attitudes and Values Within Pakistan’s Army and The Wellington Experience: A Study of Attitudes and Values Within the Indian Army. The full series can be read here. The SAV webinar, featuring David Smith and the series contributors Brig. (retd.) Naeem Salik, Reshmi Kazi, Sadia Tasleem, and Aditi Malhotra can be watched here.
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