India is a status quo power with no zest for conquest and territorial expansion, impulses disincentivised by Hindu passivism. Historically it does not have the will to dominate militarily but it does have a strong sense to resist domination. The noted American thinker George Tanham believed India lacked a strategic sense and culture. Its national interest and military and security strategies have seldom, if ever, been formally articulated. Militarily it is a defensive and reactive power, rarely addressing the source of threats and challenges.
While India inherited the trappings of British imperial legacy at the time of independence in 1947, it was stripped of the accompanying military power due to partition of the country and division of military assets
In his book Defending India former Defence Minister Jaswant Singh notes that the principal challenge to India has historically been and remains the imposition and maintenance of internal order. Consolidation of India required peacefully integrating 565 princely states but force and coercion were required to bring around four recalcitrant states including Jammu and Kashmir.
At the heart of India's security dilemmas has been the failure to prevent the occupation of Tibet by China, the first and second partitions of the subcontinent and India being trapped between four lines – Durand and Line of Control in the West, McMahon and Line of Actual Control in the East
While the inherited higher defence organisation and its political control which remain in place have a colonial orientation, the transition of political control of the military is absolute, betraying a deep suspicion of the armed forces which were seen as not having participated in the freedom struggle. That unfounded and contrived fear prevails to this day. The lack of understanding and utilisation of military power by the political class has robbed the military of strategic political guidance and proper control. Instead the generalist bureaucracy calls the shots in the guise of civilian control and is the casus belli of warped civil-military relations wherein service chiefs are by and large, kept out of the decision-making loop.
Security Policy: Strategic Autonomy and Restraint
Strategic autonomy is a central pillar of security thinking. India will not join any military alliance, nor will it be a client state but will select strategic partners
Complementing the policy of strategic autonomy and restraint is India's nuclear deterrence which is credible and minimum as also prefaced by a no first use declaration. While the nuclear triad is work in progress and has usable land and air deliverable nuclear weapons, the most secure and invulnerable sea-leg is likely to get operationalised by the end of this decade. As nuclear weapons are regarded as non-usable, these are purely in deterrence role. Three nuclear armed powers sharing borders pose a rare nuclear challenge to the region especially as two – China and Pakistan – are strategic allies and both have a bone to pick with India.
Despite its geostrategic location and peninsula configuration astride the Indian Ocean Region, a continental mindset has monopolised strategic thinking due to the history of land invasions and shifting frontiers. A realignment towards a maritime orientation is quietly emerging given India's high dependency on energy security transiting across the Indian Ocean Region.
Defence Policy: Complex Security Challenges
The new state of India was born in 1947 in the tragedy of partition – the largest migration in history, estimated to be up to 20 million – and the baptism by fire in Jammu and Kashmir to prevent its illegal annexation by Pakistani tribal raiders. Defending unresolved borders against Pakistan and China makes planning and preparation for a two-front situation axiomatic. Add to this the domestic dimension of maintaining internal order and stability and you have a set of complex security challenges from within and outside. Except in 1971, India has mainly reacted to the unprovoked wars with China and Pakistan.
Pakistan – Indirect and Proxy War against India
India fought the last conventional war in 1971 when it comprehensively defeated the East Pakistan Army following its genocide against its own people
After both India and Pakistan became nuclear weapon states in 1998, Islamabad resorted to cross border terrorism and Islamic jihad especially after 9/11. It has used this strategy effectively to blunt India's conventional military superiority – overall, 1.7 to 1 – and continually lowered the nuclear threshold to deter India from any limited conventional riposte
Pakistan repeated the terror assault in Mumbai in November 2008 making it only second to 9/11 in daring and audacity of attack and the damage it caused. Yet again, there was no Indian military response but international revulsion. Islamabad has dissociated itself from non-state actors operating from its soil claiming they are autonomous. The Line of Control, despite a 2003 cease fire agreement, continues to remain a hot and active border. In pursuit of strategic restraint, New Delhi has followed a policy of containment and conflict avoidance, shunning even selective retribution. Diplomacy and dialogue are frequently interrupted by terrorist attacks and blatant violation of cease fire. India says terror and talks cannot go together. New Delhi has consistently warned Pakistan of 'consequences' if there is another terrorist attack that can be sourced to Pakistan.
China – Unresolved Border Dispute in the North East
In order to keep one of its two borders dormant, India has put the resolution of the border dispute with China on the back burner, shifting the focus to trade and commerce with the two-way trade likely to expand dramatically to 100 billion US-Dollars (72 billion Euros) in the next three years. A slew of cross border confidence-building measures has been put in place to maintain peace, tranquillity and stability on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) which is not defined and each side has its own undeclared perception of LAC. Still the last violent incident on LAC was in 1975 which says something.
Conventional wisdom that trade and commercial activity create an environment conducive to resolving political dispute has so far not resulted in any breakthrough on the border question which China calls the National Question. A risen China has been demonstrably more assertive and intrusive astride the LAC ever since the new Chinese leadership assumed power in 2012. Both sides have therefore shifted focus from seeking a quick border settlement to management of their differences on the LAC
In terms of strategy, India has been mainly defensive and dissuasive gradually acquiring deterrence parity. It has to close the widening capability gap in conventional military inventory as well as the huge infrastructure deficit on the Indian side already handicapped by the difficulty of terrain. India is also handicapped by the failure to decouple the strategic alliance between China and Pakistan, designed to keep India anchored to the subcontinent.
The Internal Half Front – Cross Border Terrorism and Insurgency
While the primary role of the armed forces is defence of the realm, it has a secondary role – to assist state authority in maintenance of law and order, which according to the Indian Constitution, is a state subject. The past role reversal of the Indian Army being preoccupied in tasks of internal security, has been largely corrected. Internal disorder of three kinds prevails: cross border terrorism mainly in Jammu and Kashmir; residual insurgency in the North East mainly in Manipur; and a Naxalite/Maoist variety of home grown rural insurgency or Left Wing Extremism among tribal forest dwellers in central India. This belt is sometimes called the Red Corridor or the Compact Revolutionary Zone but these are terminological exaggerations. Home grown religious radicalism and movements fanned by Pakistan are growing.
The Maoists have a presence in 20 of India's 28 states with five to nine states where they dominate and exercise influence in many parts of these states. While 203 of 672 districts country-wide are affected, 83 districts are covered by the Central Government's Integrated Development Plan to counter Maoist influence. Since 2005, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has described the Maoist insurgency as the gravest challenge to India's internal security. State police forces assisted by central para-police forces are engaged in fighting this menace which shows no sign of ebbing. In the recent budget allocation a special grant of 110 billion Rupees (1,3 billion Euros), the largest of its kind, has been made. In 2013 altogether 493 fatalities occurred due to Maoist violence which were greater than the deaths and injuries resulting from other insurgencies and terrorist activities in the rest of the country. A national counter-Maoist strategy is conspicuously absent due to constitutional and political difficulties. A kind of stalemate prevails in the Maoist-affected region
Capability Development – Systemic and Institutional Shortfalls in Defence Planning
India's defence spending for 2014-15 is around 2240 billion Rupees (26,4 billion Euros) which is 1.74 per cent of the GDP. This is less than one third of what China invests in defence. Beijing spends 132 billion US Dollars (95 billion Euros) on defence and around 50 billion US Dollars (36 billion Euros) on what it calls internal security which is for regime stability. In comparison India's investment is peanuts when it comes to maintenance of internal stability. Defence allocation, low as it is, is not cost-effectively utilised due to systemic and institutional shortfalls in defence planning and budgeting which lead to unacceptable deficit in modernisation of the armed forces. At least 70 per cent of defence acquisitions are imported, leaving a weak base for indigenous capability development.
The penchant for probity has severely undermined capability accretion plans. Improvisation has had to step in to fill the indigenisation gap which has resulted in several equipment accidents amongst the armed forces. Defence industry requires to be opened up to local and foreign investors with greater foreign investment. Defence reforms are on the anvil awaiting political will for their implementation. India, with the third largest army, fourth largest air force and fifth largest navy, is one of the largest armed forces in the world. But it does not have a Chief of Defence Staff, or Permanent Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee though the idea has been on the table for the last 20 years.
The long term external challenge to India is from China but a conflict is unlikely in the short term though pinpricks on the undefined border are likely. Given the violent and extremist internal situation in Pakistan and the likely upheaval following the partial withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan end 2014, the combined effect of these events could further destabilise Afghanistan and Pakistan and the entire South Asian region. For India the internal challenge from insurgencies, terrorism and Maoist violence is far greater than the ones from outside.
While India is going through a period of high growth and economic prosperity, it is also in era of coalition politics affected by increasing regionalism. This phenomenon will dilute political stability further and inhibit pursuit of foreign and defence policies that enhance national interest. India has the most battle-hardened, counter insurgency tested and United Nations peacekeeping experienced military in the world. It's apolitical, professional and secular record makes it a bastion of India's democracy. A better understanding and nourishment of political power by the political and civilian class will lead to its more effective utilisation and sharper articulation of military and security policies.